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/ 1 March 2013

Worshiping with small children & other adventures

Even in churches that have Sunday School for much of the service, these can be a problem – before and after Sunday School, during All-Age Eucharists, over the summer break, and so on.

Be honest – which of these has happened at your church?

  1. Parents dragging screaming toddlers from the sanctuary.
  2. Children told to stop “bothering” the grown-ups when they are asking a question or making a comment about what’s happening.
  3. Parents coming to church a bit late and sitting at the back, where their children can’t see anything.
  4. Parents and children getting the stink-eye from other worshipers.
  5. Children told off for touching things in church.

Even in churches that have Sunday School for much of the service, these can be a problem – before and after Sunday School, during All-Age Eucharists, over the summer break, and so on.

The problem is neatly summed up by Gretchen Wolff Pritchard, who writes:

“In many churches, there seems to be an unexamined assumption that worship is for grownups and the children are there only because there’s nowhere else to put them – that they are, basically, accidental and unwelcome guests at an adult event. People then become annoyed at children for ‘interrupting’ something that is “for ME,” not for all of us. Parents who are trying to be considerate of others will admonish the child for ‘bothering people’ but not intervene in ways that actually help the child join the worship.”

It doesn’t have to be this way. Yes, a toddler will occasionally throw a screaming tantrum at the quietest part of the service. That’s inevitable, and it’s important that churches have a place where children can be taken when this happens. But there are ways, with parents’ help, to eliminate some of these problems entirely, and minimize the rest.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of solutions – that would take at least an entire book. But here are some ideas to get you started on helping children and parents worship together. These ideas enhance children’s ability to engage with the service, which in turn cuts down on disruptive behaviour – most of which is due to simple boredom.

One idea is to have a children’s area in the church. Our “Pray and Play” area at St. George’s has been a lifesaver. It is situated within sight of the altar, and contains spiritually imaginative toys that connect both to the Christian story and to Christian worship. Young children who are starting to fuss sitting still in a pew can come to the Pray and Play area, where they will be free to move and play, but still connected to the experience of worship and to the symbols of the Christian faith. All you need to get started is a rug or quilt, some baskets, and some toys – a Noah’s Ark, a Nativity set, a shepherd and sheep set, a toy church (Playmobil makes one), and some books. You can also have a small child-size altar with a wooden cross, an unbreakable goblet and plate, and, if you like, candles or an icon or fake flowers. You can then add to your Pray and Play area as funds and ideas become available.

You can also help children engage with worship by teaching parents to sit where their children can see, and that it’s okay to whisper to them in church. Carolyn Carter, who writes the “Worshiping With Children” blog, has some fantastic advice on whispering. She writes:

“Whispering is good because it connects children learning to worship with their adults who know how to worship. Parents can no more worship “beside” their children than they can eat ‘beside’ their children. Instead they must worship and eat “with” their children coaching them along the way. During childhood both are team sports and whispering is how the coaches and players communicate in the sanctuary.”

Carter then goes on to describe different types of whispers, including: calling attention to something that is coming up, connecting to something at home, suggestions about things to listen out for, and so on. The full blog post makes a great handout to parents, and can be found here.

Many churches provide resources for parents and children in the pews. SPCK’s book Pray, Sing, Worship is a good guide for literate children, and can be included in a bag with some paper and markers so children can draw. You could also present children with a page showing pictures of different items in your church, and they can see which ones they can spot from their pew. You can also have a sheet with different phrases from the liturgy in a square table, and children cross them off when they hear them – like bingo. Younger children can have toys, like a small shepherd and sheep set, or finger puppets of Mary and Joseph (available from Hope Education). You can also make Liturgy Boxes for parents to bring into the pews with them, or make flags with pictures that show different things we do in worship (pray, sing, listen, shake hands, etc.) and children can wave them at the appropriate times.

None of this is easy. Parents are busy and it’s not always easy to get them to adapt to the use of new resources. Many worshipers are set in their ways and will never see children in anything more than a “seen but not heard” light. But with time and patience, these ideas can make a difference in doing as Jesus said and letting the children come to him.

Margaret Pritchard-Houston is the Children and Youth Worker at St George’s, Campden Hill, in Kensington. She is the author of ‘There is a Season: celebrating the church year with children’ and runs Mustard Seed Kids.

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