I remember when my first son was very small and I was expecting my second. Two very different approaches to child training, specifically that which pertains to the sanctuary, were cast at me by two very sweet and well-meaning women.
The first school of thought was that children ought to be still and perfectly quiet during church. They should be taught early not to utter a peep and to sit perfectly still. It’s what the Lord requires, she said.
The second belief was that children are children and ought not be repressed. They’re naturally wiggly and not naturally quiet. If the pastor can’t speak over them or preach undistracted by them, he probably needs to find a different job.
I wasn’t particularly convinced by either of these clearly opposing views.
And so I prayed and studied the best I knew how and came to my own conclusion of how my children should behave in church. But you know what? It didn’t start with church, at all.
It started at home.
And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. (Deuteronomy 6:7)
God created babies and designed they would grow into children before adolescence and then adulthood. So by His own design, there are different stages of growth. It seems wise to accept these stages rather than trying to skip on ahead through them. But wisdom would also encourage the steady growth of each person, from babyhood on up, rather than having parents stunt their children with low expectations.
My approach has always sort of been to aim high but prepare to fall short.
Before you write me off as a pessimist, let me explain. I’m the mother of 8 children, 6 of them being boys. Boys who have run the full gamut of banging their head off my chest as I attempted to restrain them in church to sitting quietly in my lap with nearly no struggle. Because every child is wired so differently, their unique personalities have required that I adapt my mothering to meet their needs. I quickly learned that the time and place to teach a cantankerous child to respect the solemnity of a church service is not in the church service. And so the training begins at home, as should all training of children.
And ye have forgotten the exhortation which speaketh unto you as unto children, My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him. (Hebrews 12:5)
Having regular family worship, with the same expectations as what you have for church, is important. If you’d like your child to sit in church without talking, eating or playing, that is what you train them for during family worship. If you allow them to play or chatter during worship, please, please don’t take them to church and change the rules. It isn’t fair and they will rebel and come to hate church.
But, in the interest of full disclosure, I have to tell you…training cannot begin at family worship. If it does, you’ll never get anything from that sacred time. Training can and should continue then, but it should begin as soon as your feet hit the floor each morning.
Bring your child(ren) before the throne and present them as a living offering. The best and most precious of what you have to offer. Doing so will remind you that they aren’t yours, but His, and you’ll have a better grasp of what He is asking you to do with them while they are in your care.
Pray over them. Ask God to work in their hearts and to soften them to your words of admonition, correction, instruction and encouragement.
Ask for wisdom and a willing heart. Because He will supply the answer to every childhood infraction and will give you the approach that will work best for each individual child. But that isn’t worth much if you aren’t willing to devote yourself wholly to the task.
Follow through with your expectations. Don’t grow faint or weary…the days will often be hard. But for the sake of the souls of your children, you must be clear about what God expects of them and then gently, lovingly and firmly direct them in that way. The world will do it’s best to convince your children rules are for the weak and close-minded; they desperately need you to train them otherwise.
Children who are taught the value of obedience will become teenagers who are a joy to parent. (May I interrupt myself here and admit that while my teenagers are certainly a joy to me, they are also a complexity that I am still learning to navigate!) Our goals for our children are to train them to follow the pattern of the church service, participating at whatever level their current age allows. We want to instill in them a regard for the sanctuary and presence of God found there so that when they are older they will still be drawn to it.
I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth. (3 John 1:4)
Pray and decide for yourselves what this means for your family. We are each at different places in our experience and I don’t feel compelled to tell anyone exactly what that should look like. If you are connecting with Christ, He will lead you as you should go.
Here are a few tips I’ve used over the years with a measure of success. This is not an exhaustive list, nor is it necessarily one-size-fits-all:
Sit near the front and have your children sit facing forward. This cuts down on a lot of distraction. I would add just one disclaimer here, though. Sitting near the front of the church does not make one holier. If this doesn’t work for you, or if your children are in the beginning stages of training and would present a great distraction, by all means sit toward the back or use the training room.
Let them know ahead of time what is expected. Our children are reminded every week that we expect them to sit quietly and try to listen. Asking a few simple questions afterward about the service is helpful to get them in the habit of paying attention so they can answer well.
Don’t bring food or toys if you don’t want them to eat or play. I have seen parents bring both and then get angry at their children for making use of them. Unreasonable expectations aren’t healthy. If you decide you are comfortable with either, train your children in how you’d like them to be used. We personally don’t use them during the service or at family worship, but many people do.
Give them a piece of paper and a pencil, if you feel they are ready, and have them make a little tick mark every time they hear a certain word. Choose a common word heard in sermons like God, Jesus, Prayer, Love. They’ll be proud of themselves so be prepared to praise their efforts with a smile and quiet nod.
Remember they are children, not adults. We have been working to train our little ones since soon after birth to sit quietly through the service and they still struggle at times. Some days they have more energy and they have trouble channeling it; other days they are tired and restless. If the training has been done in the home and things start to unravel a little bit at church, often all it takes is a quiet reminder. But sometimes we do still have to take them on our laps and snuggle them up good and bathe them in smiles. There are also times when we have to take them out and remind them of the expectation and encourage them we know they can meet it. This is where law and mercy meet.
It is important to remember that no time spent training our children for the Lord will ever be wasted. And He will pour His blessing over those who are cooperating with Him to raise them for eternal life.