Disrespect in church, like disrespect anywhere else, is not acceptable. But a child behaving like a child in church is a normal, beautiful part of who we are as a church family.
A baby making baby noises is not misbehaving. A toddler crying because he wants a snack or he desires to be held is not misbehaving. A two-year-old moving around or sitting on the floor is not misbehaving.
When our daughters were little, my husband and I brought them with us to worship on Sunday mornings. At first we sat in the back row so one of us could make a quick exit with a child if we thought it was necessary. But from the back, the little girls couldn’t see what was happening beyond the people in front of them. None of us felt like we were involved in the worship service. And so we decided to sit our family closer to the front. One parent sat on each end of the second row which provided a safe place between us where the girls could move.
What a difference! There was so much richness in worship that we had been missing from the back. Now we could watch as the candles were lit, the bread was broken, the choir director led the music, and the ushers brought the plates forward. We could see the colors of the flowers and the paraments. We could look into the faces of the worship leaders, and they could look into ours.
That abruptly changed for us one day when a choir member who had been watching our family from the choir loft approached me and said, “I’m going to say this in love… You need to learn to control your children.”
That didn’t feel like love. I was stunned. My husband and I brought our children with us to worship every week, and we were criticized because our two-year-old walked quietly back and forth in the pew and apparently was a distraction to the choir member. Suddenly I felt that our family didn’t belong there.
We stayed away from church for almost six months.
When we decided to return, we sat again in the second row from the front. It wasn’t always easy, and there was a lot of parenting going on in the pew. In order for the girls to pay attention to what was happening in the worship service, we had to be intentional about involving them. We used an extra bulletin to circle song numbers for an early reader to find in the hymnal or to draw a heart next to every place where we would pray. We followed along with an index finger under each word as it was read. We whispered things like, “Now we will listen to a story from the Bible.” We taught when it was time to talk and when it was time to whisper or listen. We passed an offering plate to the girls, not over them. A whispered “Can you see what the pastor is doing with the bread?” “Can you see how … holds the guitar?” or “Let’s listen to the pretty music” brought focus back to worship, even if it was for only a few moments at a time.
I’ve heard parents say that they choose to stay home on Sunday mornings, enjoying a leisurely breakfast together. I understand the desire for family time. But there is something precious and holy about worshiping with a child’s head on your lap or while scratching your child’s back, letting your little one tuck her head under your arm to nestle against your side, sitting shoulder to shoulder with your spouse. In worship there is a kind of quality family time that cannot be duplicated anywhere else—not even at the breakfast table.
So, to the parents who bring your children with you to worship: I never want you to feel unwelcome in church. Sit up close where you can all see. Let your children be children, but as in any situation where other people want to listen, you might practice at home using quiet voices. Respectfulness of others and of the worship space are important to teach, not because church is intolerant of children, but because respect is important for all to learn in any situation. (I know some adults who could use practice with this.) Teach how to use books gently and to listen when someone else is talking. Be intentional about involving children and explaining what is going on. Pay attention to your own attitude about worship. Reflect joy about being able to worship God and wonder about what you will see and hear, and your children will learn to approach worship with expectation instead of obligation.
Bring your children with their wiggles, questions, and imperfections. It ain’t misbehavin’. It’s human.
But Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and don’t try to stop them! People who are like these children belong to God’s kingdom.” Matthew 19:14 (Common English Version)