I wanted to write a post to encourage parents with small children about church (as in, the Sunday meeting part of it). Getting your family there every week can be fairly nightmarish at this stage, and I know lots of people that really felt like it wasn't worth it while their kids were tiny, so they stopped going, with the hope things would be easier in the future. As someone who has grown up in church and is now bringing up kids in church, I thought I'd share my perspective on it, in the hope it might be helpful to someone.
My memories of church with more than one small person are not so great. Sunday mornings began with the struggle of getting multiple people all out of the house as near to ‘on-time’ as was possible, in clean half-smart clothes, leaving a trail of devastation in our wake, followed by doing anything – ANYTHING – to keep small writhing bodies from creating the least distraction possible while in the first part of the service. I would miss almost all of what was going on because 90% of my attention was on keeping them distracted from each other, whispering in their ears (turn by turn) about what they should be doing now and what can wait till later, and the burning sensations in my muscles as I vowed to keep standing up during the songs with one or more children in my arms so they could see what engagement in worship looked like. Then I would spend the majority of services in the crèche because during that season we were only in churches that didn’t have enough spare people to volunteer on the parents behalf, and as my family seemed to take up more than their fair share of the numbers, it only seemed right that I carried the responsibility myself. At the end of the service, depending on the physical layout of the building, I rarely got to finish a conversation or a hot drink as I tried to keep track of what all the children were doing. It became easier just to stay tuned into them rather than risk offending people by my distracted, eye-wandering conversations that I couldn’t keep track of.
As the kids got older, it didn’t get much easier. Whichever church we were a part of, I felt like we were THAT family – the ones who probably made it harder for everyone else. I had one child who struggled with language and needed to be kinaestheticly engaged at all times, and whatever I managed to find for him to fiddle with that would keep him fixed in one place and able to listen was inevitably coveted by all the other children around him, leading to more problems. I had one that was prone to emotional meltdowns and so if something had thrown him off that morning, no amount of distractions or warnings would prevent him from letting the world know how he felt. And I had another one who lived in his own created world, and needed a lot less coercion but would often let that alternative existence spill over in the form of random arm movements or noises at inappropriate times. As fast as I could deal with one issue, another one would be brewing. When I tried my best to lead Kids Church, my kids (probably because they were so used to the sound of my voice) were the ones I had to spend most time pulling back into whatever activity we were supposed to be doing. I remember one time as I was telling a story to the whole group, one of my kids would not stop contorting himself all over the floor. I eventually left the rest of the kids in the hands of the other helpers and marched him out of the room asking him what the heck he thought he was doing, and he answered wide-eyed, as if my continual requests for him to sit up on the mats like everyone else were totally ludicrous and said “I was doing my exercises! Exercise is really good for you!”
I remember crying in the corridor, exhausted with reason, begging him just to do. what. he. was. asked. to. do. I just couldn’t work out how come the other kids seemed to just get it when mine didn’t. I knew I was doing all the right things – giving clear instructions, following through on consequences, explaining the motivations behind certain behaviours – it was just all really really tough.
In order for me and my children to be at church every week, I have had to stretch myself really far, pour energy and creativity into finding many ways to keep them engaged, ignore the voices in my head that tell me people are judging my parenting skills and finding me lacking, and sacrifice plenty of time, dignity and sleep to make it work.
And this is why I have done it.
Church is God’s Plan A for our lives. He created us to be in community. He gave us gifts and personalities that are meant to be shared with one another in order to have healthy and meaningful lives. It is our purpose and our mission – to be part of His body. We cannot be the person we were created to be on our own, but when we plant ourselves into this family of God, we learn what our part is and how to do it well, and we lean on others who have skills and provisions that we need.
Church is the hope of the world. It is THE vehicle God has set in motion for other people to discover who He is. People don’t learn about the love of God in isolation – they understand it fully by seeing it in practice, and that has to be between people. When people find God, they become part of His family, and that is who we are. We can only be part of it if we show up and join in and interact with one another. Without being part of church, we can’t live out about half of what is talked about in the New Testament, as most of it is given as instructions on how to BE church.
There were some Sundays as a young parent that I felt like church was going to be the death of me, but the long game is this: it gives me life. I received encouragement when I felt like giving up. I was able to lean on other people’s gifts – worship, hospitality, humour – to make me feel alive again between the drudge of every day life. I was able to be with other parents and learn from them and realise I also had wisdom and encouragement to give. It gave me a focus when my responsibilities made me want to pull a duvet over my head and stay there. I stuck relentlessly to what I’d committed to – turning up on a Sunday morning, getting to connect group on a week day night, leaving the kids in my husband’s hands one evening a week so I could go and do youth group and feel human again. It gave my chaotic weeks structure, and gave me opportunities to be not just in one role (that of mum) but also that of friend, organiser, leader, listener, learner, and many more. It stopped me from losing myself.
For the children, I can see it bringing more each year as it goes. It begins with a sense of community, that there is a wider family that they belong to. They have learnt to trust other adults, and how to adapt to people who act and sound different to the ones in their family. So far, it’s been a pretty safe place to learn boundaries – how to respect people’s differences, and how to verbalise if they feel uncomfortable in different situations. They have developed friendships of many different age ranges. They have got to see behind the scenes of the blessings and the disciplines that come from serving. They have learnt the rhythm of when to listen and receive, and when to bring their own ideas and contributions to the bigger picture. In our most difficult months they have had homes opened to them for fun and distraction in the middle of tragedy, observed meals and presents that have been brought to our door from people who they’ve never met but are part of the wider family they belong to, and they have sensed wave after wave of prayer and support reminding them they are not alone.
And I can now see (although it may have taken me many years to get to this point), how much our whole family blesses the rest of church by us all being there. People who currently have no family often love being in the hubbub of busy activity. My kids can light up their world for a month with one hug, or picture, or a breathless story of something that happened in their week. When we arrive early and stay late, sometimes my kids decide to put down their books and help me instead, by moving chairs or hoovering or even cleaning toilets, and they get the joy of knowing they are part of making all this happen. Some of my kids are old enough to help on the media team, in the worship band and with hospitality.
A short while ago we had a week where somebody needed some major help at the end of the service. A group of us spent a long time in one room dealing with the situation and the usual post-service tasks were all abandoned. After a long intense time I came out to check how all my children were doing. One of them was waiting patiently on the other side of the door with a cup of tea and a cake for me because he noticed I’d missed the refreshments at the end of the meeting. Another one had started stacking the chairs away because he saw one of the adults doing it who was less familiar with that job, and he was directing where they should go. Another had been on media that morning and was busy packing away wires and the sound desk without being asked. And when we brought extra kids home that afternoon so their parents could find solutions to what was happening, my youngest looked after them and distracted them so well that they barely noticed anything had gone wrong that day.
When I think of weeks like that, I am so overjoyed that my capacity to bless other people was multiplied that week by my family. For too long, I felt like me coming to church distracted, tired and unable to serve on a team because my hands were full with children, was somehow subtracting from the life of church (I now know that wasn’t even true at the time, and just my lack of sleep and Fear Of What People Thought whispering to my guilt organ). It made me realise that the big picture, long term game plan really does come to pass.
And even more than blessing other people – my kids are learning all the time what it means to take their place in the world. For years my children have been able to experience the power of unconditional love, seeing that whether they turn up and do something or nothing (or even bring great disruption!), they are loved and welcomed and accepted. So now if they choose to help out in any way, they know it’s not because they have to, but because they are able to. When you can see your service and presence in the life of other people making a difference, you get a sense of purpose and significance. You realise that you have the power to change the atmosphere wherever you are, and that who you are matters. Church for me in my teens was a place to discover so much about myself – what I was good at, how to help people, how to overcome my fears – who I am and what I was placed on this earth to do.
Right now, in a one-parent family, I am more aware of my inadequacy than ever before. I am so limited in how much of the world I can show to my kids, and how many areas of life I am inexperienced in. But that’s totally fine. I am surrounded by a family who are able to contribute the bits that I can’t. My job is not to do it all, but to lay a solid foundation that can be built on. When my children are sick of hearing my voice, they can go and listen to other people (who are often telling them exactly the same thing) who use different phrases and personal stories that click with the kids on another level. If my kids want to branch out and try new things they have other people that can help with that. If they don’t feel listened to, there’s more than one adult they trust that they can open up to. When I can’t figure out at all what makes a teenage boy tick, I can talk to people who used to be teenage boys and get insight that make me realise things I hadn’t considered before.
When I think of all this, and I look back on those difficult, seemingly pointless Sunday morning struggles that I could’ve avoided by just staying at home, I feel like God is telling me that He remembers them all too. I wonder if He watched every one of them while they were unfolding and kept whispering “Go on girl. Dig deeper, keep going. I promise you, it will be worth it.” I feel now that every one of those weeks was setting a foundation for my family that I had no idea would be so valuable right now. If I had to go back and do it all again, I would do exactly the same thing, bruised shins, tears of frustration and all.
One last thing that might be helpful to somebody.
I didn’t want my children’s experience of church to be based on outward behaviour to impress other people. I did my best to avoid using “what will people think?” as a motive for how they should behave, and I also tried to avoid physical punishment. I wonder if it might have been easier in the short term if I did, but I wanted their view of church to be positive in the long run. I was also aware, however, that my kids behaviour shouldn’t dominate whatever was happening in the service. I know some people find it really difficult to engage if there’s loads of noise and movement going on and I wanted to keep all that to a minimum.
So the little mantra I eventually came up with for our family was this (and we repeat it every week in the car as we arrive):
What are we going to church to do?
To celebrate God.
And what will we not do?
Distract anyone else from celebrating God.
And that’s it. We have conversations around that, to explain why and how we celebrate God, and that we can celebrate God any time anywhere but it’s particularly special on a Sunday because we’re all taking time out to come and do it together. And they know that “celebrating God” is a choice – they can choose whether they do that or not, and I don’t force them to look like they’re doing it if they’re not. But things like talking, messing around, changing seats, chucking things around, etc, mean people will end up concentrating on them and not what they came for – celebrating God. So if that stuff carries on, there will be a consequence.
After many years of wondering whether I should be harsher/softer/less paranoid/more in control, that’s the conclusion I’ve come to, and I’m waiting to see what their eventual decision about church and God will be. For now, church as a family is what we all do and I’m enjoying doing it all together. I’m praying that they will continue to choose it in the future when the decision is no longer mine, and hopefully they will come to love and appreciate it as much as I do.