I’m going to level with you, having a toddler sort of made me hate going to church. Ok, so maybe hate is a little strong. But for real, having kids changes your life in so many ways, some expected and some not. This one didn’t hit me right away. When my firstborn was little, she slept or nursed through many services and Bible studies. I could still be an active member of my congregation with relatively few distractions.
But before I knew it, she was talking, screaming, crying (in a way that food didn’t just magically fix), and then suddenly church went from worship and a time to connect with God to an aerobic sport I was just suffering through. Nevermind the fact that I hadn’t gone to a Bible study with my husband in months (we take turns watching her in the nursery), then add on the fact that we were spending most of service in the narthex, and suddenly there just wasn’t much to look forward to for me on Sunday mornings anymore.
Then I had this magical moment. It was one of those Sundays, following one of those weeks. If you’re a parent, you know what I’m talking about. Our daughter had been in rare form all week and instead of it getting better, it only seemed to get worse as the week progressed and now she was all hyped up on sugar from the snacks at fellowship hour. She was a real monster, screaming just to scream, climbing the pews, crawling under them, loudly refusing any snack/sticker/coloring device I offered her, etc, etc… You get the picture.
My husband had watched her in the nursery during Bible study so I was taking my shift being on baby duty for service. Communion was coming up so I was waiting with her in the narthex for our turn to go up. Fun fact: my daughter loves going up for communion, so much so, she was losing it just waiting for our turn to go up. When the row my husband was in was dismissed, I whispered to her, “Ok, our turn,” and my little almost-two-year old shot up the aisle like lightning.
And I smiled at her joy, her total excitement to go up front and “see pastor”. And suddenly it occurred to me that this is why we “get through” each Sunday. This is why we wrestle our children through church. This is why we get up Sunday morning when we’d rather stay in bed. It’s so that one day our children don’t walk, they RUN to the arms of Christ, they run towards his forgiveness, they run towards him when the trials of life are knocking down their door.
When we got back to the pew after communion, I scooped my baby into my lap despite her yells to get down and said, “Really, quick, let’s say a prayer.” She folded her hands and I said, “Thank you Jesus for the gift of your forgiveness.” And then she cried even louder for me to put her down. I obliged, finally feeling some peace about what had occurred on a Sunday morning.
Since then, I’ve begun taking parts of the service and whispering to my daughter what we are doing in terms she can understand. Confession and absolution: Now we are telling Jesus we are sorry. Offering: Now we are sharing with Jesus. Prayers: Now we are telling Jesus thank you and asking for the things we want or need. Does she understand all of this (or any of this) yet? No. But we are giving her tools for later in life so that she can come to know that she is loved by Christ and accepted at His church no matter how loud she is in service or how long it’s been since she’s been there. That he loves her no matter how confused she is by life or how tempted she is by sin or how many mistakes she has made.
I know we could just take her to the nursery at the start of service. And, trust me, it’s tempting. But when we were still new parents—i.e. young and naive—we said we wouldn’t do that so “she could learn to sit in church” (easy to say with a newborn who sleeps 20 hours a day). But I’m realizing now that that was the wrong attitude in the first place. We are not just teaching her to sit quietly in a pew or to recite Divine Service Setting One from memory. We take her to church for the same reason we pray with her and for her daily, and sing “Jesus Loves Me” to her, and tell her Bible stories: it’s so that she knows the love of Jesus.
Now, I feel I need to add the caveat that I am not shaming or judging anyone who takes their kids to a cry-room, or a nursery, or even those who haven’t been taking their kids to church at all because it’s just too overwhelming. I understand and completely respect this on a deep level. Kids make all of life a challenge, let alone at an event where they are expected to sit still and be quiet. The truth is that we can each introduce Jesus to our kids in the way that works best for us and for our sanity. Going to church and wrestling our way through service has been one of the ways my family, personally, has been introducing Christ to our children. You do what works for you and your family.
I’m just here saying that if you do decide to bring your kid(s) to church and they apparently have no idea what a whisper voice is (why is that concept so hard for my daughter to grasp?) or their cries have discovered a new octave or they’re chucking crayons at the back of my head or they are wiggling or laughing or singing out of tune or whatever your case may be, I am there for it. I am with you and support you one hundred percent. And, by-and-large, most congregation members agree with me (send any that don’t my way).
Those sounds bring me inexplicable joy because those sounds mean Jesus is being preached to the next generation. Those sounds are beautiful. Don’t step out unless you want to. Don’t blush or make apologies, tell yourself that you are giving your child the greatest gift you can, you are passing along the news of the greatest gift of all time—the love and redemption of Jesus Christ.
Maybe I should memorize that last paragraph and recite it to myself every time I’m at the end of my rope during service. Maybe you should too. These sounds are beautiful, these sounds are beautiful, these sounds are beautiful.
We could learn a lesson here too about our relationship to our faith. Are we running towards the forgiveness of Jesus Christ? Are we going to church because we can’t wait for the part of the service where we sing praises or receive the gift of his redemption or hear the scripture read? Or are we looking forward most to it just being over? Are we going in order to draw closer to Christ or just to tick off a box? My daughter might not be getting much out of service yet, but she looks forward every Sunday to receiving Jesus’ blessing at the foot of his altar. Can we say so much?
I could quote scripture after scripture about the power of children in the faith, Let the little children come to me, faith like a child, from the lips of infants, etc, etc, but I will just leave it at this: may you have strength and perseverance in your call to lead your children in the faith—whatever that looks like for you—and may you run towards Jesus with complete, child-like abandon to the comfort of his waiting arms.