Worship From The Sidelines – How To Do Church With Small Children

Like many things I write about, this isn’t something that I in any way have nailed. It’s a learning curve. And sometimes it feels like I’m strolling up that curve, enjoying the view and other times I am scrambling up it with an ice pick, while dragging behind me a buggy laden with all manner of changing stuff.

Yesterday was the second type of day. It was not a day when anything was going to come easily – the two children had tag-teamed the night away, so the 3-year-old woke minutes after I had finally got the baby to sleep. Getting the baby to sleep involved two hours of torturous feeding (why it’s torturous is a whole other story) so I was terrified to move a muscle in case I woke her. Daddy’s turn. Needless to say, by the time it was getting-ready-for-church o’clock all four of us were tired and grumpy.

Then Daddy got into the car and drove off on his own because he was doing visuals and needed to set up. Mummy’s turn. Foolishly, I decided to take the kids to a Nearly New Sale on the way to church. A cramped room with a hyper 3-year-old and stalls full of toys…well, it was as bad as it sounds. It didn’t help my mood. We got to church halfway through the worship and sat with the other kids on the side, refereeing arguments over the castle toy and searching for the snack boxes that someone had helpfully moved for us. I’d hoped to offload Reuben to kids’ church, but a missing helper meant that I instead was helping with kids’ church. My husband, meanwhile, wrestled with the Apple Mac that wasn’t being “intuitive” enough to display song lyrics instead of preacher’s notes. All in all, a typical Sunday.

So, how to do church with small children? When we had just the one baby, it was easy. We took it in turns to hold him or asked other people to look after him for the morning with a carton of formula on standby. There was no shortage of willing hands and I was back playing with the worship band within a month. This time, with an energetic boy and a baby who’s never had a bottle, it’s not so easy.  Our church is a charismatic church, which means expansive worship times and space for the spirit to move. That’s great if you can embrace it, but not so great when it’s punctuated with cries of “I wanna go to kids’ church! Is it kids’ church yet?”

We’ve overcome the first hurdle, which is persuading your child that church is a good idea. Reuben at 3 has very definite ideas of what he does or does not want to do with his day. And which t-shirt he wants to do it in. But a small gaggle of fellow children and his beloved “kids’ church” means that he’s normally raring to go. So first tip – get the 3-year-old on board.

Second tip is distraction. We have a designated corner of the meeting room that is filled with toys for the children to play with, essentially to keep them quiet during worship. I have a vision that one day my children will worship freely and passionately alongside me. But yesterday was not that day. Next Sunday will not be that day. This vision may take a while to come true. Our worship is beautiful and moving, but can be quiet and reflective a lot of the time. Reuben doesn’t engage with quiet and reflective. He engages with noisy and full of actions. Occasionally there are “kids’ songs”, but the children in our church are still in the minority against the number of childless 20- and 30-somethings. I’ve been to many church services in many churches that claim to be “all-age worship” but it’s a very tricky balance to pull off. Either it’s all kids’ songs, which alienate the adults or it’s a token children‘s song with the rest just business as usual.

Having said that, there are ways to engage children in the service. My brother-in-law, a Baptist pastor, had a genius idea during my niece’s baptism. He gave the children each a lump of playdough or a board and pen and asked them to create something. Then he wove their creations into his sermon on God’s creativity. And then, while he was drying off post-baptism, my sister just gave them all copious amounts of sugar. Different approaches, but both worked. They have 5 children, so you’d expect some expertise.

So, I suppose the third tip would be integration. At our church, they show a clip every week of a line-man, known as “La Linea” in Italy, but he’s been shown all over the world. This line-man has a somewhat difficult relationship with his creator and if you dig deep enough, you can find parallels with our relationships with God. The children all sit in a line and watch it, howling with laughter at the most random moments while the adults desperately try to find a link between someone being hit over the head with a hammer and the third chapter of Philippians.

The fourth tip is snacks. All round. Our church runs 11-1, with socializing time afterwards. For a little boy who’s used to eating lunch at 11:30, it can be a sugar-crash disaster. So we have pre-church snacks on the way in, a snack box packed and they have fruit at the start of kids’ church. It all tides him over till lunch at 2ish. I snack on the same schedule as him because breastfeeding mothers get crabby too. My pastor’s wife, a mother of 4, advises to just write Sundays off meal-wise as “just a funny day”. What is it about these pastors and their big families?!

The last tip would be to lower your expectations. If you can stand still for long enough to sing a verse and chorus uninterrupted, then you’re doing well. That might involve the boy eating a gingerbread man and the baby eating a shoe, but that’s OK.

Find fellowship where you can. It can be found in the corridor, as mothers pace up and down with their children in buggies and slings, willing them to go to sleep. Prayer can be had over coffee while a small boy eats his cookie under the table. And just being in a room where people are worshipping opens the door for you to enter the Presence of God, even if you’re reading Mr. Men books in a whispered voice. And remember, this doesn’t last forever. One day, you’ll once again be able to sit through a full 45-minute sermon…and on that day, you may wish you were back in the kids’ room.