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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Wednesday Festival: Children in Church

My children are weasels.
Today's post is by Katie Mulligan at The Adventures of Tiny Church: On Children in Church. I, also, have seen this topic discussed on Twitter as recently as last week, so I imagine there'll be interest in the subject!

Today I got into my fifty-eleventh twitter argument over whether Sunday School should be held during worship or if we should insist that all children be in worship.

Theologically there are a lot of good reasons to keep children with us during worship, and I really have no good argument against them.

-Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." Matthew 9:14

-Our children will not learn the liturgies and rhythms of the church unless we keep them with us in worship.

-There's more, but I'm not the best person to describe them all. There are beautiful, lovely, magnificent reasons to keep children in church. A twitter friend has posted her beautiful thoughts on this here at
Marginal Theology.

-Another twitter friend has gathered together the specific polity that insists children should be in worship here at 1000 Thoughts Per Second.

-And another twitter friend who is wise and hopeful reminds us that we are a connectional church here at The Viau From Here.

Last week, twenty seconds before I walked up to the pulpit to begin our service, I had to take away one of my children's shoes because he was beating his brother with them. While sitting in a pew. In the church where his mother preaches. This is not at all an unusual circumstance; balancing motherhood with pastorhood is more complicated than motherhood with church attendance ever was. I am lucky to have a congregation that is somewhat amused and tolerant of our shenanigans, but I'll go on record as saying that these shenanigans raise my blood pressure to stroke levels. And if you're getting push back from angry parents who don't want you to cancel Sunday School during worship, no amount of saying "I understand, but theologically it is correct to have the children in worship" is going to get them on your side.

If you really want children in worship, you're going to have to earn the parent's trust that you can do this and still honor the parent's spiritual journey.

Years ago, when I had my second child, I discovered that the church did not provide maternity leave, nor did they pay into state disability insurance. After a month's vacation, I returned to work to lead a youth retreat in the mountains, and I brought my baby with me. A dear friend came along to help, but Saturday night during worship the baby was hungry. And as dear as my friend is, she could not nurse the baby for me. And as competent as the rest of the volunteers are, nobody else was prepared to preach. So my friend brought me the baby and I preached while nursing. It was all I could think of to do, but I later was told that students and adults were uncomfortable at my public nursing.

Not long after, I attended a training for youth workers. Mark Yaconelli led a session on contemplative prayer and I showed up with my four month old baby. Sure enough, 5 minutes into our contemplative prayer session, the baby got hungry and started to fuss. An expert by now, I latched the baby onto breast, covered us with a blanket and finished the prayer session. In the quiet of that space the sound of my child lunching filled the room, complete with smacking lips, sucking noises and a cat-like growl he liked to do as he nursed. Mark Yaconelli was kind enough to make a comment afterward to the group of how my baby nursing reminded him of his own and the beauty of children and babies and how I'd done him a favor staying with the baby etc. I don't know if anyone else in the group agreed with him, but I was grateful for his kindness.

Two years ago at a Christmas Eve service my sons came with me to church. My oldest was willing to read scripture for the first time and did a lovely job. The little guy was bored to distraction by the service and wandered up to the pulpit to lay at my feet while I finished the service.

These memories are precious and part of my regular worship on Sunday mornings. Even my children beating each other with shoes is biblical--in fact the first time I preached at Tiny Church it was on Genesis 25:22 in which Rebekkah realizes that the twins in her womb were destined to strive against each other. Just as I read the words "If it is to be this way, why am I to live?" my oldest got the youngest in a headlock. The youngest screamed and ran under my skirt. Oldest came to stand next to me and beamed out at the congregation, who were merrily laughing at the show. Since I was auditioning for a job, I was less than amused, and with some effort settled the children back into a pew so I could continue preaching.

Some people might tell me that all this is a sign that I should not be preaching--that my obligation is to the spiritual education of these children who clearly need my guidance. To those people I say, "Please feel free to pay my rent and then we can talk." To Tiny Church, my ability to juggle these children and preaching seemed to make them think I would be a good pastor for them. I'm still there and we are doing well enough, so I suppose they are right. Again, I am grateful for their kindness.

But I long for the time when I could lose myself in worship. I long for the days when I could sing a hymn through without my children trying to slaughter each other over my lap. I miss the days when I could actually listen to someone's sermon the whole way through with no interruptions. I love the days in church when I can actually preach a sermon the whole way through without having to stop and discipline my unruly, beautiful children. And those days only come when my children are not in church with me.

I want to go on record, on behalf of parents who dare not say it, that there is nothing worshipful about attending church service with my children. Attending church with my children makes me long for empty nest syndrome. Attending church with my children makes me think I am not Christian anymore. Just getting ready for church with my children, attending to the fifty-eleven arguments from them about why they should be able to stay home instead of go to church is exhausting.

People tell me this is what spouses are for. But I don't have one of those, and even when I did, church wasn't his thing. People tell me that all we need is training for the congregation members to know how to help me with the children in church. Or that we can adapt worship so that children are involved and enjoying worship. Or that they should just be capable of this. Or that--well, what I'm saying is everyone has a way of telling me that my desire to be in church without my children is theologically incorrect and will lead to their spiritual malnourishment. People tell me how much they love having children in the church. People tell me so many things--but what they don't say is, "Children come sit with me and leave your poor, tired, wretched, exhausted mother to rest in the arms of Jesus a bit."

Ultimately I am told that if I do not have my children in worship both their faith and the future of the church are at risk.

I concede that this may be true. I was not a product of a church upbringing. My family did not belong to a church, nor did we attend regularly. I came in the door through the youth group at age 13, quite by accident. I never would have come through the front door, nor would worship have been the place to start with me. I was like a cat hiding under a bed, and it took 10 years to fully involve me in the life of the church. 15 years after that I am still learning the rhythms of the church--it is true that my upbringing had little to do with my faith or my church membership. And still here I am.

I offer two scriptures, since my theology and faith appear to be suspect in this matter. Although several years of arguments over same gender love have led me to the belief that there's a scripture to back everything. Which leads me to be grateful that there are different churches with different ways of doing things. Which leads me to a healthy suspicion of anyone who tries to say that this or that is the theologically correct way of doing things. But if you asked me, here are the scriptures (ripped from context) I would offer in defense of at least providing the option for children to go to Sunday School during worship.

Matthew 11:28-30 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
While there are many purposes to worship, at least one of them is to provide rest to weary souls. And this includes weary parents. If the sound of my children's laughter brings rest to your weary soul, please forgive me if the sound of their little voices saying "Mom, why do I have to be in church? I hate this." does not soothe my soul.
Luke 10:38-42 Now as they went on their way, [Jesus] entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’
So now, lookit. I know Jesus was talking about dishes and cooking and wymen's work of all kinds. I know he doesn't say, "Martha, go teach Sunday School while sister Mary worships." But I am saying nonetheless that raising children, raising them in the church, teaching them the rhythms and liturgies of our churches, that is a substantial part of our work as church members. It's as proper to do all that as it is to clean the house and cook a good dinner for the Lord. But sometimes--at least some of the times--we are allowed to set that aside and bask in the Spirit, to soak up the teachings of the Son, to commune with the Creator whose child we also are. And Jesus promised that this would not be taken away from us.

When you say, "All children should be in worship. I understand how you feel, but this is theologically correct." When you say that, you are saying to parents like me that a significant part of our spiritual life is over, kaput, dead, buried. And if you don't understand why we grieve that, then it's probably better that we go from your church.

Please share your thoughts in the comments. If you write about this on your blog, give us a link using the following formulation: <a href="the url of your blog post goes here">what you want the link to say goes here</a> For a complete how-to click here.


  1. Thank you for your honesty! In my previous life (before I was a pastor) I used to joke that I lost my religion just getting my three young boys ready for church. I thanked God for children's church so that I could worship in peace. In our case the children left after about 10 minutes so they were there for part of service but at least I could enjoy the scripture and sermon. There is something to be said for having a separate place available for those who want to take advatage of it. There is no easy answer to this but like many things in life I believe in having a choice so that you can do what works for your family.

  2. As an Episcopal priest I love having kids in worship. As a mom who has sat in the pews with my kids, trying to worship (before ordination) and then lead worship with kids in the pews following ordination, I have lived on many sides of this issue. I have found that it's useful to have a both/and approach: from Sept - early June offer a children's liturgy of the word time and then bring them in for Eucharist. Parents can choose to let their kids stay in worship or go to the children's worship. In the summer have a shorter service with everyone in attendance and offer just a brief, 5 minute reflection instead of a big sermon. This has worked well and offers everyone a little bit of both approaches. But it's not as great of an option for churches that don't celebrate a weekly eucharist.

    Thank you for a thought-provoking post.

  3. I get this. I believe that children can learn spiritual practice and faith formation in Sunday School during worship--if the service isn't intergenerational, then it's not really all that fair to children or parents to suffer through it!
    We have children worship wiht congregation for about twenty minutes, have a children's story, and then they go to SS. In Sunday School, they have a worship time, offering, and then a story/activities.

    I also love the Heavenly Sunshine idea that MB links to--

  4. I was inspired to post thoughts on my experience with children's chapel on my blog, but not as a specific reply.
    Katie & revsymes - I have had similar thoughts about blowing a gasket with my own children in church and enjoying the time in worship where no one was pulling on me. Mine are 15 and 12 now and sometimes it's just not worth the battle and they stay home, particularly if spouse is on call and they would be at the church with me for 6 hours on a Sunday. It feels like a failure on my part, but I try to honor their personalities and needs as well.

  5. Oh, Katie, I hear such frustration in your words! Maybe I can hear it because I've been there. One of mine (a fosterling, so I really wasn't TOTALLY responsible for his lack of reverence) said to another after she took a little too much off the communion loaf, "Jesus Christ, Kate, make a sandwich!" He didn't use his inside voice, either, let alone a church voice. He only possessed one voice, and it was a strong, belligerent one!

    I preach in a REALLY tiny church that has no place else to put children except the sanctuary, but I've never seen any statistics that children who don't spend an hour a week in the sanctuary grow up with less understanding of theological issues, less devotion, less attachment to the church.

    Two thoughts: It does get better, sooner than you think it will. Until it does, you should remind yourself over and over that the behaviors that drive you crazy are not bothering other worshippers.

    Second, your congregation has a responsibility to provide for the religious education of all its children, including yours, and it has a responsibility to provide for your own sanity during your service as a worship leader. Can you find a members to serve as designated grandparents during worship? Can you have Sunday school during worship three Sundays a month and then have a messier, louder, child-friendly worship service on one Sunday a month?

    In short, can you identify a plan that will work FOR YOU? Then you can make the argument that you want to be the best spiritual leader you can be, and that requires you to not be distracted during worship. That's the truth.

  6. Oops, let me clarify for those who don't know me: While I don't think an hour a week in formal, adult worship is essential for the spiritual formation of children, I'm assuming that the other option is Sunday school, children's church or another age-appropriate religious activity — although I admit locking my own in the bathroom sometimes seemed like a good idea.

  7. I had so much to say that I went over the word count, so posted my response on my blog too. (I can't for the life of me figure out how to get the blue words that take you directly to my blog to work; so here is the address for you to past into your browser:

    I also need to add, that I well know that some situations simply don't have what is required to provide any kind of Sunday School for kids. I've often said my youngest daughter cut her teeth on the back of a pew. What our family did was (I was one of two non-ordained lay leaders) set up an area at the back of the church for the kids to color, model with play dough, make posters, jigsaw puzzles, etc.) I would buy the special up to date cool craft things for them and never allow them to come home.

  8. One of the greatest gifts ever given to me was a friend or two in the parish I was part of before seminary who took my son to sit with them from time to time. Not only was he better behaved with them but I was able to serve on the altar or worship more peacefully.

    I do understand the frustration...and I still believe kids belong in church. Part of that comes from remembering being in church myself when I was a small child, and part comes from knowing that the liturgy *does* sink in from exposure.

    BUt I also know that not every one agrees with me. And to make it even harder, in the congregation where I serve now, the older people (the majority of the congregation) can be intolerant of *any* extraneous noise and make parents feel like interlopers--which is of course incompatible with their stated goal of attracting families and growing...but that is another post I suppose. And finding someone to staff a nursery or teach a church school class for the youngest kids is also virtually impossible. So there are no easy answers but it is an issue on my mind even long after my own kids have flown the nest.

    At the very least I think kids should come in for the Eucharist because that is such an integral part of what we do.

  9. I have always believed that children belonged in church because that was where I was, from the time I was a baby.

    However, as a non-parent, I'm aware that I don't fully know the frustrations of worshipping with small children and not getting anything out of it. I don't want to be judgmental. I'm trying to be flexible.

    The one thing that I knock up against if Sunday School (or something like that) is held at the same time as church -- when do those who teach Sunday School (who are often parents themselves?) get the chance to worship? We have Sunday School at the same time as church, and the most dedicated parents are often Sunday School teachers, which means that they miss out on the thing they love the most -- to be in worship.

    I like some of the 'messy church' and 'children's church' ideas I'm hearing about and would like to hear more about

  10. Katie, as one of those who encourages people to include children in the congregation’s worship, let me say that I believe all that I say AND that I know for sure that all parenting is local. The challenge is to apply all the theories, guidelines and visions about raising children with a specific child or group of children. Often that means deciding to do something that looks on the outside like less than “best practice,” but which works for now for these particular people. I’m with the others favoring all the “messy solutions” and compromises. They are actually often the source of next “wonderful new thing.” The glory of smaller congregations is that they can plan for more individually recognized children and their families and can make changes more easily “as needed.” The trick is staying alert to the ever changing problems and possibilities. It does generally keep us dancing on the very tips of our parental and pastoral toes!

  11. I am a Minister, but not a parent. Where I am in placement, during school terms the children are in worship for 20-25 minutes. One of the children will read the Bible reading relating to Sunday School and the children’s talk is the teaching session for Sunday school. They then leave for further reflection and activities - which depends on which children are there, and the ages. Once a month we celebrate communion, and the children return for that.
    I love having children in worship, and look for ways for everyone to be included. A few times each year, this Sunday is one of them, the Sunday School leads worship. Even on ‘normal’ Sundays, I attempt to include children in leading parts of worship – again depends who is around. Our children range from 3-13 years, and attendance is patchy. We have a table with activities near the front of the church, basic things like colouring in, a few puzzles and some books. Children can sit there or take stuff back to sit with their parents. Being at the front means at times they stop what they are doing and check on what is happening.
    The older people love having children in worship, BUT, I do get comments about how much they like the quiet and peace when the children are in Sunday school. It is a balance.
    Messy Church is great, if you haven’t looked at it, I suggest you do. We are doing Messy Church once a quarter, and while it takes some planning, it is all in the books. It means we have had families come to worship [at Messy Church] that we rarely see I church. It is a great place to invite Baptism families, and some church families invite their friends.

    I would happily have children in worship all the time, and try and have worship where that is accommodated, but in reality, that isn’t possible. At the moment, children feel comfortable in church, and LOVE Sunday School.
    I do like the idea of a joyful noise service once a month,
    PS, I didn’t grow up in the church, and am the odd one out in my family. I came to church through a neighbour inviting me to Sunday School in my teens. That Sunday School met before worship, and very few children attended worship after Sunday School.

  12. Thank you for your post! I must admit that I’m not a female clergy, I leave that to my wife. But, that does mean that I am often in church and often a “single” parent in the pew with our two monsters, I mean sons (ages 3 and 6). It is extremely difficult to worship with kids around, and we don’t have any other options. But, I do believe that children do belong in worship (though I sometimes say that through gritted teeth). So, my way of dealing with it was to create a yearlong Sunday school curriculum (PreK-6th) teaching students what worship is and how to understand the (ELCA) Lutheran liturgy. I’ve had three churches “beta test” it this year and they’ve commented that the kids are more engaged in worship. Anyone who’s interested can email me at Even with that, my 6 year old is still a struggle in worship. But, when he does follow along and participate, it does make my heart sing and thank God! As for single-parent pastors, I can’t even imagine. My heart goes out to all of you!


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