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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Ask the Matriarch — The Little Ones (and a big announcement)

I'm a little misty-eyed at the moment. Not at our matriarchs, per se, but at some news I'm both delighted and saddened to share. It's the second anniversary of Ask the Matriarchs, which started out as an evening feature (Meet'n'Greet ran in the mornings on Thursdays before moving to Mondays in Sept. '06).

And I just realized how appropriate that first column is. It's titled "Transitional Insanity," and you can read it here. The reason it's appropriate is that I'm stepping down as its editor, and matriarchs Ann and RevHoney are going to take it over. I'm moving on to somewhat bigger and definitely stranger things, which you can read about in this post on my newish, married-name blog.

But we're not here for that news--I just wanted to note it. We're here for the children. At least, I think we are:

We have suddenly had a population explosion of small children and babies. This is great but now what to do with them? Some want the kids in church for the whole service, some want them to just be in the service for a short time, others want them out in Sunday school or their own service during the main service. What do you do? And why?

I've seen just about everything done in the three different churches I've attended regularly as an adult, none of which dovetails with the experience I had as a kid myself (that is, a member of the junior choir from the age of 3--because my mom was the choirmaster).

So: the matriarchs say:

Ann has the most amazing sources. From them, we get:

Well, we have Sunday School from 15 minutes before the service starts until the Peace. We do it that way because those without children are positively, absolutely sure that people won't come if we don't offer Sunday School for children. We've done it for a few years that way, and that equates to "we've ALWAYS done it that way." Of course, we have only a few children who attend now, so I am not sure the logic holds up.

For the last few years I have been telling Godly Play stories during that time, which I love and the kids love. (The adults love them too when I get a chance to use them in the "big" church.)

I think I would like to have the children attend the entire service. We do that monthly, and involve the kids as lectors and worship leader and pray-ers. Our service is fairly casual, and that lends itself to kid participation. THE book that motivated me the most is "Children at Worship, Congregations in Bloom" by Caroline Fairless. I think it's out of print, unfortunately, but you can join their website at

Now, some families prefer to keep their kids with them when they worship. One of my churches has a cry room that's separate from the sanctuary but has windows through which you can see into it, and audio is piped into the room. Helps a lot with some of the issues Jan notes--and it's something that's included in her suggestions:

Great problem to have, but it creates lots of mini-problems:
- what about screamers?
- what about squirmers?
- what about clueless parents?
- what about cranky non-parents?

Just last Sunday, we had a parent/child wrestling match (on the third row from the front no less) with a four-year-old crawling over the second row and back under to return to family (over and over again) and the 6 year old sibling loudly protesting his presence with us in the first place.

I was (miraculously) able to keep preaching, but I could tell that some of the worshippers around this family were wishing they'd take them out. (As in "out of the sanctuary," not as in some kind of wild west shootout.)

I don't know about you, but I totally laughed out loud when I read that. As in nearly snarfed soda all over the monitor, but I digress. As Jan continues, some parents see their kids so rarely because of long work hours that the last thing they want to do is banish their toddler yet again. Other parents are nervous about respiratory and other bugs that can get passed around in nurseries making targets of still-developing immune systems. "Kids in worship no longer sit erectly in the pews with little bow ties and patent leather shoes with nary a peep from any of them," she says, to which I think, was that what i was supposed to be doing instead of drawing pictures on the visitor feedback cards?

Some suggestions from Jan:

Bottom line: Hospitality is important, and for every tolerant worshipper who doesn't mind the cute toddler waving at him/her throughout the sermon, there will be an intolerant worshipper who is distracted and frustrated. Try to make policies/plans to respect both kinds of people.

- Have awesome, regular nursery workers who are paid well, vetted thoroughly, and have CPR training and sweet spirits.
- Have "worship bags" for pre-schoolers who will be staying in the sanctuary. They can be simple brightly colored cloth bags with handles with Bible stories, coloring books, crayons, children's bulletins, etc. inside. We keep ours in a basket in the lobby for kids to pick up on their way into worship. You'll need a volunteer to clean out the trash and replenish the bags each week.
- Have programs during at least part of the worship time that are age appropriate (like Godly Play)
- Create a "crying room" which is also handy for nursing babies, crawling babies, and squirmers. Be sure it's equipped with a way to hear/see worship and include those parents as much as possible (e.g. be sure they are offered communion, etc.)
- Remind the congregation that "We love babies and children." I know of one congregation that stops everything when a baby cries, not to embarrass the parents but to recognize that that child is speaking out and deserves to be heard.

After all, the spirit does move in mysterious ways. Sometimes it's not just the spirit, as when a three-year-old offers in a semi-outside voice, "Mommy, I have to go number two" and the entire congregation has to hold back a giggle.

As Peripatetic Polar Bear notes:

That's a hard question to answer for someone else. There are several variables.
First of all, what is your theology of childhood? What do you think --on a philosophical and theological level?
Second, what is the custom at this church? I won't be surprised if the two are totally different.

My recommendation is that you do this as a church--talk through the developmental and theological aspects of the decision. It would make a great adult Sunday School. And then come up with a solution that represents what you as a church believe about childhood and children's ability to experience worship. The only piece of caution I'd throw out is this: if you do Sunday School during church, what happens to the children whose parents want them in worship? I get nervous about solutions that make parents choose between worship and education. If you opt for something that happens during worship, you also will want to consider at what age children should be attending worship, and how will that transition take place?

My parent's church, with many, many kids does this:

9 a.m. early service. no child care.
10 a.m. sunday school for all ages.
11 a.m. later service. childcare for 2 and under provided, as well as children's church for kids 2-10.

This way, parents can choose what works for their beliefs. But of course, that's a larger church that has more staff and options than many.

My personal belief is that kids need to experience worship. I think kids that attend worship are more likely to be teens that attend worship. But I think having kids in worship is not as simple as saying "come on in, be quiet, have a crayon." You have to think about how to become child-friendly. How much noise do you tolerate? What is your liturgy like? Are there parts of the worship that repeat every week that someone who can't read can do? What are your sermons like? Are there parts that invite a child's imagination? Do you ever sing hymns or songs with really easy refrains? Can you involve older children in worship leadership? How do you feel about kids sitting separate from their parents? Who will sit with kids whose parents are in the choir? Or are the pastor? How ready is your congregation to welcome, REALLY WELCOME kids? (And of course, this gets longer---how ready are you to welcome the elderly, the single, the disabled....) I think it's a great conversation to have.

But that's just me.

Singing Owl offers the perspective of a church without a lot of small children:

We don't have lots of children, so we don't have Sunday School, but we do want even the small ones and babies to have a positive experience at church. So we have Children's Church for the older kids, but we do have nursery for the babies and toddlers. Many of them love music and come into the service during the music time and then go to their little nursery classroom. Others go to the nursery right away. The little ones get more than babysitting. They hear music (and sing it if possible) and they play, and they learn simple prayers and they have simple stories and crafts, coloring and so on. The nursery area is well-stocked with age-appropriate books and music and toys. It is much more enjoyable for a squirmy toddler to be able to walk around, and it is much more likely that mom and dad will actually get something out of the service if Toddler Timmy and Tina are not climbing over the back of the pew, or crying, etc. Of course, some parents just won't put the little ones in a classroom. I strongly believe that toddlers and even babies are learning about church, and love, and so on. It is very important to make their experience a positive one. Grown-up church is not designed for little ones. That said, we do have children with parents once a month—not till they are four though.

And RevHoney's is a larger church with a lot of kids—and a lot of choices:

We have a bright nursery that is well-staffed and secure for infants through age 2.

We encourage families to sit toward the front of the sanctuary so that the children can see what is going on. When I conduct baptisms, I will often invite the children to sit on the floor in front of the font. I teach them (and the congregation) as I baptize.

We have fabric bags filled with quiet toys and things to occupy children. These things are frequently rotated in and out so kids find something new every few weeks.

We offer children's church for children age 3 through second grade, but only during the lessons and the sermon. They come back into the sanctuary at the time of the offering and are there for communion.

Many parents find our contemporary service in our Christian Life Center most child-friendly, because there is space for the children to play quietly and even to run a bit in the back of the space. Parents can sit at tables with their families there and sometimes the children will come to the front and dance together during the sending song.

Our next step to be more welcoming to our children is to welcome them to communion at the point when their parents think they are ready. We are providing texts for the parents to use at home to talk with their children about the sacrament, sharing the responsibility of readying their children for the table with them.

And if all else fails, stick them in a junior choir and make them sing very loudly every week for a decade or so. They might wind up growing up and editing an advice column for priests for a couple of years. :D


  1. From my own experience --

    I went to a parochial school through jr. high, where we had church every week. Seventh and 8th graders were paired with 1st and 2nd graders to keep them quiet during the service, guide them through the hymnal, and remind them to keep their feet off the kneelers.

    Perhaps a buddy system would be appropriate in some parishes, especially for older kids. As a 6-year-old, I was facinated with people who were 8 or 9 years older than I was. They weren't my parents, and I felt so grown up when I was with them.

  2. Thanks for all your work on this column - gallycat

  3. And while we're considering this, let's not forget that some kids have special needs; a strategy somewhere short of a restraining order would probably be appropriate:

  4. I love Sarah's buddy system idea...Building community and accountability from the very start!

    My church has 3 services:
    * 7:15 am, Rite I (very formal), no music, no children's programs

    * 8:30 am, Rite II (contemporary language), mix of traditional and contemporary music, 3-6 y.o. kids go out for Children's Time with a deacon at the beginning of service and return before Communion

    * 11:30 am, Rite II and traditional music, 3-6 y.o. kids go our for Godly Play with a teacher at the beginning of service and return before Communion.

    Kids go into First Communion training at about 3, or whenever they are ready to ask and feel left out as they do not receive it.

    Sunday school is from 9:45 to 10:15 during the program year, and we have Nursery care from 8:15 on through the late service.

    The 8:30 is conceived as the family service, but there are many families with littlies that prefer the later one, for various reasons.

    If one tended toward the cranky and wished for quiet, meditative worship...the early service is the one. The two later services tend to have kids coming and going and making some amount of noise. Most people deal.

    There is one family whose several small ones regularly make quite a lot of noise, causing me to think, "MY children were never like that!" (But perhaps I've forgotten that I got my only child at age 9.)

    Most of the comments I have heard are of the "at least they are in church" variety.

    Great topic!

    Good luck to you, Helen, and thanks for your work. And thanks to Revs. Ann and Honey, and others who'll be taking over this feature, for their service!

  5. From my days as a children coordinator, I definitely second the notion that NOT having kids in worship definitely promotes not having children-turned-tween-turned-teen in worship--the correlation seemed fairly direct to me.

    When I worked at this church, we tried to promote the idea that it was OK to take your child out of worship if he/she needed a break for 5-10 minutes, and then come back in; it was OK to stand your toddler and pre-schooler on the pew so he/she could see; and it was OK if they made a little noise! Temper tantrums outside, please...

    My two cents! Great column for today...

  6. we have two Sunday services: at 8:30, BCP, v. traditional, we have had a tiny group of children, usu. about TWO, and the mainly seniors who attend regard these little people as "the 8:30 sunday school" 10:30 the children are assembled for a story or talk right after the processional hymn, IN the sanctuary, and they are handed over to Sunday school teachers who send them back into the congregation in time for communion. Plans are afoot for a children's area IN the church itself with quiet playthings. We have an excellent nursery...

  7. We have three services, with contemporary music at 830, more traditional music at 930 and 11. Same sermon. Children stay in worship the entire time if they come, though parents are welcome to take them for a break. Like CR we encourage them to be children--a church I served in Atlanta said in the bulletin "remember, God put the wiggle in children!" They can stand on the pew to see the screen, etc. We have a children's time (often related to the sermon, but not always) at 830 and 11, but at 930 we have Sunday School. We expect children to attend both SS and worship and are working on how to offer opportunities for parents during the 930 hour as well.

    For the during-worship time, we have worship bags--canvas bags that contain coloring books and crayons, storybooks, and pew pals (beanie babies). It's really fun to look out over the congregation and see children explaining the bulletin to their pew pal, or holding it up to see the screen so it can sing along, or whatever.

    We do have a number of children whose parents are in leadership roles, and they tend to just plop themselves in a pew with whoever they want--their friends' parents, the older people, whoever. We watch out for them.

    We have been working on implementing this for about a year now, with varying degrees of success. The idea is that children deserve to be in worship as much as we do, that they are important people in our community, that they won't learn to love worship if they don't practice, and that we won't learn the things Jesus teaches us if we're constantly pushing the children to the sidelines. So that's our current approach...I'm trying to figure out how to more fully integrate children in leadership. We have two children's choirs that lead worship once a month, and occasionally we have children in dramas or doing a reading, but that's about it.

    That was the longest comment ever. sorry about that..I'm sort of passionate about the children-in-worship thing. Perhaps because I work with teens who have never been taught to love worship and so think it's the most boring thing ever, and with confirmands who can't figure out why coming to worship as a class is important. grr...

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  9. Boy you've hit a sore spot with me... so here goes. I have an "energetic" 4 year old who is excited to go to church, play in the nursery (service plays on the PA in there) and eat snack after. He is the only child his age. Then we have a handful of 4th graders and 2 high schoolers.

    Church is, in my opinion kid-unfriendly. We only have one service and is unlikely that we will ever have two. Church folk give off the vibe of "serious grown-up stuff". Stuffy hymns, not formal at all but, traditional, traditional traditional. They keep talking about bags, have a different nursery volunteer every week and have children's church from the children's sermon till end of worship. Communion is brought to them in their classroom. My child has been included from time to time, but their 4th grade activities are not suited to him.

    In November I'm having a new baby and am seriously considering staying in the nursery with the two of them! And yes...I'm the pastor's wife. SIGH.

    Over last summer we attended a church in another state where I could drop him off in a class that would sing church songs and draw pictures with other kids his age while I enjoyed church with the grown-ups.

    I wish we could do things that way but I fear lack of children and church support means nothing will ever change. And all those little old lady volunteers will be so excited to care for the baby and I'll get to wrestle my boy in the pews. Some Sunday. There are lots of Sundays where I'd rather go to another church...and if I was a visitor...

  10. We have a separate Sunday School period at our church before the service proper, but because of resource constraints and the small number of children at any one age, we have one of those "one size fits all" curricula that I think are pretty useless for children over toddler age.

    We also have a couple of families with more, shall we say, rambunctious children...the attitude of older parishoners is fairly tolerant, although a couple of our "senior saints" are pretty fed up...not with the kids but with their laissez-faire-childrearing-philosophy parents. I don't even want to go into that territory.

    We keep the children actively involved in worship and in worship leadership -- acolyting, assisting with Communion, etc. -- as soon as they're physically able and interested. That's a positive. But despite this we have the same problem as many of the rest of you -- once the kids hit puberty/confirmation age we never see them again on Sunday morning. (Although, interestingly, they do show up for the weekday afterschool youth program.) Any suggestions for THAT problem would be much appreciated! (We've tried youth-led Sunday services, to no avail.)

  11. I am currently actively searching for a call and, I have to tell you, I have been aghast at the number of churches I've come across that does their childrens' Sunday School during service. This is an absolute deal breaker for me-both as a pastor and as a mother. The church is first and foremost a worshipping community and if we neglect to teach our kids to worship, well, several of you have already described some of the consequences.

    In my last church, we had a program we called "Worship Connection" for young kids up to second grade. They would leave just during the sermon time (and come back directly after)and they would learn about an element of worship (doxology, call to worship, the Lord's Prayer, etc.) The goal of Worship Connection was to help integrate and include the kids into worship. It's great to hear their voices join in- and they're eager to, if we would just be willing to take the time to teach them.

    Thanks, Teri, for that list. That's fantastic!

  12. Wonderful ideas all of you! I've been struggling with this idea for a while in my tiny churc of 50 but with a number of small children. Can anyone tell me where I can learn more about Godly Play? Is there a book or something that can teach that method to me?

  13. Nutella,

    Take a look here:

    and here:

    It's a perfectly gorgeous time for children and adults to wonder together.

  14. Well, since the Friday Five isn't up yet, I'll add my 2 cents as a parent and layperson from a non-liturgical and somewhat intellectual church. In the church where my kids grew up, Sunday school took place during church. Twice a month kids came in to worship for the opening prayers, first lesson, and first hymn, then children's time and they went to class. During summer kids came to worship unless there was a special volunteer effort, also during school vacation weeks and special services such as Easter and Christmas. When there was a baptism, kids stayed through the baptism. I have three, now adult children; the eldest does not attend church because of his beliefs, but says he would be there if he could find "an atom of faith." The middle child has just graduated from seminary and is awaiting a call. The youngest (23) has never stopped attending. They learned to worship as they grew older (or at least behave in worship in son's case) and learned to love the church through youth group, youth choir, Sunday school and coffee hour, and because the adults in the church were all interested in them and knew them. I realize this makes me some kind of heretic, and I'm certainly willing, as someone with no small children, to deal with kids in church -- but the way it was worked for our family. (Our current church has the kids in church for part of the time, then they all troop across the street -- a whole 'nother issue! -- for Sunday school. A strong children/youth choir program includes kids from other and no churches as well. I actually have no idea what our communion policy is; when I was coming up we didn't commune until confirmation! I'm sure it's looser now but I don't see any big move to communing small children.) I was a stay-at-home mom for some years of my kids' growing up, and worked other years, but not over 40 hrs. And I'm not from that "helicopter parent" cohort, so putting the kids in the nursery was not an issue (ours was volunteer, and I took my turns too.) I understand intellectually the idea of having kids in worship, but the opposite way worked out quite well for me (and my youngest is not the only one in her cohort who comes to church still.)

  15. Wow, This is a popular ( and controversial) topic. Thanks everyone for weighing in. It's an issue that I am passionate about.

    Like Iris, as mom and future pastor, Sunday School during worship would be a deal breaker for me. I am absolutely convinced that children should be in worship - but that also means that we have to make worship a place and experience that welcomes children.

    If children have "practice" being in worship, they will know worship and how to behave in worship when their bodies are old enough to sit quietly during the sermon etc. If we don't engage them in worship while they are children, how in the world can we expect them to know what to do or to appreciate it when they are teens or young adults?

    I have a 3 year old and a ten month old. Here are some things that work for me:
    1. Sitting near the front - the kids can see what is happening and are more engaged.
    2. Explaining what is happening to the 3 year old.
    3. Teaching the 'movement' of worship - standing, kneeling, crossing oneself, putting one's hands in different places for prayer.
    4. Not being afraid to walk out when needed.
    5. Taking the baby to the back of the church. Walking and bouncing the baby.
    6. Snacks and bottle to keep mouths quiet during the sermon. When there is a nursery that I feel comfortable utilizing, I will let my three year old go there for the sermon, and I fetch him afterward.

    My hubby now has a job that has him working many Sunday mornings, so I am single parenting the worship service. Friends, pastors - this is incredibly hard. Please, please, please consider lining up worship buddies/ honorary grandmas and grandpas, aunts or uncles to assist parents who need an extra hand.

    And finally,
    The nursery must be professionally staffed by childcare workers with at minimum child and infant first aid and CPR, and please have a good check-in and check-out system. That will make me, as a mother, feel comfortable using the nursery if my children aren't able to handle worship on that particular day.

  16. I forgot to say that I used to (in grad school) attend this church that had a lovely older woman called "the church lady." I'm sure she had a name, but everyone called her "the church lady." Basically, she had a little sign that she held up, and she sat in the first row. All the kids whose parents were in the choir or ushering or whatever, sat there with the church lady. But the other kids wanted to sit there, too, so there were all sorts of extra straggler kids who HAD parents available, but who thought sitting with the church-lady was cool. At times there were over 40 kids sitting with the church lady. Other adults would quickly join in when the crowd got too big, but as far as the kids were concerned, they were superfluous. She handed out butterscotch candies and cough drops and kleenex on demand. She passed the children's church bags out DURING the sermon but NOT before (she would not relinquish those bags before the sermon!)She did eventually rope the ushers into being "on call" for bathroom duty. You'd look out into the congregation (I sang in the choir) and there was this wonderful puppy-pile of kids just basking in her time. She was, simply, lovely. I hear it was her idea, her little ministry.

    What happened was that the kids didn't go to children's church (we had it, they just chose to stay), and learned how much fun it was to worship with your friends, and one adult who loved you abundantly.

  17. I have certainly commented enough, but want to say thanks for all the engaged conversation here. I, too, am passionate about kids in worship.

    I learned to love church by being there!

  18. 'Children are the Fire' is a poem I wrote and God is the Keeper of the Fire. Of course, we all are the Fire..within the Love of God.

    Children, I know as a former Day care Supervisor..eons ago, need to know and feel they belong as everyone does. There are different ways, many mentioned in the responses, to deal with children. We have a Nursery for younger children and babies. With an 'open door' policy.(a half door)

    And we have a 'place' for them to the side, but at the front of the church, with a rug, rocking chair, table, small chairs, toys, crayons, books, etc. A shelf holds many of the things. Parents can take the children over and be with them ,or be sitting near-by...then the youngsters can see mom & dad and parents can see how it is with them.

    We also have several Intergenerational Services and have packages available with crayons, paper, stickers, etc. which are taken to their seats so can be busy. Little hands need things to do. Little ears are always listening.

    Churches need to welcome part of the whole, otherwise they become more separate and it doesn't feel good to feel no one actually needs, or wants you there.

    A Time for Children..can also be a teaching time, and fun. (By the way, the adults listen intently to this time too). The teachers often go up to, so then when Church School is happening they can leave with them.

    Depending on numbers. A 'Crying Room' as was mentioned is also good.

    Inclusion of each stage of life is vital for balance in understanding and becoming a living 'thread' moving into a part of the weaving of our Faith communities.

    By the way, they may be playing, or colouring... they are also listening and taking things in.

    We also have the Lord's Prayer when the children are at the front...holding hands in a circle with the minister...the rest of the congregation pray too. We seem to become a 'family' when we pray together out loud.

    Children are also still mainly, hopefully, uncluttered, so being careful not to add 'clutter' to their growing awareness...and humanity.

    We belong to God..that's what we'd like them to experience. No matter who, age, behaviour.

    I held classes at one time for parents to help them learn about children developing faith, and how children learn.

    Perhaps the buddy system could include a caring, calm adult, who might bring an intervention, if necessary. Parents often need to back away (time out)too and let someone who is not so involved, but known and respected, can slip in and take some different approach.

    Attitudes of the adults about, or within hearing, lead the way to further angst, or resolution.

    It is good to hear these questions about children.

    In a church here a couple of years ago... A two-year old stood on the pew after a rousing Anthem from the Choir and excitedly requested,
    "Re-wind, re-wind!"

    Blessings...all you youngsters...of every age.


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