Some churches do not have a full program for children during worship, leaving mom and dad wondering how to best prepare their kids to sit through an hour of worship that is designed for and aimed toward adults. How can parents best prepare their child for worship? I don’t confess to having all of the answers, but here are 11 things that you may want to consider.
1. Before you do anything, determine the expectations you will have for your child. Are your expectations age appropriate for your child? Are they reasonable? Are you and your spouse in agreement on the expectations? Do you have goals? Will there be rewards or consequences? Thinking through your expectations in advance will prevent you from flying by the seat of your pants when it’s time to walk into the worship center.
2. Talk with your child in advance. Kids function best when parents take the time to explain what worship is and what they can expect when they arrive. Talking kids through the routine of worship will help them to understand the rhythm of the service. (Even the most contemporary churches have a worship template they follow!) It is especially important to help the child understand unique situations in worship such as baptism or communion. Certainly we would want the child to know that the offering plate is for putting money in, not helping one’s self!
3. Teach your child correctly from the beginning. Sometimes parents will take short cuts in explaining spiritual things to their children because frankly, it’s easier. For example, every now and then I hear a parent refer to the church facility as “God’s House.” While this is not intended to be a negative thing, it communicates some really poor theology. It communicates that God is restricted to a given location; that we can go see God like we go see Grandma; that when we leave the building, God stays put, and so forth. Some of you are thinking that I’m a little harsh on this, but from my perspective there are more adults than not who practically live out those same concepts that I’ve listed above on a daily basis. When you teach your kids about God, be simple without being simplistic. You don’t help your child grow up to think right by teaching them wrong in their most formative years.
4. Arrange for your child to meet the pastor. My wife is a school teacher. Occasionally we’ll be shopping or eating out and we’ll have a chance encounter with one of her school kids who is out with his or her family. I’m always amazed at the kid’s reaction to seeing their teacher out in public, as if it hadn’t occurred to them that their teacher actually bought groceries or had a life outside of the classroom. Children are helped when they can meet the pastor and see that the pastor is a real person apart from the pulpit.
5. Take your child on a tour of the platform. Before or after the service, escort your child to the front of the room and let them see what it’s like to stand on the platform and look out. Let them see the platform furniture and tell them about what each represents and how it functions. This will help them to become more familiar with the environment of worship and create a sense of comfort.
6. Decide beforehand what you’re plan of action will be for using the restroom. Many parents opt to explain to their children before the service that they will not be allowed to leave during the service to use the restroom. Parents who choose to take this position need to make sure that the child uses the restroom prior to the beginning of the service. If you decide you’ll allow your child to go to the restroom, it’s recommended that you escort the child to and from the restroom for their safety and security.
7. Encourage the child to participate as much as possible. While the sermon may be a little out of reach for the school age child, many elements of the service provide reasonable opportunities for the child to participate, such as praying, singing, and giving.
8. Consider taking a “church bag.” When our kids were small, my wife prepared a church bag for our kids to take to worship. She encouraged our kids to sing, pray, and give, and then when I got up to speak she would pull out the “church bag.” The church bag contained a small etch-a-sketch, a magna-doodle, crayons, paper, scissors, and a simple snack such as teddy grahams. (As a pastor I’ve never objected to kids eating during church. Frankly, I’d like to eat during church but my mother taught me that it’s impolite to speak with your mouth full!) This allowed our kids to do something constructive during the sermon. The church bag was only used for church, so the special items in it stayed special week in and week out. If you utilize an idea such as this, make sure to clean up after yourself at the conclusion of the service. In addition to this, I’d also recommend that you include an age appropriate Bible or Bible story books. I’d further recommend that you leave the Disney and Loony-Tunes books at home. Christian childhood education specialists recommend that parents and Sunday School teachers not use secular children’s literature at church because children will make the association that Jesus is a story like Cinderella is a story. (see #3!)
9. Talk with your child on the drive home about the service. This gives you an opportunity to reinforce the good things about your family’s worship experience and answer any questions the child may have.
10. Model worship to your child during the service. Your child will not progress beyond where you are as a worshipper. If you don’t pray, sing, give, or open a Bible, chances are your child will not see the value of the experience. As a parent you set the benchmark for your child’s spiritual development. When you engage in worship you teach your child the difference between worshipping God and merely going to church.
11. Above all, don’t stress! Many times parents feel embarrassed about their child’s behavior during the worship service. My standard and unoriginal response to that apology is “I’d rather hear a baby cry than an old man snore.” What parents need to realize, perhaps more than anything else, is that the goal is to teach the child how to worship God. When we teach our children how to worship God we make the experience about worship and God. On the other hand, if the goal is to teach the child how to behave in church we make the experience about ourselves as parents and how we wish to be perceived by those around us. In church, teaching “behavior” is about ourselves and how we can impress others around us.