Jesus clearly calls his followers to welcome children in his name, and he promises that when we do we are welcoming him. But it’s not an easy thing to know how to do, especially when it comes to worship.
The challenge of helping children enter into worship is especially difficult for their parents, and more frequently these days their grandparents. Children can be distracting, at times aggravating and even embarrassing during worship, and no one feels this more acutely than the grown-ups who bring them. The temptation to just stay home or to shuffle the kids out of the main worship gathering as quickly as possible is very strong, especially when the rest of the congregation isn’t sure how to help children be part of the worship either.
The following are 12 tips to help all of us learn how to worship with children. These insights have been taken from an amazing book written by Robbie Castleman called ‘Parenting in the Pew’. In it she is writing firstly to churchgoing parents, but her wisdom and challenge is helpful for everyone who knows Jesus’ call to make children welcome in his name.
1. Remember that Worship is Work, and that God is Worth it
Until relatively recently the word most often used in reference to the Church’s worship was ‘liturgy,’ a word which literally means “the work of the people”. Within the last 40 years or so “liturgy” has been largely replaced by the term “worship experience,” which is all about how worship makes the worshiper feel. What we seldom stop to consider these days is how our worship makes God feel, which would only make sense since he is the one we are supposed to be worshiping.
This distinction between worship as an act of service to God, as opposed to an experience in which we are the focus, is crucial. As Castleman notes, “training children to worship does not always enhance our own experience of being before the Lord, especially at first. On a feeling level, the experience of worship may seem impoverished by the demands of parenting in the pew. The number of times children must be helped to concentrate, pay attention and enter into the worship service is almost beyond counting. The effort can be exhausting. And it can be pleasing to God” (pp.66-67).
“Worship is not a refueling to get us through another week…Worship is not an hour of Christian entertainment. It is not what makes us good people, faithful Christians or successful parents…Worship is the surrender of our souls to a God who is jealous for our attention, time and love” (p.25). What makes it all worthwhile is that the God who lovingly calls us to worship Him is the one who can truly bless us with his mercy, grace and love, not to mention purpose, infinite value and eternal life. As Castleman writes, “Worshiping God is a challenge … We need to worship.” But God is worth it (p.25).
And genuinely welcoming children into worship is worth the effort too. How many times have comments or reactions from a child helped cut to the core of the truth of a scripture, reminded us of the shocking nature of many Bible stories, or the deep sadness and joy embodied by the death and resurrection of Jesus.
2. Stand Before God, not People
It is helpful to prepare ourselves and our children to worship by realizing that we are standing before God when we worship. Castleman writes, “God sees us. God sees our posture, our faces, our antics in the pew. God knows our hearts and minds. One of the first things I began to impress upon my children was this fact: God is present. He is looking at you, and he cares about how you show him that you love him and that you think he is special” (p.56).
This image can encourage our families to show respect for God, but it also is full of grace and love – no matter what is happening in our pew, God sees us, knows us, and loves us! And it really doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks: “…if our hearts are fixed on being with our children before the Lord and not before the congregation, we will begin to experience great relief and freedom…We can be freed to help our children worship without the pull of external distractions or the self-consciousness of wondering what others are thinking” (p.30).
3. Attend Worship Regularly
The “commitment of a family to the primacy of weekly worship communicates something foundationally important for children about the nature of faith and life” (p.53). It is difficult to help children learn to worship if they are not regularly attending worship services. We don’t expect children to pick up hockey, ballet or baseball without years of trial and error, practice and participation, and coaching from those who are more experienced. The same is true of worship. And of course, the coaches have to show up regularly too.
4.Work at Tuning In
Castleman talks about how most of us have spent time counting bricks in the sanctuary, daydreaming, counting the number of people with glasses in the choir, etc., rather than working at engaging with God during a worship service. But “counting bricks is no match for a God who longs for our attention” (p.59). She warns against our tendency to want a worship service to entertain us – “worship as entertainment will not accelerate the spiritual growth of our children,” or ourselves for that matter (p.58).
Castleman suggests eliminating distractions, such as toys, books, colouring, and even food. Sometimes, however, having paper and a pencil can help children focus on illustrating a story they are hearing or writing questions to their parents. “The key is still to concentrate on the service, not just ‘do something’” (p.74).
“Simply telling children to be quiet is not the way to draw their attention to the worship that is taking place…Quietness at certain times may enhance their ability to worship, but quietness is a means to this effort, not the end” (p.66). “It can seem paradoxical that to help a child to develop concentration and a sense of quietness for worship, parents have to talk more. If you sit close to your children, however, you can give whispered instructions and reminders rather easily and with little or no distraction to others” (p.67).
Help children to pay attention by holding them close (if they are little), pointing to words on the screen or bulletin as you help them follow along, and asking them to read the words they recognize. When a Bible reading is a story, you can ask children to pretend they were actually there and wonder with them about what they notice. Ask questions: How did the story make them feel? How does it relate to things that have recently happened to them?
Sitting close to the front of the church can also enhance a child’s attention to what is happening. “If children are trained to participate at a young age, their sense of belonging and paying attention is more natural” (p.71). “When we ask our children to pay attention, we often end up doing a better job of it ourselves. It is not unusual for parents to express delight as their own sense of worship is enhanced through practicing parenting in the pew” (p.73).
5. Make a Joyful Noise
Worship music is often the easiest part of the service to help a child participate in. Parents should try to sing in a way that will help the children follow, to the best of their ability. Encourage young children to sing “la, la, la” if they cannot read the words for a song that is new to them. Children can also be asked to listen for certain words or phrases in a song, especially if they cannot yet read. Teach them a line or two, and cue them when that part of the song is coming around. Have small children stand beside you on the chair or pew, with your arm around them, so they can feel part of the action and can see the overhead screen with lyrics.
Explaining and contemplating the words of songs is very helpful after church is through, especially if children keep singing after the service. Even whispering things during the song about how a song is affecting you or connections you have made with the song are helpful – this helps children realize that what is sung really matters. Connections can be made to events of the previous week, aspects of God’s character that you are thankful for, ways God has helped you, etc. If older children really connect with a song, take time to look it up at home and find out if there is a story behind its composition – this can foster an even deeper connection for the child. For instrumental pieces, ask children to imagine what Bible story they picture when they hear the music. (pp.78-85)
6. Praying, not Parroting
Kids need more opportunity for prayer than just repeating or reciting prayers from grown-ups. “A crucial element of preparing children for congregational prayer is prayer in the home. From the earliest age, children should be encouraged to speak to God in their own words. You can probably teach them best by sharing prayers in your own words with them. Children need to hear their parents ‘just talk’ to God. And they need to see us, and to sit with us eventually, as we listen to God in silence” (p.90).
Children should be taught to pray in a posture that helps promote concentration – having eyes closed and heads bowed isn’t prayer itself, but it does help to focus the mind and reduce distraction.
7. Encourage Confession
During the time in our service when we confess our sin and ask for God’s forgiveness, children can be prompted to do the same. Usually, it won’t be tough for children to have recent events come to mind for which confession would be useful …but they can be prompted if necessary. Confessing to the child what it is you are praying about for yourself can also help. If nothing needing confession comes to mind for a child, they can be encouraged to use the time to thank Jesus for his love, no matter what we do.
8. Be Intentional about Training Children to Give
Castleman writes challengingly about this principle, and her words cut to the heart: “Too many parents give their kids pocket change to put in the plate, just as they let their children push the buttons in elevators. Not only is this not an offering from the child’s resources, but it communicates that God can be honoured with spare change we don’t really value or need. Many people end up tipping God with spare change all their lives – and give pretty skimpy tips at that. Children need to learn the joy of generous giving as a part of the family of faith and the community of the church” (p.52).
Helping children in planning how much to give for their Sunday offering is a great chance to teach children about generosity and obedience to God. It can also be “an exciting part of learning to trust God and to participate in the work of his people” (p.50). Include children in the process of preparing the offering, by giving young children the chance to decorate the envelop and/or write their name on it. As children grow, they can be involved in determining how much to give. “It is good if children can feel that what is given away is something from themselves, not the parent” (p.52). Even if it is not money they have earned, giving it to them to hold in a pocket or purse can lend “a sense of possession and special purpose” (p.52).
When children are old enough to earn money, they should be encouraged to calculate a tithe – 10% of the earnings being given back to God. This is a biblical principle that helps remind us that all we have comes from God, and that he will take care of our needs if we give generously. Starting this when children are young is a great way to help them understand that “10 percent is where to begin rather than a goal one hopes to reach eventually” (p.51).
9. Share Communion
“Jesus instituted the sacrament of Communion to help us remember the sacrifice that made possible our reconciliation to God and to anticipate the coming of God’s kingdom in its fullness. The Lord’s Supper is an intimate expression of our need for God’s life to be our life. Doctrinally and historically, it is the most significant confession of Christ Jesus as Lord and Savior.” (pp.121-122)
Sharing communion is a very important part of the worship service. Discuss with children how much this sacrament means in advance, and also whisper about its meaning as you wait to receive it: “God’s love is given to you in a special way through this bread and wine.” If your children don’t receive the bread and wine yet, have them hold your hand while you do it, or cup their hands around yours. Even after you return to your seat you can whisper to them about what it meant for Jesus to give his life to take away sin or why communion is important to you.
10. Remember Baptism
If a child was baptised as an infant or young child, use times of baptism of others in the church as a time to remind them about their own baptism. Remember how they looked, felt, reacted etc. “Baptism can be a profound reminder to a child about who he or she is in the family of God” (p.120).
11. Trust God
“Parenting can be stressful. Especially if we try to take on God’s job as well as our own. It is God’s job to be working in the lives of our children. His work is lasting, wise, patient and all knowing. We parents, no matter how well we succeed at times, fall short in all four categories. He alone is the perfect Parent who loves our children perfectly. We must trust him to be at work in the lives of our children, even when this is hard to do.” (pp.93-94)
“Children can be taught to pray by entering at an early age into the uncertainties as well as the joys of prayer…Scripture is full of wonderful stories of heart’s-desire prayers answered. It is also full of honest disappointment in prayer. Children can handle both. If prayer is to become real to children, if God is to become real to them, faith must find its foundation in real-life experiences with God in prayer. God can be trusted to say yes or no as he determines how best to love us.” (p.89)
“God’s purposes and will do not always match our expectations. It is very often in disappointment or difficulty in the lives of our children that God’s existence becomes objective and real, distinctive and powerful for them. We shouldn’t be afraid that prayer that is not answered according to our hopes will weaken or destroy our children’s faith. Children need to see that God can be trusted no matter what. This is the foundation for maturing faith.” (p.91)
Not every week will feel like a success when you are parenting in the pew. Make sure you regularly tell your children how much it means to you that they are worshiping with you. Share with others in the congregation what you are trying to do with your kids, so they can understand and help you out. Even during the weeks that do not feel successful, consider your presence with your children before God as a sacrifice you have made for God and for the kids. We know that God is overjoyed by having them there, and that he recognizes the work we are putting into worship…regardless of how the experience feels or what those around us think. “Worship designed for God’s pleasure and by God’s Word and mediated by God’s Spirit brings us face to face with the God who shapes us in the sanctuary to send us into the real world… Intentional intergenerational development within a church is hard in our culture because it is countercultural. It’s hard because it’s biblical. It’s hard because it’s costly – everyone in the congregation has to die to themselves to be servants to one another under the headship of Christ Jesus. As many parents have said a million times to their children, ‘If it’s not hard, it’s not worth it’…” (pp.131-132).
Castleman speaks with such honesty and grace about parenting in the pew. Her messages are a hearty challenge, an inspiration, and are also full of grace for our failures to live out our intentions. We hope her wisdom and insights will be an encouragement to all of us as we strive to welcome children in Jesus’ name and help them grow to love and worship the God who loves them immeasurably. And remember, no matter how successful you feel in the endeavour, rest in the knowledge that God receives and delights in our offerings of worship (even if – and possibly especially when – they are full of crushed cheerios, dirty diapers, and muffled squeals).
Prepared by Kate and David Turner
Be sure to check out
Robbie Castleman. 2013.
Parenting in the Pew: Guiding Your Children into the Joy of Worship. IVP Books.