Maybe it is connected to Einstein’s theory of relativity, but I am convinced that almost all other children in the world are better behaved, more thoughtful, and more engaged in worship than the one child that I am related to. I am not alone in this perception. We have arguments in my congregation among mothers who are all convinced that no indeed, it is actually THEIR children, sitting a few pews down from me, who are the absolute worst when it comes to sitting in worship together. I am always able to win these arguments, though, because I can remind them that I am the only mother who has to deal with worshiping next to my son AND be at my job at the same time.
Why is this? Why would I gladly scoop up any other child in my congregation and bring them to sit with me during worship, while I dread trying to make it through a service with my own son? Here are just a few examples of the beautiful things that have happened when I have worshiped with OTHER people’s children:
- Giggling awkwardly with two sixth graders on Sunday morning when the liturgist makes the assurance of pardon after the prayer of confession a little too long and not very assuring.
- Lying on my back with preschoolers during an evening prayer service, looking up through skylights at the night sky and talking about whether the stars are candles that have been lit as prayers to God.
- Sharing a hymnal with a ten year old boy who graciously knows to show me where we are in the hymn after I have briefly stepped away to deal with a mid-worship crisis.
- Chatting about God and salvation with teenagers as they break bread and share the cup celebrating communion together.
I have had some beautiful moments with my son in worship, and as he gets older and less wiggly our good times do outweigh the bad. But I know that my experiences of struggling with my child in worship are not unique, and I know for sure that one of the reasons that worship attendance in my congregation dips so low in the summer is because children stay in worship for the entire service rather than being shipped off to alternative activities after the children’s sermon. I know that for most families it is easier to just not go to church than face the struggles of being in church next to our own children.
A lot of it has to do with our expectations: expectations about how our children should behave in worship (or about how other people think our children should behave) and expectations about what WE as parents are supposed to get out of worship.
Here is how people describe to me their expectations for worship that are affected by having their children with them:
- We expect quiet and moments of reflection, time to be still for at least one moment during a hectic week of parenting.
- We expect to be emotionally and intellectually stimulated.
- We expect to walk away feeling better.
Here is what we expect of our children:
- We expect that they will value our expectations.
Clearly there is a disconnect. We hold such high expectations of them but do little to explain to them what they are and why they are important besides telling them to be still, telling them to be silent, telling them for goodness sake can’t you turn the pages of that book on insects that I allowed you to bring to church this Sunday any quieter?
So why do I feel so differently when I am with other people’s children? Maybe it’s because instead of seeing that time in worship as a time to meet my personal expectations, I see it as an opportunity to share my love for worship with them. I am their pastor; that’s what I am supposed to do.
When I look seriously at my very best moments with my son in worship, I see that they are the times when I didn’t act like his mother, but instead like his pastor – when I stopped caring what anyone else around me thought I was doing and just talked to him about what was happening around us. When I sit with other people’s children, it never crosses my mind to worry that people will think negative things about me because I am engaging with a child during worship. Why should I worry just because it happens to be my child?
What I think this means is that to worship with a child for that season of their lives when they are still learning and growing and coming to understand how and why we do something so counter-cultural as worship means that we might just have to change our expectations for what worship is about for us parents.
What if these were our opportunities instead:
- An opportunity to teach our children about the intricacies of Christian worship, and possibly reconsider its meaning for us as well.
- An opportunity to shape our children into teenagers and adults who want to be in worship with us.
- An opportunity to let the community teach our children about worship by engaging with them and being present in worship with them on a regular basis.
- Maybe even an opportunity to swap families with each other for a Sunday morning, that we might have a chance to practice on each other’s children.
The most important thing that I have learned is that worship is not going to be about meeting my needs for a while – just like I am resigned to the fact that eating in a restaurant with my child will not necessarily be relaxing, that sharing a bathroom with my child will mean that I am constantly wiping down every surface once (twice) a day, and that vacationing with my child is not about creating a dream get-away… at least not yet.
In a practical sense, one way that this has played out for my son and me is that we sit down together during the hymns in our service. I struggled countless times to get him to stand up straight next to me, to hold his half of the hymnal confidently, and to sing out boldly with me. But he would always fuss and rebel…and then I decided that even though 250 other people were standing all around us, it was okay for us to sit together as we sang. My simple act of sitting with him gave him the motivation to pay better attention to the hymn and even to make an effort to sing along. And even though he assures me that this is how he wants to play things out for the foreseeable future, every so often he looks and me and says, “hey, let’s stand for this one,” and worships in exactly the way I would want him to.
This week I asked him if he thinks we will sit together for the hymns when he is 40 and I am 68. He looked and me, winked, and said, “no, probably not.” I am going to hold him to that promise.
Rebecca Kirkpatrick is an ordained Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and has served as Associate Pastor for Children, Youth and Mission at Sunnyside Presbyterian Church in South Bend, IN since 2002. She blogs on children, faith and parenting at www.breadnotstones.com