Teaching Youth

The question has only come up a few times in my relatively short ministerial career.  Serving two congregations with overwhelmingly retirement-age parishioners has minimized what I presume must be a common refrain in more diverse congregational demographics.

Why don’t we provide Sunday School during worship?  That way the parents can focus.

Let me say as the father of three, I can empathize with this request.  It sounds so perfect, in so many ways.  My wife still talks about those years when the kids were very young.  Years where she wondered why she bothered to get the kids to church at all, since she spent the whole time dealing with them either in the sanctuary or in a cry room.  Years of mutual frustration.  Her frustration with not being able to pay attention the way she would like, to truly worship the way she would like, and the children’s frustration with an environment and expectations different from the rest of their weekly routine.

So I get the question.  But my answer has always been, and will remain No.  Sunday School won’t be offered during worship.  

I’m not trying to be heartless.  I don’t desire to have others suffer because our family (particularly my wife!) suffered.  I have what I believe are very good reasons for this stance, despite being able to fully empathize with those who make the request.  Increasingly, research  backs up my assertion that separating kids and parents during worship is actually hurtful to the children, rather than helpful.  So here is a quick list of reasons why I won’t agree to Sunday School during worship.

  1. Families should worship together.  Your kids learn by watching you.  They will learn worship by watching you as well.  This will take time.  It will require accommodation.  I can well remember sitting in the balcony at Emmaus Lutheran Church as a small child, doodling on the bulletin.  I also remember that at a certain age, I wasn’t allowed to do that any more.  I was old enough to pay better attention.
  2. Worship must be taught.  We understand that we need to teach children to read and write and count.  Worship needs to be taught just as intentionally.  It is not intuitive, contrary to popular opinion, particularly if the format of worship doesn’t mimic other activities the child is exposed to during the week.  Children learn to sing and dance and have fun by watching videos and listening to music and having fun and silly time with mom and dad.  Where else are they going to learn about how to engage in worship other than in church?  Odds are there is nothing else like worship in their life.  Don’t skip that opportunity for teaching!
  3. This is the parents’ job.  I know that might sound harsh, but it’s true.  It is ultimately not the church’s job to teach your kids to worship.  It is your responsibility.  The church should work with you in this respect, but it cannot replace you.   Sending your children off to Sunday School is not worship.  It might be fun for the kids.  It might be educational.  It certainly would be a relief to you!   But it is not worship.  Make the investment to teach your children to worship.
  4. The worshiping congregation needs children in it.  This may sound a little strange, but I’m convinced that it’s true.  Worship involves our response to the gifts of God, but it is primarily about God’s gifts in Word and Sacrament.  Worship, therefore, is not a production.  It is not supposed to be flawless.  We are flawed!  So when we begin to view small children with their fidgeting and their outbursts and their loud voices as a problem rather than a blessing, we’re beginning to take ourselves too seriously.   This goes for pastors as well as parishioners!

There are things you can do to help this process of teaching your kids to worship.  There are things that you as parents can do to keep yourself sane during this span of several years.

  1. Ask your pastor for help.  Sorry, I can’t sit in the pew with you and help keep your child occupied.  But I can help ensure that there are resources for you to assist you.   Ask your pastor for a copy of the sermon, either an audio recording or the script (if you want to have fun and a good laugh, ask for both and then compare them!).  You might not be able to completely focus on the sermon, but you can read or listen to it another time.  Also, talk with your pastor if you’re picking up negative vibes from the congregation.  If people are making rude comments, etc. the pastor should know about it.
  2. Ask your congregation for help.  You don’t have to do this alone, nor should you.  There are others in the congregation who would no doubt love to sit with you and help occupy your children.  Here’s a wonderful chance for your children to begin building important relationships with members of the congregation!  Here’s a chance for some older children in the congregation to sit with you and help both model appropriate church behavior and interact with your kids, taking some of the pressure off of you.  You  can also ask your congregation to provide crayons or pencils and Bible coloring pages to help occupy your kids.
  3. Ask your spouse for help.  The challenge of teaching children to worship should be a joint effort between mom and dad.  Try to share those duties evenly, and be willing and able to talk with your spouse about how they could be of help to you, or to find out how you could be of better help to them.  Strategize.  I suspect Jesus may have such strategizing in mind when He gives his enigmatic exhortation in Matthew 10:16.
  4. Know when to walk out.  For most parents, when their child does something in church the effect is amplified ten-fold above what the actual impact/noise really is.  We’re naturally a bit on the jumpy side trying to keep our kids as still as possible, as quiet as possible.  Outbursts are going to happen.  A child who talks to loud needs to be reminded to whisper.  Fidgety children need to be taught how to sit more quietly and occupy themselves as necessary.  Don’t immediately resort to leaving the sanctuary with your child for fear of disturbing everyone else.  People can deal with these sorts of things.  However, there will be times when you just need to walk out with your child.  Hopefully your church has a cry room or other area where you can still hear the service but the congregation can’t hear your child.  If your child launches into a major fit (and you know when that’s happening!), then it’s time to take them to the cry room.  Go and nurse them if necessary.  Talk them through whatever the melt-down is about.  This demonstrates respect both for  the congregation and for your child.  Once the situation has been resolved though, return to the sanctuary.  Don’t stay in the cry room once your child has calmed down!

Worshiping together as a family takes hard work.  But I think it is hugely important for parents, for children, and for congregations that families worship together.  I think failure to recognize this contributes in some way to the waning interest in church among younger people.  I think the benefits of families worshiping together far outweigh the difficulties.




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