Monday, August 12, 2013

The Two-Year-Old Takes Pastor-Dad to Church

Disclaimer: Parents who take children to church weekly are rock stars. Today on vacation I took my two-year-old son to church while the older two went with their mom and grandma to the state fair. 

In everything I write below, keep in mind that a) I only do this once or twice a year, while my wife does this every single week, and b) I only had one of the three (thus, a man-to-man defense), while she takes all three to church every Sunday and solo parents (zone defense).

Which means a) my wife is a superstar and my hero, and b) it's far, far easier to lead worship and preach on Sunday morning than it is to parent children through worship. 

Which takes me back to my original point: Parents who take children to church are rock stars. I offer this play-by-play of church today both as an act of sympathy and as a reflection on the joys and perils of worshipping with children.

Des Moines, Iowa, the East Side: Tucked back in a quaint little residential neighborhood is St. Mark's Episcopal Church. It's a small, low-church Episcopal congregation. They hold one worship service at 10 a.m., which includes Godly Play concurrent with worship.

The two-year-old and I got to church right as the opening hymn was being sung. No one handed me a bulletin, so it was a good thing I knew the liturgy. I had to peak across the aisle to find the hymn # from Gather, and then realized since my son wanted me to hold him and his cracker cup, I couldn't hold a hymnal simultaneously.

So I lip-synced and hummed. This experience, which I've had multiple times, convinced me even traditional worship would benefit from the words of hymns up on a screen.

The son said this at the end of the gathering hymn, "Let's go, dad, let's get out of here." Panic struck. We still had 55 minutes to go!

First, I explained the plan. Often our two-year-old responds remarkable well to good old-fashioned reason. But this time, he asked to leave again, more adamantly.

So we had to implement the slate of coping mechanisms. I started by offering a snack, only to realize he had already eaten his small container of cheesy crackers on the drive to church.

Next, I tried to narrate the service for him. However, we had gotten into the lectionary readings. There's not much to narrate there. Lucky for us, this particular Episcopalian parish has small icons of the stations of the cross all along the back walls (look carefully in the photo and you will see them). So, I walked very slowly from one icon to another narrating the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. This was really compelling, and worked well. There was also a St. John's Bible in the back, which we paged through.

This got us to the reading of the gospel.

This particular church has created a small "soft" area in the very front of the sanctuary for infants and children. It's profoundly welcoming. Although the congregation's average age is probably closer to 65 or 70, they're clearly committed to forming faith in children. If I am ever not pastoring, and I live in a town like Des Moines, I think I'll take my children to a small church. There are major advantages.

For example, the children were addressed repeatedly in worship, both personally by fellow worshippers, by participation in the Rite of Baptism, and warm greetings from worship leaders during the Sharing of the Peace.

Nevertheless, at this point, I had to bring out the big guns.

The iPhone!

First we played Angry Birds, and then Palace Pets, and then Desicable Me. The iPhone is a saving grace for parents during the sermon. Seriously. What did people do during the sermon before iDevices?

The "soft" area in the front of the sanctuary included a blanket with stuffed toys, and a stack of children's books. I read five books to the son while the sermon was going.

Then it was time for the baptism. Again my son wanted to leave. But the priest asked all the children to come forward and gather around the font for the baptism and chrismation. We stood right with the family as the baptism took place. In fact we were so close that after service at the sharing of the peace some people asked if we were part of their family.

This struck me as one of the great joys of church. You can be mistaken as the family of people you have never met before. And you actually are family, in Christ.

After the baptism, we had to try to make it to communion. I can't not stay for communion. So we walked the sanctuary again, climbed into the choir loft and looked over the organ, looked down at the elements on the table as they were consecrated. Snacks are always appealing to our son, so he was willing to stay if he could snack on Jesus.

He also knows the whole Lord's Prayer already, so when we got to that part of the service, he said the whole thing with me. I credit our nightly rehearsal of that prayer. One win for dad.

Then he squirmed out of my arms and used his cracker cup to smash a large spider crawling across the floor near the bima. Sigh. Gonna have to work on the the spirituality of respect for creation.

The newly baptized infant received communion first, a very small piece of wafer and a finger dipped in wine/port. Then we all communed. At the conclusion of communion, I had to hold onto the son long enough for the prayer and blessing. I felt bad delaying our exit, but also felt need of a blessing.

My son was confused why the server would only allow him to give his wafer to her to dip in the cup rather than share the common cup like everyone else. "Why I not drink it?!"

Blessing bestowed, we bolted. Straight out the doors, back into the van, where we watched A Bug's Life on the drive to the mall.

It must be said that the two-year-old was equally impatient at the Genius Bar at the Apple Store (had to get my iPhone 4s repaired)--but I don't blame him, so was I. And the visit to the Apple Store felt strangely sacramental. It was a packed house. The crowd was quite a bit younger. On the way, I drove past the packed and bustling Hope of West Des Moines, the largest and fastest growing church in the ELCA.

But overall the community at Apple felt nervous/anxious. Whereas at that small little church tucked quietly away in an East Des Moines neighborhood, everyone took enough time to share the peace with every single other person, even my son.

I did not pray or meditate like I might when worshipping alone. It was absolutely not a centering or spiritual experience like being on retreat or praying in solitude.

But I did do the best I could to be a good neighbor and father to my son and help him encounter the living Christ through the church's worship. That's a tall order. You're never quite sure whether you're forcing a child to endure something, or taking them through a repeated experience that will form them in faith. Formation and drudgery are close cousins.

Hats off to all of you who do it week in and week out. It's quite a vocation.

My list of things to do more with my children to help my kids worship:

1. Sing more hymns to and with them.
2. Start working on learning the Apostles' Creed.
3. Find iPhone apps for worship. Tips anyone?
4. Hang icons or stations of the cross or bible story art in the house.
5. Learn to dance to hymns.

My list of things to introduce into our worship that may (emphasis on "may") help children and parents:

1. Words up on the screen.
2. More art in the worship space.
3. Less vast expanses of non-engaged passive listening.
4. Seat children up front and make it interactive.
5. Shoot candy from ceiling mounted canons periodically during the service.


  1. Here are my survival skills for taking kids to church (I have 4 kids - the oldest 3 were born in three years - it was hard when they were little) :

    - sit up in front where they can see. Things are much more boring when you can't see what's happening and kids are short.

    - if at all possible, bring or sit with another adult or a teenage kid. Spare hands are priceless.

    - find a church home that likes kids & honestly welcomes then in worship, enough to overlook small kid noises and fidgeting

    And my most successful strategy:
    - make a list of words (or simple pictures for the non-reader) that are likely to be said in the readings and sermon (God, Jesus, love, fish...). During that time, have them make a tally mark next to each word as they hear it. When church is over, give them a penny/sticker/goldfish/m&m/whatever for each tally mark.

    This encourages them to listen and sit (sorta) still during the time it matters most & gives them reward for doing so. I did this till around age 8 or so.

    I also found that NOT bringing juice & snacks into worship was actually better than bringing it. My kids were never actually hungry at the time of worship and these things were more likely to lead to that lovely game of drop-and-fetch kids like to play with food when they aren't hungry. And it was easier to be honestly welcomed (especially in the front rows) when we didn't leave a trail of crumbs & sticky residue. But my kids were particularly busy and destructive - snacks may be a lifesaver for other families.

  2. I also feel that a truly welcoming church, is one that recognizes that families with young kids often have an empty spiritual cup and the have minimal opportunity for it to be filled up again. It should not be the patents of young children who are asked to do nursery duty - rather, those without small children who have many opportunities to worship without distraction should serve as nursery attendants.

    And those of us without young kids should SEE that parent struggling and instead of judging or being annoyed by the noise & motion - offer to hold a squirming toddler or a hymnal, or help in whatever way they can. THIS is what creates that truly welcoming community and gives parents the strength to keep on keeping on through these hard years. And when that little child feels loved and welcome by the other congregants - they grow up feeling the people at church are family. And that's what keeps families coming back.

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  4. Thanks Clint! As a pastor and parent of tiny tots, I really needed to read this today. Being married to another pastor as well, we've always said that we needed the churches we minister to, to be good churches for our whole family as well. Good solid practical tips from you and Melinda as well that I hope we can implement here!