Ok, to recap, our goal with our children in church is to help them grow as disciples of Jesus by engaging in the gathering. In order to get them there we all need to do our part, including parents training their children for gathered worship. The foundational parts of that training are life skills that children are already learning at home, but they have a particular benefit for deliberate discipleship!
Now we come to the first of three sections that deal with Before Church, During Church and After Church. What can we do before church to help children during church?
As our local agricultural show is arriving, I have observed how some people are preparing for the event. They're working on their entries and excited about the prospect of the competition, if not a little nervous! Their excitement is infectious! Even though I'm not going to be entering or tasting a carrot cake, I feel the excitement of the competition and am looking forward to it.
Excitement and participation is infectious, and families can leverage that in their anticipation of worship. As you look forward to gathering with God's people, and share that excitement with your children, they will have a growing appreciation and anticipation themselves.
You can see this kind of excited anticipation in the psalms, like Psalm 122:
"I was glad when they said to me,
“Let us go to the house of the LORD!” (Ps 122:1).
We will not always be in a cheerful mood, there will be times of sorrow and mourning, but there is a joyfulness that should characterise our approach to worship. It is a joyful privilege to gather with God's people and to "enter" God's house together, and we want our kids to have that joyful desire to join in too.
If you see church as a religious chore, or as low priority, you will inculcate that in your children. They take their cues from parents and learn to love (or hate) what you love (or hate). Data has shown that parents have a huge impact on their children's likelihood of continuing to go to church in adulthood. Fathers have a disproportionate effect, so that means if mum goes to church, but dad doesn't, the children will be more likely to copy dad when they're older.
If this holds true on the matter of attendance, we would probably expect the effect of parents (and particularly fathers) to affect most areas of worship participation. If parents value and look forward to gathering with the saints, it is more likley that their children will too.
You may have to show your children what is going on inside you. It's not always obvious that you're looking forward to, or anticipating the gathering, and so you'll have to show it in some way, perhaps by saying "Billy, do you realise it's Sunday tomorrow? That means we can go to church!"
But don't put on a fake airs. You're not acting for the kid's sake. I hope that as well as regularly gathering out of habit, you'll have your own genuine desire to be there. If not, you may have to see why you're not looking forward to it. You may need to grow in your understanding about why we meet the way we do, and why we do what we do when we're together. If you don't know what's good about church, why would you expect your kids to think it's good?
Tell your kids why it's good to gather with God's people and to have dedicated times of worship. Tell them why it's a wonderful thing to sing with other believers. Wet their appetite to hear the Word of God proclaimed in the assembly.
One of the ways we build anticipation, and smooth the way for a joyful gathering, is by preparing ahead of time.
There is a well known caricature of the family on Sunday morning, you know the one where it was a scramble to get everyone into the car, they're running late, there's and argument on the way there, and everyone puts on smiles just in time to walk through the door...
Well, perhaps days like that will happen, but what if they could be the rare exception instead of the regular occurrence? Preparing ahead of time for your family to go to worship will help your whole family to be better primed to engage in the gathering.
Here are a series of suggestions to help prime your spiritual pump, so that your children (and you) are already firing on all cylinders when you walk through the doors on Sunday morning.
1. Read the passage and learn the songs
At our church we try to make sure that the main reading for the sermon, and the song list, are distributed during the week (with audio links for the music). This means you have an opportunity ahead of time to learn the songs and start meditating on the passage. You could ask your kids some basic questions about the passage, and then compare their answers with what they hear from the pulpit on Sunday.
Kids usually love music, so singing together can be a fun activity that you do as a family to prepare. Familiarise yourselves with the regular songs, learn the new ones ahead of time. Encourage them to learn the words and sing loudly when we come together on Sunday.
You know, lyric sheets or words on the screen are just an aid, it's good to know good songs of worship off by heart! Kids can learn the words to songs long before they can read them!
You may also like to pray for Church with the kids. Pray for new people to hear about Jesus, pray that we would show love to people at church, pray for the musicians and preacher, pray for your own spiritual growth.
2. Put aside time on Saturday to prepare for Sunday morning.
In order to avoid the mad-dash Sunday morning preparations, do it the night before! Give yourself breathing room. Set aside an hour or so to get the clothes sorted, set the table for breakfast, put out anything you need to take with you, etc. These simple preparations smooth the way for an more joyful anticipation of church, so that "Going to church" is not synonymous with "family chaos at 9:55am."
3. Get the children to do their own preparation
This may be alongside your preparation on Saturday. You can do things like get them to pack their bag for church. Put in their Bible, pen, quiet toys, water bottle, etc. This helps them take ownership of their involvement. They're not just at church because Dad & Mum brought them, they prepared their own supplies and came ready for the event!
You may like to set aside special clothes or books or toys as reserved for church. Then preparation involves getting them ready for Sunday. While we know that God is not impressed by our fancy clothes, the benefit of this for the kids is that they see that Church is a special time, set apart from the other time. You wear suits to a wedding, uniform to work/school, tracksuit at home. What we wear signals something about what we're doing and it's level of importance.
4. Make Sunday Morning fun!
Imagine Sunday mornings as a joyful prelude to Church. If we've done our preparations ahead of time, it now means we have breathing room to have a slow start, enjoy a special breakfast, spend time in prayer, enjoy each other's company as a family, and so on. It would be great if your family looked forward to Sundays because they know it is a time of joy and rest from the cares of the world. It would be family time that your kids look back on with appreciation in years to come.
This also means you have plenty of time to get to church a few minutes early, find a seat and start fellowshipping with other believers. You could have a calm and relaxed family ready to be attuned to sing the praises of God.
What child would be ready to engage with church if that morning they have been yelled at, hurried about and stuffed into a seat part way through the service? You get to set the tone and vibe of family life, and what you do in preparation will go a long way to creating a family environment that is conducive to discipleship. Make it a joy to get to church!
When you go to paint your walls the preparation is key. While the main thing you want is to see paint on the walls, if you don't do the work of filling the holes and sanding the rough spots and applying the undercoat, then your paint job is not going to be good quality. If you skip the prep, it may still kind-of work out, but you'll have lumps and maybe the paint will peel in a few places. Better to think ahead and do the preparation long before the paint ever touches the wall. Prepare the hearts and minds of your children so they're ready for church.