So, we have in mind our goal of helping our Children grow into discipleship, including as part of the church gathering. We understand that this is a group effort, involving God, the church, parents, and the child themselves.
Just a quick note here, if we are serious about "not hindering" our children coming to Jesus, then we need to be serious about giving them what they need in order to grow in faith. If we could put it bluntly, it's all well and good to admonish our children to "run to Jesus" but if we do not teach them how to run, our admonitions are in vain!
This leads me to the start of our practical steps that integrate children into our worship - Home Foundations. As I have already mentioned, this is all with the understanding that it is an ongoing process that unfolds as children grow, taking into account their limitations. These are not biblical commands, but logically we understand that something like the following is required in the life of the child in order for us to fulfil the biblical admonitions.
When children are born, they do not speak English. Shock! Yes this is blatantly self-obvious, but this principle is key. Children learn language and grow in understanding. They learn it from people around them by observation and by practice, and by specific moments of correction, for instance: "It's yellow, not lellow. Can you try and say yellow with me? Good try, you almost had it!"
We need to learn language in order to be able to clearly communicate with one another, and we need language in order to be able to commune with God & His People! God's special revelation is through language. And while we know that God can work in the hearts in a way that transcends language, the ordinary means that God uses to speak and shape his people is by His message carried through language. First it was through Hebrew, then Aramaic then Greek, and now has been translated into many different languages, of which English is most relevant to us.
If we think about language this way, it's not just a tool for our kids to be able to "get on" in the world as adults, this is so that they can understand what God is saying to them. On top of this, language skills help people use their tongues to build up others and to praise God. Equipping your children with language skills enables them to not only be recipients of the Gospel, but proclaimers themselves! Language is of much benefit in every way!
Thinking somewhat metaphorically now, as we come into the gathering of believers in worship of God, we must also learn the language of faith. We need to know what it is to pray, to praise, to confess, to receive, to consecrate. If we do not have the language of worship, it is as though dropped into a room of people speaking a different language. Is it any wonder that the uninitiated would be lost and grow disinterested if every Sunday morning they are plunged into a incomprehensible world?
If children are learning the language of worship at home, then they enter into a familiar world when they gather with the church. You can start small, teach that prayer is talking to God. We say "Amen" to end prayer. Reading the Bible is God teaching us. And so on. Then you can move to more complex topics as your children grow.
What to do:
• Equip your children with language so that they can hear God, and share His Word.
• Equip your children with the language of worship.
Now, you are likely tempted to think that language skills are a basic life skills that people will learn anyway, and you would be right! And so will be the foundations that follow! But here's the point, we ought to think Christianly about these foundational matters and see how they are important aspects in a life of faith in general, and specifically important in church life.
One of the things that children learn is the appropriateness of different activities in different time. Usually when a baby is born there is a time of adaption, as they are integrated into the rhythms of the world like day and night, sleep and feed. It is to the consternation of many a parent when a baby seems to be unwilling to adapt to beneficial rhythms!
Yet as children grow, they understand greater and greater divisions of time, and in fact most children thrive in environments where time is clearly divided and they can anticipate what happens next. You sleep, then you eat, then you brush your teeth, then you play...
We also begin to understand that there are some activities that are appropriate in some circumstances but not others. There are also conversation topics that are appropriate in some circumstances and not others.
As Children approach church, they need to be taught about the timing and the appropriateness of the time. There will be times for playing, times for sitting and listening, times for standing and singing, times for eating, and so on. We can impress upon our children the importance and priority of worship by separating and preparing for the time of Chruch. If you treat it just like any other outing, your kids will think that the Gathering is just like any other ordinary moment of the week.
What to do:
• Teach your children that there are different times for different activities
• Teach your children that Church is a special time for your family
This is probably one of the areas that most parents either feel like they're failing, or they feel like it is an impossibly high bar to expect children to sit still. Well I have good news for both groups!
First remember that it is a journey towards a destination. Like other areas where we teach our children there will be weeks where it seems like great strides are taking place, and then others where it feels like all your work has been undone! But don't lose faith because there's been a failure, what we want to be able to do is step back and see a trajectory of improvement. If there is no trajectory, we may need to re-evaluate our strategy.
Next, the other piece of good news is that unless your child has significant impediments, they can learn to be quiet and sit still for a time. And before you are tempted to explain how your child has "significant impediments" let me remind you that the vast majority of children do not have those impediments and even the most active young boy or vocalising young girl can learn this valuable skill.
But, let me warn you, it is a losing battle to try and teach this for only 2 hours on a Sunday. Like language above, it is something that needs to be learnt at home so that it can be a blessing at church. It would almost be cruel to never expect our children to be quiet and still, except at church.
This skill, like the others is a beneficial life skill in general, and can be the difference between your home being a chaotic mess all the time, or only sometimes. If your child will go to school or lessons or even homeshool, then they will need this skill anyway, so working on it for the sake of their church participation will reap many other benefits.
Let me share my families' strategy. We start with our kids when they are old enough to sit in a high chair. After some meals there is a time of stationary quiet play. This can be extended gradually to longer intervals. For our young children we currently have about 10 minutes of "reading time" after breakfast where our 3 year old "reads" books and our 1 year old plays with soft toys at the table.
This is then followed later in the day by "mat time", where each of the children has learned to sit on a small mat on the ground and play quietly. Then on Sundays, those mats are taken to church and the children have "mat time" during the sermon. Initially when the child is learning to move it can be hard to learn the timing (see above) around when I can crawl about, and when I must stay still. But once the principle is learned it is just a matter of practicing it regularly and stretching their ability to play quietly in a small area to larger chunks of time.
Now this is not stifling the children, it is only providing different boundaries at different times. There are always boundaries for the children (places they can't go, things they can't touch, etc) but at this time it is limited to a clearly delineated space and noise level. And plus, it's only for maybe an hour a day. Out of all their waking hours, it's ok to reserve a portion of it for quiet stationary play.
When the time comes our children will move away from play during that time, to more active listening/learning tasks (at home or church), but we're not there yet.
Now you may think, "I missed my chance, my children are much older now." But here's the thing, although the specifics may look different, you could implement a similar pattern with any child who struggles to sit still. You can start with small manageable blocks of daily play time and move gradually to longer and more concentration intensive blocks. You know your kids and you'll know when to push them and when to have a lighter touch. With muscles in your body, strength grows through repetition and regularly approaching your current limits. So too you can lovingly lead your children through daily reps with times where their limits are pushed so that they can grow.
Imagine the fruit of having this ability bedded down in your family: there would be times of quiet during the day when mum can read her Bible, you could go to an appointment without the kids tearing up the waiting room, and your family could have the opportunity to hear more of the sermon on Sunday.
It's not a silver bullet, and we certainly have had our fair share of laxity on this front, but I'm convinced that with some hard work on quiet sitting still at home, we all will reap the benefits in the gathered assembly, family life and personal self control. We have noticed that when we have put in the work as a family we see the benefits, and vice versa, when we have been less consistent we all struggle together.
What to do:
• Starting at home, teach your children to sit quietly for a time.
• Stretch their limits periodically to grow their ability.
We don't want kids to just "sit down and shut up", we want them to be able to receive the Word. The quiet sitting, as helpful as it is, is not an end in itself. It is a foundation on which to build other skills, including listening.
Listening is a key component of language learning, but it deserves a little special attention because "Faith comes by hearing."
While early on we don't expect children to pay attention to much of what is being said at church, eventually they will need to make the transition from just seeing what's going on around them to hearing it all. This includes hearing the sung words and greetings as well as the Word of God.
People are often surprised at how much their kids hear without seemingly paying attention. The fact that folks regularly underestimate how much their kids hear should tip us off to the fact that even from a young age our children can be encouraged to listen well.
Like the rest, this is a skill that needs to be learned at home. Our instinctual desires to check-out when we're not interested in what someone is saying will eventually have to give way to "Billy, pay attention when someone is speaking to you!" Yet more than just having good manners, active listening is an important skill to be able to concentrate on and receive communication. In the case of Church, it is hearing God's law, His correction, His promises, His mercy, His love, His Gospel.
Like sitting still, active listening takes time to grow. Initially it is hard to pay attention for 5 minutes, but we can practice and expand our ability to listen for longer periods of time. No one is expecting 2 year olds to hear every part of a Bible reading, but a 5 year old should be able to give cliff notes on what they heard. We'll talk more about how to aim for this in church, but here I will say that in terms of home foundations you can create exercises that build up listening ability, maybe games like Simon Says. As writing skills increase this could be practiced with dictation exercises. Listening and memory training is another one of those things that is hugely helpful across life, but has a particular benefit in the gathered church.
What to do:
• Equip your children to listen well.
• Practice listening to God's Word and repeating back what it says.
We could highlight more foundational skills, but I hope you're getting the drift. Take life skills that your children will be learning anyway, and intentionally support their growth in these areas in such a way that they are better equiped to gather with the Saints and participate in worship and discipleship.