All right, now we're finally at the stage where we can talk about some practical ideas for integrating our children into the church service itself. We've taken some time to get here, but it is important to lay that groundwork to prepare the way.
Let's summarise what we need in place:
So let's imagine it now. You're at church on Sunday morning, you got there a few minutes early to get seats and you're all ready to go. What now? How do we help our children with what comes next?
I suggest we need to find age appropriate ways to "onboard" and grow their faith and practice week by week. Let me lay out some principles for how to do this.
Just like adults, children benefit from understanding the shape and flow of a church service. Every church has a liturgy, it's just a matter of finding out what it is. For historic denominations, usually there's a standard that is copied across churches. For modern seeker sensitive churches, they may look like they don't have a liturgy but if you go several weeks in a row you will start to see it emerge. They just don't like to show it off. So, get to grips with what your church's liturgy is, and help your kids see it too. Nothing done in the worship gathering should be by accident, and it should all flow out of God's Word.
If you talk about the what and why of church at home, then the kids can see the confirmation at church. You could even whisper to them during the service "remember how we talked about this yesterday?" to help them connect the pieces together.
You may like to prepare a "bingo" sheet of all the things that happen at church, like call to worship, intercessory prayer, confession, bible reading, singing, preaching, benediction/closing prayer, etc. Then as you move through the service, prompt the children to mark off what happened. In this way they're learning both the components and it helps them feel like things are happening (even if they don't understand everything that's happening). It won't be exactly the same order every week, but the children should start to observe a pattern of how things normally go.
Every part of the service is for every Christian. There's no age distinction. That being said, somone should only participate in the Lord's Supper when they are baptised and are able to "examine themselves" and "discern the body [of Christ]" (see 1 Corinthians 11:27–32). That means there will be a maturity thing going on there.
So apart from that one partial exception, every part of the service can be engaged by children at an age appropriate level.
Children can sing
Children can listen to God's Word
Children can pray
Children can say hello
Children can say Amen
And so on..
As your child grows you can help them to engage at increasingly greater levels. A 3 year old can be learning to make noise while singing, a 5 year old should be trying sing the words they know, a 7 year old should be able to say after the service "Mum, what's an Ebenezer? We sang about that today." This is just an example, but I'm sure you get the drift.
Initially integration will be just surface level, but our kids need to be immersed in it to learn it, and then as their heart is changed by Spirit and Word they will have all they need to be fully engaged with worshiping God in the assembly.
You're helping your children reach that day when they are confessing their sins with the rest, where they are singing praises to God from the heart, they're joyfully hearing what God has to say to His Church and they are encouraging other believers with God's truth.
Teach, example, encourage and correct.
Lets play out a worked example of this with singing:
• We sing because God tells us to (Ephesians 5:18–21)
• We sing because it is the worshipful response of our hearts to God (Psalm 7:17, 84:2)
• We sing to encourage and teach others (Colossians 3:16)
• Sing with your kids at home
• Sing loudly in church
• Enjoy it!
• Ask the children to sing with you,
• Look at them and smile while you sing,
• Praise them for trying,
• Tell them you loved it when they joined in,
• Tell them what a blessing they are to others when they sing,
Correct (age appropriate)
• Tell them to pay attention to singing, as opposed to playing, fiddling with zippers, etc.
• When they have some singing ability, you may need to let them know when they're out of key, off beat, etc. Not because you're singing for technical excellence, but because we want to improve and do our best for God.
As much as you may be teaching and preparing your children for good quality engagement with the activity and content of church, don't forget to extend grace. The kids will still mess up. There will still be off weeks. You will feel sometimes like you're regressing. But remember that just like yourself, they need grace and patience too. We're trying to help them move forward in discipleship, not force them into a box of what we imagine the perfect child to look like. Help the kids to see their mistakes, help them to repent from them, and extend forgiveness, even when they embarrass you!
Lastly, let me close out this section with a rapid fire bunch of advice or practical considerations you may like to take on board.
Bible - you may like to have the child open a bible, even if they can't read it. Show them where the passage is. Older kids can practice finding the passage as they grow more familiar with the layout of the scriptures, and eventually read along.
Prayer - Teach children adopt a posture of prayer (head bowed, eyes closed, hands together). This won't make the prayer more holy, but it helps with understanding what "time" it is. A prayer posture can be a mental shortcut to quiet listening, plus with hand together and eyes closed, its easier to avoid distraction.
Singing - Stand on a chair (with parental help) to observe the room, see those you're singing with.
During Preaching - draw pictures of what you hear, as you get older write down the main points, then learn to take notes on bible interpretation and application that you heard.
Younger children during sermon - if you're using the "mat time" technique, bring your mat to church with some quiet toys (i.e. soft, no sound effects). Save the mat for the preaching time, so that the time on it is for a shorter period, making it easier for them to cope.
Greeting time - If your church has a greeting or break partway through the service, use this as a "pressure release" moment for the kids who struggle to sit still. Let them move around, make a little noise, then come back and reset for the second half of the service.
Lord's Supper - If your child is baptised and able to "examine themselves" and "discern the body [of Christ]" (see 1 Corinthians 11:27–32), then parents should lead their children through what they're doing. Pray with them and point them to Jesus as they partake.
Fellowship - Learn to say hello, learn people's names. Yes kids will often be shy initially, but as they grow and get to know their spiritual family they will learn to interact with their brothers and sisters. For some kids there is a shyness that is actually covering up a sin of rebellion, you may have to do some extra work to overcome it. Some kids have mental barriers that affect their ability to communicate or read social clues, so remember to be understanding and don't just assume.
Service - learn to participate in age appropriate ways. For instance set things up or put things away, serve MT (when old enough), help with AV desk, play music. Parents should lead by example on this front (just like all the other areas). Praise their efforts.
There could be other things to say, but I can't think of any more right now! Hopefully you're seeing that there's no one thing that will make everything wonderful, and that the principle of being intentional goes a long way toward help our children in this area.