Let the little children come

cross toddlerYesterday was dominated by a Baptism service for two babies (noting that a Baptism service is for the glory of God, like every church service) up at our biggest church. We were expecting about 160 people, a rough count gave us 180 people there, and there wasn’t a seat left in the place (except for next to the organist on his bench, but I don’t think he’d have thanked me). Two lovely families. Two families wanting to come and bring their latest additions for baptism. Our benefice operates a generous baptism policy – the incumbent was charged by a bishop long ago to “baptise promiscuously” and has done so with enthusiasm ever since.

I love baptism services. I love being able to tell a Bible story in a way that people enjoy – I generally use a Children’s Bible and wander up and down showing pictures, often adding comments to the story. I love being able to relax the parents and godparents. I love pointing out to worried parents that as long as they keep their children away from matches, there is nothing a child can do that some enterprising little darling hasn’t already done in the church before (the advantage of old churches). I love being able to use the oil, the water, the physical symbols, to point to spiritual truths. Yep, I love it. Exhausting, but love it.

And then I came home to one of the saddest Twitter conversations I think I’ve had about church. Mothers of young children, mothers of children who used to be young, talking about their reception in church, not for special services, but Sunday by Sunday. I’m not trying to be sexist here, it’s purely that there weren’t any fathers in the discussion. Mothers who want to be part of church themselves, and who want their children to grow up in a church community. Mothers who are tired, frazzled after a week of family, being wife, mother, housekeeper, gardener, often with part time or full time paid employment too. Mothers for whom time is at a premium. Mothers who, like any other Christian, need to be feed, nutured and cared for by the local church.

I used to think that I was grumpily unique in my church experience. I showed up with a small baby under my arm and was pointed to the creche. It was a rug at the back of church, separated from the church nave by glass doors. There were some “well loved” toys. And there I sat. I’d like to say I stuck it out. And I sort of did – enough to become a vaguely recognised face. By the time second child arrived I was part of the creche furniture, on the creche rota. No-one noticed that I didn’t go except when it was my rota’d week. Because bluntly, for the first year, I could play and sit more comfortably in my own home. About then, they put a loudspeaker in the baptistry so that we could hear the service. It made it slightly better. But if ever I tried to walk into the main body of the church, apart from going up to receive communion, I got the looks. The ones which said “they’d better be quiet”. And if either child uttered a sound, I would take them out again. We usually made it to the start of the first lesson.

I had a row with a PCC Member who told me “I didn’t come to church to be disturbed by your children”. The only response I could think of was “I don’t bring my children to church so that they can disturb you”.

The only solution I found was that my children got older. But I had five years of going to church because I thought I ought to be making the effort with my children (remember that Baptism service above? The parents and Godparents promise to bring up the children in the Christian community.) Five long years of feeling as though I was a pain, a disruptive influence, part of a family that was endured rather than welcomed. That same church was one of the most welcoming to adults I have encountered. It is full of caring loving people, who genuinely want to help the Kingdom of God to grow.

I don’t know what the answer is. I know that sitting right next to a determinedly screaming toddler is a hideous experience. But mostly they don’t. I know that having toddlers running up and down the aisle is horribly distracting for some. But there has to be a way of feeding mums and dads, of welcoming children to normal services (how else will they learn to participate in normal services – should they learn or should the services change? Discuss.

This subject worries me more and more. I know that I can, with the help of a wonderful sidesperson, a gifted organist, and the divine intervention of the Holy Spirit, deliver a stonkingly good baptism service in which everyone feels welcome, from great grandparents to bumps. But how can I transfer that welcome into “ordinary” church, Sunday by Sunday?

Advertisements

27 responses to “Let the little children come

  1. So, this made me think about the church I have recently joined (http://carrvillemethodist.org.uk). The children are in the main service for a substantial segment of the service, and the preacher(s) seem to go out of their way to include the children, or respond well to “interruptions”. There is also children’s activities and a superb all-age service where children generally seem to be encouraged to e.g. build things (often with help from a retired member of the congregation), and one thing I’d love to see elsewhere – there’s a moneybox in the shape of a house that comes around at the beginning of the month, carried by the kids – and people put in a coin and say “it’s nana’s birthday this month” or some such – and that money supports a charity. If a child doesn’t want to participate, not pushed… although people do still sometimes take their child out, but the ‘stares’ are not something I’ve noticed… wry smiles maybe!

  2. Trying to think what http://ccwinch.org.uk was like. 930 service was largely designated as the family friendly service .. and an extensive range of kids activities offered – so parents could partake in the service whilst others looked after your kids …not sure what age that started…

  3. Claire, I wonder how much the congregation has been challenged to think about what they are modeling in terms of Christian welcome? Quite often adults have no realisation that children (and parents) pick up on the words and actions that don’t mirror the love of Christ.
    Have you spoken with your Diocesan Children’s Adviser – s/he may well have some useful suggestions to make, or may be able to challenge the congregation in a way that isn’t always easy for the ‘home team’.

  4. This is a story of powerlessness and marginalisation that is repeated all over the place – and it is to our shame as disciples of Jesus. Where’s our guts? our verve? our passion for justice? Who will speak up and call the church on their poor, pitiful and pathetic grumbling? Over a number of years of consulting in churches that say they want to welcome children and families it has come down to this question for me. Things need to change – the way we do what we do excludes most people, even those who acquiesce to it, and sit quietly. Children who are active in our midst – who want to run and jump and touch and ask questions remind us what faith should look like – active, inquiring, curious, risk taking, unashamed, uninhibited.

    The path forward for the health of the whole church, not just the sake of children and mothers, is in a radical reorientation of the church back to interactive communal cross-generational encounters of faith sharing, story sharing, and rituals of joy, peace and rememberance.
    We have invested in sermons and mostly passive prayers for all of these years – and look at the church – sick and dying, flaccid and ineffectual. We can clearly see the outcome of sermons week after week and its not healthy, courageous disciples. When we give up this foolishness?

    In curating gatherings for celebrating faith of all ages – occasionally people have, in anticipation been anxious – and said ‘Don’t do that! Don’t not have a sermon; don’t lead us in something interactive! We’re used to sermons! We’ll be uncomfortable.”
    To which I have learned to answer: ‘Are you going to stop following Jesus if I do this?’

    And usually they raise themselves up, indignant and defensive: “Of course not! I’ve been a Christian for 50 years!”

    “Great! I say – because if anything I did was going to stop you following Jesus, I would desist immediately. But as you are going to keep following – and this just might give some others the chance to join you and I in following – let’s go ahead with it.”

    This has to be the only criteria on which the church is configured – the making of disciples. It’s all Jesus asked us to do.

    The practicalities of how to facilitate such a time are in lots of resources – every teacher knows how to lead a group in sharing their stories, moving through a process together, empowering those who need encouragement as well bringing the best out of those who have much to offer without overcoming the less robust.

    Be bold and very courageous RevClaire. If you know how to do this – as you said – do it! every week! Call the bluff of the PCC and the Steely-stares. They are not made of anything but chaff. There is absolutely nothing to lose.

  5. Reblogged this on multivocality and commented:
    This is a story of powerlessness and marginalisation that is repeated all over the place – and it is to our shame as disciples of Jesus. Where’s our guts? our verve? our passion for justice? Who will speak up and call the church on their poor, pitiful and pathetic grumbling? Over a number of years of consulting in churches that say they want to welcome children and families it has come down to this question for me. Things need to change – the way we do what we do excludes most people, even those who acquiesce to it, and sit quietly. Children who are active in our midst – who want to run and jump and touch and ask questions remind us what faith should look like – active, inquiring, curious, risk taking, unashamed, uninhibited.

    The path forward for the health of the whole church, not just the sake of children and mothers, is in a radical reorientation of the church back to interactive communal cross-generational encounters of faith sharing, story sharing, and rituals of joy, peace and rememberance.
    We have invested in sermons and mostly passive prayers for all of these years – and look at the church – sick and dying, flaccid and ineffectual. We can clearly see the outcome of sermons week after week and its not healthy, courageous disciples. When we give up this foolishness?

    In curating gatherings for celebrating faith of all ages – occasionally people have, in anticipation been anxious – and said ‘Don’t do that! Don’t not have a sermon; don’t lead us in something interactive! We’re used to sermons! We’ll be uncomfortable.”
    To which I have learned to answer: ‘Are you going to stop following Jesus if I do this?’

    And usually they raise themselves up, indignant and defensive: “Of course not! I’ve been a Christian for 50 years!”

    “Great! I say – because if anything I did was going to stop you following Jesus, I would desist immediately. But as you are going to keep following – and this just might give some others the chance to join you and I in following – let’s go ahead with it.”

    This has to be the only criteria on which the church is configured – the making of disciples. It’s all Jesus asked us to do.

    The practicalities of how to facilitate such a time are in lots of resources – every teacher knows how to lead a group in sharing their stories, moving through a process together, empowering those who need encouragement as well bringing the best out of those who have much to offer without overcoming the less robust.

    Be bold and very courageous RevClaire. If you know how to do this – as you said – do it! every week! Call the bluff of the PCC and the Steely-stares. They are not made of anything but chaff. There is absolutely nothing to lose.

  6. Brilliant, & thanks for the challenge at the end so those of us who think we do good children’s services are made to think about how we really embed that in the culture of our churches.
    This should be compulsory reading for every regular churchgoer. I love the way you point to the Baptism promise about raising children in the church community. I think that is the key to helping churches understand why this is so important.

  7. In an ideal world, I don’t think parents of the children should be on the creche rota (though I know that doesn’t work for all children). Like you, I thought if all I’m going to do is sit with my children, I may as well be at home. Alternatively, if there are several parents it can become a very supportive group – almost even a Housegroup.
    Reflecting on my experiences I try and foster an almost adoptive “grandparent” role. So there is supportive relationship with parents and the children all the time, so they will come and sit with us in church, to give their parents 5 minutes space. It also offers support outside church too and helps build community.

  8. Thanks for the post – I like the sound of your baptism service. I just wanted to add a dad’s voice too!

    We (my wife and I along with three under 5s) go to a church in Sheffield that is excellent on this front, we have rooms we can go to with the kids if needs be and there are groups on for kids that run every other week or so. But the need to leave the main service is very much if parents feel the need, rather than because we get evil looks. The vicar / curate are both very good at responding to children moving around the church, they either embrace it or ignore it depending on what is most appropriate.

    I am very aware, however, that this isn’t always the case in churches. We have been to a few where children are stared at till parents take them out and so on.

    I guess for what is a very long comment I don’t actually have much to say – but I wanted to say thanks, and let’s try and find the solution!

    Your slight aside of :

    “how else will they learn to participate in normal services – should they learn or should the services change? Discuss.”

    is the key thing for me – there needs to be discussion on this! Lots of it. Well – maybe not lots of discussion – but lots of working out the best ways of running / doing / being church for all involved.

  9. Have been in a number of different churches, so seen different things. Also other half was a minister for 22yrs, he has a fab tolerance level for general children noise & it never bothers him. Also we had disabled teen in one church who used to moan with increasing volume, o/h used to drop his preaching voice level & teen calmed down (hope it helped parents feel included, will never know as they left on another issue!)
    As tinies ours were in crèche for whole service until age 3, which might be OK in larger churches in staffing the rota (I was only ever on rota in emergency.) The ‘adoptive’ grandparent/auntie & uncle model is a great thing, giving parents a break, but takes time for trust to be built. Works well whatever size of church.
    Our current church has a 15 ish minute worship slot at the beginning & also after children leave there is a purposeful 10 min worship prayer slot, so returning parents can engage in this if it was unsuccessful first time round. There seems to be less tolerance & more criticism for the all age service, hey ho! I do see a number of the young mums being either prayed for or hugging each other at the end of services. But I don’t have experience as an incoming mother of tinies here, so it’s only what I see.
    In one of our churches it was suggested by a few that children who persisted on running around & disrupting should be wearing their slippers… and that by far is the daftest solution ever heard.

  10. I’ve just stopped bothering to go: my wife does some of the stewarding and on those weeks I end up trying to keep three young and rather restless boys still so I don’t get the Grumpy Looks. I made suggestions in different meetings and they all got ignored or told the children ‘should go somewhere else where they don’t disturb us’.
    So now we do: offto th allotment, or to the woods to watch the buzzards, or for a bike ride, or….

    Makes Sundays much less stressful, I can tell you.

  11. all of this rings so many bells… I was asked, after my 2-year-old son had spent the entire service very quietly stacking up kneelers and unstacking them again in the pew we were in (no-one else was in that pew) “How old is it?” yes – “it”!!! I replied “2” and was told firmly that I shouldn’t expect to go to church until the child was 5, that I should stay at home with the child until then.
    I told the Rector on the way out and he immediately put things into motion for a creache – to be manned by me, and any other mums who dared to bring their children. eventually there were half a dozen of us, but there wouldn’t have been any if I’d not been prepared to do that.
    That was 32 years ago. Sadly, it isn’t always much different – recently an elderly member of the congregation I now attend told me resignedly that the couple of 10-year-olds who occasionally drift in to be with their friend (who is mentally mildly handicapped and comes with his mum occasionally) are “the cross we have to bear”!!
    Needless to say, when they’re there I sit with them and attempt to help them to engage in what’s going on.
    In the recent past I’ve been in a church which has a children’s corner, books, quiet toys, carpet, low tables and chairs, colouring stuff… and parents sit near there with their children if they want to. And if a toddler suddenly takes off and runs across the church and maybe climbs the chancel steps, everyone smiles. And if the officiating clergyperson is the retired midwife, she’s probably delivered the mother and father (!) and knows the child by name and says “hello. have you come to help me?” and then carries on… not sure how they became so tolerant – they already were when we first went there 27 years ago.

  12. Fantastic post, and makes me thank God that I’ve been in some fab church’s and church plants. When we move here, our under three used to dance in the isle during the worship songs, but he was also taught to sit still-ish with us when appropriate, and once 3 started children’s groups. There was (and still is) often a ‘think-spot’ children’s talk before the kids go out – often the adults get as much or more from that than the sermon. We also have pew bags these days. There was/is a creche, but we only used it intermittently feeling it important to get DS used to being ‘in church’. Fidgity babies are often passed round, rocked at the back, taken out for nappy changes. We have a Mum with twins attending at present, and she only has one set of arms, but the girls have lots of cuddles off the rest of us as appropriate. As a leader/preacher you talk over the noise, include the rambling ones if at all possible, and remember that along with our two mentally handicapped adult regulars they should be just as much part of our praying community as the rest of us. We are after all, ALL made in the image of God.

    Equally we know the difficulties faced by those who sit by the parents of disruptive children, and sometimes yes, taking the kids out to let of steam and noise in the churchyard or similar is the appropriate thing to do, if other distraction techniques like jangling the church keys for them to play with, haven’t worked!

    We shouldn’t condemn parents by look, gesture or words, but there is an element of responsibility for the parents to accept that sometimes they will need to remove themselves and a child from part of a service, and to bring up children to understand what ‘shhhh sit still’ means.

  13. Our church has a 9 o’clock service, led by 5 groups, its all-age and most times the children go out to groups, toddlers upwards and the adults have group time for discussion groups too. We have banners to wave, instruments to use and encourage a more informal style, with less jargon/religious language, children dancing in the aisles is common. We don’t always get it right, we are volunteers! We try to review the service regularly as a group.

    Some parents feel they are missing out on not being able to worship as fully in other models of service, this is because ‘sermon type slots’ are brief, we are limited to 55 minutes, also some have said that maybe another service/church would be preferable – but because their children feel welcomed and included they will continue.

    We had an EasterIngle service on Good Friday using the concept of a funeral service, remembering Jesus, there was participation, craft, writing etc during that time for all not just children. Not a quiet Good Friday – this did not go down well with all the congregation – but children and families had rarely been to that service in previous years – next year maybe 2 types of service will be required. Easter Sunday was led in part by our teenagers, one quite forthright young theologian was able to put her views across – not everyone agreed either!
    Generally we try to involve and welcome children and families, we have a broad church theologically and age-wise, and although we don’t always get it right we keep trying!

  14. You’ve really started something with this, Claire. It has been reposted by lots of my own FB contacts and there are literally hundreds of comments in at least 25 different threads! Cannot keep up with them all.
    But it is a crucial area, which is seldom got right and – what is more important from my own experience – what is appropriate in one church is simply not guaranteed to be OK elsewhere.
    Thanks for grasping the nettle and getting everyone talking & sharing.

  15. A further thought: if baptisms are separated out from the body of Christ that should welcome these little one’s into our fellowships, are we not only limiting the understanding of church provided to the family (good and bad bits) but also limiting the teaching opportunities we make available to our regular congregations, who obviously in some cases need to be encouraged to be more welcoming and experience God’s grace more holistically themselves? Basically if we don’t model it, it wont happen.

    This I think is one of the unexpected (to me at least) benefits of our Baptism preparation system ‘Encounter’ where the practice of hospitality on the part of the ‘regulars’ is key. The details of which are here http://ramtopsrac.wordpress.com/2011/10/04/encounter-baptism-and-thanksgiving-preparation/

  16. Great blog, thank you. I once had the experience of a clergyperson say, during her sermon something along the lines of ‘I’ll just wait for a moment whilst that child is taken out’. These days I would have walked out. Back then I didn’t have the confidence I do now. I was, however, shocked and I still remember it to this day. I state in the intro to Baptisms and other services where there are a good number of children ‘don’t worry about the noise – I have a microphone and the volume can be turned up or down!’ and likewise the comment about children exploring the church. I’d almost like people to be more irritated because there was general noise because more children were coming to church!

  17. Sorry if this comes tangentially….

    Our church is a small UPA. In our regular congregation we have two children. One is fourteen one is eight. I operate a wholly inclusive policy around church. I spent a lot of time talking with eight year old about his faith. I’ve tried to include him in everything. He is our tech support. That’s right, an eight year old runs our computer on a Sunday morning. By himself. On Easter Day at the baptismal renewal bit after the blessing of the water in the font I asked if anyone wanted to be baptised. He said “yes”. It was a wonderful moment.

    The fourteen year old serves the altar. Over the past couple of months I asked PCC (who were asking for a few new people ‘serving chalice’) if she could be on the list we sent to the Bishop. It makes no sense that she is effectively deaconing the altar and yet not then trusted to then take the chalice to the congregation. They whole heatedly agreed and her certificate from the Bishop was given her on Sunday. This now speaks of the “church of today” not the “church of tomorrow”. They lead various bits of the service if it is appropriate…. Kyrie confessions for example and I’ll then pronounce the absolution.

    When the scouts/cubs/beavers come we have been using the second children’s eucharistic prayer. I’ve been and spoken to the troup about what goes on and admittance to communion if they are baptised. Some do. Some want a blessing. They have been asking the questions as we gather around the table together. It is all really inclusive.

    The problem comes when we randomly have 10 babies in church. It occasionally happens. Randomly. Not the big baptism families coming – that we know about and are prepared for. We just can’t predict the occasions when we will have a bunch of kids we weren’t expecting to outnumber the normal, loving, caring, inclusive, growing congregation. So what do you all advise?

    [I’ve saved a couple of the links above but I’m trying not to think too hard about it on my first day of holiday since licensing six months ago]

  18. This blog made my heart ache for every parent who has suffered this.
    I have a standard introduction which I use when there are children present who aren’t normally there:
    “There are special rules for children in church”
    [at this point there are usually some startled looks and frowns]
    “Rule 1: the pews are hard, so if you’re uncomfortable, you MUST get up and run around.
    Rule 2: adults are big and get in the way, so you MUST stand up on the pew to get a better view, or move around till you can see what’s going on.
    Rule 3: sometimes the Vicar goes on a bit and gets boring: you MUST make a loud noise to remind him to get on with it”
    [by now, there are smiles and visible relaxing]
    I only do this when there are visitors, because the regulars already know!

  19. As a mum of an 8 month old, here are a few things that make it easier for me…

    being made to feel welcome in the service i.e. hearing from the front that its not the end of the world if the little one makes a bit of noise, and other in the congregation at least saying Hello, maybe even acknowledging me as well as the baby, and if I’m in an unfamiliar church its great if someone can explain what the creche arrangements are e.g. “There is a creche if you’d like to use it, although you’re welcome to keep your child with you if you’d prefer, the children normally go out after the second hymn/the leader will say when the children will leave, and you collect them after the service/they will be brought back in for communion”

    It’s also good to know what facilities are available if you want your child to stay with you, tell me where the baby changing or toilets are located, tell me if there is a quiet room with a relay of the service, or somewhere I can feed the baby if it’s not possible to do it in the service.

  20. Ahhh. Creches and being a single mama do not mix. In the end I moved church as I was so spirituality dry. There is only so much spiritual nourishment you can get from hearing the same children’s bible stories 3 years in a row and singing He’s got the whole world in His hands. My new church has vibrant, energetic songs for the children at the start of the service and I love sharing that with my daughter. She then goes to crèche with the other children and specific crèche workers (who are amazing for giving their time). For the first time in too long I yearn to go to church mid week. Not a fully integrated service but one that recognises children need some child friendly songs and that if they are happy to stay with the other children then they can.

  21. I was reading this post and it hit home. I will put my hand up and admit to not wanting to go to church on a Sunday morning because I know that my adhd son and my toddler son can be a handful. For instance when the service had the Bishop of Bedford preaching the sermon, he mentioned burgers a few times and my 4 year old giggled loudly saying “He said burger”. My son was dressed in a red power rangers outfit, and when he went up for a blessing, the Bishop knelt down and blessed him. How wonderful. If the church is going to encourage new members, then parents with young children should be welcomed with open arms. If not how is the church going to survive without young blood fillling the empty seats? Im nearly 42 and next month will be confirmed. I do enjoy going to church, but feel really awkward when my kids act up.

  22. Claire, this is a great post. Thank you, because it reminded me of something that I had forgotton – that I would like to go to Church with my children, all three of them, and not feel like we are disturbing everyone. At the moment that’s not the case and I confess (well, you know what I mean) that it’s been a few years now since we last attended mass together.
    The church we currently belong to – though we don’t belong really, because we don’t go and I don’t send my kids to the church school – doesn’t really cater for kids in a way that works for me. Sometimes they offer to run a ‘kids session’ in the reception/tea room during the first part of the service, but my kids are all different ages and it doesn’t work having them all trying to do an activity when two of them are just too young. And I don’t want to go to mass in order to miss the service by heading off to the tea room, then going back in to just try and keep the kids quiet at the back. There are very few young families and I do feel like I spend the rest of the service just trying to keep them from disturbing people and missing the service myself. And we never get to chat with the priest because he has to dash off to the next service in another town straight afterwards.
    The church we used to go to – before we moved to N Yorks – was a little bit better – there was an unwritten agreement that all the young families would sit in a particular part of the church. The kids would bring some inoffensive toys/books to keep them occupied – and some vaguely religious kids books were available for anyone who wanted them – and they would play in the aisle if necessary. The toilets were just behind the place where we sat and it was overall much easier to go to mass and take the kids but still experience the service.
    The church before that – yes we have moved around a bit – had a lovely dedicated square in the corner at the back with rugs on the floor, a kids table, and toys supplied. The pews were turned around to face each other. It was so easy and the fact that this was a permanent fixture made us feel very welcome.
    All of my kids have been baptised. But I no longer take them to church. Maybe we will just have to wait until they are older.

  23. Pingback: Children in Church – The Rules | Rev'd Claire·

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s