I first wrote the text for this series about two years ago. When I began writing it, I was in a pit of anger and despair, so I decided to hold off on publishing it. Within the time I started writing, we learned that my husband would be losing his job (almost to the week that I am publishing this), and I felt as though I had no friends left at this church. I had a few, but they were very few. And the loudest voices and actions were from several people who seemed to hate my children. At the time, I was weeks away from delivering our second child. I was overwhelmed with a toddler and without much help or hope. And of all the ways my family (and especially my husband) was treated poorly there, the actions that hurt and angered me the most were those directed at my children. I’m glad my daughter was young enough not to internalize what was directed her way. But we are two years removed from that time now. Don’t get me wrong, it’s been a really hard two years. I wouldn’t wish them on anyone.
But we are now expecting our third child, and I have had time to cool off and heal. I’ve also been blessed with the opportunity to see the church as it should be. We got to be at one church for almost a year named Hope which brought us hope. The people there loved on us and our kids every week. I’d forgotten what that was like. I still remember one lovely gentleman who, anytime my children acted up during the service, came to us afterward to remind us that our little ones belonged in the service and he loved to hear their voices. He was one of many people who made sure my children knew they were loved. Now we are at a church called Grace, and even now there are people trying to find my kids some replacement furniture for what was damaged in some flooding. Not to mention how many weeks someone has held my son while he fussed when my back couldn’t handle it or distracted my daughter before a meltdown. I don’t have the space to write how much love we have received from both of these churches. Not that either is perfect, but they have done what I have seen only a handful of churches do: they make an effort to love children and include them in the divine service. They knew how important the divine service is and especially how important it was to have kids present, both for their sake and for the adults there.
So with all that being said, I have decided to publish this series on the issue of children being in church. Now there is some distance between when I first wrote it and today, some healing, and some perspective. I have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. Yet I write this not only to vent but to share the perspective of a young mother and a wife of a church worker to other congregations in hopes of seeing more good examples for families elsewhere. I wanted to tell my story as it happened at the time (the story below is two years old) and the pain these events caused me, but I also want to add something constructive. Thus, I have written the rest of the series to speak on some examples of children being included in worship, the didactic structure of the service, and how important it is to have the whole family of God together (and how to include the littlest members).
If you were to come to Grace this Sunday, you’d likely see both my children praying (or playing). You’d hear them singing (or speaking). You’d see them going up to the communion rail (or throwing a fit in the back). They will be children being children in church. Because despite all that’s happened, you’ll still see them in the pews with everyone else, right where they belong.
It was not the response I’d expected from the church I’d attended for the prior three years. It was not the response that should have come from a group of people that told me how sweet my daughter was when she was a newborn or told me between services in those early months how much she’d grown. It was not the response I thought I’d get from people I’d served since the first month I’d been here, the ones my husband had served since his first week. It was not the response I’d expected to receive from the congregation that claimed to be friendly, welcoming, my family in God.
So when I looked for the least obtrusive spot in the back of the sanctuary to sit with my toddler, I was hurt when the woman on the far side of the pew immediately jumped up and found someone else to sit with as soon as we sat down. I was embarrassed when the woman in front of me turned around to stare at me struggling alone with my overtired toddler. I laughed in scorn at the backhanded compliment to my daughter coming from a supposed matriarch of the church, yelling across the sanctuary after service that I should tell my daughter, “Thank you for being so quiet this week.” And I was angry, though expecting it at this point, when my husband came home from work one day and let me know that he was late because the pastor had a conversation with him about a complaint from a few congregants that my daughter was too distracting and really belonged outside of the church, maybe in the nursery. And the pastor, at least partly, agreed.
By this point, I really shouldn’t be surprised by any of these interactions. I should have known they were coming. From the way this congregation treats its youth, the kids we say we love but mostly just ask to serve the adults. From the way they treat Sunday school for the kids, a glorified form of babysitting. But they are learning bible stories, right? In the midst of crafts destined for the trash? From the way people make comments about families with a lot of children. Despite all the forewarnings, my own experiences made me angry. But perhaps I can describe it another way. Betrayed? Resentful? Disgusted? Ashamed? I know a lot of other facts play into my own feelings about these situations, but they are there nonetheless.
What makes me angry is that for some of these people, I wish they would have offered to help. Maybe sit in a way so that my daughter doesn’t try running out of the pew. Or maybe she’d get to play peek-a-boo with you. Maybe you’d get to hear her sing and she’d get to see you pray. Instead, you were too self-involved to notice that I was there alone, again, because my husband was busy taking care of your children and your programs because none of you will step up and help. So I, very pregnant with a very active toddler, am left to struggle through the service alone. Do you think I am not distracted? Do you think I don’t see your actions? Do you think my daughter will never notice? I am already embarrassed by the occasional outburst of my child. Did your actions help or make the situation better? I am struggling, but how could I possibly ask for help from those who have made their disdain for my daughter’s presence so clearly known? Why would she want to worship with you? Why would any child?
But I don’t want to talk about this only to vent my frustration. Instead, I want to make sure other congregants know how damaging this is to me, as a young mother and wife of a church worker, and to other parents of young children. And to the children themselves.
What sort of example are you setting when you have these sorts of interactions with families during and after the worship service? Are you setting an example that this is a place for all people of all ages to come and learn about Jesus, to worship Him, and to receive His Holy Word and Sacraments? Or are you saying that this is a place only for good people, special people, behaved people? Are you telling the children that they are somehow hindrances to the service, or that this is just for adults? How do you think they will grow up? Tell me congregants: what sort of children are we raising when this is how we treat young families? Do you think that your children and grandchildren watching you will somehow be encouraged to bring their own children to church if it is such a hassle for you, or them? Why would they wish to stay?
Tell me, what if I had been a visitor and not the church worker’s wife? Would you have been so callous to them? I have heard that you might just do that after they had been there a few times. Do you think they would have come back after such comments? I am still here for a few reasons. My husband serves at this church, and I won’t let your shameful actions keep my daughter from hearing the Word of God. But why aren’t you, the supposedly stronger and mature brother or sister in Christ, helping those weaker and younger in faith, like my daughter? I tell you now, if you had acted in such a way towards a visitor, they wouldn’t be back. I know because my family was that once. We knew that you felt such people, like children unused to sitting still, were unwelcome there. So we left, and my brothers never really came back. I tell you now, I feel unwelcome here.
Now not everyone makes me feel this way. There was one church we visited last fall, one we used to work at though no one recognized us with the masks and a child. But the woman in front of us asked to hold my daughter when she was being fussy and just loved on her. Another woman behind us gave her a cookie and let her sit beside her. Then the little boy behind us offered my daughter his cookie, and they sat and danced together for the end of the service. There is a man at our current church who frequently asks after her, and has even played with her during the service, distracting my daughter for a few moments so that I can focus again. Another man always makes sure that we know how much he loves to hear my daughter’s voice and that he misses her when he doesn’t hear her. That is encouragement. That is welcome and friendship. That is love. And I wish everyone else knew how much these examples mean to me.
This is what I wish you knew. I wish you knew how I have been reciting parts of the catechism with my daughter at night so she can participate with all of us on Sunday morning. I wish you knew that she can sing most of “Amazing Grace” and knows some words and motions to other songs, like “My God is so Big” and “Praise Ye the Lord!” I wish you knew how she is learning to fold her hands when we pray and stand when we sing. I wish you listened when she says the Lord’s Prayer, or recite the 23rd Psalm. I wish you knew how much she loves to sing with everyone, and she dances. I wish you saw how much she has grown, how she opens the hymnal and “reads” along with us. I wish you saw her progress, and how she now can sit still for good portions of the sermon. I wish you thought about how maybe the reason she talks is because she thinks she is part of the conversation. I wish you knew how she watches all of you for her cues on how to behave in service. I wish you could see that my daughter belongs in the worship service every bit as much as you.
Next week, we will go through some of the history and the necessity of children in worship.