Sunday Catechism: Tips to Survive Family Worship

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NOTE: I lead the Children’s Service at my church on Sundays. Every week I write a reflection on a question from the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Please note that these posts reflect a frank expression of my faith (Reformed Presbyterian) and are specifically aimed at the parents of children at my church.

Q: How do we keep the Sabbath holy?

A: We keep the Sabbath holy by resting the whole day from worldly affairs or recreations, even ones that are lawful on other days. Except for necessary works or acts of mercy we should spend all our time publicly and privately worshipping God.

The first Sunday of every month at NewCity is Family Worship. We will have no Sunday School nor a separate Children’s Worship Service. Instead, all families are encouraged to worship together. Not only do these monthly sabbaths give some rest to our volunteers and staff at the Children’s Ministry, but they also help integrate our young ones into the full life of the church.

I know, however, that managing your children during a regular worship service can be taxing, much less restful. It’s difficult to focus on God when you’re busy trying to get your kids to focus on God or, even more likely, just to be still and quiet. I thought I could use this week’s missive to share some general tips I’ve gathered around making Family Worship go more smoothly for you.

Collaborate with your spouse. Decide ahead of time who’s going to be responsible for what. If you only have one or two children, you might decide, for example, to take turns as to who will be the lead parent. If you have a rather large family, you might decide to split up the group to either side of mom and dad. You might even corral relatives or friends to sit near or next to your family to lend some support.

Sit near an exit. One never knows when you might be beset by an emergency or escalating situation. I don’t hesitate to walk a child out to the bathroom or a quick walk out of earshot, but I try to sit strategically to avoid making such exits unnecessarily distracting.

Come prepared. If you don’t already have a, say, well-stocked diaper bag, you might want to consider prepping and having handy a bag of supplies and activities for the kids for just such situations like Family Worship. I try to have within my reach snacks (nothing too loud), crayons, paper, wipeable boards with grease pencils or dry-erase markers, wet wipes, plastic bags (for trash), change of clothes, and maybe some “fidgets“.
Bringing books or tablet computers can be controversial: you want to help children manage and occupy their attention but not tune out of the service entirely. I’ve used, for example, a drawing/note-taking program on the iPad to write down some key words and notes that my son could then trace over as a way of practicing his handwriting. This keeps him busy, but he still seems to absorb points and illustrations from the sermon. More on the next bullet point.

Break up the time. Children tend to be fine during most of the worship service up until the sermon. It’s just a long stretch of time for them to be still. I’d recommend dividing that stretch into chunks of 5 to 10 to 20 minutes, depending on the age and capabilities of your child(ren). I personally cue myself according to Pastor Paul’s inevitable three-point structure. Here are some suggestions of things to have the kids do:

  • Color or draw
  • Practice writing or spelling notes/verses/lyrics
  • Write or recite silently to oneself memory verses/books of the Bible/10 Commandments
  • Eat a snack
  • Play with Legos or small toys
  • Take a bathroom break or a quick walk
  • Write a coded message
  • Work on a puzzle
  • Tally the number of times a key word is said in the sermon
  • Practice deep breathing
  • Fold origami

Don’t hand this list to your child. Instead, pick out a few activities ahead of time to test out which ones make sense for your kids. Kids often benefit from learning and building a repertoire of strategies which will get them through boredom and frustration.

Practice. No amount of preparation will guarantee perfect results, but a little bit of rehearsal will help you anticipate problems and clarify expectations. Try getting your kids to sit still and not leave the table during meals. Talk to them about what is and what is not okay during worship service. Share what you do when you find yourself distracted or sleepy.

Give yourself another mini-Sabbath. I always try, sometime during the week, to download the sermon and revisit it when I have a half-hour or so to myself. Not only does this help my understanding and spiritual education, but it also unloads some of the pressure to be “on” at several different fronts during the service.

Enjoy and worship. The toughest tip of all. Even when you have a child screaming in your ear as you wander the empty halls of a school, hoping nobody in the sanctuary can hear you, you can search, find, meditate, and converse with the God that made you and saved you and reflect on His blessings, especially the one in your arms.

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