Thursday, January 28, 2016

Parenting in the Pew

I’m nervous as I sit here to share some thoughts on worshiping with our young daughters.  After all, as I’ve been writing, I’ve snapped several times at my older daughters, who’ve been bickering off and on, and I’m pretty confident my youngest has colored on the walls and eaten dog food while I’ve been distracted.  But despite doubts about the quality of my parenting, Seth and I have been rethinking the way we relate to our kids during corporate worship, and we’re excited about what that means for our family.

Months ago, Robin Floch recommended Robbie Fox Castleman’s book, Parenting in the Pew: Guiding Your Children into the Joy of Worship, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993).  Before reading the book, I don’t think it had ever occurred to me that there was anything more to hope for than that the girls would keep quiet during the service and maybe hear something that would make them curious enough to ask questions during the ride home.  But Ms. Castleman encourages us to welcome children into the sanctuary and take an active role in teaching them how to worship God—“the most important thing you can ever train your child to do.” After all, “[w]orship is first [and foremost] a blessing to God, and he values the presence and praise of his children.”  Parenting in the Pew opened my eyes to see that even very young children have something beautiful to contribute to our corporate worship of God.

What does this look like in practice? In her book, which I highly recommend, Ms. Castleman gives a lot of great, practical advice for active parenting in the pew. Here are a few of the things we’ve been trying, as we work out her advice in our family:

  1. Finding ways to get out the door and on our way to church as smoothly as possible. It feels like I’m always harshest and angriest with the kids while trying to get out the door on Sunday morning. In the book, Ms. Castleman suggests preparing for Sunday morning—taking care of things like laying out clothes—on Saturday night.  These little things add up, and if we’ve taken care of a lot of the legwork in advance, we arrive at church in a much different frame of mind than if we’ve had to rush around all morning, while barking orders at the children.

  2. Preparing our kids at home for what they’ll see, hear, and do in our worship service.  We’ve been trying to make our church life an ongoing topic of conversation at home.  We look for times to talk to the girls about the symbols and practices of our regular Sunday worship, teach them some of the prayers we pray routinely, talk about Jesus’s words at the Last Supper, and suggest things to be looking and listening for during the service.  At special times during the Church year, like Advent or Holy Week, we explain to our kids what’s special about the services we’re going to attend and give them some things to anticipate: the lighting of the Advent candles, the veiling of the cross and stripping of the altar on Maundy Thursday, the thirty-three peals of the bell on Good Friday.  We talk about what these symbols represent, and then, when we’re at church, we can point them out to the girls and remind them of our earlier conversations. The girls love to have context for what they see and hear.  It seems to fuel their spiritual imaginations and help them respond to the Gospel embedded in our traditions and liturgical practices.

  3. Communicating to our kids that we expect them to participate in corporate worship.  We used to remind the girls as we were driving to church that they’re supposed to be quiet and considerate during the service. Now we remind them that we’re here to worship God together and that we’re excited to see them pray and hear them sing.

  4. Encouraging them to participate actively.  We try to be considerate of those around us, but parenting in the pew requires some tolerance for standing out in a crowd.  We try not to fight it if the girls want to dance in the aisles…some.  We sometimes pick them up or let them stand on their chairs, so they have a better view of the altar.  We whisper a lot: we invite them to sing and pray, and we talk to them about what the songs we sing and prayers we pray have to say about Jesus and about us.  Even when it’s hard or potentially embarrassing, we want to encourage authentic expressions of worship.

  5. Redirecting their attention when it wanders…again and again and again.  There is a constant stream of distractions in a sanctuary full of people—for adults, as well as for children.  We’ve tried to find ways to help our girls focus their hearts on worship when their minds wander.  For instance, we help our older daughter follow along in the bulletin when we sing, and we sing into our younger daughter’s ear to help her hear the words she can’t yet read.  We invite them to sing and pray along with us when they seem far away.  Even though it sometimes interrupts the flow of our own thoughts during worship, as Ms. Castleman explains: “[p]arenting in the pew can help children and parents pay attention to what is really important” (emphasis added).  I often find that the Lord speaks to my heart through my own mouth, as I try to communicate His love and goodness to the girls in worship.  

How’s all this working out for us?  If you’ve ever sat behind our family on Sunday morning, youknow: truthfully, sometimes it’s hard. The girls are still young, and it’s hard for them to sit still for long periods of time; they don’t always understand what’s being said; they don’t know many of the songs we sing or the prayers we pray.  And I’m not always the loving, patient parent I want to be. But in those (sometimes rare) moments when they’re joyfully singing or earnestly praying, it’s so beautiful that it’s almost painful.  We try to remember that the Holy Spirit is directing this process and will “carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6)  And we rejoice in the little victories along the way.                              
                                                                                  ~ Catherine Wood

Seth and Catherine Wood
Anna, Zoe & Fiona

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