Our oldest, Ephraim, is about to turn five, and it wasn’t very long after he was born that I felt a tug on my heart that I wasn’t sure what to do with.
We attend a church with a children’s program run by devoted, loving church members who prioritize the spiritual health and wellbeing of the kids in our congregation. And yet I was feeling very strongly that our kids needed to stay in church with us.
The potential for hurt feelings and misunderstandings aside, I was flabbergasted by the simple fact of how to keep small children in church with you. In the past, I had seen parents keep their children in the service for the music, then take them to their classes or nursery before the sermon started. I did not see many parents trying to wrangle small kids through the sermon itself. And because I am always a first-time mom with my oldest, I didn’t have the slightest idea where to start.
So we put it off. And after we had another baby and then another, it seemed like an impossible task. Manage a barely-preschooler, a toddler, and a newborn, through a service where there are no other children present and where we’re likely offending those people I mentioned before, who are busting their backsides to teach our children every Sunday morning?
I just didn’t know what to do.
I asked people about it. I asked for (and got) great advice from people who were tackling the same difficulty of keeping their kids in Big Church when it was not the popular thing to do. I read articles I found on Pinterest and Facebook.
But I was seriously, terribly, horribly afraid to take on the task for our family.
I won’t share the final straw that pushed me towards obedience, but suffice to say that there came a day where I knew I was stalling and that we had to bite the bullet. And so we did what we’d never done before–we kept three-and-a-half-year-old Ephraim in service with us for the very first time.
I was a nervous wreck for that first service (and many following.) It seemed like every move and noise he made was amplified. I had brought a snack for him and a drawing pad–the only distractions that would be available, Jeremy and I had decided. I think a significant portion of that snack ended up on the floor. The drawing pad didn’t last long. The service finally ended, and I was exhausted. Not deterred, but certainly worn out. Would it get better? Would it be like this forever?
It did get better, and it got better faster than I thought it would, though there were many days that were extremely difficult, and many days where I had to pick him up and haul him out of the service for an attitude adjustment. But overall, the task was not as difficult as we thought it would be. We decided we would bring Clive in to the service once he learned to whisper (because he has always been a loud child) and that that would be our deciding factor for when we bring each child out of the nursery and into Big Church. It seemed like a sensible idea.
The plan was foiled, though, when we ended up bringing Clive in about one year earlier than we planned. I can’t for the life of me remember why–maybe it was sickness, maybe he just wanted to be with us and so we let him stay in the service. But I do remember being shocked by how quietly he sat, how easy he was to keep in with us compared to those first few services with Ephraim. Clive was two-and-a-half, a whole year younger than Ephraim had been when we made the switch. We kept him with us from that day forward. He’s had his hard days, too, but fewer than Ephraim did, and whether that’s due to starting earlier or just due to his personality (which I highly doubt) the fact is that the transition was far easier with him.
It’s been a little less than a year and a half since we started keeping the boys in. Somehow along the way we dropped the drawing pads and snacks. They now sit with us with no distractions at all–they’re almost-five and three-and-a-half. And twenty-two months, since Anselm has been sitting in the service with us for a couple of months now. So much for our “rule” about whispering! I’ve had to get up and move to the back twice in that time; I decided I would move him if he became difficult, but we wouldn’t leave the sanctuary. Thankfully, when he isn’t content with sitting, he is content to be held at the back. I do not put him down. It’s been several weeks since I’ve had to get up with him. I’m thankful for that, though I’m sure the hard times are far from over.
It hasn’t been easy, but it’s been easier than I worried over for years. And the boys, for all their youth, constantly surprise me. I knew they wouldn’t “get” a whole lot out of the service these early years. Or at least, I assumed they wouldn’t. But there are times when it is clear that they catch far more than I expect.
A couple of months ago, we were in service during communion. This is before Anselm was staying in, so we each had a child in our laps: I had Ephraim, Jeremy had Clive. We took the communion and then began to explain as best we could to our preschoolers what we were doing.
Ephraim, as I assumed he would be, was fixated on the “snack” in my hand. I explained what it represented, and Oh Yes, he understood that, yes he did. I told him it was something that was reserved for people who believed in Jesus and Oh Yes, he believed that to, he did, could he have a sip of that juice? I felt somewhat defeated; I had hoped he’d understand a bit more than that, but he was still young, and so I went ahead and took the elements myself, saving a crumb and a small sip for him. After he took them, I asked him again if he understood why we had taken them. I can’t remember his answer–it was appropriate for a four-year-old, though.
I shook my head at him. “No,” I said again. “We take them to remember what Jesus did for us, that He died for us.”
Ephraim blinked, staring off ahead like he does when he’s thinking, and said, simply and with the dawn of realization, “OH.” Then he covered his face, and he burst into tears.
All those hard days, all those services that seemed never-ending, where I wondered if we were doing the right thing, suddenly became completely and totally worth it.
There have been many other times, times where he asked questions and pondered things that I wish I had encountered at age four, as opposed to at age twenty-something like I did.
But this past Sunday, as we sat in our rank and file in the service Sunday morning, Jeremy and I and our three boys between us (and on us), and I listened to Clive echoing the “amens” and heard the questions that Ephraim would whisper to Jeremy, and I realized something I had not expected in the slightest that first anxiety-ridden Sunday morning that Ephraim spent in the service with us.
I realized there was something I was feeling as we all sat there, for better or for worse. It wasn’t misgivings or anxiety or wondering if we’d make it through the sermon.
It was a deep, content, satisfying joy. Not only did we have three small children in church with us, but I enjoyed it.
My purpose for writing this is somewhat selfish. That’s why it’s not a how-to post, or a why-you-should post or a do-as-I-do post, though I would encourage any parent not to be daunted by the Hard Things, though they loom with frightening unlikelihood or unpopularity. But really, I write this today because I’ve taken on another Hard Thing with the children, by myself, and it’s difficult. We had a tough go of it the last time we tried. I was embarrassed; the kids had to have consequences. It’s not a fairytale, storybook process. It doesn’t Instagram well. It’s early, though, and it’s an adjustment and a learning of expectations. When I think I should give up, I think about our church services, and the unexpected joy that has come out of persevering through a hard, unpopular thing, and I’m encouraged. In this family, we do hard things.