Where do I start on this one? Perhaps by acknowledging that everyone’s experience is different, and I can only speak of my own. So excuse me if some of what I say is stuff you can’t relate to. But I’m willing to bet that for every factor that has made my experience of church difficult since having children, there is an equally unavoidable factor that has made your experience equally so. The point of this little series (see here for the other posts) is to open debate, so please do share your different experiences in the comments section (or on Facebook).
I need to start with a disclaimer: I am not blaming my church. Welcoming families is what my church happens to do really, really well – they have a long heritage of doing so, and were something of a market leader during the 1970s and 1980s, trail-blazing the concept of all-age services, the use of dance, drama and contemporary music in church, and the idea that maybe Jesus was serious when he said that children understood the Kingdom of Heaven more than most. At my church, people pretty much give you funny looks if your child isn’t throwing a tantrum in the middle of the sermon. (“What? Why isn’t your child trashing the pews?? What kind of parent are you???”) But, regardless of the set-up, I believe church with young children is still difficult. It just is.
The main factor which initially made it hard for us was clinginess – a trait of Mister’s that lasted well into his third year. The well-staffed, well-resourced church creche may as well not have existed as there was no way Mister was going to part company from me. Another factor was the heavy involvement of his Dad in church services (a hazard of working for church), meaning we couldn’t take turns with being responsible for Mister – the onus was on me.
Now your child may not be clingy and your spouse may not be involved in church leadership. Perhaps church cuts across your child’s nap or mealtime. Perhaps you work all week and resent leaving your child in the care of others during the weekend. Perhaps your other half doesn’t come to church, and you’re torn between spending time with your church family, and spending time with your natural family. Perhaps your child has additional needs, and just doesn’t respond well to your church’s way of doing things. And there are myriad other reasons that make church awkward for young families.
But then again most things are awkward with small children. Going to a restaurant is awkward. So is going out for the day. So is going on holiday. We still do these things because – presumably – we believe there is some worth to them, that it does our family good to spend time together in this way.
So does it do our family good to stick at church, even when its difficult? I believe so. For when will our children get into a pattern of regular, corporate worship if not now? How will we stay connected to the wider family of believers if we don’t show up to worship with them? Do we believe we can raise our children without the support of other Christians? Is it enough for our children just to have us as Christian role models? Are we the only Bible teachers they need?
Two primary thoughts have been running through my head regarding church since becoming a desert mum. One is questioning the value of church for my family. I’ve always been to church, so I’ve never really questioned why I do so. I mean, I’ve questioned my faith and accepted Jesus for myself – but I’ve never really questioned the importance of church until now. For the reasons alluded to in the paragraph above, I’m more convinced than ever of the need for me to stick at church for the sake of my family. We teach our kids about Jesus at home – through books, play, songs and, their current favourite, the bible on CD (which I highly recommend!) – but there are deficiencies if this approach isn’t partnered with a regular, corporate worship time. If my children grow up in the wider church family, they’ll make Christian friends who will support them when we become too uncool to do so. They’ll find other adult Christian role models who love and care for them. They’ll be taught by other Christians who model aspects of Jesus’ character which we don’t, teach areas of the Bible we’ve left out, and help them to understand concepts about which our explanation has left them confused. In addition to the benefits for our children, we will find ourselves much more supported in raising our children if we remain connected to an active family of believers.
But, as usual, all of these benefits are not the reason we stick at church. They are merely some of the reasons why the Bible commands us to prioritise church. Ephesians 1:22-23 states that the church is the ‘fullness’ of God. Relating this to our experience as parents, we cannot hope to be all things to our children. Raising them in a church ‘fills the gaps’ in our own parenting – which, as Christians, we must admit is flawed and lacking – so as to display more of God’s fullness. (Check out Ephesians 3:10-11 and 5:25-32 too.)
The second area of thought has been an awareness of the deficiencies in my approach to church previously. If I’m honest – although I would never have admitted it back then – I used to go to church for the opportunity to worship to a live band, the input of a challenging sermon, the getting together with friends, the trip to the pub afterwards. I would never have admitted it – but I went to church for purely selfish reasons. Like a typical consumer, I exploited church for all it could give me, and if I didn’t feel like going then I didn’t go. Although usually I did feel like going, because back then going to church was easy.
Is this what church is about? It’s not wrong to want decent Bible teaching, to enjoy worshipping with others, or to develop friendships with other Christians. But if that’s all, then why go with young children? I don’t often get to worship or hear a sermon without interruption, and I don’t have limitless time before/after services to chat to everyone I’d like to chat to.
I’m starting to understand that church is about being. I need to be in that place of worship, with my fellow believers, regardless of what I personally gain from the experience. I might not get to hear the sermon, or sing any of the songs. I might be chasing my kids round the building, or even stay out in creche for the whole service – but there is value in being with God’s family (and that includes the under 3s, no less a part of God’s family). I can listen to sermons online, I can worship to CDs and YouTube, I can meet up with other Christian friends through the week – but church is important because it consists of being with the corporate body of Christ, celebrating together, allowing God to transform us into a beautiful bride preparing to meet its love. Sometimes this will feel easy and we’ll feel the benefits; sometimes it will feel sacrificial and we won’t; but it’s always something worth sticking at.