10 Tips for Surviving Church with Young Children

I love the idea of going to church with my children. Beforehand, I envision sweet cuddles while we sing hymns together, two perfectly styled little girls in church dresses and shiny Mary Janes, and my toddler clasping hands together during prayers.

The reality, however, is sometimes not quite so serene and picture-perfect. We rush in five minutes late and the toddler has pulled off her socks and shoes in the car, so she’s barefoot, even in 20 degree winter weather. We can’t find a seat because people are sitting on the end of every single aisle, so we stumble over three people into the middle of the row, dragging a diaper bag, car seat carrier, water bottle, and bag of snacks as we go. The baby starts crying halfway through the first song, and I try to decide whether to awkwardly nurse her in the back row or find a “mother’s room.”

Nevertheless, I believe bringing our children to church, and worshipping with them right beside us (at least some of the time) is important and valuable.

When children join us in a worship service…

… they participate in the bigger, intergenerational body of Christ. They grow up learning that church is more than just a group of same-age peers enjoying age-specific crafts and activities. (There’s nothing wrong with Sunday school or age-specific activities! I believe it’s simply good to have a balance).

… they see our parental example as we sing, pray, and listen to a message. They see that our faith is important to us.

… they gradually learn how to participate in corporate worship: how to sing songs together, how to listen attentively to a sermon, and how to speak creeds and prayers together.

So, despite the reality that doesn’t always match up with my dream, we keep trying. Here are some things I’ve found lately that have helped for us:

1. We prepare a small bag of toys and activities, preferably Bible-centered.

These go in a special backpack that my daughter carries. This isn’t anything spectacular – crayons and a notepad, some Duplo blocks, and a few board books. I do avoid markers so they don’t stain our clothes, church pews, hymnals, etc.

There’s nothing wrong with toys that aren’t focused on our faith, but I just feel better about it when our toddler is playing with Mary and Joseph figurines rather than a Barbie doll. I also do make a point to avoid anything electronic. I hope that as my daughter plays with blocks or does a puzzle, she is still able to have one ear tuned to the pastor and music – I’m not sure that would happen if she was playing with an iPhone.

If nothing else, I think it’s nice to bring a kids’ Bible. Sometimes, the sermon topic or Bible reading will match up with a story in a kids’ Bible, and it’s neat to be able to open to that match and help make a connection.

I am trying to compile a better collection of Bible-centered toys. Any ideas of where to find quality toys or activities?

I do know some people choose not to bring toys into church, because they want to keep church “sacred,” or because toys cause more problem (I imagine if you have siblings this might be hard if they get into a “share” war in the middle of the service!)

In addition to typical toys, I am considering making a quiet book for our toddler. I am not a seamstress, but I have seen some no-sew versions floating around Pinterest.

2. I aim to engage the children in the service as much as possible. 

My goal is not to distract or subdue them through the service; I want my children to be active participants in worship.

During the songs, we try to hold our kids (my husband holds one and I hold the other). Or, I might encourage the toddler to stand on her chair while I sit next to her with an arm around her (for stability). This puts my head right next to her ears, so I can sing into her ear, or whisper an explanation of what’s happening.

My explanations are nothing special, just simple words to talk about what we’re doing:

– “This song is about Jesus. He loves us sooo much!”

– “We’re taking Communion. That’s when we remember Jesus’ body and blood given for us.”*

– “Can you find a cross? Yes, there it is! The cross tells us Jesus loves us. He died and rose again.”

Or, I might point out something in the sanctuary to her. If there are special decorations or stained glass windows, I can quietly point them out to her.

Though these conversations are a bit more rewarding with a toddler who can speak back, we can give these same explanations to a young baby who is listening, but can’t yet respond.

*She doesn’t take Communion, but comes with us to the Communion table for a special blessing.

3. We stay flexible and don’t insist on always having the kids stay in church for the whole service. Sometimes we do half-and-half with Sunday school. 

In our family, we aim to have our children in the church service with us at least part of the time, but we don’t legalistically force them to stay in the service the whole time. We have moved several times, so our specific approach varies on what is available from the church we attend at the time.

Sometimes, our children (baby and toddler) stay with us for the entire service (of course, we might leave the sanctuary for a few minutes to change a diaper, quiet down the squirmy toddler, etc.)

Other times, we will keep the baby with us in the service, but only keep the toddler with us for the first part of the service. We like her to stay with us for songs and prayers, and maybe a Bible reading, but typically take her to Sunday school/nursery at the beginning of the sermon.

This is usually my favorite arrangement, since she gets to enjoy an age-specific activity in Sunday school while we hear the sermon, but she also still participates in some of the worship service.

4. We spend Saturday night preparing for the busyness of Sunday morning.

After having a lazy Saturday, sometimes it’s tough to get out the door on time on Sunday. We try to do as much as possible the night before to make Sunday go smoothly. This could include:

– preparing a good breakfast in advance (this might look like: set out cereal and set the breakfast table, hardboil some eggs, make a breakfast casserole, make sure we have frozen waffles, etc.)

– packing up a diaper bag, toy bag, snacks, etc.

– laying out our complete outfits and taking showers as needed

– preparing a meal to start in the crockpot first thing in the morning for “Sunday dinner” (the noontime meal). Just keeping it real: I think I’ve managed to do this, like, twice ever. But when I do, it’s so nice, as it makes the time after church so much more pleasant than “we’re hungry and cranky because church went long and let’s just grab fast food.”

5. We are trying to start worshiping with our kids early in their lives, rather than waiting for them to “grow up.” 

It seems as though it is easier to start worshiping with a little baby, rather than sending them to nursery/Sunday school every week and then starting at age 3, or age 5, or age 12, or whenever.

However, I do think there is always going to be a stage (age 1-2ish) that is particularly tough, when our little ones are old enough to talk and make lots of noise, but not old enough to fully engage and understanding “quiet voices.”

6. We talk about church throughout the week and try to incorporate songs and prayers into our week.

If there are songs that we regularly sing in church, I try to play them on iTunes or just look up the video on YouTube.

We also say the Lord’s Prayer every night at bedtime. It’s fun when we say it in church and the 2 year old’s ears perk up when she recognizes the prayer. (So far, though, she doesn’t say it with us).

I would love a way to know which songs we’ll be singing in church ahead of time, or what the Scripture reading will be about, so we can explain that ahead of time, too. I haven’t figured out how to do this, though.

7. We take care of physical needs before the service begins.

Changing diapers, going to the bathroom, having a water bottle, and making sure we have eaten something are all helpful. Arriving early at the church can help sometimes with this, if there is a comfortable place to “hang out” before the service begins. We’re used to eating a 10 am snack, and often that hits during the service. I like to be sure we have something right before the service begins, or else an easy snack to eat during the service (like a bag of Cheerios).

8. I try to remember that helping my child in church is a form of worship. Soothing a crying baby or whispering to my toddler to help her understand the service is just as much “worship” as singing or praying.

Having a young child in church can be challenging and doesn’t always feel very “worshipful.” You can’t raise your hands in praise while singing because your hands are filled with a wriggly toddler, and most of the time, I can’t hold a hymnal or Bible, either.

Forget thoughtful note-taking during the sermon… I’m glad if I can just catch a tiny bit of the sermon between whispers to the toddler or taking the baby out for a diaper change.

In those moments, I remind myself that changing diapers and holding a baby is no less worshipful than belting out the words to my favorite praise song. There is value in bringing my child into the family of God on a weekly basis, and exposing her to the things of God.

9. I seek out alternative forms of being spiritually “filled,” besides the Sunday service, that work for me.

Like I said before, it’s tough to focus 100% on the worship service with children in tow. I don’t always walk away with the feeling of being spiritually nourished or inspired for the week ahead.

So, I try to find ways to be “filled up” during the rest of the week. Technology makes this especially do-able. I might listen to a podcast or watch a sermon online, from either my own church or another one. I sometimes listen to sermons from our old pastor who now lives across the country, or from a church in Arizona that supports us as missionaries. I can listen to one of these during naptime, or as I’m falling asleep, or while folding laundry.

Or, I might try to read a good book for a few minutes before bed. Or, if my husband got to catch more of the sermon than me (or vice versa), we fill each other in on the drive home on what the other person missed.

10. I try to enjoy worship with my children as a highlight of my week.

Like so many other aspects of parenting, I know that years from now, I’ll look back at what was “hard” at the moment with such sweet memories in hindsight.

I see older people sitting in the sanctuary with me. They are alone, or with another spouse or friend their same age. They don’t have to worry about catching every word of the sermon, or doing tons of preparation the night before. They aren’t lugging in diaper bags and bottles and nursing pillows and bags of toys.

I imagine that will be me someday, and I imagine I’ll probably think back to these sweet days when I have a baby in my arms to snuggle through the service, when I have a sweet little girl to keep focused during the service, and when I have the privilege of passing my faith on to my children on a weekly basis in the church service.

So, I do my best to delight in Sunday mornings. I love singing and snuggling while holding one (or both!) of my daughters. I am not a very bold person when it comes to dancing or openly praising God with lifted hands, but somehow having a child gives me an “excuse” to do those things. With a kid in my arms, I have an excuse to sway to the music with few inhibitions.

Even when we show up 10 minutes late, unprepared without toys or snacks, shoes sitting on the floor of the car, and the baby cries through half the service… I still aim to remember that the Lord delights in little ones and desires that we “let the little children come to Him.”

What a joy to participate in worship with our children as not just a little family of four, but as part of the bigger family of God.

Do you bring your children into the church service with you? Why or why not? What tips do you have for handling Sunday mornings as a parent of a small child?

Comments posted on old blog:

  1. I enjoyed this post! I absolutely think that children belong in the church service! I have a 1 and 3.5 year old and 1 is such a hard age!! But we keep trying. 🙂

    I also agree that it’s important to prep Saturday night. I try to make sure my 3 year old has gotten enough sleep, just so Sunday morning goes as smoothly as possible.

    Thanks for stopping over at my blog also!

    ~Emily @ www.morningmotivatedmom.com

  2. Great tips! It is hard, depending on the child, but it’s a good thing to take your little ones into church. My youngest is now 12; those days seem so long ago.

    Thanks for stopping by my blog. I love the story of your mom and giving the socks headaches!

One thought on “10 Tips for Surviving Church with Young Children

  1. As a Grandmother now, and taking my Grandchild to church since he was a baby, I heard his comments and saw the manifestation of the pastor’s words as he drew crosses and other pictures however the sermon touched him through the Holy Spirit. Don’t miss out on those moments Parents!

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