Kids in Church: The Blessing and the Curse

Do you ever choose to stay home from church or wherever you might worship because you are afraid your kids won’t behave properly? You’re not alone, especially after a year of streaming church on-demand from your living room while wearing pajamas. I want to share with you some reasons why you shouldn’t let that stop you, and a few tips on how to make it a good experience for all. 

First, let’s vent about the struggle. Taking your kids with you to “big church” is a lot of work. We have to teach our children how to enjoy worship but also how to not be loud and distracting to others. And ideally, we’d like to be able to worship as well. 

At my church, we include children in worship starting at age three. The church is very gracious and welcoming to children. The Order of Worship states, “God put the wiggle in children.” The expectation is set: fellow worshippers can expect to be a little distracted by the sounds and movement of children. It’s all a part of raising kids in the life of the church. 

Most Sundays I sure am grateful for that expectation, because my children need it. They are such good kids, Monday through Saturday. But bring them into the sanctuary on Sunday, and everything I’ve ever told them flies out the window. They are suddenly thirsty, hungry, sleepy, and grumpy. My husband is the pastor, so managing the kids at church is a solo job. I’ve tried all kinds of tricks. I’ve come prepared with coloring books and paper and crayons. But then they fight over those things. Or the large pack of crayons is opened from the wrong end and 64 crayons roll all over the sanctuary floor.

When my youngest started joining us for worship at three years old, I carried her into the sanctuary—late of course, so everyone was quiet—and she loudly complained, “Oh no, not church. I hate church!”

My kids are easily the least-behaved children in the sanctuary. I often leave church feeling generally embarrassed about my parenting. 

So I get it. I get that it’s super hard and often feels not worth it to bring our children to church. I can’t remember the last time I actually got to focus on the service and experience worship myself. I spend most of my hour of worship saying “shhhh” and quietly disciplining three kids.

But we press on. We keep coming week after week, and not just because their dad is the pastor. I believe it’s forming their spiritual lives in a way too mysterious for me to fully understand. My theology teaches me that there is something sacred that children receive in worship, no matter their level of participation or cooperation. 

I know I’ve whined about my epic failure in this department, but I have tried a lot of little strategies, and sometimes they work.

  • “3 Things”: My mom used this on my siblings and me. The kids have to pay just enough attention that they can report to you about three things they heard or noticed in the sermon or the service. It can be silly or serious. It only matters that they engage a little bit.
  • Check off items in the worship bulletin: My kids are generally better when they have a job to do. Maybe it helps them pass the time, or maybe it piques their interest in what’s happening. Either way, having them check off/cross out the items in the Order of Worship as they happen helps a lot.
  • Bookmark the hymns: Does your church use a hymnal or songbook of some kind? Have your kids find and bookmark the hymns so they are ready to go when it’s time to sing. They can do the same with a scripture passage. 
  • Worship training: Avoid sitting with buddies every week. For me, worship is better when I’m sitting with a friend, and I think the same is true for kids. But sometimes it’s important to sit somewhere else where they won’t be so distracted. I’ve done “worship training” with my kids for a few weeks, where we will sit in an area with no other kids, just to reset. 
  • Rest time: During stretches of quiet time, like the sermon, let your kids lie down in your lap. It’s not important or realistic for them to sit up, look straight, and not make a peep for 20 minutes. Sometimes I will rub their backs or tickle their arms. It definitely keeps them still. 

If you’re not a parent of young children but you see them in church, I have a tip for you too. Offer to sit next to the kids one Sunday so their parents can listen to the service. Or just offer an encouraging word to them. Whenever someone does that for me, it means a lot. I know when they say, “Your girls are so well-behaved,” they are lying through their teeth. But I think it’s a holy lie. It’s what I need to hear to keep coming, week after week. 

Lastly, find a church that is gracious and inclusive to children. Lots of churches have programs for the kids during worship, or at least an option for them to go somewhere else during the sermon. This is a great option if that’s something you need. And if your church doesn’t have that option, make sure they know that “God put the wiggle in children.” 

Your worship looks different right now—it looks like parenting—but that, too, is sacred. 

I grew up in Dallas, went to college and grad school in the Carolinas (Furman-->Wake Forest) with degrees in art history and ministry/theology. I work for organizations that allow me to do things I care deeply about: advocacy for immigration, public education and religious liberty. We moved to San Antonio in 2012 for my husband to pastor a church here. When we moved here, our two older daughters were babies/toddlers, and we eventually added a third. They are now 5, 8 and 9. We chose to live really close to the church and hit the neighborhood jackpot. I'm a bookworm and always have 2-3 books going at once. I have learned to love good music by osmosis (my husband has great taste!) (my current favs: Brandi Carlile, Lone Bellow), but I'm pretty happy with silence too, since it's hard to come by with small children. We don't have grandparents or immediate family in town, and I'm insanely jealous of those that do. But luckily our friends here have become like family. Favorite Restaurant: El Mirasol Favorite Landmark: Eisenhower Park Favorite San Antonio Tradition: 4th of July neighborhood parade