As my seven-year-old son squirmed and rustled in his seat, I stood on the platform giving him the “evil eye.” Inwardly I groaned as he slithered onto the floor and rolled around. His feet then began to inch up the wall and I cringed as I heard them gently tapping the wall to the beat of the music. I'm sure I hit more than a couple of discordant notes while attempting to keep my concentration on the keyboard I was so inexpertly playing. His two sisters sat next to each other, oblivious to his behaviour because they were excitedly whispering away and giggling while writing notes to each other.
This is likely why many prefer to keep children out of church services. It wasn't an option during that first appointment as an officer in a little church on the prairies, and looking back, I'm glad it wasn't. I learned over the years that those small ears and eyes were taking in everything around them.
When I was a young girl growing up in Long Branch, a Toronto neighbourhood, my weeks consisted of walking back and forth to the local corps for various activities. Brownies and home league on Tuesdays, timbrel practice on Wednesdays, band practice on Thursdays and then later there was girl guides and youth group. Another night was filled with junior soldiers and corps cadets and then there were Sundays, where my schedule looked like this: 9 a.m. directory, 9:30 a.m. Sunday school, 11 a.m. the holiness meeting, lunch and dinner at home, 6 p.m. back to the corps for prayer meeting and then at 7 p.m. the salvation meeting would start—my favourite! We'd sing rousing choruses, hear heartfelt testimonies and listen enraptured to the sermon that always ended with an invitation to kneel at the mercy seat. Even as young as seven or eight, I have memories of kneeling and praying at my seat, asking God for forgiveness and watching others do likewise. Every song, word and testimony swirled around me and had a major influence in my life.
I am more spiritually enriched today because of these early experiences. Had Sunday school been held during the morning meeting, I would be poorer for it. Kim Garreffa, who works in the Army's music and gospel arts department, says of her early experiences, “It amazes me what I remember about church as a child and how many songster songs I can sing. When adults thought I was just fooling around, I was actually listening and absorbing.”
Are we robbing our children by encouraging them to leave during the church service for activities geared for their age level? Do we underestimate what they can take in and comprehend just because they are fidgeting and seem to be unaware of what's going on? As parents, it is our responsibility to teach our children about Jesus and show them what a relationship with God looks like. I think that not only includes prayer and Bible reading at home, hearing us speak in love and watching us live a godly life, but also worshipping corporately with all of God's family on Sundays.
Walter Brueggemann, an Old Testament scholar, suggests that adults need to be a “saturation witness” to their children. They need to be involved in an ongoing and constant conversation in the home that all of life is to be devoted to trust in God alone.
Those three wiggly, giggly children of mine grew up and their love for God continues to grow. Two more have been added to our family and each Sunday they all sit in church with us while we lead the service and preach the message. They're teenagers now and sometimes we discuss the message or something that was said during the morning. It's exciting to hear their views and opinions about church, worship and Christian living. I'm glad they sat through church services over the years, eating Cheerios out of little plastic baggies and laying on the floor colouring, all the while absorbing God's Word, sensing his Spirit and being influenced by the family of God.
Recently I was listening to a podcast of a message I gave not too long ago. I noticed that, at one point, I stopped and made odd sounds. I laughed as I remembered that it was one of the mornings little Ethan, a toddler in our church, waddled over to me and I had stopped in the middle of my message to smile and speak to him in that singsong voice reserved for babies. Did it distract me? Yes. Was it a bad distraction? No. We carried on and the message was heard and delivered. All are welcome in the family of God.
“Jesus called the children to him and said, 'Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these' ” (Luke 18:16).
Major Kathie Chiu is the executive director of Victoria's Addictions and Rehabilitation Centre.