Truly Being a “Child-Friendly” Parish

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is a compilation of Fr. John’s five-part “From the Rector’s Desk” series in The Trisagion. Beginning with tips for parents of children in different age groups and ending with how the Divine Services mysteriously reveal Christ’s invitation for all children to come to him, Fr. John’s full guide is posted below for your edification. Glory to Jesus Christ!

Introduction

We have always attempted to have a child friendly attitude towards having the whole parish worship together. This has called for patience on the part of all parishioners, not just our parents. But what does it really mean to have a “child friendly” parish?

We don’t provide babysitting services during liturgy, for example. We expect little children to learn love of God in the Church from their earliest days and hope these days will be among their fondest memories. “From the Rector’s Desk” the next few months, we will explore this question together.

What Does Kid-Friendly Truly Mean?

Photo Credit: Benjamin Oleynik

Children of all ages participate in a procession on the Sunday of Orthodoxy. The annual celebration, hold the first Sunday of Lent, commemorates the defeat of iconoclasm via the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 787 and the official restoration of icons in 843.

I can well remember, almost 70 years ago, being carried into a church in rural Texas by my mother. I also reall other equally precious memories of church services, and pageants, and once in a while even a sermon. Maybe I just have a good memory. 

It wasn’t easy for Mother; Dad didn’t attend and even resented our attendance. Sometimes to keep the peace, there would be a lull in devotion. At other times, Dad’s hostility would wane a bit. It didn’t hurt when we became a two-car family. Transportation was no longer a matter of contention.

In fact, I remember one service in particular. A baby was crying a bit, and the pastor finally stopped the service. “How wonderful, it is, to hear a baby’s cry in church,” he said, with a twinkle in his eye.

People paused, relaxed, and smiled. For staid Presbyterians as we were, relaxation could be a challenge. It wasn’t the sermon that Sunday, but it became one for me, one that I’ve never forgotten.

That experience, as well as theological reflection later on, became a defining moment for me. If a church were truly to suffer little children to come unto Christ, it included baptism of infants, communion of infants, and indeed, the presence of infants in church worship. Either they are fully members of the body of Christ, the Church, or they are not. 

Guidelines for Taking Kids In and Out of Church

“Train a child in the way he should go; and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”

 – Proverbs 22:6 

 Young children are brought to church so that they learn how to be in church, so that ultimately they will love to be in church. So much for the theory. Being child-friendly is an attitude. However, staying child-friendly is a work of grace. It involves the whole parish, not merely the parents of young children. Here are some things to keep in mind.

Infants are subject to little bodies’ needs. (They are not programmable.) Because they cannot speak they cry, and they cry when they are unhappy, wet, or hungry. When this happens, parents should exit the temple and take care of the issue, quickly and quietly. A frustrated parent exiting church to take care of a frustrated baby can be more disruptive than necessary. Remember: a baby’s discomfort is understandable; a parent’s attitude is controllable.

Downstairs, there is an area to nurse or feed babies, plus another space in which to change them. In the nursery, the service is piped in to allow awareness of, if not direct participation in, the liturgy. The Liturgy of the Word (the first half of the Liturgy through the sermon) is a good time to utilize these facilities. (Just never walk out of the church during the Gospel.)

The Liturgy of the Eucharist follows the sermon. The four litanies after the sermon cover a time of transition: offerings are being made, catechumens are being prayed for, and attention is then focused on the Great Entrance. This is a good time to bring infants back, if they’ve been downstairs for a while. The rear of the church, or the narthex, might be a better place to hold them since they might “go off” again. (However, remember that sounds from the narthex travel right into the church, unless the doors are closed.)

Once the Gifts have been placed on the altar, the most sacred time of the entire Liturgy takes place: the Anaphora (meaning the Oblation, the offering). Thanksgiving is offered to God for his salvation. Mere bread and wine become His life-giving Body and Blood. It is essential that no one enter or exit the church during this time. That’s the meaning of the Deacon’s cry: The doors! The doors!Otherwise, the sacredness of the moment can be obscured. 

Church Etiquette for Families of Toddlers

Children of all ages prepare delicious soups for their Lenten charitable luncheon that took place last month. In addition to making the food, the students also served the meal. Their efforts resulted in a total that was only $37 less than last year’s record offering.

We come to pray, not play. Some moments in our worship at Holy Trinity are not as salutary as others because of the nature of little children, especially as they enter “toddle-essence.” No longer bound as rigidly by physical limitations on mobility, toddlers pursue and test their limits and that of their care givers. They also test the limits of parental authority. They question, they talk back, they resist. And, they disturb others when they do so.

Worship is especially a challenge during this period of self-definition, to parent, to child, and to other worshippers as well. The ultimate objective for having a child-friendly atmosphere at church, while at the same time attempting to reduce the disturbance of others, is to teach our children to pray while at liturgy.

Preparing children to pray begins at home. Parents must pray daily in front of the holy icons. There one teaches children how to make the sign of the cross, how to make bows, how to stand quietly, and how to sit respectfully. These should be norms in a pious home. Coming to church should not be a totally new learning experience, but a time to practice, to implement publicly what should be happening at home already. Expect and correct, in love.

Dress appropriately. There was a day when “Sunday best” meant just that, even though it could mean different things in different places. There was no thought for parents, much less their children coming to church in something less. Bringing children church in what might otherwise be considered “play clothes” sends the wrong message. Church clothes don’t have to be, and actually shouldn’t be, “fancy clothes.” They simply need to be set apart for worship.

Leave the toys at home. Come to church to pray, not to play. Toys are not allowed in Orthodox churches for people of all ages—wood, plastic, or electronic. There is a time and place for everything and Orthodox worship is not for games. If a small child needs some type of security, blankets are the old standard. (They don’t make noise.) By extension, a small, stuffed animal might be acceptable, as long as children don’t use them to play Animal Farmwith the other kids during liturgy.  (Don’t forget the nursery downstairs.) And, be mindful of yourtoys as well. Sadly I have noticed adults checking emails and texting, both before and during our services. Can we expect better behavior of little ones in God’s house unless we exhibit this ourselves?

Handle showdowns effectively. As I mentioned before, toddlers love to test limits. When showdowns happen in church, don’t try to reason with your child on the spot. He doesn’t care. He knows that he will win the battle in most cases. So if your child won’t stop screaming, see what the matter is, outside of the temple, where you can give him your full attention. Encourage him to use his words in his “inside voice” without yelling or screaming. Remember, words distinguish us from God’s other creatures. Encouraging speech appropriately and lovingly is teaching them a powerful theological truth. Thinkabout that one: logos, logic, theological. (cf.Gen. 1:1,2; Jn. 1:1) Of course, don’t expect better conduct in public than what is allowed at home.

Don’t run in church. Running is not only disruptive but potentially dangerous. Trips, falls, spills, are likely to happen, not only to the kids but to the adults. (And I’ve heard a number of concerns and near misses on this one.) So, clamp down on running indoors at home, and in public in general unless at a track meet.

Finally, sacrifice. A parent might think that doing all the above will take away from one’s own worship time.  Let me share a secret: it will. That’s the price of parenting. If a parent is unwilling to sacrifice to help a child learn to pray, what does that really say about the parent?

Children cannot be raised effectively, much less piously, unless sacrifice sets the tone of the relationship at home and then in worship. In other words, you might have to spend more time outside of liturgy than inside for a while.

For God (the parent) so loved the world (us) that he gave (sacrificed) his only-begotten Son (John 3:16). We all sacrifice for the sake of having children in worship.  This is what teaching a child to pray by having a child-friendly church is all about. 

Tips for Pre-Kindergarten- and Kindergarten-Aged Children

By the time a child reaches the Pre-K stage, his attention span has gotten longer, theoretically two to five minutes per year of life. He should be encouraged to stand for short periods of time during the liturgy, especially for those moments of liturgical action such as a censing, “Blessed is the Kingdom,” the Entrances, the Creed, and the Eucharistic prayer. Part of this is practical as well as respectful. If he already is learning to stand reverently, head bowed, hands folded during family prayers, he’ll learn to associate a like posture and attitude in church as “a time to pray.”

When the above liturgical moments have passed, a quiet “time to sit, now” can be used to transition. Since sitting still for age-appropriate periods of time in both Pre-K and K is re-enforced socially of children in their classes, the same can and should be expected at church as well. Take care to help your child not to sit with his back to the altar, in order to train him to focus on what is taking place in the altar and on the ambon. Sitting near the front of the church can be helpful by this age.

A liturgically oriented book, with plenty of pictures, can help re-enforce an attitude of prayer. See especially The Sacred and Divine Liturgy in the narthex (and available for purchase in the bookstore). It’s a very good resource for use during the Liturgy, as well as for instruction at home. Needless to say, without teaching in the home, Sunday mornings are guaranteed to be more trying.

It should go without saying that books with a non-religious theme are not acceptable during church. It sends mixed messages, and guess which message tends to win out. During Kindergarten, religious books can be used even more effectively because reading skills are now developing. 

In short, expect what is age-appropriate behavior, and don’t accept what is not. A four-year old is light years beyond a two-year old. But all of this being said, one size does not fit all. Each child is different. Simply don’t let him take the emphasis off liturgy for others at church. Use the nursery as needed. Your child, and you, will learn with time. 

All it Takes is Mutual Love

Keeping a church child-friendly is always a two-way street. Respect and admiration for parents struggling—yes, struggling—to raise their children in a God-pleasing way is essential. Our Lord Jesus Christ went so far as to admonish his disciples for their attitudes toward children. He had been preaching the Kingdom to throngs on the sea coast of Galilee. He was tired, and although the Apostles sought to protect his rest, He encouraged them to bring young children to him for a blessing.

Jesus said:“Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.”

— Matthew 19:14 

Certainly, it is one thing to hear about the Kingdom and another thing to perceive that it is already in our midst. The Apostles had heard but had not discerned to see the Kingdom dawning on the seashore that day. It is equally a challenge in this day for us as adults.

At the same time, parents need to be considerate of those many others in church who can be distracted by the uncontrolled behavior of little ones. As this series of articles has appeared on the past several months, I can really tell that parents are working harder, with age-appropriate solutions in mind.  There seems to be a more respectful attitude forming during certain parts of liturgy when extra care is called.

If one thinks about it, the deacons are always giving us a heads-up. Sometimes you hear the remarks that start the services (“Master, bless!”); otherwise, perhaps not (“It is time for the Lord to act.”). These aren’t public proclamations, but actions for the priest to take, in case he might forget. (Always a possibility.)

Yet, when the Deacon intones a liturgical command audibly, such as “Let us pray to the Lord,” it means everybody is called to do that part or action. It really does mean “us” and not merely the choir, for example.

 “Wisdom, attend…” really means we need to pay special attention to what is about to happen. “Let us stand aright…” can mean to stand up, if one is sitting.  But it also means to be more spiritually attentive, as well, if already standing. “The Doors, the Doors…” originally meant to close the inner doors of the temple after the “catechumens depart.” It still serves as a reminder there is to be no entering or exiting because the Anaphora is about to be offered.

“Let us bow our heads to the Lord…” should be self-explanatory. Likewise, so should “Let us go in peace…”, but sadly, this dynamic action is sometimes lost in the rush to the parking lot or coffee hour.

I leave with a poignant vignette from this past Holy Friday services, at the Unnailing from the Cross. As I approached the corpus on the Cross, one of our littlest but very ambulatory ones darted in front of me to kiss the feet of the Savior. Parents, fellow clergy, and altar boys rushed discreetly to “remove” her.  I held out my hands to hold them back and help lift her up, somehow, as I switched the censer to the other hand.  (Clergy are quite adept at liturgical multitasking.) She placed a tender kiss on Jesus’ foot, and then retreated to her mother’s side.

In that one moment, maybe ten seconds in duration, I beheld the whole Gospel, where one is compelled to rush through the crowd to touch the body of Jesus.  She did it instinctively and she did it lovingly, with her lips. It ultimately demonstrated the point of being having children in church, struggling as a community to keep a child-friendly parish. It takes patience and understanding on everyone’s part. It takes perseverance on the part of all parishioners. 

Above all, it takes mutual love.

From the Rector’s Desk,
Fr. John