I remember asking my Dad if I needed to tithe on my small allowance when I was very young. How could a dime make a difference to the work of the church? I wondered. “I think I should wait to start tithing until I have more to give,” I said, as he handed me my dollar. “If I had a hundred dollars and could give ten, it would matter more,” I said. “And it would be a lot easier then, because I’d still have 90 left to spend,” I thought. “If you don’t learn to do it with a small amount,” he said, “you’ll never do it when you have more. It gets harder, not easier.” I never forgot his wise counsel and have often thanked God for giving me my Dad who taught me the importance of gladly giving back to God. But it’s not just generosity God wants from his people, no matter how young. He wants their attention. And ultimately, their worship. It’s easy to look at your squirming, squawking, distracting toddlers and young children and think, surely it will be easier to train them to sit still and listen quietly to the sermon when they’re older. But as with early lessons in giving money back to God, so too, early lessons in giving attention to God have the potential to bear much fruit. We didn’t start taking our little ones into the service with us until our third child was born. By then, we were attending a mega church where a handful of families who kept their children in the service all clustered together in one area of the auditorium. What started as a practical help to us getting to church on time—thereby avoiding the multi-room, even multi-building drop-off—soon became a matter of conviction. I didn’t realize how formative it could be for young ones to sing along with Mom and Dad, to color quietly while the pastor preached, to ask simple questions on the drive home about what they heard, in an effort to encourage their listening. But I was so glad God changed our minds about taking our kids with us into worship. Just a few other families, amidst hundreds, were enough to help us take courage and break out of the status quo of the “children’s church” model. It may feel like an overwhelming idea: keeping your children of all ages with you in church. But it is not only possible, it is rich with promise; and likely not as hard a transition as you might fear.
Practice Active Listening We tend to get good at what we practice. This works to our benefit with piano lessons, but also to our harm with vices. If you hand your child your smart phone or tablet for the short-term gains of keeping her quiet, you will set her on the dangerous path of getting very practiced at tuning out the preaching of God’s Word. You may assume she’ll naturally pay attention when she’s older, but paying attention is something we must work at, no matter our age. We all need help to extend our naturally short attention spans. One of the best ways you can do that is by minimizing, not increasing, distractions. Sitting quietly and listening in church can be learned by even very young children and it is a worthy goal to level earn how; but not merely for the peace of the people around you in church.
Listen for Salvation God designed us to believe in Christ by way of our ears. Paul says in Romans 10:14, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” Hearing is essential to salvation. But merely being in the room where the salvation message is preached faithfully is not enough. The high number of children raised in the church who leave when they become teenagers shows that it is not enough to get your children to church.
According to R.C. Sproul, “A recent survey of people who used to be church members revealed that the main reason they stopped going to church is that they found it boring.” What children do while they are in church matters. How many countless people heard Paul preach but to no saving effect? “In one ear and out the other,” so the saying goes. What made the difference? Luke says in Acts 16:14, “One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.” Two things stand out as necessary for saving faith: the work of the Lord to regenerate the sinner’s heart, and the active listening of paying attention.
This is not a passive posture, but one that anticipates receiving something from the speaker. Pray for your children and with your children that God will give them the ability to pay attention. We have made it our habit to pray as a family in the car on the way to church. My husband asks the Lord to bless the preaching of God’s Word, and to give us ears to hear it. It is so important your children know that you need help to pay attention, too!
Model Joyful Listening Once there, model paying attention for joy, for love to God, and for being built up by the Word preached. Listening to the active, living Word that is sharper than any two-edged sword, with the power to raise the dead to life and transform them into the image of Christ should not be drudgery. Do your children know you love God’s Word? That you look forward to hearing it preached? Do they see you listening to it and loving it, being challenged and convicted by it, and ultimately, being changed by it?
No matter what you say about the centrality of the Word preached, it is how you behave in relation to it that will have the greatest impact on your children. Your kids need to see you being joyful, expectant, convicted, engaged, transformed—everything but bored. At its heart, the reason quiet listening matters is not primarily so you won’t disturb the people around you—the quiet part—but so that you will hear words of life—the listening part—and be transformed by the Word of Life.
Plan Ahead A little planning ahead of time can help orient your children to the service and know what to expect.
Set Expectations. Tell your children that the worship service isn’t a time to eat, or talk, or play, but to listen, learn, and believe. Help your children by providing quiet activities that help them listen and serve those in the pews or chairs around them. Consider getting them a church notebook and pen or pencil for drawing pictures of what they’re hearing, and when they’re able to write, to take notes.
Practice. Take an order of service, program, or liturgy—whatever your church provides for following along—and go through it at home, explaining when to speak, when to sing, when to sit, when to stand, etc. Let them know that you want them to join in the activities. Consider listening to the songs that will be sung and sing them together.
Prepare. Feed your children a hearty breakfast so they won’t be distracted by a growling stomach. Take them to the bathroom before the service starts with the goal of remaining in the service without interruption. It is worth every effort you make to train your children to join in the singing, listen to the preaching, and participate in the praying of God’s Word. This is the path to everlasting life. *For further encouragement and practical help, Truth78 has created a reproducible PDF for parents and churches, “8 Tips for Helping Your Child Worship.”