The other day someone asked me how I was. I said, “Hmm, I guess I’m tired and on top of the world.”
This Sunday we went to church for the first time as a family of 5.
As churches we can do a lot of talking about being “welcoming.” But we often confuse being polite with being welcoming. I’m sure Kierkegaard has a quote somewhere about politeness being the 8th deadly sin.
So here are a few thoughts about my experience last Sunday. I know that each age of children has it’s own contours, but these reflect my own personal experience as a dad with very young kids at this stage of life.
You should also know that I’m the pastor of this church and am taking some time away with my family after our new baby was born. Hence: I’m in the pews and loving that time with my family!
My first observation is one I share with others all the time:
1. Just getting there is an “against the stream” miracle
It’s a tonne of work. While most of our friends and family are hitting the snooze button we’re about to rally a herd of high-needs turtles to church. 50 years ago people “just went.” It’s what people did. There was a natural river-like current pushing people to church. It was cultural. Now, the tides have turned. There is a natural current pushing people away from church (and, of course, from Jesus). We’re like those salmon using every muscle to jump and swim upstream against the stream.
There are so many reasons not to go, especially when you’re tired. But we do it anyway. It is what God wants and he knows what’s better for us than we do. Plus, there’s gratitude! In my family we’ve come to the point where we identify with Mark Holmen’s mom. [To see Holmen’s brilliant book, Faith Begins at Home, click here]. She said, and we agree, that we don’t have to go to church; we get to go to church.
So in our morning we thankfully march forward with our routines. We deal with dirty diapers, have a meal, brush teeth, get reasonable outfits on the kids (despite their efforts to dress themselves), try to get ourselves looking presentable as mom and dad while spelling each other off with the kids.
We seemed to be ready half an hour before we had to be there (we only live 1 minute away), and my wife said, “Okay, let’s get into the car.” I said, “Really?” She was right. By the time Team-Slow-Mo has another “discussion” about changing outfits, missing favourite blankeys, and which shoes match what, we’re rushing to get there on time.
We’re in the car and I hit the brakes. We forgot our offering. My wife reminds me that we’re on the pre-authorized withdrawal program. Yes! Small victories, folks.
And did I mention packing snacks and a few toys in case they’re needed? Oh, and where’s my name tag! I think I saw it stuck on Elmo stuffed in the toy kitchen downstairs. Let’s forget about it.
I hold fast to what I wrote in a magazine article a few months ago [click here to read] that in these changing times we need to treat every single person who takes a leap of faith, packs up the family and comes to a strange thing called a worship service on a Sunday morning when everyone else is hitting the snooze button, like a direct miracle from God Almighty. Upstream. (But we know that’s where the gold is.)
2. We’re loud
Before the service it’s okay—people are coming in and talking. Kids are greeting other kids with hugs. And then the first song—great! It’s Days of Elijah so we’re all having a blast. Our 2-week old is miraculously sleeping through the whole thing. She’ll wake up at the sound of a breeze at 3am, but Days of Elijah pumps out and she doesn’t budge. Go figure.
Then the first prayer starts. My 2-year old isn’t good at understanding the need for silence during this time. Yes, he wonderfully clasped his hands in prayer fashion for a few moments, but that didn’t stop him from making tractor noises. I silently chuckle, but I also wonder who we’re disturbing; I wonder who has had a tough week and needs this moment of centering.
3. Kid-friendliness is key
There’s a great ‘kids time.’ I am so thankful every week that our church is fairly kid-friendly. We’ve still got some work to do but we’re well on our way. There are clipboards with stickers and colouring pages (refreshed every week) that are there when the toddlers and younger ones need a bit of help. And for the children’s song, they go up to the front and can play small instruments there and dance if they want. Our worship leaders had prepared a great skit that engaged the kids.
Worship is for them too.
Usually the kids then leave for Sunday School, but this day was an “all in” service. It was in preparation for Vacation Bible Camp, so there was a bit of a different feel. Younger people helped with some of the intercessory prayers, with the offering, and Scripture readings.
There are moments in ministry you will never forget. You know it when it happens. One young man brought up the Bible at the start of the service. He put it in the pulpit. You couldn’t see him in the big pulpit, he wasn’t tall enough to be seen over the edge; but you could see his little hands lift up the Bible and flip the pages flip open. I’m sure an angel was whispering Psalm 22 in my ear: “future generations will be told about the Lord.”
Other considerations: What happens if our infant needs to nurse? Fortunately, I’m the pastor so I have a master key to every room in the place! My wife could easily sneak away while I took our 2-year old to our bright, friendly, well-staffed nursery and keep our 4-year old with me. Now, our infant happened to sleep the whole time, but how friendly is your church to people like us and in these situations? If they show up and there is no hospitality for their situation, they probably won’t be back.
There isn’t the same ‘denominational loyalty’ as there was before. There are many factors at play but people usually connect with a church (any church) that is fairly close, provides a welcoming authentic community, and is full of the hope-filled Gospel of Christ. (Notice I didn’t say that it had to be ‘perfect.’) There is always Community-Church-Y down the street with a solid message, smooth liturgy and programming, and staff of 8 who would be happy to welcome your visitors the next time they drive past. That sounds harsh and a bit cynical. But isn’t it also true?
4. Who’s Looking at Us?
When kids are in the service there are bound to be interruptions. Our Music Director Jenn was offering the message and she did wonderfully. She has a deep faith, respect for Scripture and love for Jesus. But a few minutes in I had to sneak out with one of the kids. We played at the back for a bit. Then we came in again shortly thereafter. Later, we had to go out again. A snack was needed and we had a shoe malfunction. Yikes! As a preacher I know that when this happens people are temporarily side-tracked as they look at what’s happening—and it’s tough to sometimes bring people back if their train of thought has been disrupted. So I was even more aware of this. But hey, life happens!
5. Togetherness, Respect, Truth, Grace
A few Scriptures come to mind. The first is that God wants us to come together as Christians (See Hebrews 10:25). Another is that we are to worship with “reverence and awe” (Hebrews 12:28). The last is that Jesus’ presence among us is characterized by grace and truth (John 1:14).
We come together. And when we do it’s sometimes a bit messy. But in my view, gone are the days of totally-buttoned-down, be-quiet-and-stare-at-the-front services. In addition to not being helpful to many people who learn in different ways in our changing age, these gatherings don’t really reflect family. At our family reunions people are all mixed together—there’s laughter, crying, rejoicing, mistakes and meaning. Together.
But in church there’s also respect and reverence. We can’t just do what we want because we need to acknowledge that as a diverse group we need to create space for a diversity of people to enter into worship. That also includes time of focus and quiet and contemplation. Our service flows based on the patterns and wisdom of worship in Scripture and our great tradition. The whole morning should be a reflection of the salvation story.
Then grace. That’s big. It means God’s generosity toward us we do not deserve. We’ve received it as a gift and it characterizes (or should) our dealings with others. It’s not really optional; it’s the Gospel. No church can survive without grace and compromise. Why? Because churches are full of humans.
And truth. I think our church environment is evolving to the point where many ages can hear the truth of God’s love in Jesus. That’s the truth. We’re doing everyone a disservice if we cut it off from anyone. My 4-year old pointed out the cross at the front of the church. ‘That reminds us about Jesus. When he died it was sad. But now we’re happy because he’s alive again!’ God’s story grows in us as we grow.
Really, we’re blessed. No one was really upset at our disturbances; there is good rejoicing at the kids around and the good things happening. I love that.
This blog is a bit long, so let me end with this. I remember a Christmas Eve service when I was young. The Minister, Jim Thomson, aware that there were many young kids and babies in the service (and therefore jittery parents), said, ‘If you have young children and babies here, please don’t worry if they make some noise. Just remember that the line in Away in a Manger that says “No crying he makes” is probably wrong!
The barn is tranquil, holy, smelly, and a bit unpredictable all at once. That’s family. And church.