Dearest church people,
Get ready. In two days it’ll be Christmas Eve, your congregation will welcome people in for one of the biggest nights of the year. Get ready: you may be blessed with an overrun of visitors, and I hope some of those visitors will be children and their parents.
In the spirit of preparation (it is Advent, after all), I write to you with my qualifications as both a minister who has specialized in children and youth and, for the last few years, a pew-sitter: without a full time clergy position, I have done more pew sitting than worship leading.
And this season, I suspect, is the hardest of my pew sitting: I currently have a three lovely children, and we’re doing all the ages and stages right now. The oldest, at 10, is in that phase where she can follow along in church, but sometimes I have to remind her. Sometimes, this results in a little preteen mother daughter drama. The 5 year old wants to move. He has the energy of a Pentecostal, which is perhaps a bit more than your average grown up Lutheran (we currently attend a Lutheran church). And the 2 year old has recently learned that she has pipes, so she will deliver quite the yelp if someone takes what she believes to be her crayon. She’s also a bit of a Pentecostal, occasionally making a dash for the aisle because she thinks that music is for dancing, and she has a hard time waiting her turn when it’s time to go forward to receive communion. Sundays in our pew are sort of like wrestling a squirmy pet monkey, all while juggling hymnals and Bibles, with my husband and I tag teaming the kids when one or the other of us has to attend to something we’ve volunteered for (he’s a frequent worship assistant; we both teach in the short Sunday School pull out that happens during our church’s sermon.)
All this is to say, I know what I’m talking about when it comes to being in the pews with kids during worship. I know that they are not, in fact, the most contemplative pew companions. I also know, from a professional standpoint, that there’s some pretty significant evidence that children who feel welcome during the worship service that’s meant for the entire gathered community are more likely to be involved church members when they grow up. It’s important to me that I leave that legacy for my children, so I’m doing my best to keep them in worship as much as possible. This is why we attend a church that is very welcoming to children (with the occasional lapse: no one is perfect).
And so, here are my requests for Christmas Eve worship, when you may have many children and families in your pews. You may have regular attenders, occasional visitors, first timers, grown up children of the church coming home. There may a be a few kids who have never set foot inside a church before. This is a huge responsibility for a congregation. Please, for the sake of the baby Jesus, try to be as welcoming as possible.
If a kid is loud or squirmy or even gets away from their family, do not stare, give a side eye, or (God forbid) reprimand. Smile warmly. Practice this in the mirror if you have to. If it bothers you that this is disruptive to the peace and quiet you expect of Christmas celebrations, remind yourself that Jesus was a baby, who was probably noisy despite what the Christmas carols claim; and that Jesus born in a stable in a town that was overflowing with visitors. The first Christmas was probably a little chaotic. And the point of the incarnation is that God shows up among us, even with all our messiness and chaos.
If you can see any way to be helpful, do it. Offer to carry a diaper bag for a Dad whose hands are full. Play peek-a-boo over the pew with a kid who grins at you. If you are greeting visitors, go out of your way to talk to the children (sometimes I bend down and introduce myself to a child before a parent), and tell them you are so glad they brought their children. If there’s a nursery, feel free to tell parents it’s available, but add a comment like, “but your children are of course welcome here if that’s more comfortable for your family.” (Remember that, particularly for a family that’s unfamiliar with your church, dropping their kid off with a stranger, even if you have the best nursery attendants ever, might not work.) Think hospitality: how can you welcome every person, with your complete attention, and without any judgment? And welcoming all children on Christmas Eve? It’s a spiritual practice: remember how Jesus said that in welcoming the stranger you welcome him (Matthew 25:35-36)?
If there’s something going on between a child and a parent and it’s not how you would do things were you in that parent’s shoes, create for yourself a mindset of gracious imagination. You probably don’t know the whole story for this family, even if they are regular members of your church. A toddler might be teething. There might be extra stressors in this family’s life right now. Sibling rivalry may be at a high point between two children. A child may have some special needs of which you are unaware. The comment you think is polite, or the eyeroll you thought was subtle might be the final straw for a family that is struggling, a stab to the heart of a parent who is trying their best.
And, if after putting all these things into practice on Christmas Eve, you are still left feeling like something about the presence of children took away from your experience of worship, I’d encourage you to ask yourself two questions. First, are there things about the way your congregation does worship that are, in fact, unwelcoming to children? For instance, worship that is completely un-interactive is incredibly boring for children: they are asked to simply listen, rather than participate, for over an hour. This can happen by accident in some churches around Christmas if we have fewer opportunities for people to sing because we pack the service with as many choir pieces as possible. Not that I don’t love the choir at Christmas…or, when we are so concerned that with so many people in worship any of the times when we might normally have an opportunity to move around (passing the peace; coming forward for communion, etc.) are viewed as a hassle and cut from the liturgy. Maybe there’s a way you can help be an agent for change in your church, and help to ensure that worship engages people at all ages and stages of life: jot down some notes and ideas, and see if you can chat with your pastor (offer to wait until February: most pastors are actually quite busy catching up with the things that just didn’t get done in December, as well as the general business of church in January). Go into this conversation prepared to listen to what the pastor might say (they have some expertise in this area) and prepared to offer to help with implementation.
The second question is more important, though. If children took away from your experience of worship, is that because worship is about you, or about the community? If communal worship is your only time for a quiet, peaceful, personal experience of God’s presence, you may need to rethink your spiritual practices. If worship is meant for the entire community of God’s people (which includes people of all ages), it may not be the best chance for you to find peace amidst complete silence and without distraction.
Come to think of it, most of this is pretty good guidance for worship throughout the year.
So, get ready, Church folk: Christmas Eve is an incredible opportunity to open your doors and let the world know who we are. We are a people who believe that God came to us, in the midst of chaos, long nights, and messiness, and came into the world as one of us, kicking and screaming. And because of this, our arms are open, no matter who you are, how old you are, or how well you sit still in a pew.