Are you a parent?
If so, I dedicate this weeks blog to you. Because I too am a parent, and I have to admit - it's not easy.
But let me start with a quick illustration to set the foundation for what I will say next. When I was in Army basic training I noticed something interesting. The training itself wasn't actually that hard. I had been a wrestler in high school and when it came to physical training, I found that ten times harder. And yet, basic training remains one of the most difficult things I ever did. The reason is simple: sleep deprivation. Somehow, everything gets 20 times harder when you are sleep deprived. Tasks that you would normally be able to do with relative ease, become nearly impossible.
But basic training isn't the hardest thing I have ever done. Parenting is. Because now you can add emotional deprivation to your sleep deprivation and suddenly, the simplest tasks become overwhelming. As Emily Morrice noted in her article, "Moms with Hands Full Need the Church"
That includes church. If something as simple as leaving the house or getting inside the car becomes ridiculously difficult with kids, can you imagine going to church? If you are a parent, you don't need to. You already know - its insane.
But here's the thing - even though life is difficult with kids there are ways to make things easier. There are all kinds of tools and resources to alleviate some of the stress. Nowadays, there are even barber shops designed just for kids with airplanes and fire engines for them to sit in during their hair-cut. It's genius! But in my estimation, when it comes to making worship meaningful for the family, the local Adventist church is generally way behind. Here are 3 ways in which we fail our families and what we can do better.
1. Stares and Comparisons
There is nothing worse for a parent than a kid throwing a tantrum in church. Oh wait, yes there is something worse. A kid throwing a tantrum in church with everyone staring and no one offering to help. Yep. That's definitely worse. And it happens all the time.
But I can also think of one other thing that's worse. Parents asking church leadership to think of ways to make the church experience easier only to be met with "Well, when I had little children we did it like this" or "My kids never acted like that". The message behind these comparisons is clear: "You are not as good a parent as I was because if you were you wouldn't be having any problems." But this is nonsense. Kids are different, some high energy and others low. And parents are different as well and have different stress limits. Comparing is a sure way of saying, "We don't really care about you."
The solution to this is a cultural shift and cultural shift only happens in conversation and relationship. Many of our churches lack in relationship (In Natural Church Development surveys, Adventists consistently score low in the "relationship" side of things) and this is the only real way to change culture. But this is a long journey. In the meantime, I encourage pastors to find ways of speaking possitivity into this space either through sermons, comments or a church email newsletter. I also encourage churches to create a space for parents to gather and worship together and to find an advocate for those parents who can develop ways of making life easier for them. This can be either an individual or a committee specifically assigned to that task (if the situation calls for it).
2. Substandard Parenting Rooms
I don't know how many Adventist churches I have been to with substandard parenting rooms. Whether they are way too small, under resourced, isolated from the main service or difficult to enter and exit with a pram the message these rooms communicate is "you aren't that important to us".
Churches, especially the older ones, need to prioritize a renovation budget and plan for their parents room and make it a space that nurtures the parents church experience rather than hinder it. If a renovation is out of the scope of reality, there are still other things that can be done. The bottom line is this: Most local SDA churches don't have a lot of budget invested in the children's department and yet, these are the ages where kids are already cementing their decisions for Christ. For example:
In light of this, we need to invest way more in our kids ministry than we do anywhere else.
3. Lack of consideration
I don't know how many times my wife has said to me, "why do I even come to church?" The kids don't listen, act up the whole time, which means she cant listen, worship or do any church thing. She either ends up sitting in the substandard parenting room or takes the kids to the car and sits there until I'm done preaching. Grant it, part of the problem is she doesn't always have my help because I have to preach. But I have spoken to many other parents who tell me the same thing. Some go to Sabbath school, and then leave right after because, whats the point of even trying to go to the main service?
At this point some people pipe up with the old, "If you don't take them, how will they learn to sit in church and behave?" Let me tell you why I absolutely despise that argument: because its d.u.m.b.
I have seen plenty of people come to church for the first time ever with their nine or ten year old kids, and the kids sit perfectly still. They had no practice or training whatsoever. But hey, they were so well behaved! Know why? Because they are old enough to sit still. This whole, "you need to drag your 3 year old into this horrendously boring experience every week and then get mad at them and tell them off for not doing something a 3 year old is not meant to do anyways so that they can learn to do it" is utter nonsense. The real problem is our church services are never designed with kids in mind. They are designed to meet the needs of adults who favor a verbal-logical learning style (ignoring other learning styles such as visual, aural, physical and social). As a result kids, as well as teens and youth, tend to get bored. But for me, the worst part is seeing young moms who are single and seeking God come to church and have to leave early because their kid threw a tantrum. So this isn't simply an inreach issue, its an outreach one as well.
My suggestion is, we need to develop worship gatherings that can speak to every learning style and make life easy for parents with kids. A church designed exclusively for the verbal-logical doesn't have room for kids. They are a nuisance because they are loud and don't sit still. But a church gathering designed to incorporate movement, visual art, social interaction and sounds is a good place to start. Alternatively, a children's church running alongside the main service can work as well. But my main point is this - make the incorporation of children in worship an active and intentional part of your worship planning. If you take that first basic step, you will find and develop solutions that work in your local context.
What other ways can local Adventist churches make church more meaningful for parents of young children?