We currently serve in a small church just a few miles from our home. We’ve been there for nearly 5 years, so I’m in the midst of guiding my 3rd child through the toddler stage there. (And since Elli was so developmentally delayed, she never really left the toddler stage either.)
Through this time, I’ve observed that the currently-popular format for “doing church” doesn’t readily accommodate the needs of the mother of young children. Age-segregated classes require many workers. At a small church, finding people to staff the nursery and teach the toddlers can be especially challenging. As a mom, I feel obligated to volunteer since I’m bringing the “customers.” But in doing that, especially at the frequency required in a small church, this removes me and the other volunteers from adult classes and services frequently. And even when we aren’t in a classroom, we’re still on call, especially with babies still nursing.
Even more challenging are the events for the whole family. In theory, these should be easier because we’re all together. But in practice, I find it very stressful to try to keep the very young children from creating distractions for everyone else. They aren’t old enough to physically sit still or be quiet for long periods of time. So I end up taking them out of the event, sometimes almost immediately if we’re having a particularly bad day. I’ve walked the halls or sat with a child in an empty classroom through countless services, concerts, dinners. This becomes rather isolating.
Adding to the challenge of these whole-family events are the un-childsafe environments they are frequently held in. Young children are insatiably curious, which translates into impeccable ability to hone in on any tempting but dangerous diversion within reach.
For example, the Thursday before Easter our church has a special candle-lit meal. With actual lighted candles. This meal has great ambiance… for everyone else. I am not able to enjoy it because if I let down my guard or look away even for a second, one of my children will burn themselves or set the whole place on fire or pull a tablecloth covered with hot-food-filled dishes into our laps. Who knew how hazardous tablecloths were?
This is part of what makes parenting so draining. The job is unrelenting. Mothers, because they are giving of themselves so incessantly, are particularly in need of time to leave all that at the door, worship, and stockpile their souls with truth for the moments ahead. They need to be encouraged and inspired and motivated to dust themselves off when they screw up, move forward in God’s strength, and do better next time.
I wish I had an easy remedy. In a larger church, there are more people to carry the load. In a perfect world we could fill the schedules and classrooms with people who do not have young children at home. These precious people would be delighted to give an hour or two every few weeks to allow their bone-weary and frazzled sisters time to refresh and worship unencumbered and un-distracted. But we don’t live in a perfect world.
I wonder if perhaps it is time to reconsider what and how we “do church.” We should also consider our expectations of one another. Perhaps I’m overly-concerned about how my children wiggling and prancing and whispering affects others. Perhaps others expect more out of young children than is reasonable. I don’t know.
What I do know is that the Bible doesn’t give us an order of service to follow on Sunday. It doesn’t prescribe Sunday School at 9:30 followed by 3 hymns, an offering, and a sermon. It does tell us not to forsake the gathering of believers. We occasionally read of how those early churches spent their time together. They enjoyed meals together (by candlelight no less) and learned from readings from the Scriptures they had available to them. It’s pretty simple, actually. I’d love to see us return to that simplicity.
But I certainly wouldn’t turn down a kindly soul who offered to take my toddler to watch the cars and trucks outside, either!