I think this most Sundays. Our 3-year-old daughter doesn’t like going to the in-service Sunday school class, so for the past year or so, she’s been sitting with us all the way through the service. That’s not a good idea. But part of the rules is that if she wants to sit with the grown-ups then she needs to act like one and be quiet – and, in a classic case of proving that sometimes our kids will actually live up to our expectations if we set them high enough, she’s done a great job.
Of course, she’s helped a great deal by a little purse full of toys, two snacks (one for when the singing starts, the other for the sermon) and the Sunday Scribes bags the church provides, each with a pad of paper and baggie of crayons. J quietly sits on the floor and creates page after page of crayon drawings and hands them to me while I worship, pray, take communion and listen to the preaching.
To me, that’s a win-win-win. She’s learning how to be quiet for extended stretches of time when silence would be truly necessary (a funeral or wedding, for example), my wife and I get to fully engage in worship, and the folks around us aren’t distracted by toddler shenanigans.
For others, apparently, this is not the ideal situation.
On Rachel Held Evans’ blog, guest writer Kim Van Brunt had this to say about why she left her church:
I’d always considered the children’s activity bags for the church service a gift to parents, but began hearing their subtle message to children that they are best seen and not heard, when really, God loves them loud and wild, like they really are.
That is indeed a subtle message – so subtle I’m pretty sure it’s nonexistent.
Forgive me for probably being rude, but this just seems cranky. Usually when I think of crankiness in church, I think of people like this guy, upset that worship styles have moved away from his comfort zone. But liberal crankiness is alive and well, too, it seems.
Because marking down children’s activity bags as a reason – even if that’s not the main reason – for leaving a church (the church? Her post is ambiguous on this point) strikes me as more than a little petty.
And I can see an argument for why we should let our kids be “loud and wild” in church, secure in the knowledge that God loves them and so does everyone else, no matter how they act. But I can see a little better the argument that there is no situation in their lives in which they will be able to act however they want, so why should church be any different? That’s not to say they should be forced to sit in a chair and sing with the songs and listen to the sermon when they’re 2 or 3, but teaching them – lovingly – how to be quiet while they sit among others at an event does not seem cruel. Further, there’s the fact that the activity bags are less for the church and more for the parents.
Let me tell a story about why we left the church we were attending. It wasn’t because of a theological falling out or anything like that. It was because of our kids.
It was a small church, and they didn’t really have a set nursery worker, so a lot of the times, we had our kids – 2 and newborn at the time – out in the service. Which was fine, until J inevitably couldn’t take the silence anymore and no activities would pacify her. She’d get loud or start running in the back of the church.
Here’s the thing: No one minded but us. One day, after a particularly hard service, an older man came up to us and told us how much he enjoyed seeing our daughters in church and thanked us for bringing them. Several times, after we’d apologize to someone around us for the loudness of the girls, they’d genuinely smile and tell us not to worry about it. In the end, however, we couldn’t take it. We were the only ones consistently available to watch the girls, and that meant we were barely singing the songs, missing all or most of the sermon and otherwise skipping huge portions of the service. We were the only family with a toddler, and we couldn’t handle being so disruptive in a small assembly. So we thought about it and prayed about it, and with sadness, moved to a bigger church with a solid children’s program that allowed us – and our daughters – to be better fed. It was the right choice. We feel more at home in this 2,000 member church than in the 50-member one, which is no knock against the smaller church, which we loved and still love; it turns out it just wasn’t a good fit.
All of that to say: Activity bags aren’t always for the kids. Sometimes they’re for the parents, who need to feel like they aren’t disrupting the worship of those around them. I’m not going to judge someone else’s reasons for leaving a church; Van Brunt surely had other, deeper reasons for leaving, though she didn’t specify them in her post, and I’m sure my reasons for switching churches sound shallow and unsatisfactory to some of you. But when I read posts like hers, which focus on activity bags and the Sunday school reward system as reasons to abandon a community of faith – if not the community of faith – I can’t help but think of the anonymous sermon to an unknown audience we know as the Book of Hebrews.
The entire sermon focuses on perseverance. For whatever reason, the audience is struggling with keeping their faith, perhaps because they’re the only ones with the faith, and the longer you’re immersed with people who believe differently from you, the more you’re going to question your own beliefs. They likely experienced oppression of some kind. Stuff, in other words, with which we are completely unfamiliar as 21st-century Americans; we are surrounded by Christianity, and we are privileged.
So what does the writer of Hebrews say to them? Don’t leave church! Hebrews 10:25:
Don’t stop meeting together with other believers, which some people have gotten into the habit of doing. Instead, encourage each other, especially as you see the day drawing near.
How much more does this apply to us, who aren’t experiencing any of the hardships seen by that early Christian community, whoever and wherever they were? What would the writer of Hebrews say to us – myself included – when we pull away over worship styles or activity bags or lack of a nursery program?
We have the benefit in America of being choosy about our churches, and I think everyone feels a little guilty when they move to a new place and go through the process of “church shopping.” It would perhaps be better if we had just one option, and everyone who loved Jesus one way had to get along with everyone else who loved Jesus in slightly different ways. But one of the benefits is we can find a place where we fit in – small or big, instruments or not, staid or charismatic. In our case, it turned out a bigger church is better for our family, and we’re grateful for the congregation with whom we meet each week, even though I still feel guilty about switching.
But with the choices we have comes the great responsibility of not letting crankiness override our love and patience for others. It’s so easy to leave, and it’s so hard to stay. Sometimes, though, the hard thing is the right thing.