Children in Church
Elissa Bjeletich · September 20, 2012
Elissa explains how to be responsible for a child during the Divine Liturgy.
Welcome to Raising Saints. It seems to me that you can’t have a podcast about raising Orthodox children without, at some point, talking about bringing our kids to church, literally about how to be responsible for a child during the Divine Liturgy. As far as I can tell, just about every parent is at least sometimes frustrated with their child or children’s behavior in church.
Some of us were less regular about church attendance before we had children, but becoming parents gets our attention. We realize that if we want our children raised in the Church, we’re going to have to attend church all the time—but it’s not easy. For most families I know, it’s literally a struggle to get to the church. Whether it’s one child or ten, getting them cleaned up and dressed and into that car is just harder on Sunday mornings than it is on weekdays.
Many times, it’s a battle to get the family to church, and then we arrive, triumphant in the parking lot, and we take a deep breath and brace ourselves, because we know that that was just the warm-up. Now begins the battle inside the church: Stop squirming. Don’t kick that. Stop hitting your sister. Please stand up. No talking in church. And in my family: please stop dancing and hollering and hitting those people and sit down quietly!
My five girls are a delight to me, but sometimes their free-spirited natures are a handful in church. I like to think that one of my ministries in our parish is making other people feel better about their children’s behavior, because none of them could possibly be worse than my five girls. I am forever grateful to the dear priest who told me that Orthodox children are sometimes more boisterous in church because they feel at home there. They know that they’re in their Father’s house. I really like to think that my children are at home with God, but it’s still my responsibility to teach them how to behave.
I’ve been thinking about this issue, and about what we in the parish ministries can do to be helpful to parents. When my 11-year-old daughter, Vasi, happened to attend church with one of her best friends, whose family is Methodist… Now, we live in Texas, and my kids have many Protestant friends, and they talk about religion all the time, but they haven’t actually been to Protestant services, so when we picked her up, the whole family was all ears. We wanted to know what she’d seen, what was different, what was the same.
I fully expected to hear the basic, obvious differences—that this church had no icons, no incense, no chanting—but I was surprised by the differences she reported. Of course, I should say this is no comment on the Methodist service, which I did not even attend, but rather it’s a look at what my daughter thinks we’re doing in the Orthodox Church. Her comments told me a lot more about who we are and how our kids are experiencing life in the Church than it ever could about her friends or about their religious experience.
The first observation she offered was that the service had less music than ours, and that the music was totally different. She wasn’t commenting so much on the melody or the style as the way it was sung. She heard a performance. A woman stood at the front of the church and sang a hymn, while the parish congregation sat and listened as her attentive audience. Vasi contrasted it to our Orthodox parish, where just about every parishioner sings together, led by our talented choir, in complex and beautiful hymns. In her experience—and I know that this is not entirely true of every Orthodox parish, but in my daughter’s experience—Orthodox worship is marked by the singing of the people. All of the people.
We have lived in parishes where regular folks sing in the choir, and also in parishes with amazingly talented and well-known choirs, but from the most humble to the most spectacular, we have loved the hymns of our Church not for the voices leading them but for the joy of singing along with them. Knowing our beloved hymns and then standing together with one another and with the angels in a sacred space, singing out together in peace and thanksgiving, in joy and in earnest prayer, this communal participation, this communion—this is our Divine Liturgy. This is ours, and it’s what we’re giving to our children.
As the conversation unfolded, Vasi told us about a Catholic friend of hers who once said that their liturgy had beautiful music and she loved singing along, but that she endured a lot of boring spoken parts between those hymns. Vasi proudly told her that she should come to our church, where everything is sung, and where only the sermon would interrupt her opportunities to join the singing.
It’s not the music itself, but the fact of their participation that the girls were discussing. They wanted to sing. Having an active role keeps the kids’ attention. Singing along with the hymns brings them inside the Liturgy. It transforms them from the audience to the active participants. This is no accident, but it’s the very intent of the Fathers who designed our Liturgy. The word “Liturgy” means the work of the people. This is our work, our effort, our action. We aren’t the audience for Orthodox worship. We’re the acting agents of it. We stand, we pray, we sing. We don’t watch the Liturgy; we do it. And amazingly, my daughter knows that. She learned it through experience.
Now the next observation my daughter offered stunned me. She declared that in that service, the children were not expected to listen to the service. Now, I imagine that the Methodists would beg to differ here, so I pressed her. “What makes you say that?” She replied that each child was handed a bag of books and crayons and coloring books upon entering the church, so she had deduced that their children were expected to benefit from these books rather than from the services. The parents weren’t offered a kit of distractions, so clearly they were expected to be focused on the service.
Vasi’s words here stopped me dead in my tracks. I have a confession to make. Just a few days before, I’d seen some of those children-in-church kits: cotton bags with Bible stories and coloring books inside, and I thought maybe we needed some of those in our parish. Vasi’s declaration that those children were not expected or invited to participate fully in the services ended my plans. She said that she preferred our services, where absolutely everyone was expected to fully participate in the work of the people. Now that is a success story.
This is what we want our kids to know about their Church. We want them to understand that they are full members of the Church, invited into this holy communion with Christ and with all of us, here to pray and to worship and to be a part of his kingdom right here on earth.
But I should tell you something else. This didn’t come easy. Of my five daughters, Vasi has consistently been one of the most challenging in church. She has given me permission to let you know that she suffers from church-itis. It’s a chronic, acute case. Every Sunday morning we have to wake her up several times before she’ll actually get out of bed, and often the entire family will be ready to go to church by the time she comes downstairs in her pajamas, looking pathetic and claiming to have a terribly upset stomach.
We send her back upstairs, and she begrudgingly gets dressed, and once we’re in church, her ailment “disallows” her to stand up. She is so worn out and pained that she constantly slumps in her seat, hardly able to stand for more than a minute at a time. Well, maybe it’s the restorative powers of holy Communion, or the joy of Sunday School fellowship, but she completely revives at the end of Liturgy. Her illness is long forgotten and she runs and plays happily until the next Sunday morning.
I’m not complaining. I just want you to understand that this story is not about a girl who’s a model for excellent liturgical behavior. It’s been a struggle and an effort to make sure she was right there in church every week, but I’ll tell you what: after this conversation with Vasi, this revelation that she has gained such beautiful insight into our Divine Liturgy, her church-itis next week isn’t going to trouble me so much, because I know it’s worth it.
So what can we as a parish offer to parents who struggle to bring their children to church regularly? What can we, as their friends and family, as the parish itself in its ministries and committees, what can we all do to help? There are really two needs here. We need to educate the children in how to behave in church, and we need to educate the adults on what is reasonable to expect from children and how to be loving and tolerant.
First, to the children, we must say, “We want you here. We love you, and we’re glad you’re here.” Now the littlest children may need some small distractions. In our parish, we do have little icon books: inexpensive little photo albums we bought in bulk, and we tuck icon cards into them. The little ones can look at those icons and rearrange them and think about them. It gives their hands something to do, and it encourages them to get up close and personal with the holy icons.
But ultimately, distractions aren’t really the answer. We need to focus on our goal. Are we just trying to quiet them down, or are we hoping to raise saints? If our goal is to invite them into the worship and to make them a part of it, then we must do the opposite of distracting them. We must constantly be bringing their attention back to the services.
When we stand in church with a child, we can encourage them to join in with the singing. Even the youngest children can hum along to “Lord, have mercy” and sing “Amen.” One- and two-year-olds can sing songs, especially if they hear those songs at home, sung by their parents. Add your church’s regular hymns to the lullabies you sing at home, and your children will know the songs.
Anyone old enough to read will greatly benefit from following along with the service. If your parish doesn’t have a copy of the Liturgy for each of your kids, then go get some. You can buy them online, or better yet, you can find them for free online. I’d recommend some of our favorites, except that our liturgies aren’t all the same. The Slavic churches and the Greek church and the Antiochian—different jurisdictions are using slightly different versions, and of course the translations may vary.
Find something that works for you—perhaps your priest could recommend something—and print up a copy for each of your children. All the better if it has explanations in the margins or footnotes explaining what’s happening and why. Let your children experience the service from inside it in this way, and help them to focus on the prayers by following along and by singing.
Little ones whose attention spans are so short can be called to notice different parts of the service. Watch in your book and announce, “Here’s the doxology; we’re singing God’s glory. Here comes the Small Entrance, honey. Get ready! Father’s coming! Can you see him? Is he holding the Gospel? Can you see it?” If you communicate excitement to them about each of the parts of the Divine Liturgy, they’ll learn to recognize them and watch for them. There is always something happening in the Liturgy. Point it out to them.
Of course, we are surrounded by icons. We can carry little ones around the church when they get fussy, and teach them to venerate the icons. We can whisper the stories of the saints to our children, point out the members of the cloud of witnesses that surrounds us. Let them know that everyone in God’s holy kingdom is together in communion, especially these holy forefathers of ours, who intercede on our behalf and join us in the Divine Liturgy. Make sure that they’re aware of the company of the saints in the church.
We can develop special rituals for our children, too: little things we do at different parts of the service. For example, we are all familiar with the gospel reading about the woman with the issue of blood, who touched the hem of Christ’s garment and was healed. She’s in Matthew 8, Luke 8, Mark 5. As you remember, as Christ headed to Jairus’ house, he was moving in a throng of people, and he felt the power going out from him. He could feel this woman being healed by him, and he called her forward to expose herself. “Who touched me?” She came trembling forth and fell at his feet, and he said that her faith had healed her. She hadn’t spoken, or even touched him directly. She knew that his power was so great that touching just the hem of his garment would heal her.
In our family—once they’re old enough to be trusted—my girls rush to touch Father’s hem as he passes with the Gifts and the Great Entrance, that they, too, might be healed. When they hear the Cherubic Hymn, they know it’s time to take their places. They quietly move into prime positions to intersect Father’s route. As the acolytes pass, they’re crossing themselves and lowering their heads, but they’re also gearing up and getting ready. When Father passes by, they touch the hem of his garment and then, only after he has returned inside the Royal Doors do they come back to their usual positions.
Beautiful little rituals like this involve them prayerfully in the service and give them something physical to do with themselves. It’s like a little milestone in the service. They’re busied with the ritual for a few moments, and a little movement refreshes them. This helps the time pass more quickly, and it draws their attention to the service rather than distracting them from it. When we create these little rituals for them, when we make note of the various parts of the service and help the kids stay tuned into the prayers, we make sure that they’re a part of this worshiping body of Christ.
Now, this is not a prescription for a perfect experience with perfect children in the church. No matter how much we work at creating the ideal liturgical experience, it’s going to be a struggle—but we Christians aren’t afraid of struggle, are we? That’s what life on this earth is. It’s our opportunity to struggle. We grow through struggle.
So while we’re teaching children how to behave in church, we must also teach the adults—the parents and the godparents, and everyone else, too—how to deal with the children and with the commotion that you know they’re going to cause. We adults must not walk into church with unreasonable expectations. We must not demand perfection from children—perfect attentiveness, perfect obedience, perfect stillness—because they’re never going to live up to that.
We must be as aware of ourselves as we are of our children. Here we are, standing in church, about to receive holy Communion, and we are tempted. We are sorely tempted to get angry about a child’s behavior, although we know that anger is not the frame of mind we need to cultivate in order to prepare ourselves for holy Communion. Our challenge is to firmly and lovingly guide children, without becoming angry or becoming distracted from our own prayerful liturgical experience.
The first step is always humility. It’s pride that rears up in anger when a child dares to disobey us or distract us or embarrass us, and it’s humility that defeats pride. We must remind ourselves that we’re not perfect, either. Our own minds wander. We lose focus. We forget to pray. We’re not perfect. And just as we ask God to forgive our iniquities and heal our infirmities, we need to be even more merciful with our children.
It is helpful to remind ourselves that, just as we tire of teaching children the same lesson a hundred times, God must get awfully tired of trying to teach us the same things over and over again, too. If we can remember that we’re weak, we’re unfocused, slow learners, just like the children placed in our care, then we can pass along the mercy and forgiveness that God has generously poured down on us.
If we are to show them that they are beloved, welcome members of the Body of Christ, then we must behave in a loving manner. We must find a way to exude love, even as we’re trying to get them to stop talking or hitting or throwing. Whatever it is, we have to call to them lovingly and engage them lovingly. And that’s not easy.
Paul tells us, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become a sounding brass or a clanging cymbal” (I Corinthians 13:1). When I am standing there in church, angry with a child, that’s not love, and if I have not love, they’re not going to be learning about the faith from me. If we want them to know God, and if God is love, then we need to be showing them love, especially in church.
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Even the frustrating disobedience of children. Love endures it patiently. If we can endure disobedience while maintaining patience and love, and even prayerfulness, then attending this liturgy with our children in tow may in fact be more fruitful for us than attending alone would have been. Our children will learn how to behave in church by watching how we behave in church. If we are fighting and angry and demanding, that’s what they’ll learn. But if we’re prayerful and loving and eager to pray and sing and stand for hours, they’ll learn to be that way, too.
It’s only by humbling ourselves, as Christ did when he took on our human form and its vulnerability, that we can quiet the anger that rises up and respond lovingly to a rambunctious child, redirecting them back to the Liturgy, to the hymns and to the icons, and to full participation in the Body of Christ. May God help us all to fully participate every time we join together in prayer.