Evangel is busting at the seams with kids - a lot of them are under the age of 7. I know what you're thinking: it's gotta be the long winters, right? Maybe so. We've actually had one of Canada's highest birthrates per capita for several years!
And for many families in Evangel, this presents some interesting challenges when it comes to getting involved in the life of the church, attending gatherings, and serving in various capacities. After all, what do you do when both hands are already full, your feet are following tykes all over the place, and your mental capacities feel absolutely tapped?!
The good news is that it is not only possible, but very feasible, to have a thriving family life AND be integrally involved with your local church. Sara and I are living proof!
We got married when we were both 20 and one year later found ourselves the proud parents of our first, Luke. What ensued was an action packed four years where we would have three more. I can vividly remember packing up our four children (all under the age of five) and heading off to church on Sunday morning. We always turned heads, especially with the way Sara would dress 'em up - little bonnets, vests, pretty dresses, and bolo ties. I won't say it was always easy. Sara would have many stories of absolutely crazy moments trying to arrange baby-sitting for events, getting the gang out the door early Sunday morning or late in the evening (by herself, because I was usually there early). In spite of it all, we wouldn't change a thing!
That's because it is vitally important that you bring your kids along in the journey of connecting in a local church, and that you stay connected yourself, even during the chaos of being a young family.
I'll give you some "whys" behind our reasoning, and then a few how-to's from our personal experience.
WHY you need to stay really connected to a local church (and involved), even with a young family:
1) WHY #1. You are apart of a body when you are part of a local church.
This comes right out of 1 Corinthians 12 where Paul uses the imagery of a human body to describe how each "part" is integral to the whole.
It means YOU are needed and we need you to not only show up, but to function in the role God has called you to play. Some of you will be leaders in some way, others will be mentors or teachers, and still others will be part of the teams that service gatherings every Sunday. No part has the luxury of signing out, even when life's circumstances seem to warrant it, without the rest of the body suffering. Even seemingly small parts (like baby toes), throw the whole body into imbalance when they are missing.
2) WHY #2. Your children, even when young, are actually just as much apart of the body of Christ as you are.
Even in their limited capacity, they have a role to play. Consider the children who welcomed Jesus on His entry into Jerusalem. Kids actually initiated the first worship service that recognized Jesus as King!! Every week at Evangel, children serve in the church on all kinds of various levels, from helping with KidCity, to caring for toddlers in the nursery, to being an active part of worship during the singing in a service.
3) WHY #3. Your children's involvement in church at a young age will almost always determine their involvement as they get older.
We have seen this happen, for good or ill, so many times we've lost count! Children that feel church is not really for them (ie. they are too noisy, too young, too demanding) will feel the same way when they grow older, through their teens and into adulthood. Children who see involvement in the spiritual community as second-place to other things like leisure, sports, or busy weekends, will almost invariable adopt a nominal faith - at best. Additionally, when church is treated as a take-it-or-leave-it activity, they often read that as a half-hearted commitment to Jesus, and follow suit. Dig into that a bit more HERE if you want.
4) WHY #4. These are the informative years when your children are watching you, learning everything about life by what you DO and the environments that you interact with.
Even non-instructional time is instructional. Give them plenty of opportunity to observe how you worship in a community setting, how you respond to preaching and teaching, and how you care for others in your community of faith. Let them see how you respond to relational conflict as well, a phenomenon fairly common in close community. Let them see what commitment looks like, even when you don't feel like being committed (as I already pointed out, they will bridge your commitment to church to your commitment to Jesus, like it or not). Let them see you tithe, attend, serve, and share. They are watching you very closely.
There's a couple of Why's. You've probably heard it said before that your priorities as a family should be 1) GOD, 2) Family, and 3) Church. In principle I completely agree. The problem lies with the inconvenient fact that God and Church are intrinsically connected (love God, love people, equal laws). And further, that your children will likely see number one and number three as one and the same.
So HOW do I make church a high priority in my life with a family to care for and a million things to do that go along with it???
Here are the HOW'S:
HOW #1. Find a way to reduce the gap between the Family-priority and the Church-priority.
Let me say first, that no one's going to hell for missing a Sunday as a family. It's probably healthy to take the occasional day exclusively for your family, although I's still recommend doing something to honour God (ie. a special family devotional, worship time, etc.) even if you can't be in church.
To make church and family work, you're going to have to find a way to make the two more synonymous with each other, rather than opposites. "We're going to have a family day instead of going to church" is probably a dangerous way of putting it. Your children should never equate going to church as making a choice against family. You've got to nip that one in the bud.
Make your involvement in the Big Gathering on Sundays a family affair. Sit together. Get involved occasionally in children's church, be present. Make it part of a day focused on the family, centred around God's presence.
HOW #2. Involve your kids in church-related activities as often as possible.
I guarantee you this is one of the reasons why our children, as teenagers, still love going to church - and often. They regularly drag US out the door, not the other way around.
Notice I didn't say "bring them along". You have to do more than that. You want them to be actively involved in some way, to have hands-on input, to feel like they are pulling weight. For parents with children, this is more important right now than their own personal involvement. All four of our kids started playing instruments and leading worship as soon as they could span the fretboard and follow chords. From a young age, they were teaching Bible lessons in the Sunday children's programs, involved in missions projects like Party in the Park events, and setting up for church fellowship times.
I think we're too quick to assume our younger children can't be involved in things we are involved with. Whenever possible, which is often, pull them along. Make them feel like contributing in church is for them too. I remember giving Jordyn a mic in church, even though it wasn't hooked up to the sound system, when she was just a toddler, and getting Luke and Tiana to help set-up a fellowship time though they were just barely able to pick up and move chairs. Small group at your house? With the rare exception, you should never discourage your children from listening to adults talk, discuss issues, and tell stories (they'll do that if you've taught them community-living skills, more below).
You can't always pull your kids into every activity you're involved with in your church, but those times should be rare, or you should consider adjusting your involvement to be more family-friendly during this season of life.
HOW #3. Your church friends must be theirs also.
This is very important. Our friends in church have always been our children's friends. In fact, adults who weren't interested in connecting with our kids usually didn't get invites to our home very often (sorry). Our closest friends in the house are also people our children, to this day, would consider their closest adult friends in the church.
HOW #4. Teach your kids community-living skills.
All of what I've said so far is for naught if a parent doesn't pay close attention to this point: you have to show them how to act, live, function, play, and work in a community setting, which are decidedly different than within the four walls of your home.
House-rules are different than community-rules. I walk around in my bathrobe at home but wouldn't think to do that in church. So teach your kids the differences of how to behave at home, and how to behave in community settings, whether that's someone's home for dinner or church on Sunday. Show them in live-action how it's done. A lot of frustration and agitation can be negated simply by teaching this. Here are the top five things we taught our kids about "community behaviour".
1) Respect for others.
Church is really all about being involved in the lives of others. So we taught our kids to be aware of the people around them. Respect for others included no rough-housing or placing others in danger or discomfort. It also included gentleness and kindness, in word and deed.
2) At appropriate times, silence and stillness are required.
Our children were never permitted to yell, scream, or shout, unless they were invited to do so because of a particular action song, or activity. Outdoor behaviour would sometimes be permitted, but they were to be invited into it first.
3) When Sara or I were speaking to someone else, our kids knew not to interrupt until they were invited to do so.
If they needed our attention, they would simply place a hand on our shoulder and wait patiently for us to respond. It (usually) worked.
4) Community activities are engaged in by our children
Whether singing, listening to a lesson, giving tithes and offerings, or serving, as much as possible, we expected our kids to be active participants. The danger we see is that parents bring their children to community events and activities, but then don't expect them to participate (ie. during the worship kids are colouring instead of singing). Remember that church is FOR you and your family, so bring them along with you. It's a family event, not a mom-and-dad event.
5) Define what indoor behaviour vs. outdoor behaviour.
Most of us have behaviour that we accept as appropriate for indoors. Our kids had an "indoor" voice and "outdoor" voice. In addition, certain rowdiness was fine in the yard, but out of line in the kitchen or living room. Have similar defining boundaries on behaviour for "in church" and "out of church". It's easy to forget the BIG church building is indeed still indoors.
It's important to communicate this stuff ahead of time rather than in the middle of frustrating episodes on a Sunday morning. We would often have family conferences on the way to church, gently reminding everyone of our expectations during time in the community.
This of course just covers the tip of the iceberg, and I'm sure you have many ways yourself that you've made church and a young family correlate. I'd love to hear your ideas!
Last an not least, the best thing you as a parent can do to give your kids a solid foundation to build their faith on, is display your love for God to them. Cherish every moment you get to spend with the Body of Christ. Those little people you've been called to raise in the "nurture and admonition" of the Lord are very good at spotting the difference between duty and delight. Fall in love with the worship of God. Fall in love with the people of God. Can you imagine the cumulative affect of spending 650 Sundays (that's how many Sundays they'll get while in your care), watching mom and dad worship, relate, and thrive in the community of faith?
It's is absolutely incalculable!