I recall worship as a child before kindergarten. My mom taught my five siblings and me the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Nicene Creed. We learned the liturgical songs and responses. We knew this before we could read. I do recall confusion as to how the Holy Spirit could be spanked by the prophets (spake by the prophets?Nicene Creed). Yes, sermons where a challenge and that was the time where I would stare at the large statues of the apostles and Jesus, cross my eyes to make the candle flames cross in optical distortions, wonder at the beauty and size of the nave (Zion Lutheran in Fort Wayne can comfortably sit 850 people) and waited for the perspiring pastor wiping his brow with a handkerchief to say “my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ;” that clued me to the beginning of the wrap-up section. I could not read so I only knew select verses from a few hymns that my family would sing when we had devotions.
How did my wife and I teach our children? From the age of about 9 months on, we would hold our children and participate in the service so they would get accustomed to the rhythm of the service and all the action that takes place, especially the music and singing. Kids are fascinated with music and singing – they love choirs and watching instrumentalists. The challenges parents face at this age is the attention span of the child is very short so a parent must be good at diverting attention and that can include a soft, non-squeaky toy, a sippy cup, some cheerios, hand play, whispering in their ear about action taking place and pointing to it, whatever tricks you learn as a parent to divert attention. Parents can be really good at this but I admit, it does take a strong cup of coffee to keep it going. Sometimes, our children cried and put up a commotion and then we would take them out of the nave but they would not be rewarded through play; that time was used for either changing a diaper or simply holding them with their blanket because they were tired.
When children begin to learn how to speak, they can be taught to say “Amen” and some very short responses. My wife and I would whisper in their ear right before they should speak and they liked speaking the response with the congregation. As they learned sentences, we taught them the Lord’s Prayer at home. We also would teach them the liturgical songs, one at a time and in short sections; it was not a competition or something that was forced on them. At about two years old, Olivia made her mark by singing liturgical songs with great gusto in attempt to outdo me as I held her – everyone had a smile on their face and I had trouble singing because of my laughter. My children also were taught seasonal hymns starting in kindergarten.
When children learn how to read, the interaction changes because they want to participate and parents need to help them navigate the hymnal, a skill that will be applied in other educational developmental areas. My wife and I would point to the text for both the pastor and congregation. By the time a child is in third grade, the hymnal should be old-hat. This is when attending a Lutheran grade school paid dividends for me when I was growing up – we would sing Matins, or speak Morning Suffrages. In addition, we sang hymns of the season during chapel and it was not coincidence that those hymns would be sung the very next Sunday. My kindergarten class could sing all four stanzas of “A Mighty Fortress.” As children mature in middle school, they should have the attention span to listen to a 10 to 15 minute sermon and have comprehension as to what was said, assuming the sermon is not a college lecture, which in many cases, is difficult to endure even in a college lecture hall.
The point of all of this is that parents need to engage their children. How does a child acquire appropriate attention spans for their age? Parent involvement by playing with them, reading to them, talking to them (especially at dinner time – very important to eat together as a family), a nightly routine that includes prayers and singing songs after prayers. A tradition in my family is singing in parts the second verse of “Now the Light has Gone Away.” Our children also benefited from 15 minutes a day on Gretchen’s lap as she taught them to read at a remarkably young age, before preschool. Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons by Siegfried Englemann, Phyllis Haddox, and Elaine Bruner is an incredible book.
How do we not engage children? By ignoring what was discussed above. In addition, many parents placate their children with electronics and the research is in: substantial exposure to electronics damages child development. Children learn by interacting with siblings and parents. Another issue is when parents give greater priority to their social calendars than planning time for their children. In church, simply sitting your child in a pew and expecting them to get something out of worship is completely unrealistic. The child will quickly become disinterested and will not learn about worship. Children must also attend worship to gain an understanding of what is going on in the first place. If debating between Sunday School or worship, opt for worship every time.
Children are a gift from God and one of the reasons why He instituted marriage – to build the church throughout generations. Parents play a most crucial role in this mission. I think the greatest mission field is our own household. In our current culture, it is common for parents to “farm out” responsibility by paying others to raise their children. Institutions do not raise children, parents do. I believe raising my children is the biggest responsibility I have – to raise Lutherans who can witness to their faith, defend their faith, and mature into adults that use their vocations to serve God, love one another, and in turn, raise their children to stay close to Jesus.
See you in church!