Two convictions that are important to us at Sovereign Hope are that families are the primary discipleship tool for children and that our times for corporate worship are for our entire church body. Jesus has entrusted the discipleship of children primarily to parents, as can be seen throughout the Bible (for example, Deuteronomy 6:6-7, Proverbs 1:8, and Ephesians 6:4). We also see biblical examples that worship services are not just for adults but are for everyone, from the youngest to the oldest (see Deuteronomy 29:10-11, Joshua 8:34-35, 2 Chronicles 20:13, Nehemiah 12:43, and Joel 2:15-16). In fact, the two times in the Bible when we see people try to exclude children, God makes it clear that he is not ok with this (Exodus 10:7-11 and Mark 10:14-16). When we live in line with these biblical teachings our church and our families are strengthened.
Part of how we live this out at Sovereign Hope is that we have family worship during the summer and holiday weekends. This means that on these weekends most of our children's programs are shut down (the program for children ages 0-4 is always provided). This accomplishes two purposes: first, it gives our volunteers a break and a time for their own refreshment, and, second, it allows the children of our church to worship together with us and with their parents.
Now maybe you think that it is almost impossible to get children to sit still during an entire worship service ("You don't know my Billy"). I agree that it is difficult, but with intentional training by parents, it can be done. And maybe you think that church is a needed break from having to deal with your kids (every parent who has ever walked into a worship service has thought this—church service = free child-care). But I would like to insert that the most important thing for a parent may not be able to sit undistracted for a sermon (although this is important). The most important thing for a parent may be to train their child how to rightly listen to a sermon. The goal is not just to get your child to sit still; the goal is to train them to worship Jesus, and you, as a parent, have a crucial role in that.
My wife and I have been at this now for a few years with each of our seven personal experiments. We want our kids worshipping with us at church from a young age, so every week, our kids are a part of an entire worship service. We have found that the best age to train kids to sit in church is between 1 ½ and 3; if you diligently train your kids during this time, most of the hard work is done. Here are a few guidelines that we have discovered, partly through trial and error and partly through the example of other families. These aren't legalistic rules that must be followed by every family. Instead they are practices that we have found helpful. Some may be a benefit to you, but you may do some things differently. That's fine; do what is best for your kids and your family.
1. Keep your expectations high for your children in church
This is the church equivalent of the broken window theory. I don't want my kids to just sit still and be quiet in church; I want them to actively worship. So we have often run through a list of expectations with our kids. We ask them, "When we sing, what do you do?" and they respond, "Sing." "When we pray what do you do?" and they respond, "Pray." "And when the preacher preaches, what do you do?" and they respond, "Listen." We make our kids stand up during the times in the worship service when everyone else is standing up. Generally, once they are over the age of 3, we don't let them lie down and fall asleep. Basically, I want them actively participating and worshipping with everyone else.
2. Keep your kids close by you
Our kids always sit right by Korinda and I during a worship service, and the younger they are, the closer they sit next to mom or dad. If they get any farther away, only bad things happen. This also means that our kids sit with us, not with friends. Kids will often ask to sit with friends during church, but again, call me a pessimist, but I don't see this working out well. Our kids need to be by us so that we can train them, and your kids need to sit by you so that you can train them.
3. Distractions will only distract
Often people try to get their kids to sit still by giving them food or books or toys. But in our experience, distractions only distract the kids. Plus with our kids, when any one of them has food or a toy it will usually lead to a fight, which does tend to put a damper on worship. So we try to have no extra things for our kids during worship—not because we are purists but because they only get in the way of the ultimate goal.
4. Limit Exits
Kids will try to get out of the service, and they will use any means at their disposal. The usual culprits are the need to go to the bathroom and the need to get a drink. And when you have more than one child, a successful exit ploy is immediately suggestive to the other kids and copied. So we try to be intentional and have our kids go potty and get a drink before the service and during break and then only let them go out if it is an emergency (an emergency as determined by a parent, not by a 3 year old).
5. If our kids make noise or won't listen, I take them out
At times kids will make noise. Kids are kids, and since we want them in the worship service, there are times when they will make noise. So when our kids make noise and are defiant, I take them out, because I don't want them to be a distraction to other people and because I use the opportunity to train them. When I take them out, I give them a quick spanking and bring them right back into the service. If I take them out and let them play or let them run around outside, I can almost guarantee what ploy they will attempt next week. I don't want to reward their defiant behavior; I discipline them and bring them right back in.
6. Preparing your kids begins the night before
In the Bible, days don't start in the morning; instead they begin at sundown (for example, see Genesis 1:5). You also see this reflected in the way that the Jewish Sabbath runs from sundown through the following sundown. Part of how this instructs us is that preparing your kids for Sunday morning worship includes making sure that they get some good rest on Saturday night.
7. Training isn't just at church, but all through the week
Training your children in self-control shouldn't just happen on Sunday at church but happens throughout the week. One way to do this is to read the Bible or other books to your kids at home and train them to sit still and listen just like at church.
8. If you need help, get help
There will be times when you can't do this all on your own but need help from other adults. So if you need help, ask for help. Ask friends, other adults in your Community Group, or ask for help at the Kids Booth.
Parents, this is not an easy task. There will be Sundays when everything just seems to go well; you will be patting yourself on the back and will consider nominating yourself for "Parent of the Year". But then the next Sunday, Jonny or Susie will have a meltdown which embarrasses you and makes you seriously question their sanctification. So it is a process. But the goal of training our kids to worship Jesus is worth it. In fact, it is the most important goal for our children that we can have.