Food for Thought: Church with Preschoolers

Our family goes to church on Sunday mornings at 10:45.  Church lasts anywhere from 1 to 1-1/2 hours.  We have always kept L&L with us during the service instead of sending them to the nursery.  

This decision is for several reasons (in random order) — 
1. I was brought up that way myself, 
2. We think that children can learn to sit quietly and listen, and this is a perfect forum for learning to do so, 
3. We want them to hear about Jesus and God — and though we understand they won’t be able to write a report about the sermon at the end, we do think they gain some benefit from listening, much the same as we think they get something from the chapter books we read them, 
4. We enjoy having our children with us and want them to learn from our modeling and example,
5. The nursery is just a room filled with toys — there is no direct teaching or learning about the Bible going on in there, so that would defeat the purpose of taking them to church in the first place, and
6.  The service we attend has a band, so L&L are able to see and hear different instruments and musical styles each Sunday.

L&L are 4 and 2-1/2, and an hour and a half can be a really long time to sit still, even for an adult sometimes!  

Here are a few things that make this a little bit easier for them:
* When we first arrive, L&L receive a children’s program (similar to the adult’s but with a coloring page and activities they can do).  We bring our own bag with us that has 2 clip boards and a case of crayons.  L&L are allowed to look at and color their program if they choose to, or they can sit and watch/listen as the beginning of the service has lots of music.  

* We usually bring a children’s Bible along in the bag, too, and they can look through that if they choose.  We do not bring along any toys…ever.  

* About halfway through, there is a Children’s Message where the children go up to the front and listen to a short message designed for them (~5 minutes).  

* When they come back to their seats, it’s time for the sermon by the pastor.  We bring along snacks in our bag and this is when we get them out.  At least one of the snacks is usually a “slow-eating” snack like pretzels or a mix of dried fruit and whole grain cereal (lots of little pieces), so that it lasts them as long as possible.  We usually try to package their snacks in something that doesn’t make a lot of noise to open, like a snack trap or a ziplock bag.  We also bring a water bottle in case they’re thirsty so that we don’t have to walk out of the service for anything.

L&L’s behavior in church isn’t always what we would like for it to be, but for the most part, they do really well.  Occasionally we’ll have to take one of them out for awhile (usually Lilah).  While we want them to be in worship with us, we also don’t want them to be too much of a distraction to others.

Recently we were having issues with Luke wanting to sit on his dad through the entire service and pretending to be asleep or just plain ignoring our requests to stand up or sit up at certain times.  Lilah has been leaving our row despite our attempts to keep her there, and dancing in the aisle or trying to walk away from us during the service.  Oh, it can be stressful at times, but I still 100% think the benefits of keeping them with us are worth it. 🙂

The last two weeks we’ve been to church, L&L’s behavior has been nearly perfect though, and it’s all because of a little conversation we have in the car on the way to church.  I can’t tell you why it works exactly.  I also can’t tell you if it’ll work for you, but I definitely think it’s worth a try.  

What we’ve started doing is just making it clear what the kids have done in the past that wasn’t what we wanted and making it clear what we would like them to do, while also explaining the order of events.

The conversation goes something like this:

“When we get to church, we want you to sit up in your chair and pay attention.  We go there to learn about who?  That’s right.  Jesus and God and the Holy Spirit.  We can’t listen as well or learn as much when we’re trying to lay all over Dad or Mom or pretending to be asleep or when we’re playing.  Mom and Dad can’t pay attention or learn either if we’re trying to get you guys to do what you’re supposed to.  We want you to really listen.  Then when it’s time for the Children’s Message, we want you to walk quickly to the front — not run, but walk fast — and go sit down, sit still, and listen.  When it’s over, walk back to your seat and then you can have your snack and listen to the pastor give the sermon about the Bible.  After that, it’ll be almost time to go.”

I know that setting clear expectations is important, but I forget sometimes just HOW important it is!  

The past two weeks, L&L haven’t asked 42 times when they can have their snack.  Lilah hasn’t run out into the aisle dancing to the music in ways that make me giggle silently, blush bright red, and cringe all at the same time.  Luke has not laid on his dad looking like he’d rather be anywhere but where he is.  I kid you not that the last two weeks our 4 and 2-1/2 year olds have sat in their own chairs, quietly, paying attention and listening, and we’ve had to speak to them about what they should or should not be doing about 95% less than usual.  

I hope I remember to spend a minute or two preparing my kids for what to expect and what I expect from them before EVERYthing we do, because obviously it resonates with them!

As a side-note, pretty soon Luke will be old enough to go to Children’s Church, which lasts from the end of the Children’s Message until the end of the service.  It’s a time when the kids go and listen to a lesson in a separate room and usually make a craft to go along with it.  I haven’t decided if he’ll go to that yet or not, but I do feel a little better about it since he will actually be learning about Jesus and not just playing.  My personal feeling is that kids don’t always have to be “sent away” or separated to learn.  I don’t feel that material always needs to be “dumbed down” for them either.  In the end, I’ll probably let him choose whether to stay or go, and I’ll be fine with his decision either way.


The purpose of this post is not to say this is the right way to raise children.  It is not to say that whatever you are doing is any less than what I am doing.  It is just to explain how and why our family does things the way we do and possibly give you some food for thought.  Sometimes, as parents, I find we do things just because “that’s what people do” without really examining the alternatives or thinking about the future outcomes of our decisions.  If this post causes you to stop and ponder, even just a bit, then it has served it’s purpose. 

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Genny Upton

A former teacher turned stay at home mom to two preschool aged children. Creator (and writer) at In Lieu of Preschool and Parent Teach Play. Currently publishing my first children's picture book!

  • My husband has almost always been the pastor of the church we attend and often these churches have been small and either didn’t have other nursery aged kids or no children’s church. It’s been a challenge at times, especially when my three girls (not 6 1/2, almost 8, and almost 9) were toddlers, but now they are well behaved and I have been able to focus on my son- he’s 4. You are absolutely right- I’ve learned that when I outline what is expected they are more apt to do it! At the church we are at now, he comes and sits next to me while I play the piano and then he is able to color or look at church books while Daddy preaches. A little work on the parents part can make church tolerable for everyone! And dare I say, even enjoyable! Congrats mama!

  • Hwannie says:

    My husband and I do not attend church, but I wholeheartedly agree with your sentiment that even small children belong in a mostly “adult” environment and can do well as long as the expectations are clear.

    For example, about once or twice per month, we take our 4 year old son and 2 year old daughter to fancy dinners – the kind of dinners that take 3 hours to eat, have multiple courses, involve lots of glass and silverware, and where running around in the middle of the restaurant is absolutely not tolerated. Before we enter the restaurant, we tell the kids that (1) we are going to a fancy restaurant, (2) they may not run around, (3) they will not be given crayons or coloring books, (4) they will not be given toys, (5) they will not have a children’s menu, (6) under no circumstances are they allowed to request our phones for entertainment, and (7) they must be polite to the chef and staff. Shockingly, they do remarkably well. They enjoy the meals that the chef creates for them (often involving “non-kid-friendly” things like truffles, oysters, caviar, etc.), and they sit still and talk with us about the meal and their activities, etc. Sometimes, chefs come out to greet the kids and take them for a little tour of the kitchen! We have always enjoyed fine dining, and we feel guilty not taking our kids with us when they do so well at even the fanciest restaurants!

  • Anonymous says:

    What kind of Church do you attend and do most of the kids sit in service with their parents? We keep our kids with us too and for that reason we switched to a family integrated church. At our old church all the other kids were in nursery and our kids were the only ones in church service. So many wonderful benefits to having kids in service! 🙂

  • Rebecca says:

    We do not attend church, but i believe you hit the nail on the head on “preparing” the children for what is expected.

    I recently took my first outting (besides normal errands) with the kids to a family museum (which happened to have 8 bus loads of children from a camp there that day with LOTS of children) Before we walked in I told them what i expected and why. (stay near mom b/c there are LOTS of other kids here, we WILL do everytihng they want to do but they have to do it with mom) At age 2 and 3 they both acted wonderfully (not to say i didn’t have to remind them a few times throughout our visit, however they responded to the expectations and still had A LOT of fun.
    I am trying to make a concious effort for most activites we do on stating the expectations, whether it is at home or out in public I need to teach them (as someone else said it, in an “adult” environment)

  • Diane Loy says:

    We are ministry leaders of a group called the Zaccheus Class. It is not a nursery but a time of learning. When my husband was in Bible college I became burdened by the fact that the little ones were going from playing in the nursery to sitting in church without any segue. So I shared my ideas with our youth pastor (which was our pastors at the times son, he is now our pastor) and came up with a full curriculum that repeats each year. We now have this class Sunday am and pm plus Wednesday night service. We take the kids into the service for the song service time and when the congregation shakes hands and welcomes each other we leave and go back to the classroom. We have our Bible time where we talk about how to treat the Bible, who died one the cross and why, then the lesson (repeated all three services…repetition is key), a craft-time that goes with the lesson. Then we let the kids play while we have them take turns repeating the Bible verses. We give them a sicker to take home for the verse and their craft paper. This class has been great to prepare the kids for “big church”. We have a graduation ceremony about every 6 months or so. The class is for 2 and 3’s but when they start showing that they are ready to move on we promote them. My husband and I are in there Sunday am and have around 14 kids with us. A lot of the parents keep the kids in the pm and mid-week service to let them practice what they are learning.

  • Diane Loy says:

    BTW…We have the kids line-up to go into “big church” and we go over what is expected from them. I find that it really does make a difference. Also when the parents of the almost two’s stop by to say HI…I encourage them to start “playing church” at home. Put on preaching or Bible story CD and have them sit for 5 minutes or so. This is just to get them started. Hey and one more thing…I do not know how old your kids are now…but an idea that I used with mine when they were young. To help them listen, I would take a piece of paper and pen and give it to them. Then I would get an idea of the message and find a common word…I would tell them each time you hear ________ that word put a mark on your paper. In the first few minutes if I saw they missed the word I would gently nudge them nod and smile. After a short time they are listening for that word and to the sermon as well.

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