How (and Why) to Teach Your Kids to Sit Through Church

Christian Life & Theology, Motherhood

For the past five and a half years we’ve been actively teaching our kids (at the time of writing, ages almost 6, 4, and 1) to sit through church. When this is mentioned, I’m inevitably asked a series of questions:

  • “Do you not like Sunday school?”
  • “Don’t you want a break?”
  • “Why would you do that?”
  • “Aren’t you afraid of what people think about your kids staying in adult service?”

I’ve answered these in person and online so many times I figured I was due for a solid resource here on the blog! Clearly this is a question people want answers to, and since we’ve been intentional about this issue for quite some time I’ll share why we do it, how to do it, and things to consider.

Why We Keep Our Kids in Church

We started out keeping our oldest in church as an infant because she was still napping during the service time. Rather than skip church and stay home, we wore her or held her in service so she would get her nap and we could both (Josh and myself) benefit from the teaching and community. We moved away when she was one, and at our new church began leading the college ministry during the second service.

At this point, our oldest was approaching two and I was pregnant with our second. First service was at 9 AM. Second was at 10:45. While we could have put her in nursery for the entire 3.5 hours, we felt it was more beneficial for her, us, and the busy nursery volunteers to only put her in the nursery while we taught the college ministry during the second service. This meant teaching her to sit through the first service with us.

We arrived at this practice of teaching kids to sit in church for purely practical reasons. Yet these practical reasons quickly morphed into spiritual and parental ones as we saw the benefits of keeping our oldest in service with us. As we added to our family, we continued to train our girls (since Ivan wasn’t born and is currently only 10 months) to sit through the first service before going to class for the second.

As the years wore on, we realized the practices of self control, respect, honor, and quietness on a weekly basis were positively affecting our girls in other ways. They learned how to sit respectfully and play quietly with their “church toys”. They learned to absorb bits of the sermon even when most people would assume it was over their heads. They learned our pastors’ names and roles. They learned the worship songs and sang them at home. They saw us listening to the sermon and taking notes. Ultimately, the practice of teaching our children to sit in church was so beneficial to them, we continued to do it even when it wasn’t “necessary”.

When Practice Pays Off

After almost five years of teaching our kids to join us in service, the Covid pandemic hit. During 2020, church services were closed for months at a time. Even when churches opened again, most nurseries and children’s classes remained closed. Suddenly, all the work we had put in to train our kids to sit through service was paying off even more than before!

We realized that our habit of practicing at home (which we did before the pandemic but became our only option with online, “living room church”) had a direct impact on our experience with the kids on Sunday.

At the time I’m writing this we are no longer teaching college ministry, and our church only has children’s ministry for the early service. Our season has changed and our kids often attend Sunday school with their friends. But on the days we don’t make it or need to adjust to the later service, they’re right there with us. It’s normal. It’s expected  It’s not legalistic. And it’s bearing fruit.

Teaching our kids to sit through church has in turn taught our children respect for people, the Word, and the church. It has connected them to the pastors and raised the bar for what they can understand and absorb. It gives them a glimpse of what mom and dad’s worship looks like, and most of all, it lays a foundation for when they transition into the main service with us.

How to Teach Your Kids to Sit in Church

As I have discussed on Instagram and the podcast, so much of this comes down to cultivating a family culture that values the Word and the church community. Church is not something you do; it’s a family you’re in. How you as parents view the church has a direct impact on how your kids view church. If it’s just a duty or building to you, that’s what it will be for them as soon as they outgrow Goldfish snacks and coloring pages. What is your attitude toward church? Do you understand that the family of God is YOUR family, that it must be connected to and prioritized, not as a duty but as a love relationship? This must be prayed through before you can effectively disciple your kids.

Because church is family and sacramental, online church should be a temporary solution in times of need, not a long term habit. This is especially important as we come out of the Covid pandemic. Laziness is getting the best of many, and isolation is impacting even more. Church is family, Your kids need it. Set the example

Now for the practicals: teaching kids to sit. Here’s how we do it.

  • Start with a conversation. Tell your kids why church matters and why they will be sitting in “big church” periodically. It might be once a month that you have them join you. Maybe twice a month. Tell them they will be practicing at home and then learning like the big kids they are once in a while at church.
  • Create activity bags. We have coloring books, water books, kids bibles, and other items they don’t get throughout the week saved up for Sunday. They get to bring these bags to service and use them until they are old enough to read and write. (At that point, we would teach basic note taking and following the sermon.)
  • Teach respect and honor. Respect is the entire framework of our parenting philosophy. We respect and honor the Lord who loves us, so we respect and honor other image bearers: parents, siblings, friends and strangers. At church, this includes the people in front of and behind us. It includes the pastor. Practice appropriate voices and words for the church setting while you are still at home. Explain why you do it.
  • For very small babies, start practicing lap training. We start lap training as soon as they can crawl and walk. At home, every time you read a book have the baby sit on your lap. When they try to get down, say “Not yet! We are learning to sit.” Each time you practice, have them sit a little longer. Celebrate them for sitting so well! Continue this over and over as they get older and practice in service. THE KEY: While you can remove them to a cry room if they are too loud, do not let them run around in the room. This confirms to the child that if they yell, they will get to run around and play. Take them to the cry room with the activities you brought and continue to keep them on your lap. Consistency and kindness are the key! (Note: I am talking about the average baby or toddler here, not special needs circumstances)
  • Talk about the experience at home. I cannot emphasize enough how vital it is to teach WHAT church is and why it matters. It’s not a legalistic duty. It’s not a show. It’s not a social club. It’s a family of people who love Jesus and show that love to each other and to the world. It’s where we get trained in the truth so we can love effectively. Adults go for that training and community, and we bring kids along because this is the foundation! So talk about that as you attend. Host Sunday lunch and discuss what was learned. This can happen when the kids attend children’s class too.

Answering Objections

When you start teaching your kids to sit in service, some people might have questions. In the three churches I’ve attended while a parent I have never once had pushback on this, but I hear some people do, so here are some ways to respond.

What do I do if someone assumes I don’t like the children’s ministry?

  • Other people’s assumptions do not get to dictate your family priorities. Assure them that you think the ministry is great (if you do) but you’re teaching your kids to learn in multiple environments and you want to prepare them to transition to the whole body of believers. People might not understand. That’s not your problem!

I put my kids in the class for a break. Why should I have them in service?

  • While I understand the sentiment – I like breaks too – the long term discipleship of my kids and their understanding of what the church is for is more important to me than an hour break on a Sunday. I also want them to know how to sit pleasantly in environments that aren’t “entertaining”. Perhaps you can practice that in a different setting than church; it’s a behavior that will come in handy in many settings.

I’m afraid if my kid is disruptive people will be upset at me.

  • I can almost guarantee your child will be disruptive at some point. I’m not suggesting you let a screaming toddler remain in service and distract everyone there. Keep in mind we would not permit that, nor would we permit our kids to run around our row, climb all over their chairs, or otherwise cause a scene. We would take them out, talk with them, and then return. Be discerning as to how disruptive the behavior is and take the child out of the space accordingly, but don’t see that as a failure and give up. Use it as an opportunity to be consistent in educating your child! We have been thanked and honored for keeping our kids in service far more often than we have ever been shamed.

My heart is for whole family discipleship. Josh and I have seen the fruit of bringing our kids into hospitality and church family, even as we have moved and changed churches over the years. We’ve had kids napping on industrial carpet floors as we taught college ministry and have bounced infants in carriers through many a worship service. But the reason has never been, “I have to show up or else.” The reason? The church is our family.

And we want our kids to see that.