How Do We Preach with Small Children in the Congregation?

This past Sunday, I wanted to preach a sermon for my largest church in which I would give a vision for moving forward. At a crucial moment in the sermon, right near the end of it, my daughter Savannah decided to choke on a Cheerio. Of course, it wasn’t her fault, nor was this the first time something like this has happened. She has bumped her head and let out a wail or mummy won’t let her have something and she needs to tell everyone in the congregation about it. Everyone (whether they were paying attention to me or not) then begins to watch Savannah or any other child that something similar has happened to. This also happens when a child is quite happy babbling, but I have more or less learned to tune that out. My main concern is what happens when the child is in some sort of distress. [By the way, in the case I mentioned Savannah quickly recovered with help from mum.]

I remember the story of a minster at a church I used to attend in South Carolina who in a service faced a screaming child. He stopped his sermon, set his eyes  on the child and parents (actually, the word used in the telling of this story was ‘glared at’). The mum then got up and took the screaming child out of the sanctuary. The minister, still not preaching, fixed his eyes on the mum and child the whole time until they got out the door. I was horrified to hear this, and vowed I would never do that.

Still, what is the proper response when something like that happens? I am not talking about the response of those in the congregation who believe that children should always be silent and give disapproving looks. There is simply nothing I can do about them, and my answer to them is the same as to any apologetic parents I might have, ‘I would much rather have the sound of children in the church than a silent church and think our church is not welcoming children.’ My question is about what to do in the middle of the sermon. If I say nothing and continue on, I feel as if I am being insensitive (at worst) or at best clueless when no one is looking at me, but at the distressed child. Stopping and expressing some concern typically leaves the parents flustered as it draws even more unwanted attention.

Does anyone else have any advice?

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9 thoughts on “How Do We Preach with Small Children in the Congregation?

  1. It’s terribly subtle.

    If you ignore the noise, it will stay, perhaps distract for a few minutes, and then it’ll pass. You can choose that tactic.

    If you work it into what you’re saying, smirking while you quip “Oh, the heckling’s started early this week” or “You know you’re right, I could have put that better” … any small throw away remark that acknowledges the noise … is quite likely to get the child carried out quite quickly. And yet you haven’t gone against your default position of welcoming everyone, nor have you asked anyone to leave.

    It’s a lot more difficult if the disruption will be regular and inevitable. But in those cases, the entire congregation will get used to it.

    A couple of months back, we attended a nearby church. In the middle of the sermon, a small boy stopped wandering around the front as he had been and went up the steps into the pulpit. No problem. The minister said Hi and carried on. And kept talking, until right after the boy tipped his glass of water over the front of the pulpit and over the leads trailing down from his laptop towards the projector! Handled it very well, affirming the boy and his family, and with good humour.

  2. as a mother of 4 teenagers it is difficult when small children are in the congregation but i tend to agree with alan in belfast try using funny quips because it has certainly made me cope with children in church and you are right will its wonderfull to see and hear children in church, mine are variouys ages from 13 yrs to 20 and all still passionate about jesus .. godbless

  3. Hello Alan and Linda,

    Thanks for the comments. I have used funny quips before when children have made loud happy noises. I once said, ‘Bless you’ to one little girl who sneezed during the sermon.

    I want to say any real distress (e.g., choking, hitting head, etc.) the child may be in definitely overrides anything I have to say in the sermon, but I don’t know if stopping or saying a funny quip would really be helpful in that type of situation (unless it had heightened to an extreme situation!). But, it just seems insensitive not to do anything!

    If it’s nothing too bad, then I do what Alan has suggested: ignore it and it generally passes quite quickly.

  4. Hi Will,
    This hits home as the church I currently serve had an unwritten rule that young children do not belong in the worship service, a rule my family broke when we decided we wanted our daughter to grow up attending worship services.

    While preaching, I do not feel it is necessary nor usually appropriate, for the preacher to respond (whether it be me or the Sr. Pastor). I don’t think congregations expect a response in the middle of the service, which means we won’t appear particularly sensitive nor insensitive when we don’t respond. If the situation serious enough that it needs to be addressed, you can always approach the family and see if there is anything they need from the congregation to help, or if you need to, you can negotiate when the appropriate time to take the child out.

    Such an encounter has to have a feel of trying to offer the best hospitality and not the feel of addressing a problem.

  5. Hi Eric! Thanks for sharing your story. I think the consensus is that there is no perfect way to handle it!

    For the most part, all three of my congregations have been very good with the young children, so I haven’t had the stress Eric has. There may be some in the churches who feel that the children are a bother, but they haven’t spoken up so I don’t know who they are (if there are any).

  6. Our daughter’s now three, and has sat in through services since week two. For the last couple of years we’ve let her stay in church for the first half and only then gone out to creche or beginners sunday school.

    Quite often she requests to stay and not to leave. She even sang along with the last line of the chorus of “From Heaven You Came” on Easter Sunday morning – I’d no idea she’d even heard the song before, never mind could mouth the words in time to the music.

    Remember my wife “preaching for a church” when someone collapsed mid-sermon, paramedics arrived at back of the church, waited for her to curtail sermon and “go to a prayer” while they nipped up the aisle, checked over the lady and carried her out.

    Bet the hearing committee didn’t remember one word she said.

  7. I wasn’t preaching on the day, but something like that happened in one of my churches, Alan. Someone collapsed in the middle of the sermon. I don’t think it went on after that. I think in that case, I likely would have stopped. It hasn’t happened to me yet, but with my congregations getting older, it might!

  8. The only time I’ve ever stopped for a distraction was when two boys from the Confirmation class were so distracting that they even distracted me. I stopped and asked them to calm down, just as I would have done in a youth meeting.

    Did I mention that I was the guest preacher that day?

    Two years later, both boys still stop and talk to me whenever they see me.

  9. Nothing as bad as that has happened to me yet! Of course, in England the tradition is for Sunday school (and by this, I mean children only – adults don’t generally do that sort of thing here) to leave after about ten minutes into the service. It’s only the little ones that stay behind for the sermon.

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