The congregation I'm part of is experiencing children in new ways. Long ago, when the congregation was a bit younger, the children who were in worship were the children of the adults who were also in worship. Some of the adults are still around, but their children have grown up, and may have children of their own ~ though most of them don't live close.
Most of the children in worship now have parents along, though some show up with grandparents or other relatives. The difference, in part, as I understand it, is that now there is a great deal more diversity in the age and life circumstance of the adult population at the congregation I'm part of.
There has been some conversation expressing concern about disruptive behavior and noise levels that come along with younger children.
I understand these concerns. When I go somewhere, I want to be able to participate in the activity that is happening in that place ~ after all, it's why I went to that place. When I go out to eat, if someone makes it impossible for me to have dinner, I have a problem with that. The same is true if I go to the theater, or to the baseball game, or to the grocery store. I want to be able to watch the play, to cheer for the home team, to purchase food to feed my family. If someone takes away my ability to do those things, I won't be happy.
So I understand the reaction from some people when screaming children disrupt the sermon, or toddlers' toys make it tough to pass the peace. The disruptions in the liturgy don't allow others to worship. And even though I've been known to quote an old pastor I used to know by saying that my favorite sound to hear in the middle of a sermon is a screaming baby, it can cause me grief too.
I certainly understand how people agree that it would be good to keep children out of worship until they can behave appropriately. Once they learn how to keep quiet and not disturb people around them, then they can join the congregation. Once they learn how to be in worship, then they can pay attention, and get something out of the service.
You might guess that I come at this from a different angle. First of all, I wonder why we gather for worship? Do we get together on Sunday mornings so that we can feel good about ourselves, so we can 'get our spiritual tank filled', so the upcoming week doesn't feel like there's something missing? Who is the worship service for? If it's only for the individual person who shows up, then we're doing something wrong. A person can get their individual spiritual needs met much better at yoga, in the mountains, or even through retail therapy.
If worship is for the community, we have a better starting place. Then, even if I don't feel like showing up on Sunday morning, even if I don't need to be there for myself, I might recognize that someone else in the community needs me to be there. Further, as we join together in community, we can remind ourselves that our god is not (only) personal, but that G-d calls us together in community even as G-d is community. We are reminded that we, together, are the Body of Christ, made whole in worship and broken for the sake of a broken world that longs for healing and wholeness.
But I believe that worship is not for me ~ the point is not to meet my spiritual need. Neither is worship for the community ~ that just sets up the leadership as either performers, or as providing a service for the consumers.
Worship, rather, is for G-d. One ridiculously counter-cultural thing about worship is that the focus is away from the self, which rarely happens in our society. And if worship is for G-d, who am I to say that by screaming, a baby isn't making a joyful noise to the Lord?
But they don't understand what's going on in worship, I've heard people say. Yes, that's probably true. But I don't understand what's going on in worship all the time, either. Christ is in, with, and under the bread and wine ... ? What does that mean? People are moved to tears by singing a song? How does that happen? Plus, even if they don't look like adults do when we're paying attention, they most certainly are absorbing much more than we often give them credit for, especially with regard to ritual. There's one child who is too young to follow the children's sermon, but comes up every week. He moves around through the circle, sometimes disrupting our brief conversation. But as soon as I say the ritual line, "Let's stand and we'll pray together" (it's exactly the same every week, on purpose), he's right there, holding hands in the circle just like all the other children.
As much as they may disturb us, children belong in worship. If we say to them, '... when you're a little older ...', or '... when you can behave a little better ...', or '... you're not quite ready ...', we say through our actions that children are not as valuable as adults. And in not valuing children (people) as they are right now, we teach them that they need to be different before they're acceptable by the church (and by default, by G-d). Is that really the message we want to send?
Maybe the next time you go to worship, that one child will be there in the seat right in front of you. You know from past experience that they'll be a little louder than you're comfortable with. You know that you'll barely be able to follow along, and that you have no hope of hearing the sermon. Maybe you don't need to hear the sermon that day ... maybe G-d is calling you to pay attention to that child (of G-d) for the morning, so that the child and her family knows that they have a place in the Body of Christ.