During Sabbath services in a congregation with children, life happens on two levels. One carries on at the adults’ eye level. But there is another world happening a few feet closer to the ground.
If you’re not paying attention, this very active world is easy to overlook—until its sounds and possibly its fury rise to the level of breaking your and others’ concentration on the sermon or interrupting your fellowship.
Every member of God’s Church should try to bridge the gap between these two worlds. Children need regular, positive interactions with adults who show interest in them and include them within God’s spiritual Family.
But the ultimate responsibility for children at services lies squarely on those of us who produced these children. We must avoid becoming so engrossed in our adult world at services that we lose track of what our children are doing.
Each parent must ensure that his or her child upholds God’s Philadelphia standards at Church services. This requires diligence, consistency and firmness, as well as some creativity and understanding.
Uphold God’s Standards
What would the Apostle Paul say if he walked in on one of our Sabbath services?
He wrote that members of God’s Church should know “how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God” (1 Timothy 3:15; Revised Standard Version).
In those congregations blessed to have children, the behavior of those young ones can make all the difference in whether the services really represent the name Philadelphia Church of God. That is, whether they uphold the Philadelphian standard; whether they befit the very elect, called-out ones; and whether they honor the Being whose name we represent.
Paul said a leader in the Church should be “one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence” (verse 4; New King James Version). Every parent should be striving for this godly, loving discipline at home. Our children’s Sabbath behavior is an excellent indicator of how well we are living up to this biblical admonition.
“[M]any of our brethren … may not fully realize the seriousness of strict training and vigilant enforcement of the behavior of children at Church services,” Herbert W. Armstrong wrote in the Good News magazine, May 1981. “God is holding every one of you parents responsible!”
For his article, Mr. Armstrong reprinted a 1958 letter that his son Richard David wrote to Church members in one congregation where children were misbehaving at Sabbath services. “I do not think my son really wrote this letter, except as God’s instrument. The living Christ, I feel, actually authored it,” he explained. “But it contains a dynamic sermon on the responsibility of parents for the training and the behavior of their children at Church services.”
What an endorsement from Mr. Armstrong, God’s end-time Elijah! This Christ-authored letter is instruction we parents must study closely.
“[A]ll the children without exception have been too noisy, have been left to run free to themselves at services, and this must cease,” wrote Richard Armstrong. Reading these words makes me wonder just how bad those children were by our society’s loose standards. What would Mr. Armstrong think of the behavior of our children at services today?
Emphasizing that the Sabbath commandment includes “thy son” and “thy daughter” (Exodus 20:10), Richard Armstrong wrote, “The Sabbath is holy time, sacred to God, and as such our children should not be allowed to run loose like so many wild animals. … Your children must be in church, and they must keep the Sabbath holy the same as you do.”
This is the overarching principle we must remember as we govern our children’s behavior on the Sabbath: This is holy time. Isaiah 58:13 commands that we all—including our children—refrain from doing our own pleasure to ensure the Sabbath is “holy of the Lord, honourable.”
This means no running, throwing objects, noisily rolling cars around, or being overly loud. Boys are especially prone to such behavior. We must direct them toward appropriate alternatives.
At the same time, this verse in Isaiah shows that God wants the Sabbath to be a “delight” for the whole family, including our children. Twenty-four hours of being expected to be quiet, sit still and do nothing won’t be a delight to even the most mild-mannered child. We must train our children to uphold the standard—while we provide suitable activities and opportunities that fulfill the purpose of the Sabbath and that they will enjoy.
Be sure to give your children appropriate ways to make this weekly holy time special and enjoyable for them, whatever their ages. Spend extra time with them. Read Bible stories and books about creation together. Talk with each other about God, His way of life, His laws, His creation, His plan for all mankind. Walk down the street or through a scenic place together. Make Sabbath meals special with foods and decorations you don’t usually have during the week. Have special quiet toys, dolls, books or activities that children get to enjoy only on the Sabbath. Make the ride to and from services enjoyable by discussing God’s creation. Present them with a nice backpack, handbag or briefcase for their supplies for services.
Be sure they understand what is appropriate at the meeting hall and what isn’t. “Of course your children can play with the other children when services are over,” said the August 1965 Good News. “They should look forward to and enjoy the Sabbath when they see all their friends again. But this is not license to sail airplanes out of restroom windows, wrestle on the floor, or bang chairs around ….”
Our children should be quiet and orderly throughout the Sabbath. They should respect the property at services, including songbooks, chairs and other children’s toys. They should develop a sense of decorum befitting the occasion.
By upholding God’s standards at services and making the Sabbath delightful, you are teaching them what holy means.
Behavior During Services
Teaching your children how to behave during the Sabbath service itself requires special effort and attention. And your expectations must fit your children’s ages and maturity levels.
When you have very young children, your first goal is to ensure that you and others around you can receive the instruction during services with as few interruptions as possible.
To that end, very young children must be blanket trained at home. Select a time and set the blanket on the floor. Tell the child that everything beyond the blanket is “no.” Train your child to play silently on the blanket without getting off. Discipline quickly when the child tests these boundaries. Establish a routine so the child can fall asleep by himself on the blanket even while someone is speaking. These habits simply cannot be taught at services. They must be trained and enforced in your own home during the week.
As you do your “homework,” you will experience fewer and fewer interruptions during services. Every child is different, but by about 6 to 7 months, your child should be able to nap or play quietly through most or all of services without needing to be taken out of the room. It takes consistent effort, but the rewards are immeasurable in terms of you and those around you being able to drink in the Sabbath messages!
Don’t expect a child to sit still, quietly, with nothing to do. Make sure he has silent toys, little snacks or a sippy cup to keep himself occupied.
At blanket time and at services, train your children not to distract you or ask for your attention while the minister is speaking. Enforce a no-talking rule: Practice it at home and implement it at services. Whispering is easy to excuse, but it can easily escalate and should be avoided except in real emergencies. This is an area to practice discipline and getting results when you speak only once.
Keep an eye on what is happening in your children’s world. Any time you notice their behavior during services slipping and beginning to hinder your attentiveness to the messages, then be prepared to put in more “homework.”
As They Mature …
As children grow closer to school-age, your goal will shift toward preparing them to receive the messages at services.
Begin by training your child to sit still in a chair. Again, practice at home.
“Teach your child to sit still at various times during the day for periods of 5 to 10 minutes, or even longer. On occasion, have your child sit still, allowing him to look at a picture book, or color, or some similar pursuit, for as long as an hour or longer. In this way, you can begin to instill a vitally important habit in your child at a very early age” (The Plain Truth About Child Rearing).
By about age 5, a child should be able to sit in his chair at least through the sermonette, perhaps even through announcements or longer. Before long, he will have no trouble sitting for the full two hours.
Throughout this time, also keep your children involved in the other aspects of services. Be sure they bow their heads and keep their eyes closed during the prayers. Get them involved in the song service: Point to the words in the hymnal as you sing them, encourage them to sing along, or at least to make a “joyful noise.”
Once a child begins reading and writing, progressively challenge him to apply these skills within Church services, in using the Bible and taking notes.
Teach him the books of the Bible. Make a game of it as you help him practice finding scriptures you call out. Be alert to the time when a child will appreciate and be able to care for a Bible—probably sometime around first or second grade.
Teach your child to take notes during services first by having him copy scriptures and key phrases from your own notes. Start by having him do it only during the sermonette. Gradually increase your expectations, having him take down more of his own notes for longer stretches.
As much as possible, find ways to reward your children for progressing and doing things right, rather than punishing them for failing to meet your expectations. Again, you are teaching them that the Sabbath is a delight!
Depending on your child’s academic ability and maturity, sometime between third and fourth grade is probably a good target for him to be able to listen and take notes for the duration of services.
As your children grow, establish a habit of talking about the messages together after services and during the week. See how much they are learning. Reinforce important points that they especially need. Illustrate with examples. Ask them how the topic of the message relates to their lives. Train them in the way of listening closely to what God teaches, and when they are old, they will not depart from it (Proverbs 22:6).
Before and After Services
We all want to fully enjoy fellowship with the other brethren before and after services. But we must not succumb to the temptation to turn our children loose and forget about them until it’s time to “round them up” for the trip home. The congregation is not a day-care staff for looking after our children so we can take a break from being parents. As Proverbs 29:15 warns, “[A] child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame.”
That August 1965 Good News made this point emphatically: “Your policy must always be to know exactly where your children are and what they are doing!” In his 1958 letter, Richard Armstrong set the rule for his congregation that all children had to remain inside the meeting hall until the parents were ready to leave. Circumstances may differ in your congregation, but the principle of obeying the rules set by your minister and of keeping close tabs on your children always applies.
“The parent cannot give the child a command, and then dismiss the child and the circumstances from his mind—going on about his own pursuits. On many occasions, I have seen similar circumstances develop where parents will give the child a command to sit still and be quiet. However, because guests are present or the parent … has his mind on other things, he soon forgets what he told his child to do—and the child, willing to ‘try out’ his parents to the absolute limit of their endurance—has long since gotten down from his chair and is now just as noisy, if not noisier, than he was before!” (The Plain Truth About Child Rearing). How easy it is to fall into this trap when our minds are on our fellowship.
Another point Richard Armstrong made is worthy of deep consideration, and can be viewed both as correction and as a wonderful opportunity. In that 1958 letter, he showed the proximity between two verses in Leviticus 19—first, verse 30: “Ye shall keep my sabbaths, and reverence my sanctuary: I am the Lord,” then verse 32: “Thou salt rise up before the hoary head, and honour the face of the old man, and fear thy God: I am the Lord.”
In many cases, the Sabbath service may be the one time a week when our children are in close contact with several older people. This provides a beautiful occasion to teach them how to relate properly with their elders.
“How many of our children are so quiet and obedient that when an elder comes into the room they will rise?” Richard Armstrong wrote under Christ’s inspiration. “They shouldliterally obey this command in Leviticus to rise before those who are elders and learn to show honor and respect them. This is the Word of God! Are you willing to obey it? Are you living by it?” (emphasis added).
Also, take some time before or after services to have your children speak with adults. Teach them how to be friendly—to look them in the eye, to answer questions (hopefully with more than one-syllable answers), to speak up. Help them recognize the history those older members have lived through and the wisdom they have gained. Teach them to listen to their elders. “Remember the days of old, consider the years of many generations: ask thy father, and he will shew thee; thy elders, and they will tell thee” (Deuteronomy 32:7). In a society that prioritizes youth and novelty, an appreciation for age, wisdom and history must be diligently taught.
Two more points: Children should be taught not to walk through adult conversations (we can all help with this). They should also be taught not to interrupt when adults are talking.
Rewards for Law-keeping
As is the case with behavior during services, the time to train our children how they should behave before and after services is during the week. Anticipate. Prepare. Establish firm rules. Tell them in advance the rewards for right and the punishments for wrong. Practice in whatever ways are possible. Do your work during those six days, and you will be able to rest on the Sabbath as your children behave appropriately.
While you are establishing these good habits, you might consider establishing a happy tradition—perhaps enjoying ice cream as a family after services—for when the children behaved themselves well in the household of God, the Church of the living God.
Let’s diligently work with our children to keep God’s Sabbath holy and honorable—and at the same time make it a delight. This will do much to bring us peace, build God’s Family, and strengthen the Church in the eyes of the world and of God. It will help life in our congregations meet God’s standard—both at eye level and at the level closer to the ground. And it will prepare our young people for a lifetime of joy-filled Sabbath-keeping!