My youngest sister, Katie, was expelled from a women’s Bible study program because her stubborn two-year-old refused to stay in the nursery. After her banishment she shared with me her sense of exile in the land of motherhood.
The evangelical church that Katie attends consistently shows a low tolerance for children, and I do not think that attitude is out of the ordinary. Parents whose young children vocalize during the service are pounced on by ushers and asked to leave—that is, if they haven’t already been redirected to the church nursery before even entering the sanctuary. Katie is the mother of five adopted children, aged ten, nine, six, four, and two. With the arrival of the eldest, she left a promising career in business to nurture and homeschool her brood. She often has pushed back at her church’s anti-child policies, bringing the youngest children with her into the service despite the open disapproval. This has not simply been an act of recalcitrance. Katie and her husband have had real concerns about the less-than-charitable treatment their mixed-race children have received in the nursery, and the medical status of some of their children has made leaving them in the care of strangers difficult.
Katie sought out the opportunity to join the church’s Bible study group because she had gone for many years without taking time to nurture her spiritual growth. She viewed these meetings as a chance, finally, to do something for herself. The program meets on a weekday and provides age-leveled activities for the children whose mothers attend. Unfortunately, when Katie’s two-year-old refused to stay in the nursery, the nursery volunteers did not consider distracting a fussy tot to be part of the deal. As soon as the child began to cry, she was brought to Katie in the Bible study. There she quieted down and played happily by herself on the floor next to her mother. She even received compliments from a grandmother in the group: “Your little girl is such a sweetheart,” and “She’s so well-behaved.” The leader of the Bible study did not concur, however, and asked Katie to stop coming. Having a mother and small child in the group just wasn’t “the kind of atmosphere we are seeking to cultivate,” she explained.
Not wishing to be a nuisance, Katie retreated. But what kind of atmosphere should a Bible study group for women seek to cultivate, if not one that recognizes the loneliness and craving for adult interaction that many stay-at-home mothers experience? If she cannot participate in a Bible study specifically designed for full-time mothers, where can she go to find some much-needed fellowship? It appears that the exile that began for Katie with the arrival of her first child will not end until her youngest reaches the age of reason.
The culture in which we live today is not particularly child-friendly, despite appearances to the contrary. Almost everyone loves a well-dressed, well-behaved child, but understanding of the truly difficult and unavoidable aspects of child rearing is scarce. Furthermore, the narcissistic self-indulgence of parents who are unwilling to properly discipline their children is not true child friendliness. Sadly, many churches seem to mirror this culture. “You decided to have this family,” the reasoning goes; “deal with it.” In this matter, though, our churches must stand out as truly different from mainstream culture, especially in the face of the many disturbing cultural forces that threaten the nuclear family.
What does a child-tolerant church look like? First, the church —and all of us, really—must remember that where there are women, there are children. Today, with the widespread use of birth control and the prevalence of abortion services, the bittersweet burden of motherhood is no longer seen in the wider culture as a normal phase of life, but rather as a lifestyle option. As a result, many people don’t wish to be inconvenienced by children, who are seen as someone else’s “choice,” not the collective responsibility of (in this case) the church community. At an infant dedication ceremony, the entire congregation enters into a covenant with the parents to help raise the child to love and serve the Lord. That is what I remember hearing as a child, as I sat with my parents through many a long church service.
In a child-tolerant church, families with small, squirmy children are truly welcomed, not separated and exiled. An infant’s vocalizing, a dropped toy, the movement of a restless child in a pew—all are viewed with tolerance, if not sympathy. Parents whose small children start to scream get up and take them to the cry room or the church foyer. The few moments of noise as a child is carried out are endured by the congregation and politely ignored. No one enjoys the disruption, of course, but all are mindful of having been in the same position or, at least, that all are called to “suffer little children to come unto me.”
Over time, children can learn to sit quietly in church and entertain themselves—or perhaps even listen with reverence and respect. I need not remind readers that these capacities are in short supply among young people today. And let us not underestimate the ability of young children to benefit from grown-up church. My earliest conversion experience came when—at the age of five, sitting restlessly next to my mother with a coloring book and the occasional candy bribe to keep me quiet—I heard the pastor say that if I wanted to live in heaven with Jesus, he needed to live in my heart. This caught my attention. The pastor then explained that I only needed to invite Jesus into my heart for him to be there. “Oh,” I thought, “I can do that right now.” So I did, and no adult was necessary to help me realize that the Lord had done something special for me that day.
A child-tolerant church also knows that families committed to full-time parenting desperately need support and understanding. Women (and men) who spend their days with small children need some time to recharge and listen to the Lord. If they are expected to (and they may indeed wish to) leave the nursing infant and the clinging toddler in the nursery, the church needs to remember that soothing and entertaining these children is also a ministry. If this is too difficult for the nursery volunteers, then mothers (and fathers) who keep their children with them should be welcome in meetings and at services.
I have been a Catholic for seven years. As the mother of one young child, I frequently join the parents who occupy the last rows of pews in church, close to the exits. Children are welcome at Mass—in the cry room if they are screaming, but in the pews even if they aren’t perfectly still. Not all Catholic churches are like this. I lived for a while in a parish where the beautiful old church did not have a nursery or a cry room. Parents with active little ones occasionally used the small Reconciliation room as a cry room, until someone started locking the door. The congregation was predominantly older, past child-rearing years, and most of the families with young children got the message. They moved to the neighboring parish that hosted the local Catholic school and that also offered a more child-friendly environment.
I have seen many evangelical church services in central Africa and other parts of the non-Western world during which toddlers occasionally roam the aisles or even wander up to the pulpit before being scooped up by a parent or older sibling. Infants who start to cry are quickly carried outside. These small disruptions are scarcely noticed. I wonder, sadly, how churches in North American seem to have strayed so far from the fundamental recognition that children are a special gift from God and our collective responsibility. During his earthly life, Christ made it abundantly clear that he does not consider small children a nuisance. The sanctity of the worship service is not diminished by their presence. In fact, without them, the Body of Christ is not complete.
When we are old, let’s hope that our grown-up children don’t conclude that caring for the elderly is just another lifestyle choice. When I am ninety years old, I might have a tendency to make clicking sounds with my dentures, insist on bringing my old afghan to keep my knees warm, be slightly forgetful, and speak out at the wrong moments in the service. I hope, however, that I still will be welcome in church and not exiled to the chapel of a senior center or nursing home. I fear though, that the children of today who grow up with so little experience of the weekly gatherings of the church community (including Bible study) with all their human noise and inconvenience, will see no reason why they should tolerate the presence of the vulnerable elderly any more than they should tolerate the presence of the very young.
Beth Lewis Samuelson, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Literacy, Culture, and Language Education at the W.W. Wright School of Education at Indiana University, Bloomington.