I'd like to tell you a story. Before I begin, however, let me give you some background information.
We have been living in our new town, with Zach serving at his new church since the end of June. In that time, there has been lots of changes and upheaval for our family. Finding a routine for the kids and I to get in to has been a challenge, and continues to be more than four months into this new life. Sundays have proven to be the most challenging part of finding our new normal. There are three services that Zach must be at. He leaves our house often before 7:00 on Sunday mornings. Two services are held at one church, one right after the other, with the third being held at another church, in another town, more than twenty minutes away. What is a preacher's wife and family to do? Most weeks I try to make it to two of those services, one in each church, though there are times that I just don't have it in me to sit through two services with my three kids so I choose one. Then of course, there's always the one service, the earliest one, that I have only been to a few times.
Now, on to the story and the purpose of this post:
Not too long ago the kids and I got up to go to the earliest service, the one we have only been to on occasion. I sat in the front, with the three kids. I tried to smile at those around me and most people wouldn't even meet my eye. That's okay, it's early, most of these people have no clue who I am. The kids are tired, cranky, hot and uncomfortable. The youngest one is crawling all over me, fidgeting to stay awake, but really wanting to go to sleep. We make it to the end of the service and I work on gathering the water bottles, church bag, my purse, and loose bulletins. An older woman walks up to us, she's the first one to talk to us since we walked in the front door. She goes right up to Noah, who has been upset because of something his sister did or said, and asks him why he didn't stand during the last song, saying, "Is there something wrong with you?"
Noah immediately backs away from her, this stranger whom he has never met. My six year old has no idea how to respond to this question and chooses to say nothing instead. The lady glances at me for the first time, asks if its our first visit here and then offers the kids some candy. I left flabbergasted. I managed to make it to my car before I broke down into tears. I went home depressed and feeling like I am the worst mom alive, the worst preacher's wife, a failure.
Now, I understand that I am a sensitive person. I also admit to reading into things, intentions that weren't ever there. However, I also know that had I been a visitor I would never go back to that church because of how my kids and I were treated, because of how a few people made me feel, whatever their true intentions were.
I know a lot of my readers are church goers, many of you are leaders in your congregation. I am begging you to think about how you treat young families, visitors, and anyone else. Think about how you go about greeting people, how you handle those people who may be "doing it wrong."
I have written before about having kids in church (you can see those here and here). It's hard, whether you have one or five. We are trying to teach our kid how to behave in an environment that is often unforgiving of mistakes or missteps. Our kids are expected to sit quietly, to understand the traditions and routines, to be still, and to be happy. How are they expected to learn anything without messing up on occasion?
Let me tell you another story:
Another Sunday, and another service finds us once again sitting on the front row, belongings strewn about, but this time we are in another sanctuary, surrounded by different people. My kids are happy and this creates a new set of challenges. They want to play, they want to talk, they want to run up and give their daddy a hug. Ryann, the three year old wants to dance to the music. Her dress has a twirly skirt and that's amazing and doesn't everyone want to see? I am exhausted, and frustrated, and once again feeling like I'm failing. The end of the service comes and I try to gather my wits and belongings without crumbling. An older woman comes up to me. Great. Here we go again. She puts a hand on my arm and says, "I want you to know that we love seeing your kids up here. I know it can be frustrating for you, but we love it. You are doing a good job of handling them by yourself."
Friends, this is love. This is what will bring people back, bring people into a relationship. There was no judgement, just encouragement.
Being a parent is hard. Being a parent who tries to bring their family to church is hard. Young families today have so much vying for their attention and time. Often both parents work full time jobs and Sundays may be the only time for families to spend together. For them to come spend an hour or more at church is an achievement in itself. It means they are there because they want to be, whatever reason that may be. They will often want to keep their family together during that hour of worship, for good reason. However, there's a good chance that their younger ones are still learning about what church is, and how to behave. Their parents are likely still learning about how to best handle their little ones while figuring everything out. Be kind. Be encouraging. Be helpful. Love. Think about your words before you offer any kind of observation or "helpful" advice. Think about how your words, whatever their intention, may sound to an overwhelmed mother or father. Think about how your criticisms may sound to that visitor, who doesn't understand or know about "how we do things." If we expect to have a church in thirty years, we need to practice loving and encouraging more, and criticizing less.
Thoughts? I'd love to hear from you.