The Lord’s Day can be hard. God calls us to imitate Him through rest and to catch a glimpse of eternity through worship. These very good things help bring joy, peace, and stability to our lives. But those same things – rest and worship – can be difficult for our little ones. What six-year-old boy automatically enjoys rest and worship? In this article I will share with you some of the things that have helped us with our four small children on the Christian Sabbath. As you read, please keep the following things in mind: 1. None of these ideas are meant to make you feel guilty about how you should be doing all these things but aren’t. Even though we have figured out several things that work really well for our family, we don’t do them every week. They are more like an on-again, off-again system, and constantly require tweaking as our family grows. 2. None of these “actions” is meant to replace the need for grace and our consistent reliance on the Holy Spirit for true and lasting heart change in our children. Your children could sit like statues through a two-hour service and still not understand the saving work of Christ. These suggestions are meant to help weak and weary pilgrims, like us, who often need to be reminded even as adults that the Sabbath is a wonderful day!
1. Prepare your children to participate in the worship service. I am musical and love to sing and play the piano, so I sing with my children on a regular basis during the week. I started this practice when my oldest child was four, but the younger ones have definitely benefited as well. My two-year-old now knows a handful of (very complicated!) Psalms by heart, and loves to sing them in church, when he’s in the right mood! Our church sings a Psalm of the month every month, and we try to learn it.
2. Reward your children generously. There are so many things we want our children to do as they participate in worship alongside us: sit still, pay attention, learn about Christ, be friendly to other people. The list goes on and on! As a family, we have picked out certain things that we really want to cultivate in our children and reward them at an age-appropriate level. Our four-year-old is expected to sit quietly and color during the service. For our five-and-a-half-year-old, we make a list of words that we expect to hear often during the service: God, Jesus Christ, Holy Spirit, and then, one or two others based on the sermon title or outline. He is then asked to make tally marks for each word that he hears. At home, he gets a reward for a certain number of tally marks. For example, ten tally marks equals a piece of candy. We also do other rewards, such as special outings or trips, that require more tally marks to earn them. This system requires a fair amount of record-keeping, but is highly motivating. Our six-and-a-half year old is learning to read and write, so he is asked to write down simple words that he hears during the service. I participate by writing down some words that are repeated often. He is rewarded using the same system as the tally marks.
3. Make the Lord’s Day special. As our children grow older, I expect that we will have some hard “no’s” for them in regards to the Lord’s Day. No, you may not participate in sports that interfere with worship services. No to birthday parties. No to special outings. We want to avoid the Sabbath becoming a long list of No, No, No. Instead, we want to focus on the Lord’s Day being a day of delight – a day that anticipates our perfect lives in heaven when we will see Jesus face to face. So, we have implemented special traditions that help to make the Sabbath special for our small children. For example, we eat ice cream out by the lake every Lord’s Day afternoon. It’s a fun tradition that easily incorporates guests when we have them. I have also started an afternoon scavenger hunt. I hide pieces of paper with words from a Bible verse (usually from the evening service), and then the children have to find them and put them in order. We sometimes do drawings instead of words; and the kids love to hide them personally, so it can quickly turn into a game with three or four rounds. By the time we are finished, the children have memorized the verse or know what to listen for. We also have a Lord’s Day box that has stickers and special things that the kids don’t get to play with every day. On the Sabbath we get it out and each child gets to pick something special for that day. I know of families that do something similar with a Lord’s Day bookshelf.
4. Model enjoyment of the Sabbath. Satan hates the Lord’s Day, and does his best to distract us and keep us from truly worshiping God. Things like a late night on Saturday night, disruptions during the night, the flurry of “my pants don’t fit anymore!” as it’s time to go … the list goes on and on! Despite our best efforts at preparation, there’s a certain amount of chaos that goes into getting everyone out the door for church … on time … and wearing shoes! Oops, did we forget the diaper bag? I truly miss the relaxing Sabbath afternoons which I enjoyed before I had children. I loved my theology reading time, long solitary walks, and focused times of prayer. I have had to relearn to enjoy the Sabbath in a different season of life.
5. Look at the big picture. I remember when our second child was born, we went through a season where the speaker for the nursery didn’t work consistently, and the baby’s nursing schedule landed during the evening service … every single week. I was discouraged that I missed a whole series on Deuteronomy, and felt that it would have been better for me to stay home! However, we stayed focused on the big picture. We wanted to worship God and make it a habit. If we approach every Lord’s Day saying, “Should we go to church today?” then the answer will be “no” on a regular basis, and it will get easier to say “no” as time goes by. If, instead, our approach is, “This is going to be hard, but we are committed to worship”, then, by God’s grace, it will get easier. (At least until the next baby comes … you can ask me about that again in April!)
6. Never underestimate the grace of God. We pray, we work, we struggle. We discipline and teach, we wrestle with sleepiness while the baby sleeps on our lap through the service. And through it all, we are loved. I often think of how God’s love for us is like – but greater than – my love for my children. I understand that they are just children – they need to grow up and mature. I am patient (mostly) and I discipline them as I see best. God loves us and knows that we need to grow up and mature. He is patient (always) and He disciplines us for our profit. He knows what we need and when we need it, and He always gives more grace. There is a hymn that says, “He giveth more grace/As the burdens grow greater/He sendeth more strength/When the labors increase/To added affliction He addeth His mercy/To multiplied trials His multiplied peace. His love has no limit/ His grace has no measure/ His power has no boundary known unto men/For out of His infinite riches in Jesus/He giveth, and giveth, and giveth again.” We will fail to always make the Sabbath a delight, for both us and for our little ones, but Jesus kept it perfectly, and there will be a day when we can worship Him in Spirit and in truth, for all eternity. Then we can completely, and finally, rest, for our struggle with sin will be over. And our Lord’s Days won’t be hard anymore.