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Church for the Littlest Hearts

Or is it?

My heart is heavy, so I write this in search of wisdom from more seasoned parents who have walked this path.  

How do you church your sensitive, attached children in a way that is respectful and responsive, and still balances their spiritual needs with your own?

Let me clarify our struggle to provide some context. We are Jesus-loving people who seek to grow in our faith, and worship in community. We also want Little L to witness and participate in this part of our lives, just as we want her to learn more about Jesus and hopefully, eventually, come to have a personal relationship with Him. Those are big priorities for us, and we recognize the value and importance of going to church as part of being in a worship community and fostering an accountable faith.

However, we struggle hard with church attendance, not because we are unwilling to go or unable to find a good community, but because most churches as we've experienced do not have adequate means to minister to sensitive and attached children. Every church we have attended, as well as those we've simply looked into, sets up their children's ministries in a similar fashion:
  1. Children younger than a certain age will attend a nursery staffed by a rotation of volunteers. It's essentially a supervised play space for babies, toddlers, and possibly preschoolers for 1.5-2 hours with minimal Bible teaching.
  2. Children who have reached a certain age (usually preschool and older) will transition into a more "class-like" grouping with other similar-aged kids. These classes will take place during church service time and will be taught/facilitated by a team of rotating volunteers who follow a prescribed curriculum (usually worksheet and story-based). The quality of the class will be largely dependent on the quality of the teaching materials and the general experience of the volunteer Sunday School teachers.
  3. Once children hit a certain age (usually junior high or senior high), they will begin to join their parents in the worship service.
While I think that this kind of arrangement likely meets the needs of most families and most children who are generally adaptable and not prone to anxiety, it is less suitable for kids like Little L, who can sometimes take a long time to develop an attachment to the adults in charge, and who has never felt at ease being left with strangers (even those with much childcare experience and who have been vetted by the church). The very experience of being left with a stranger (or near-stranger) at a young age, even for a brief amount of time, can be vexing for someone who is especially sensitive and unable to comprehend what is happening. To the little person with no concept of time, being left alone is tantamount to being abandoned. Will it be forever? Will Mommy ever come back? As rational adults, we obviously know the answer, but when it's a baby or a toddler, the anxiety of the separation can be equally intense whether we are gone for 5 minutes or 5 hours.

So it was and is with Little L, who has a fairly anxious disposition when she doesn't have an adult to whom she can anchor her trust. Since most kids' ministries are staffed by volunteers that work in rotation, there isn't the consistency that would allow Little L to form a bonded relationship with any given person (or two or three people). Unfortunately, this has really made it difficult for Hubbs and I to regularly attend church, and to attend it together; one of us has usually been relegated to watching Little L while the other goes into the worship service. The result is that we are not both getting our spiritual needs met every week, and we are also not able to effectively model the importance and value that we place on worshiping God together in the context of community.

Even when Little L has remained in Sunday School (with me accompanying her), I have noted that the quality of her experience and learning varies depending on which volunteers are facilitating the learning. Those who are seasoned teachers or naturally gifted with kids tend to lead really great lessons, but so often it is the well-meaning but utterly unskilled volunteers who are tasked with delivering the curriculum, and the teaching portions of her class end up being really boring and one-sided. The lesson is then lost on my kid, which makes me wonder why we are at church in the first place; at this point, neither one of us is getting spiritually "fed."

For the separation anxiety issue, many have suggested that we simply let Little L "cry it out" in Sunday School or the nursery. Much like the extinction method of sleep training, the rationale here is that eventually she will figure out that we do come back, and she will get comfortable enough with her teachers du jour not to wail like a wounded hyena anymore. Sure, maybe that works...but what if it doesn't? And at what cost?

We know of many who have walked away from God and from the faith of their parents because they have been disillusioned and turned off by how "church" had been imposed on them as children. They resent being forced to go when they've hated it or were afraid. They struggle with the discrepancies they see between the Bible's mandates to love and cherish and not exasperate one's children, with the practices of their parents regularly dishonoring their anxious feelings about going to church and forcing them to attend. These folks so often blame God for the choices that their parents have made, and are wholly turned off to the love of Jesus because they can't see past the negative associations of church that they formed as young kids. I know that my own childhood Sunday School experiences did much to turn me off of organized religion, but for the grace of God!

I think about Jesus, when He called the little children to Himself. He was so inviting, and despite not being particularly handsome or distinguished or notable in form, He attracted kids because He loved them and was gentle with them. He honoured them and regarded them with respect (which was not the norm of His time). While He may not have had any cool tricks or gimmicks to entertain His youngest audiences, He held their attention because He saw them for who they were, and He met them where they were.  

My desire is for Little L to know this Jesus, the gentle Lamb who speaks Truth in love. I want her to thirst for God, to embrace His Word and to know just how big and wide and deep and high His love is for her. I want her to be excited to worship Him with others, and to feel safe and engaged and interested in what her teachers want to show her about Jesus. I want her to willingly go to church, versus feel coerced to attend because we want to attend. I want to be respectful her feelings when she tells me that she is scared or sad about going to church because the volunteers in Sunday School weren't able to maintain control over all of the little kids who were screaming and yelling in the room, or because the teacher tried to make her feel bad (read: guilty) for asking me to stay with her in the classroom when she wasn't quite ready to let me go upstairs yet (and yes, both happened). But I don't want all of this at the expense of Hubbs' and my own spiritual nourishment.

And so we struggle on with our church attendance, because we simply haven't found something that works for all three of us. Every Sunday continues to be a bit of a battle of wills between a preschooler who is alternately loathe to go or apprehensive and scared about attending, and two earnest parents who really want to go to church, but also want to avoid imposing it on their 3.5 year-old, strong-willed and sensitive child.

I feel like we are very alone in this, because so many parents that I've talked to have not even identified this as a problem for them. They attend church every week, with multiple kids sometimes, and their children seem quite willing to spend time apart from them, even at the youngest of ages. It seems odd to me that we would be the only ones wrestling with this, though, so I can only assume that others who have walked this similar road simply don't voice their struggles. Or maybe they stop attending church for a long season, and just don't say anything about it.

How do you church your littles? Do you take them regardless of whether they want to go or not? Do you find Sunday School to be an effective time of Bible learning for your kids? How have you balanced your child's wishes with your own, where faith is concerned?


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