It’s 9:30pm on Saturday night. Though war-weary and exhausted, my wife and I have conquered our preschool-age sons in the Battle of Bedtime. As we survey the landscape, she turns and whispers, “Remember, I’ve got band rehearsal before church tomorrow.”
So… I’ve got the boys. “No worries, darling.” I know how to feign godliness.
But I also know what having the boys means in reality: it means the Battle of the Pews, and it takes place every time my wife is on singing. It lasts for the millennia between the first song and the stampede out to children’s programs. On this particular day, my generally compliant boys morphed into the critters from Gremlins, dancing and jumping on the pews, jerking their mother’s microphone cord and stage diving. When the music stopped and the stampede started, I flipped between toileting one or the other, settling them into their respective kids’ programs and dealing with other red herrings. Eventually, I returned to the pews, child on hip, having missed ‘G’day time’, the Bible reading, prayer and 90 per cent of the sermon.
I could take you through the rest of the morning, but you get the gist.
That day, I left church feeling frustrated and spiritually dry. It’s right to prioritize care of and ministry to one’s own family; I get that. But it’s also right to want to minister to adults. My frustration had been heightened that day because I’d just worked through Tony Payne’s How to walk into Church with the blokes in my disciple-making team (a.k.a middle-aged, mildly obese, balding men’s growth group). The book builds on Col Marshall’s ‘ministry of the pew’ philosophy described in his well-known article of the same name. How to Walk into Church had inspired us to be more intentional in our approach to church—that is, to pray that God might work in and through us all; to think about “how to stir up one another to love and good works” (Heb 10:24); and to speak—that is, to springboard from the sermon into speaking the words of scripture to one another. But on this particular day, the reality of preschoolers made ‘ministry of the pew’ feel like the idealistic construct of some far-removed ministry guru.
Recurrent experiences like this have made me ponder two things. Firstly, what might couples with young children do differently to allow them to minister beyond their families on Sundays? And secondly, what might churches do so parents are freed up to give and receive the ministry of the pew during this phase of life?
There are safe kids playgrounds all over suburbs and towns in Australia. Why not meet a family with preschool-age kids before or after church? There is safety in numbers, and typically the kids are more occupied, allowing you a bit of time to chat or even pray (with one eye open).
My wife and I have started trying to schedule one week on and one week off kid supervision during and after the formal part of church. One of us takes them off to their Sunday school classes and then, later, picks them up and takes them into the kids area. This frees up the other to engage with adults. Obviously single parents face a tougher challenge, but perhaps there are opportunities to share some of the load with others.
Basketball teams often employ a defensive technique called ‘zone defence’ where each player is responsible for guarding a section of the court. In the after church context, this might look like a couple guarding an exit or two each so that they can be semi-free to talk to other adults. It might prove to be like herding cats, but it’s worth a shot.
I’ve heard it said of parents with little ones, “We’ve all had to go through it. You’ve just got to accept that you’re out of action for five years or so.” This is lazy thinking. Instead, we need to ask “How can the church free up parents with a passion for growing disciples?” This includes single parents. For some (often mums), this time of the week might be their only opportunity to encourage and be encouraged by the saints.
I acknowledge that this is out of reach for some churches. Nevertheless, it needs to be said that having a safe, enclosed area for young children to play in after church is of great benefit for ministry of the pew, so the possibility is worth considering.
For churches with children’s programs, there is a natural break in the meeting when kids go out to their groups. Why not extend that break by 15-20 minutes and share morning tea then? I know of churches that, having experimented with this concept, have become convinced of its positive impact on biblical fellowship. Parents can enjoy a rare chance to engage in a time of uninterrupted conversation and prayer. Sceptics might argue it’s an extra 20 minutes for those serving the kids programs; in light of the great commission (Matt 28:18-20), I’m not sure that’s a strong argument.
Yes, numerous people have just served sacrificially in kids ministries during church. But perhaps arranging supervision of a kids play area (with sign-in and the usual child safety caveats) would also help free up parents to do ministry of the pew.
What creative ideas could you or your church implement to help parents of toddlers make disciples on Sundays?