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Infants in the Cry Room: The Earthen Vessels Symposium (Ch. 5)

November 7th, 2011 | 4 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

My friend John Dyer--go buy his book now--reflected on chapter five of Earthen Vessels, and in conclusion highlighted this section:

When cleanliness and bodily order become required for entrance into our communities—as they clearly are in most evangelical churches—then we have adopted a standard inhospitable to those whose bodies either might intrude at inopportune times (such as infants and the elderly) or who lack the grooming that an affluent society has transformed into a requirement. Babies crying are not a “distraction” from connecting with God— they are a tangible reminder of our embodied lives and that God himself once cried as a baby, too.

There's a great discussion in the comments at his site, so go read them all right now.  But I want to highlight this one by Sheri Edman:

I think it’s interesting that, whenever we speak about babies in public (not just in church, but in any public space), we talk about them crying. Most babies actually spend more time sleeping than crying. Why do we talk about them crying?

My conjecture is that it’s partly just that crying is audible and sleeping isn’t, so we notice babies more when they cry– when they present themselves to our awareness. Also, though, it’s partly because a baby’s cries have meaning: “I’m sleepy and need help getting to sleep!” or “I’m hungry!” or “My diaper is dirty!” or “I want to be in physical contact with someone who loves me!”

In short, babies cry to communicate some kind of need– a need, moreover, that they cannot fulfill themselves and therefore must appeal to their parents and (their parents’ community) for help.

This neediness is profoundly offensive in the context of a culture where selfishness is the order of the day, where we have come to believe we are entitled to a public life entirely cleansed of children, and that we are entitled to live lives focused entirely on self-gratification. A baby is a stark, intrusive, immediate reminder that we do not get to put ourselves first all the time.

This is precisely the sort of pushback the question needs.  The distinction between presenting oneself and being present is one I have made elsewhere with respect to our online activity, and it certainly fits here.  And I think point about how a baby is an "intrusive, immediate reminder that we do not get to put ourselves first all the time."

In fact, the question about where babies should be during corporate worship highlights the fundamental interconnectedness of this chapter and the preceding one.  I opened the previous chapter by pointing out that we are social in the womb and closed it by examining the relationship between "creation care" and abortion (yes, I went there).  My overarching theme is discussed here, and I think it all holds together.

Yet here we return to the same theme, albeit in a different context.  It is not an external, social context that I raise the point in, but rather an ecclesial one.  Where should the infants go when they are an inconvenient distraction?  Do we welcome them into our midst, howls and all, or ask mothers to politely slip out?  The questions are matters of practical judgment, which means they're impossible to answer definitively in the abstract.  My goal is slightly different:  I want to show the presuppositions of our action, to dig up the buried logic that we may not even be conscious of.

Let's think through the family model for a second, can we?  Yes, order is important in our corporate gatherings.  But the thing isn't be theater, is it?  Yet that's the model that many evangelicals deploy and even, alas, the language that we use.  Stagings, lighting, sound checks, and....action.  We don't take babies to the theater because it's live performance art.

But church worship is the place where we bow before a God who became man, a reality at least as messy as what happens in the cry rooms.  We focus on the members of Jesus body, the arms and feets and hands.  But it doesn't simply have parts:  it has a history as well, a future that will be around after we're gone and a past that has shaped our present.  Keeping children with us at the center of the church's life is one way in which we bear witness to that.

What does all this mean, practically?  I'm not a cry-room iconoclast, and I don't mind if the parents want to recuse little Sally when she starts hollering.   Hospitality works itself out in lots of different directions, and while our understanding and practices toward children are a matter for discipleship, that will inevitably take a bit of time.  I'm always wary of tactical and pastoral accommodations to prevailing cultural norms, but your mileage may vary.

Mostly, my goal here is to highlight the cultural logic that is at work in many of our congregations.  It is my desire to see evangelicals learn to welcome the stranger into our midst.  We can only begin to do that when we make the familiar strange and see the ways in which our inhospitality might even extend to those who already our own.


Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.