My friend John Dyergo 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.

 

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

3 Comments

  1. I like the discussion. But even in your language of theater and family, I think we need to be aware of the purpose of worship. Worship is both about God and our response to God, but also about learning to be community and learning about God. In many ways (and many very important ways) we do not all learn and worship in the say ways. So some like quiet metatative worship, some like sensual (focused on the senses, not sexual) worship. Other like loud music, some quiet. My point isn’t that we should all split up and find our own thing, but that we have preference and in many ways, that preference means that we feel closest to God when we have our preferential worship.

    Children (babies, toddlers, middle schoolers, etc) have their own needs and preferences around worship. If it is going to be about them learning about the corporate Christian community and God and a response to God, then having them in a room with adult focused ways of relating to God is probably not the best way to teach them that God really cares about them. Instead it probably communicates, that God cares about you if you can act like an adult.

    So yes, our church really encourages people to take their children to the most appropriate place during worship, and that probably is not the main adult worship service. Yes, some people want them out because it is offensive to their ears for a baby to cry or a toddler to stage whisper about the woman’s hair in front of them. But just because some people fine it offensive does not mean that it is not actually better for children to be in the place that is better for them.

    Our church has a family worship time; a 35 minute worship, particularly for families to attend together. Where there is music that is the right volume and tone for kids as well as a message that parents and children can talk about together.

    Yes, a lot of children church is crap and has nothing to do with church and everything to do with babysitting. But because some is crap does not mean that the concept of children’s church is crap. It means that some churches just aren’t doing their job at teaching children and adults what it means to worship.

    (Sorry for the rant, it is one of my areas of frustration. I keep hearing story after story after story of people saying, “I hated church and left as soon as I could”, and in large part it is because they were never taught about what it means to be in worship.)

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  2. One thing our church has done for quite a while now is to make the last Sunday of the month “family Sunday”. On those Sundays all the children (and those parents that want their infants) are invited into the main sanctuary for the duration of the service. The worship is the same, the sermon is the same, everything progresses as normal. One Sunday was even the baptism Sunday, which typically runs later than our standard service.

    The purpose of this is for multiple reasons, but the primary reason (as explained to us) was to have the children see what goes on in “big church” and to take part in the experience, so they know what they will experience when they transition later on.

    I think this has been great because it does touch on several aspects of the church body. The first is that we do treat the children as part of the body, letting them in on our service. I’ll admit as the father of twin 5 year olds that don’t have the longest attention spans in the world, I’ve been a little nervous the first few times I was there. However, they enjoy the worship, and they have “busy bags” (special ones provided by the church) with some crayons and a coloring pad in which to help keep their attention while the sermon is given.

    What I really enjoyed about this was for the time they were there for baptism Sunday (celebrating with the body) as well as during one of the communion Sundays (which gave us a few teaching points along the way, it wasn’t snack time 8^D).

    But I think more importantly, EVERYBODY was involved with the service and worshiped together. Sure there were a few outbursts by children, and I could hear the little girl behind me whispering to her mom, but at the same time my children were whispering to me as well, and everybody was fine with it. Everybody learned a little bit too.

    Don’t ask me to make every Sunday family Sunday quite yet 8^D But there are some good things I’ve been taking away from it. 8^D

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  3. Cry rooms allow for some separation; however, they are constructed into the main worship space to allow for maximum participation.

    At my previous parish (and this, 20 years ago) the wonderful pastor had a strong, almost harsh, reaction to my offer to help construct a cry room so that parents could “slip in and slip out.” He was thoroughly opposed, and the lesson stayed with me. [I should note that the acoustics in that particular church were fabulous (all ‘hard’ surfaces)—-so babies and other sounds could, at times, be significantly disruptive. Those same hard surfaces allowed for the voice of the cantor to carry beautifully!]

    The reality, however, was that my wife was beside herself; she simply was not wired to just “suck it up” and manage one (and eventually two) babies who were making their needs known. My role as husband and father is not only to raise my children in the Faith, but also to love and cherish my wife, and to express that care, concern, and affection by serving her needs.
    Eventually, we returned to our previous parish with the cry room.

    It’s important to at least attempt to disentangle “accommodation” from “pragmatism.” The Liturgy or Service must do its best to foster corporate worship. There are times accommodation may be excessive (Big screens? Stages? Passive Listening v. The Work of the People ? The array of segregated classes by “cohort?”).

    But rigidity (as compared to “structure”) should be avoided——this was the distinction alluded to on Dyer’s site: Every occasion is a “setting.” And it is right to discern based on setting. When we host Christmas or Easter at our home, there are certain expectations for everyone’s behavior (not just children and babies).

    At a restaurant, with friends, bringing Baby: Baby makes himself and his needs known. Mom or Dad will very likely take Baby outside for a brief walk, bounce, and pat-pat-pat. These are the normal things that foster community and caring, thoughtful relationship.

    A Story: About 15 years ago a family at our parish faithfully brought their disabled son, along with their other young children, to mass. He was, to say it gently, a big boy. His behavior was, to say it gently, difficult. They appeared not just exhausted, but at wits end. I admired them so deeply for simply making it to mass—something I’m not sure I could do—and that was instructive to me. I did not know them well, but we often sat near each other. One Sunday morning I simply asked them (and some parents will shriek given that we did not know each other well) if they would like me to take him to the playground for awhile. They eagerly handed him over to me and we played. We did this many times at mass. It was practical. It worked. Being a big kid, if he bumped into you, it hurt. So it was safer for worshipers if he had some play time. I missed a few bits of mass, and they got to rest during a few.

    Today, he and his family are still in our parish family. He’s still an awkward presence. But he’s ours and is loved by the community. Now that he’s older, he doesn’t go in the cry room or to the playground. He stays with us.

    That “experiential catechesis” took a long time…for the whole parish family. But it was worth it.

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