If you sat in front of me at church this past week, I apologize. The song we were singing was “Hope Has a Name,” by River Valley Worship, but my version sounded more like this:

Hope has a name, His name is Je… shhh, I’m trying to sing the song

My Savior’s cross has set this I know you’re hungry, I don’t have anything to eat

Hope has a name, His name is Jesus

Oh, Christ If you tell me you’re starving one more time you will have a consequence when we get home,

I have victory

Kids in church, am I right? Sometimes it feels pointless to even be there. We come to receive forgiveness, God’s promises, and hope, but instead we find ourselves giving instructions, consequences, and judgement. I have thought endlessly about how to reconcile this, and I cannot find one good solution. Nurseries, cry rooms, separate children’s church, coloring supplies, etc., are all intended to lighten the burden for the parents and children (and allow the rest of the congregation to focus), and I am definitely grateful for those things. But the unfortunate truth is, sometimes the nursery is closed, your child doesn’t feel like coloring, and all they feel like doing is being anywhere other than that pew.

We all like the idea of letting the little children come to Jesus, of being tolerant (even welcoming) of the sweet sounds of children in church, but when it starts getting so loud and so distracting that no one can hear the message, what’s the point of being there? Not only do I feel like I’m not hearing anything, but sometimes I wonder if my children are hearing anything either.

Parents often wonder how much their babies and young children are taking in. They wonder when they should really start “teaching” children. Research has shown that the first few years of life are extremely important when it comes to development and understanding the world. It even affects future growth in areas like speech and coordination. Even though we can’t remember these years of our own lives, they have a huge role in forming who we are.

One program, based on research about early childhood learning, is Music Together, which I was trained to teach. It is a music program for children ages 0-5. A friend of mine who teaches private music lessons said, “Oh, you’re teaching zeros now?!” It is hard for people to believe that “zeros” or ones or twos can actually learn anything. One of the most common questions from parents is, “Is my child too young to be taking a music class? Maybe I should wait until he/she is old enough to sit for private lessons, and then they can learn an instrument.” My answer to that is always unequivocally, “No! Don’t wait until they can sit still to start learning music. They can start using their first instrument (their bodies and voices) to learn right now.” Even unborn babies can hear in the womb and respond to music. How much more so a baby who is soaking in the world like a sponge? The philosophy of Music Together is that the parents model the music making. If you go to a class, you will see adults sitting in a circle singing, doing actions, dancing, playing rhythm instruments, and cuddling with their children for the lullaby. The children feel like they are being allowed to join in with the adults. Children naturally imitate what adults are doing. How many times have you seen a child put a calculator or toy up to their ear and say, “Hello?” They learn by seeing our behavior, not by us telling them, “Now, this is the correct way to have a phone conversation…”

Another common question from parents is, “My child doesn’t seem to be participating. Is he/she really getting anything out of this?” And my answer is as definite as the first: “Yes!” Children respond to stimuli in different ways. Some kids “participate” by trying to sing and dance and do all of the movements, others sit and stare the whole time, and still others play with the curtains and go anywhere in the room besides the circle. Parents of every type of child come in some weeks into the semester and say things like, “I couldn’t believe it! My child sang that whole song on the way home from the store yesterday!” When children are immersed and exposed to music, especially when that immersion includes interaction with their grown-ups and others in the class, it takes hold within them.

Can these same principles apply to children in church? In light of this research, worshiping God together takes on a whole new meaning. Children witnessing and being a part of the body of Christ is probably doing more than we can see. It is immersing them in grace. Music is a powerful gift in our lives — how much more powerful is God’s love? The wonderful news to us struggling parents and to those of you who put up with us is that we do not need to wait until children are at an age when they can sit still. We do not need to wait until they can “get something out of” church to bring them. Children learn through experience and interaction with others, and giving and receiving love does not require that they can hold a pen and take notes.

The book of Hebrews says, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another — and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb 10:24-25). This encouragement that comes from meeting together is given and received by all ages. Many Sundays I feel discouraged by my children’s behavior in church, but once in a while God reveals why He wants us to persevere in bringing them. One of those times was during our choir rehearsal before service one day. God moved people’s hearts using a child and a song. The choir was singing “My Feet Are on the Rock,” by I Am They, which is a very upbeat and dance-able song. As we were practicing, my 5-year-old daughter was dancing away, and as the pastor came into the sanctuary already feeling that rhythm, he saw her and they broke into the most joyful dancing you’ve ever seen. I laughed to myself, but the choir director told me later that he’d heard from multiple choir members that that was the highlight of their morning! My needy, distracting daughter could not sit still and through her, God brought joy (and maybe even encouragement?) to others. And in that moment, she was learning and experiencing God’s love in a powerful way. She may not remember dancing with the pastor by the time she’s 20, but that love will still live in her heart.

Music Together class photo credit: UVMC Grand Opening; © 2017 Nancy Nutile-McMenemy; www.photosbynanci.com