The under 4's are, perhaps, the most challenging age group to include in community worship. Joining Children on the Spiritual Journey by Catherine Stonehouse is packed with child development research and good stuff. Young Children in Worship shows us that children as young as 2 or 3 are capable of quieting themselves to experience the awe and wonder of God. They are able to respond to quiet, awe, order and routine. They are capable of listening to stories about God and interacting with God's Words and letting those words in.
So let's make some simple observations.
Most contemporary worship services I've attended run 90 minutes + ... a LONG time! Remember our focus in worship during this 90 minutes is on God. We've come to bless Him. Who is He? Who is He to your baby? Who is He to your toddler? What can he see, hear, touch that will tell him/her something about God?
Whether we like it or not, we represent God to our children from the moment they're born. Being close to parents, being held, being spoken to softly, sung to, swaying, walking are all very comforting and securing to babies and small children. All of this says to a baby, "Worshipping God is a great place to be!!"
Most babies, if they're fed, changed and healthy are deeply content being held by people who love them during worship. Many are content in a pack or a seat or a stroller. Some fall asleep. Some get fussy. A pacifier is comforting . Some are content if you're moving, if there are things to see, hear (but not too loud), people smiling at them. Worship is probably the only time during the week, unless your baby is sick, when a loved one will hold them for 2 hours + and I think that communicates something even to a tiny baby about God. I'm not saying you have to hold them the entire 2 hours if they're happy in a seat or a pack but it's something to think about.
Making worship an opportunity for families to be together every week at Sunday worship doesn't mean you can't take advantage of someone trustworthy who wants to hold your little one once in a while. That's one tiny advantage to being a family in community. One pastor even made the plucky suggestion that parents can get a babysitter and come to worship alone once in a while! Appalling? Perhaps, but if you think about it, having a Christian babysitter at home playing Christian worship music where a child is secure, safe, able to take naps and play with her own toys is probably much healthier than the best childcare at church. No one will pull her hair, push her down and there aren't kids to share cold germs. And toddlers can move and talk to their heart's content. They're not participating in community but that's the trade off and this is only if parents want to worship without their children once in a while. Though I know God understands our need for times like that, it pleases God to have our children around Him. You realize, of course, He calls all of us from 100+ years down "children"...
Then you have your busy, busy, talking toddlers. They're ok being held for a while. They're ok walking for a while, they're ok eating for a while, they're ok talking..... but we're talking 90 minutes here! What do we do with them? We probably won't engage them cognitively although, trust me, their little minds are always working ... but worship and life (!) aren't just about interacting with information. Mental stimulation, experience, learning go way beyond that. Comfort, candles, colors, sounds, music, pretty things around the room, people smiling, walking, holding on to the chairs, dancing become part of their world ... But then it's time for the message and and we need them relatively quiet for a whole 20 minutes and we've run out of ideas. So what do we do?
As you prepare for worship during the week pay attention to the things that engage your baby or toddler for 10 minute intervals. How long is the service? Take out a Sunday bulletin or worship folder and divide it into 5-10 minute blocks and plan that many quiet diversions for your child (or maybe twice that many) - a favorite book of Bible stories, cherrios, walking, singing/dancing, being held, a bottle, a quiet engaging toy, a mirror, a mitten/a sock/shoe for your child to try to put on, a quiet book with things to do in it, a mini-flash light, things to put in pockets or take out of pockets, a zippper, you know the things I'm talking about - anything that's quiet, safe, and facinating for a toddler goes into your Sunday bag. Eventually you can probably put together a bag of activities like that that only come out on Sunday at worship. But don't take anything out until you need it! And it's ok to share! Keep in mind that worship is a time to focus on God (creator of all things) and ultimately, you're training your child to focus on Him so use your imagination!
I thought this might be worth a try...Have fun with this!