Robbie Castleman. Intervarsity Press, 1993, reprinted 2013. [154 pages]
“This is a practical, delightful book, full of innovative ideas coupled with sound theology and spiced with irrepressible humor.” So claims the foreword to this book, written by Ruth Graham, wife of the late evangelist Billy Graham. This is a book that my wife discovered and which we read together as we looked for thoughts on how we can help our kids engage with and discover Christian faith and with church. The author is a professor of biblical studies and theology at John Brown university in Arkansas. The book has plenty of thoughtful ideas and helpful anecdotes, so I thought it would be worth sharing. A summary of each chapter follows.
The introductory chapter raises the importance of teaching children how they can participate in Sunday morning worship rather than simply having to keep quiet for their parents for the duration of the service (if they are not shipped out to Sunday school).
The author urges that we should teach kids at church to “Be still…” in the tenor of Psalm 46:10 rather than “be quiet and be good”. Church is meant to be something we actively engage in: “biblical worship is partly intended to help God’s people remember, rehearse and reenact God’s great story of salvation.” (p.22).
Chapter two is titled “Worship BC and AD” (before kids and after diapers). It argues that a right perspective on worship is key to participating in church with your kids without resenting the disruption they so often bring. The essential difference she sees is that Christians must recognise that worship is for God rather than for ourselves. Christians can mistakenly come to worship for spiritual refueling, to relax, mentally switch off, be religiously entertained or morally formed. All these things are—in one way or another—for us.
When we reconnect the concept of worship with its biblical roots as “service” (as a key Hebrew and a Greek term for worship implies) we can see that it is something that worshippers bring to God.
With this in mind, the challenging nature of worship while parenting children becomes less a stumbling block and more an opportunity to “rethink and retrain and repent” in our worship as we endeavor to train our children to likewise serve God by worshipping him. Readers are challenged to accept that on our part worship as “service” implies work.
Castleman draws here on her own experience to help readers. She shares of her own learning experience as she shifted away from free and spontaneous worship as a new convert to Christianity, and into a more restrained and formal Presbyterian worship she found herself in and hating, as a newlywed wife to a pastor.
The third chapter points out the capacity that children of all ages have to worship, but that they engage with faith in different ways and have different needs as they learn to do so in successive stages of childhood.
A story she shares shows the boldness children can display in matters of faith. Sometimes it can appear inappropriate to adults. But the unexpected words and actions of children can display a genuine heart of faith couched within a child’s developing understanding. In fact, rather than being seen as a distraction, Jesus put the child (in Matthew 18:1-5) in the midst of his disciples to help them focus on and learn an important lesson they were inclined not to.
One paragraph describes the value of liturgy and points out that it contains “all the elements of the gospel”:
“God-centered, liturgical worship contains all the elements of the gospel: God’s character and worthiness to be adored and honoured, human sinfulness and brokenness, the sufficiency of the work of Jesus in his death and resurrection to bring us forgiveness and new life, and our need to surrender our lives to the lordship of the triune God. Biblical worship is story shaped worship.” (p.38)
Castleman goes on to instruct that:
“the space for children’s worship should be modelled as closely as possible to the set up in the sanctuary. Hidden books, bibles, candles, the bulletins and the like should all be similar to those used by the “big people” to help children get used to these objects and their use. The idea is to look at the liturgy of the church from week to week and, by creative repetition and practice, to help children learn the parts and how and why they fit together, the feedback I get from adults who do this usually reflects with amazement how much they learned in the process about their own liturgy…”
“… The best kind of Secret Service is one where unchurched people feel two things simultaneously: ‘I don’t belong here’ and ‘I want to belong here.’ The mysterium tremendum’, God’s fearful majesty, is off-putting and in-drawing at the same time. The ‘throne of grace’ it’s still a throne, not a rocking chair or floor pillow. The church is not another club to join.” (pp.39, 40).
“Sunday morning starts on Saturday night.” Chapter four opens by recounting the tension between the call to worship and the time of fellowship with the hectic and wearisome realities of simply getting a family with children out of the house and out to church in a manner that is conducive to what we do on a Sunday morning. Castleman’s course of recommendation to resolve this lies in her reminder that worship is an act of service to God, and thus requires work. in order to worship well and despite circumstances, preparation is required for the sacred morning.
To that end, Castleman advises practical and mental tips for preparing the heart, the home, and the people.
This chapter also includes a brief discussion on the clash between gathered worship and team sports dead planned on a Sunday morning, as well as an anecdote from the author’s own family life where church as a non-negotiable once clashed with her young son’s baseball game.
“Counting bricks or encountering God”. This chapter is about what children notice as people not necessarily invested and interested in what is going on at the front of the church. The topic is “training children to pay attention to what is happening—the worship of God—and helping them be a part of it” (p.580, and that Sunday by Sunday as well as through the annual church calendar (for those attuned to Christian traditional calendar).
The author maintains the conviction that worship is intended for God’s pleasure not ours. She suggests that children’s church/Sunday school should aim to train children to worship in preparation for properly joining “adult church” as young children.
She shares thoughts on minimising distractions during the service and maintaining their attention on what matters. One noteworthy idea that the author himself would practice when her own children were young was to sit near the parents with the same mindset to help each other out. Being attentive is more than simply being quiet. Don’t settle simply for quiet children. Training attentiveness will involve parents (quietly) talking to the kids during the service, giving instructions and reminders.
This chapter finishes with a series of practical tips and illustrative stories for helping children engage—especially overactive ones. Some will be more or less helpful depending on how your church does its services.
Make a joyful noise. This chapter is about worship through music. It discusses ways to help children (from preschool up through two teams) engage with sung worship. The author shares a series of thoughts and ideas based on personal anecdotes and experiences.
Prayer, confession, and canned Goods. Prayer in the home is the best place for participation in corporate prayer in the church. Parents must model it. Castleman talks about the importance of honesty about struggles with prayer, you and using real language rather than Christian jargon and parroted phrases. the honesty of children and what they will pray for that adults will avoid… “grubby hearts”, fear for others, solid relationships and their repercussions.
The author points out the value of pointing out the message of the songs that are sung in church to help them respond, and discusses some prayer practices she did with her children.
Just How long was that Sermon? This chapter explores ways children can be helped to pay attention to as well as understand the sermon. She talks about what can help both parents and the preacher in this regard. She raises the importance of discerning uh or the key idea of a sermon, or even the idea beneath that idea, and of faithfulness, and of the value and challenges of a children’s sermon.
Saving up for Something Special. This chapter discusses the sacraments of baptism and communion.
On baptism, the author allows that churches will practice either believers baptism or infant baptism, and suggests how either approach can be used to foster faith development in children.
Communion gets lengthier discussion. Her standpoint is that children should be made to wait to participate until they can demonstrate they have the spiritual and social maturity to do so properly. This does not mean the communion time of a service is empty for children. far from it. Castleman discusses ways that the time can be used beneficially for the children’s spiritual growth and that the tension brought about by an anticipation can be a fruitful one if cultivated properly.
The Holy Hug. This last chapter asks us to consider how it is we choose a church. Councilman challenges churchgoers not to choose a church based on the usual consumer-oriented questions of “what suits my preferences?”.
In view of the proclivity of people (even Christians who ought to know better) to adopt a religious outlook that has been described as “therapeutic moralistic deism” the author presses the importance of intergenerational connections within a church community for the discipleship and spiritual formation of young believers. This means working against the segregation that can be fostered by well-intentioned ministries tailored specifically for (for example) children and teens.
In the closing words of the book, Castleman states what is the goal of what she has called “Parenting in the Pew”: “In the presence of our Father, my sons have become my brothers. There is no greater joy for any parent in the pew.” (p.137).
The book also includes an appendix with a series of thoughtful questions for each chapter, encouraging reflection on the readers’ own personal and church experiences, and how some of the suggestions made in the book might apply in their own gathered worship.
I myself found this a helpful book, and have been challenged to take steps to help my own children engage better in church. Some of the ideas will require more thought on my part, as well as thought on how our own church might adopt some practices. Parenting in the Pew is a worthwhile book for those who want to help the youngest members of their church community join them as brothers and sisters in the faith.
Parenting in the Pew is available at Bookdepository.com, and was priced at NZ$32 in March 2023.