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Guardians of the Grace-Gate

“Once you walk out these doors, you can’t come back!” the tall burly deacon growled down at my terrified 3-year-old. “So you better be good and sure that whatever you’re leaving the house of God for is important.” My son blinked. He twisted his hands and looked down at his feet, before whispering, “I need-go potty, ‘else I make big mess.” The self-appointed guardian of the sanctuary sighed an exasperated sigh as he heaved open the church doors. My little son scurried out a few seconds before I heard him mutter under his breath, “No respect, no respect for God’s house at all.”

My Mommy-heart burned fever-hot with anger. Ever since the secret “emergency” deacon’s meeting a month before, this gentleman had been placing his deacons at the back door of the church to act as crowd control so that the “more mature members could enjoy a sermon without distraction.” He complained about how many times the doors swung open for a child to get a drink, use the restroom, visit the mothers room, and insisted that with each squeaky entrance and exit, his valuable worship experience had significantly diminished. In order to restore holiness and reverence in our sanctuary, he was convinced that our children need to be better controlled. And if us parents weren’t going to do it, than he was.

At first, we laughed about this – just let him try and control a toddler’s bladder, or their thirst, or their need to wiggle. Let him discover how futile it is to think you can keep kids out of church just for being kids. But then, he did it. And it was no laughing matter. Once a kid walked out, he forbade them entrance back in. A parent would have to go and pick up their unattended child, andthen the parent was not allowed back through the sanctified swinging doors either. By the end ofthe service, half the congregation ended up milling about in the lobby, while God’s holy select sat in a noiseless sanctuary in pure bliss.

“Mommy,” little Caleb asked me that day, “why doesn’t that man want us to learn about Jesus?”

I didn’t know how to respond. I wanted to say, “Because his heart is sick.” I was tempted to accuse, “This poor man doesn’t really know Jesus himself, or he wouldn’t be trying to keep little kids out of church!” I wished I could answer, “I guess old people matter more in this church thankids do.” Everything in my heart knew that his actions were wrong, and that the clear, dangerous message he was sending to our children was “you aren’t good enough for church unless you are perfectly behaved.” (That rule would exclude all of us, by the way.)

A few years later, I received another admonition from an angry soul, but this time in the form of an email. “What are we teaching our children today? If you could sit where I do,” she wrote, “you would see people hiding their dollar bills during the children’s offering, when the wild kids run by. We like to save our money for kids that are mannerly and well behaved.” The imaginary reply I sent to her said, “It’s good that you only feel the need to reward and accept perfect children. I’m glad Jesus works the same way.”

I hope you feel unsettled about the true stories I shared above. But maybe you don’t. Maybe you identify with some of these examples. Perhaps a growing discomfort has also been growing in you on Sabbath morning. If you find that you, too, are struggling with tolerance and acceptance of children’s noises at church, then I encourage you to consider a few points that you may be forgetting about.

1. Be Honest With Yourself – Recognize yourself as someone whose behavior doesn’t belong in church either. I hate to break it to you, but not a saint among us is actually, truly, good enough for church.Even the best of us have lives that are pride-washed and selfishness-stained before God. Does He find it distracting that the doors of our minds swung open seven times since song service began, because the singer up front looks attractive? Probably. But He still accepts our worship. Does it bother Him that we’re saving the $20 in our wallet for the movies tonight instead of donating it to the food bank? Perhaps. But He’s still thrilled thatwe came today. We might be a lot more mature than a wiggling child, but until we’ve cleaned up our own lives perfectly, let’s remember that we’re exactly where all imperfect people belong: church. The place to seek Jesus, and His grace.

2. Model Grace – Realize that children get their view of God from adults’ examples. That should scare you. Little eyes are watching you to discern whether God is loving, whether God is fair, whether God can be trusted, and whether God will accept them. The way you treat a childin church speaks not only to the value of Christianity, but also about the character of Christ Himself. If your religion prompts you to turn children away instead of welcoming them to your side, you’re not following the example of Jesus very well at all.

3. Be About Community – Remember that the goals of church are community, nurture, and outreach. If your desires on Sabbath morning are not in line with building community, nurturing the needs around you, or reaching out to a lost and hurting world, then your church agenda might just be all about yourself. No, it’s not wrong to want to enjoy a good, solid, spiritual message. But it is wrong to make an idol out of your own enjoyment to the extent that you block others from enjoying it too.

4. Reflect – Ask yourself: Who needs to hear this sermon more? The tired soul-worn mother, struggling to train her children in the Lord? The eager preschooler, young and innocent and soaking up constant information? Or you – stable, solid, secure in your relationship with Jesus? Would you give up your sermon-listening rights to see someone else saved, or at minimum – to see someone else fed? If you’re so starved for the sermon’s message that you’re willing to push others out of the way to receive it, you might want to reevaluate whether your own private devotional life is adequately feeding you.

5. Be Part of the Solution – No, this doesn’t look like blocking the back doors, or hoarding dollar bills only for the most well-behaved children. What it looks like instead is purchasing that sticker book you pass by at Target and surprising the noisy little girl with it Sabbath morning. Maybe even offering to turn pages for her. Yeah, you might miss some parts of the sermon. But you also might be in danger of receiving a whole different type of sermon: the gift of pouring out your life to bless others. I think you might find that this type of sermon is a greater joy than words can even express.

To be honest, I get it – I know it’s hard to listen to a meaningful message when the kids behind you are eating cheerios and throwing crayons and running matchbox cars up and down your arm on the pew. I realize that whining and whispers and stickers on your neck don’t make for an ideal worship experience. But maybe we need to change our definition of “ideal.” Maybe instead of a silent, reverent sanctuary, “ideal” looks more like kids growing up and staying in church. Maybe “ideal” looks like kids inviting their neighbor friends to Sabbath school, and their parents making decisions for Jesus, because their children were welcomed in church. Maybe the ideal worship service culminates with all of us – old and young alike – gathered around the feet of Jesus on that glorious day.

Until then, let’s make our church agenda focused on inviting as many people to that gathering as possible. Yes, even noisy little messy people. Because what would heaven be like without Cheerios and matchbox cars?

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