On Bringing All of Yourself to Church

Post Author: The Rev. Sara Irwin

photo (8)I never take my children to church. I’m a priest and my husband is a priest, so our babysitter comes to our house at 7:00 am and takes the kids to church later. She is the one to handle trips to the bathroom, dropped crayons, and demands for snacks in the middle of prayers and hymns. I would be lying if I said there was no upside to this. While I love to have my children in church, I don’t always love to be there with them. Whenever we go to church together on vacation, I feel secretly lucky that I don’t have to do it all the time.

As part of my letter of agreement with my parish I have the week after Easter off, so on the Sunday after Easter, it fell to us to decide Where to Go to Church. My husband and I celebrate the Eucharist one weekday a month for a tiny convent in the next town over, so I got up early and took our daughter to their 7:30 am Sunday service. The sisters are all in their seventies and eighties and love, love, love children. When our son was born, the convent was the first place we brought him for church, at ten days old. It was Easter, 2007, and after we walked in the door the sisters traded him back and forth for the whole morning. The chapel is warm and cool at the same time, with stone and white and simple stained glass. Whenever I step behind the altar there, whatever I’m carrying with me goes away. It’s one of my happy places.

It’s much harder for church to be your happy place when you’re trying to entertain a four-year-old. In a crowd of fifteen, the whispered request to draw a picture is not subtle. I’m well aware of how the sound that seems like a thunderclap to a parent is barely a sneeze to everyone else, but you still assume everyone is staring. Whatever your kid is doing seems incredibly louder than what everyone else might be doing. We made it through okay though—no breakdowns, no tears, no mad dash for the bathroom. Having my kid in church was great! Wholeness, peace, integration, euphoria.   A holy time of actually parenting (as opposed to just being a parent) in church. Amen, Alleluia.


The custom at the chapel is for everyone to gather up at the altar steps, so you’re all standing together in a row, close together. Adah and I ended up on the end, next to an older woman I didn’t recognize (I did know most of the people gathered, from somewhere or another). We were pretty much fine—a few loud kisses, maybe—until Adah got down and put her face in the lilies (So delighted! So darling!), and then started driving her car up and down the steps. No vroom vroom, but not exactly silent, either.

The woman next to me turned to me and whisper-demanded, “Can’t you stop it?”

By “it,” I assumed she meant the driving of the car. I whispered, “Is it bothering you?” and scooped up the girl and her truck and held her for a while.

And that was a downer, until I gave into my righteous indignation. Doesn’t she know who I am? Doesn’t she have any sense of respect for the f*king wonder of a child who is comfortable in a worship space? I also admit I felt a bit smug about my passive aggressive response.

So much for that sense of peace and wholeness. Suddenly “my space” was not so much mine anymore.

I’ve been in my parish for almost nine years and in that time our level of kid noise has increased a lot—I’m militantly tolerant of it. This has not always gone down so smoothly with some members, but the growth in vitality (and, frankly, human bodies) has convinced the doubters that it might at least be a necessary evil. I’ve had the conversations about how children “just need to learn to behave” and that church is “special,” and yes, absolutely.

Yes, absolutely, but liturgy works on us in so many more ways than we know—all of your distracted thoughts, all of your random word associations, all of it comes together in holy pieces only Jesus could try to figure out. For a four-year-old, that’s the markers and the plastic dinosaur. At seven, it’s begging permission to play Minecraft with seven other kids crowded around one tiny screen while scarfing five cookies at coffee hour. For a thirteen-year-old, maybe it’s the sullen expression, covering a secret joy at being able to help at the altar. At seventeen, it’s finding that something is the same: even when everything else is about to change you can still come and get fed. In the sacraments we bring what we have—bread, wine, water—and it’s transformed. The same goes for our own contributions as adults, whatever they are.

Here’s the other thing– the stakes are just too high to be strict about this kind of thing. If you’re already in church, perhaps you are sure that God loves you. Maybe you have had some experience of grace and acceptance that makes you come back. Maybe you actually are perfect. But if you’re on the edges, or coming for the first time, and somebody doesn’t want you? Game over. Let’s be clear—if you don’t want my kid, you probably don’t want me either. Sometimes I will forget to turn my phone off, and sometimes I’ll come late.   So let’s just agree that we all need “the Jesus bread” and go easy on each other, OK?

As for the unhappy lady, Adah and I were more respectful. Hospitality goes both ways. Those who are already in church can be welcoming by cutting some slack; those who are newer can be sensitive to their impact. So Adah put her face back in the flowers, which was just as distracting but quieter, and also cuter. Twenty years from now, she won’t remember this week. She’ll mostly remember her parents far away at an altar. Hopefully, though, part of her will remember that sense of security, of comfort, where prayers are said and pictures are drawn, and all of it goes toward (maybe meanderingly, but toward) the glory of God.


 The Rev. Sara Irwin is rector of Christ Church, the Episcopal parish in Waltham, Massachusetts, where children are free to wander and everyone takes communion whether they behave themselves or not. She shares parenting Adah (4) and Isaiah (7) with her husband Noah in Medford, where she also brews beer and writes poems, which show up occasionally on her blog, www.saraiwrites.blogspot.com,where this article originally appeared.  For fancified writing about liturgy and all of our different selves, a shorter version of Sara’s MDiv. thesis was published in Worship: The Religiophoneme: Liturgy and Some Uses of Deconstruction.

Photo courtesy of the author.

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