Pastoral Perspectives

Preparing Families for Worship at Home

I have two children, ages eight and ten. Before COVID 19 came, my children were often in the Sunday School on Sundays. For many years, as with all full-time church workers, I have not been able to worship with my family on a regular basis, as I have to leave early in the morning for the first service. My husband would bring the children for the later service and the children would go to their classes. The only time we were able to worship together was when we had Combined Services for special occasions. So, the usual routine was like this.

Before COVID 19

Saturday nights, I would prepare the following:
1. Sunday clothes for the children that can change depending on the weather the next day.

2. The offerings: The contents of the red envelopes (hongpaos) they received during Chinese New Year have become their Sunday offerings because the notes are new.

3. Their Sunday school bags with the Bible and library books they borrowed for the week. They love going to the library to collect their prizes for borrowing books (Thanks to the faithful library team for this innovative idea). And I have often put the wrong books in the wrong bag too!

4. Their bus cards. I have also given them the wrong card at times.

5. And a mouthful of instructions, reminding them to leave home on time.

Before Circuit Breaker was implemented, I could sort of divide my Mary and Martha duties because it was easier. Saturday night I was busy being Martha so that on Sunday, I could be Mary. Now that everything is at home, it has become Mary and Martha combined. I struggled balancing between the two.

COVID 19 (Phase 1)

Now that Sunday worship has gone virtual, many things have changed. The first few Sundays were hard. I thought that being at home would make it easier but there were more distractions. By 11am, some of us were not ready and we still rushed to service. And to my shame, I was the last to get ready because I was busy setting up everything except my heart. What an irony that we were still rushing even in the comforts of our home. The devil is truly in the details!

When your home becomes the sanctuary (in every sense of the word), it is very easy to switch back to Martha mode because home is where Martha is. Not Mary! And this became very real when online service first started. Since we need not commute to church, we have more time to play with. Instinctively I started cleaning the house, doing all sorts of Martha duties and when the time came for service, even a shower was not enough to calm me down. This Martha mindset continued even during service. The home setting is unlike the church because no one is watching, or so we’d like to think. So the children start putting their legs on the sofa, they lie down, roll on the ground, hug their pillows or start talking to each other because it is “home.” These are some of the things we normally wouldn’t do in the church! And since no one was watching (except God but we know He won’t intervene just yet), we began to take the liberty to scold the children during service. The result was not acceptable. We ended up having unhappy children, upset parents and a very tense atmosphere.

How in the world did that happen? It was simple. We had forgotten what we were warned in Ecclesiastes 5:1-7 (NIV)

Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools, who do not know that they do wrong.

Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few.

A dream comes when there are many cares, and many words mark the speech of a fool.

When you make a vow to God, do not delay to fulfill it. He has no pleasure in fools; fulfill your vow. 

It is better not to make a vow than to make one and not fulfill it.

Do not let your mouth lead you into sin. And do not protest to the temple messenger, “My vow was a mistake.” Why should God be angry at what you say and destroy the work of your hands? 

Much dreaming and many words are meaningless. Therefore fear God.”

Our action showed three things:

  1. We did not revere or fear God. We came in our very casual clothes. We had little or no preparation before the service. Our focus was also on the behaviour of the children and telling the children what to do during the service. Our attitude and action throughout the entire service showed that we had little or no fear of God. The children must have feared us more than God!
  2. We did not guard our steps as we approached God. We rushed in from the bathroom to the sofa looking for Bibles and arranging the cushions. Once we sat down, we became so comfortable and became presumptuous. There was neither humility nor repentance on our part. We were taking part in worship in an unworthy manner as Paul warned.
  3. We were not listening to God. We were too quick with our mouth. From the start of the service to the end, one thing was constantly running. It was the mouth! Oh how the children must have dreaded the running commentary. It was really a sacrifice of fools as the wise man says in Ecclesiastes.

COVID 19 (Phase 2)

Realizing our mistake that we had so much at stake, we tried to reorganize the way we approach our online service on Sunday.

We began to prepare the following every Sunday morning:

  1. Following Ps Kien Seng’s advisory to dress up for Sunday, the head of the house (father) would instruct the children to pick their Sunday clothes and get ready. Thankfully, they seem to pay heed to his instruction.
  2. Now that offerings/tithes have gone digital, the kids also asked for their own banking details. We explained that we, the parents would take care of this for now because they are too young. But they are free to put their offerings in a safe place (box) and bring it to church when we are able to gather again.
  3. Everyone has to bring their own Bible (they have their own preferred versions)
  4. Everyone is seated by 10:45am. We sat down once at 10:30 and the children started complaining that the wait was too long. We learnt our lesson and moved to a more reasonable time.
  5. We sit throughout the entire service and use the sermon notes prepared for Sunday School to guide the children along. Sometimes they prefer to listen to the sermon on their own. The children are used to asking questions during service so we attend to them but sometimes we have to hold it until service is over. We ensure that we stand, as we are able to sing and pray accordingly. During Intercessory Prayer when the prayer points are given on the screen, we take turns to pray aloud so that everyone is involved in the prayer. When everyone prays silently, the 3 minutes feels like eternity to the children so getting involved solved that feeling. If they needed to use the restroom, we pause the service and wait for them to come back.
  6. We all sit until Postlude is over and reflect on the questions or talk about it if they have questions.
  7. We then proceed to play our favourite Christian songs on YouTube and sing along with it.
  8. We are also choosing which battles to fight and which ones to let go so that our focus is on God and not on protocols.

Children and even adults need an environment and routine to follow through something otherwise we will go back to our normal rush hour. We are creatures of habit. We have noticed that our neighbours also walk around gingerly and listen to what is happening while giving us the space to worship. They might have observed that our family starts singing at about 11am on Sundays. So this routine has extended to our neighbours as well. We are thankful for this.

Our greatest takeaway during this season is that if during “normal” time, we have had enough trouble preparing for worship, getting out of the door in time for church, teaching our children how to worship, now is the time to strengthen and nurture this.

There is a difference between guiding our children throughout service and scolding our children during service. The children know the difference very well.  It lies in the tone of our voice and body language.

As parents, our preparation, attitude and actions will be the greatest teacher because they may not be listening to us but they are surely watching us. Whether it is at home or in the church, our attitude toward worship should be the same: to fear and revere God, to guard our steps and to come to listen to Him.

If we have not feared or revered God, as He ought to be, now is the time to strengthen this.

If we are used to talking too much just about everything and not listen, now is the time to strengthen this.

If we are used to rushing before God in an unworthy manner, now is the time to strengthen this.

If the comfort of repeated rituals, words and actions lulls the soul to sleep and take away any real connection with God, self and others in worship, now is the time to strengthen this.

Whether we are alone or in the company of others, as we go through our daily routines, may we all be awakened to the presence of God and to what He is doing in and around us as Elizabeth Barrett Browning puts it:

“Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes—
The rest sit round it and pick blackberries

Pr Loliro Sani

May 17, 2020