I'm going to preface what I'm about to say by noting that I do not have children. Which may disqualify me from opining on this topic. But while I do not have children I was a child, long ago, and I think that may count for something.
These days we are very concerned about welcoming children into our church services, making them feel comfortable and affirmed. We may insert Wiggles-like "children's church" interludes into our worship services; we may let the little tykes run wild and free in the aisles. We may even develop a completely separate church experience for them elsewhere in the building, lest they become bored or inhibited in the service proper.
It was not so when I was young. When I was young we little kids, freshly bathed and dressed in their Sunday best, were expected to sit quietly with our parents in church. No chattering during worship; no whining; no playing with toys in the pew; no wandering the sanctuary. If we were bored we kept it to ourselves; if we had questions they had to wait until church was over.
Yes, I know; scarcely to be believed. And yet many of us survived this experience. And here is what I learned, during those Sundays in the church pew.
I learned all about our hymnal. I was a precocious child who could read before I went to school, and I devoured books. I loved the hymnal; I loved the odd Fraktur headings and Latin Psalm first lines in the old Lutheran Hymnal. I loved reading the liturgy and hymn lyrics. When the sermon got boring -- as it did, quite often -- I'd sit and read the hymnal. I suppose this made me seem like a very pious child, when actually if there'd been a Yellow Pages or an illustrated dictionary in the pew I would probably have read those instead. But I learned stuff, sitting there paging through the hymnal. These days I doubt that most of the adults, let alone children, in my church have even a dim awareness of the LBW contents other than whatever hymns we happen to be singing on a given Sunday.
The discipline of quietness also honed my powers of observation. Churches in the mid-Sixties were fascinating places, thanks in large part to women's fashions. This was the twilight of the mandatory ladies' hat; by this time they had shrunk to small pillboxes, or strange little hourglass-shaped objects that sat awkwardly on pincurled middle-aged heads. They'd be embellished with sequined mesh, or colorful seed beads, or paste jewels, or a jaunty feather. These hats provided me with untold hours of amusement. Handbags too. I recall when wicker handbags were all the rage -- bags that looked like fishing creels but were adorned with flowers or palm trees or seashells. Then there was the woman who brought to church a crocodile purse with an actual baby crocodile somehow worked into the leather; that was way cool, as cool as the mink stole with a glassy-eyed mink's head still on it that one of the ladies occasionally wore in the wintertime.
Men weren't quite as interesting, but I did enjoy looking at their ties. Sometimes I couldn't help but notice the condition of their collars -- if their shirts were clean or not. Occasionally I would find myself morbidly fascinated by some skin eruption or shaving nick or sunburn on the backs of their necks.
Church fauna could help a child get through a dull service. Ghostly crickets...pale spiders...the occasional wasp in summer. I never saw a bat during church, but we did have a neighborhood cat crash the worship service one Sunday, gliding nonchalantly around the perimeter of the sanctuary.
Sometimes I'd daydream during church. I'd pretend I was giving the sermon (which was rather odd at that age and time, especially since this was a Missouri Synod church where women were persona non grata on the working side of a pulpit unless it was Saturday afternoon and they were shining it up with Murphy's Oil Soap). Sometimes I'd pretend I was an architect and try to imagine a different use for the building -- a school, or a department store, or a private home. Sometimes I'd squint at the stained glass and create my own kaleidescope. Sometimes I'd imagine Jesus sitting down in a pew and checking the place out.
Is it so bad for children to sit down, and be quiet, and just watch and listen and think and imagine, in church, once in awhile?