Messy, Late, and Happy
From Gospel Translations
How to Survive Sundays with Small Kids
Almost everything about having a young family works against a standing multiple-hour commitment on Sunday mornings.
Just to physically get all parties out the door and into the same vehicle (at any time of day, on any day of the week) can feel like some kind of sophisticated military operation — waking the sleepy and corralling the antsy, feeding the hungry (of varying ages, appetites, and tastes), finding matching socks (or at least reasonably matching socks) for several sizes of feet, packing sufficient rations to hold the troops over until lunchtime (lots of rations, an irrational amount of rations), finding another outfit for the 2-year-old because she just rubbed her breakfast all over that dress, avoiding the last-minute tantrum or dirty diaper (there’s something about those last five minutes that brings the worst out of kids, literally and figuratively).
And if you make it to church before it ends, you’ll need to hone a variety of specific and targeted tactics to keep each child quiet, still, and attentive. For the rest of you without children, if a kid suddenly bursts out in tears a couple of seats down and distracts you, don’t miss the miracle that he or she wasn’t crying or yelling or giggling for the last thirty minutes (and say a quick prayer for Mom and Dad).
Over the last six years (since our first was born), I’ve come to believe that spiritual warfare intensifies between 5 o’clock Saturday evening and noon on Sunday. I’m convinced Satan sends in demonic reinforcements to cause as much havoc as wickedly possible. To be sure, young families are certainly not the only ones tempted to skip church, but they have as many reasons as any (and often more). The Bible is clear, however, that we have even more reasons to go anyway.
God gives us parents plenty of reasons to keep showing up to church, but as a father of three under 7 years old, I still love finding more. The apostle John writes to a church he knew well,
Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete. (2 John 12)
Our faithful presence on Sunday morning is worth all the effort and expense because some precious joys aren’t possible apart from gathering. “I have so much I want to say to you,” John says, “but paper and ink won’t do.” The people are the same, the meaning is the same, the very words may even be roughly the same, but something is different when those words are shared face-to-face. John had learned the spiritual power of steady proximity.
John, of course, had a lot to say in writing (fifty chapters across five books in the Bible), and he wrote about some of the most serious and thrilling realities in the universe. And yet he also knew that some words were far better said (and heard) in person. Some realities were far better tasted, seen, and experienced face-to-face. He knew that the fullness of his Christian faith and joy couldn’t be felt from a safe distance.
Presence completes joy in a way that technology (like pens and ink and high-definition cameras) can’t. That’s one reason young families keep spending all it costs us to get to our pew each week. More than anything else, we want our family to be happy in God — and being fully happy in God requires consistently sitting with the people of God under the word of God.
That Your Joy May Be Full
John’s second letter isn’t the only place he talks about this fullness of joy. One could actually argue that his Gospel and letters were one long attempt to bring this joy to fruition in us. He explicitly says in his first letter, “We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete” (1 John 1:4). When you trace that thread back through his Gospel, you see that this joy is not a pretty garnish along the plate of Christianity, but the sweetness in every course and bite.
As Jesus prepares to go to the cross, for instance, he says to his disciples, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11). Jesus wasn’t merely making sure that their doctrine was organized and accurate, but that their hearts were full. He wanted the truth inside of them to catch fire. Christ came, and taught, and worked miracles, and died, and rose not simply for the sake of truth and justice, but for joy — that his joy would be sparked and inflamed in us.
A chapter later, Jesus says to the same men, “Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full” (John 16:24). Joy is the final answer to all our prayers. We pray, and keep praying, so that we might taste a depth and intensity of happiness we wouldn’t experience otherwise. And then a few verses later, he says,
You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy. . . . You have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. (John 16:20, 22)
So, when John writes, “I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete,” that joy is thick with meaning for him. It’s a loud echo of his last hours with Jesus, and of the hundreds of hours they spent together before that — walking the same roads, eating the same food, experiencing the same memories, serving the same needy people.
This joy, for John, isn’t simply about the refreshment of good company; this is near the heart of what it means to follow Jesus. We were made and called and redeemed and commissioned to find joy together — to meet God side by side, not merely over Wi-Fi.
Families Made for a Body
This joy can’t be fulfilled through a live stream because our souls weren’t made ultimately for lyrics and sermons; we were made to be a part of a body. The apostle Paul writes,
Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. . . . For the body does not consist of one member but of many. (1 Corinthians 12:12, 14)
Families who consistently skip church are like severed hands or rogue eyeballs. We’d not only be ugly, but functionally useless. And not only useless, but we’d actually harm the body that needs us — spiritual amputations. Where’s the sense of hearing? At home, under blankets, watching the live stream again. Where’s the sense of smell? Getting some extra rest because it’s just too hard to go out. Where’s the sense of joy? It’s been quenched and diluted by our absence.
Christian joy depends on regular physical presence because that’s how a body works.
Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:15–16)
Along with Paul, John knew this joy worked itself out in real, ongoing, life-on-life relationships. After all, he gave us Jesus’s all-important charge: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34–35). How will the world recognize who’s been with Jesus? By how we love one another. And how will we love one another without committing to see one another?
What Families Cannot Afford
When I was still single, I was sometimes baffled why families had such a hard time getting to church. Sure, there might be more hairs to comb and shoelaces to tie, but how hard could it really be? That naive confusion crashed on the rocks of our own terrible twos. The hurdles to normal church life with small kids are undeniable. Hear me, though, fellow parents: the rewards are too.
No family can afford to regularly sit out Sunday morning. Sure, we won’t always be as put together as we want to be, and we probably won’t always be on time, but over time our whole family will be happier for having been there. Pen and ink won’t do; neither will podcasts and emails. We were made for eye-to-eye, shoulder-to-shoulder joy in the church. We were made for a body. We were made to belong. And only our presence brings that joyful belonging into full reality.