Integrating Children Into Your Small Group

Just about everyone who has ever hosted a small group meeting has had to confront the great unsolvable problem of what to do with all the kids. Our children are a blessing, but they sure can derail a discussion. You’ve probably lived through at least one of the following scenarios:

Lord of the Flies

There are kids everywhere. They’re running free, storming in and out of meetings fighting, yelling, crying and generally demanding attention. There aren’t enough goldfish crackers in the world to tame them. Usually about the time someone starts to share a sensitive prayer request, a five-year old with a conch shell leads a conga line of toddlers through the living room. It’s chaos, distraction and general misery for everyone involved.

Neither Seen Nor Heard

If the group meets in a big enough house, the kids can be shunted off to another room or a basement. Maybe you hire a babysitter, and parents can enjoy a few minutes of adult bonding. The kids usually wind up watching the same episode of Veggie Tales for the 100th time, but at least everyone can hear themselves think. The group meeting is for “mommy and daddy” only.

No Kids Allowed (or at least not welcomed)

Some groups are so inhospitable to children that parents never even feel comfortable bringing them. The environment is too inhospitable or too chaotic, and children are generally treated as a nuisance to be tolerated. Nothing makes a family feel welcome like subtle, unspoken judgment!

It doesn’t have to be this way. There are no perfect solutions, because there are no perfect children (much less perfect parents), but there are ways to invite kids to participate in the spiritual community in appropriate ways that still leave room for parents to get a word in edgewise.

What is a Community for?

The first and most important step is to take stock of the purpose of your group. At Soma Church, we don’t have “small groups.” We have “missional communities” (MCs). It’s a mouthful, but the name is important. When we get together, we aren’t just having a Bible study. Those are great, but that’s not what we are doing. We’re expressing our community in a way that demonstrates our purpose in the world. There’s a lot of freedom in that, because it gives us permission to have time together that isn’t just about one single thing.

During an MC meeting, we read the Bible. We pray. We often eat a meal. We share and talk. We lift burdens and sing songs. We serve our neighborhoods and welcome in our neighbors. We cry and laugh. But we don’t just read or pray or talk or eat or sing or serve. Instead of being a meeting we attend, an MC gathering is a forum to get us all in one place.

Understanding that brings freedom to recognize that children ought to be a part of the MC meeting, without creating a burden to make them participate in every part.

Taking steps

Our MC has been blessed with a lot of kids. Most weeks, children outnumber the adults! We’ve taken the following steps to integrate our children into our rhythms.

1. Our group openly welcomes families and is excited when they come.

Don’t overlook this. The first time my family showed up at an MC, another family came too. A group of five twentysomething couples and a single dude suddenly had seven total kids to deal with. Loud, energetic kids, who showed up with no prior warning. We were a freak show. I was sure they’d never want us back.

The next day I got a phone call from the leader of the group. “We are so glad you came,” he said. “What can we do to make things better for you? We will meet earlier so you don’t have to leave halfway through. We can hire a sitter if you want. Just tell us, and we’ll do it. We want you to be part of our group.”

Three years later, I still cry when I think about it.

Make sure moms and dads feel like their kids are a blessing and not a curse. If you have a meal, think about having kid-friendly food on hand. Even if your group doesn’t normally have kids, make a plan for what needs to happen if they show. You never know when your group might go from zero to seven in one night.

2. Our group has our kids read the Bible together before the adult discussion begins.

Each week, we sit the school-aged kids down and read whatever passage of Scripture the adults are going to cover. We just go around the circle and have each kid read four to five verses. We try to explain any of the big “churchy” words and give them a summary of what they are reading. The goal is to introduce kids to the discipline of reading and discussing the Bible in a group. It’s rarely deep theological discussion, but we try to form the habit.

There’s an ancillary benefit too: most adults don’t know the big “churchy” words either. Because the passage was covered at an elementary level, new believers with little experience with the Bible can hear it taught in an accessible, non-threatening way that then lets them participate when the adults cover it. They have a sense of what’s going on, so the discussion doesn’t leave them out in the cold.

Once we’ve finished the passage, we let the kids go play. In a community, not everyone does everything all the time. There’s no pressure to force them to sit in and listen to the adults. For most of them, learning to settle the petty squabbles that happen when eight-year-olds play really is the essence of living out their faith.

3. We provide a separate area for younger kids to play.

Parents need a break. For some, MC is a lifeline. It’s a chance to talk with other adults and get the encouragement they need to slog through another week of wiping noses and cleaning butts. Parents need to feel that their kids are safe, happy, and valued - in that order. Think through or prepare a place where kids can be supervised, but also have fun. The space ought to be

  • Clean
  • Spacious enough for the number of children
  • Stocked with toys (if you don’t have kids, but host an MC, do a little toy shopping. Goodwill is a great place to find some cheap toys)
  • Removed enough from the adults to provide noise relief
  • Supervised

4. We are realistic about life with kids.

If you have children at your gathering, they will interrupt things. It’s fine. It’s part of having kids. No matter what kind of amazing setup you provide for them or how many adult caregivers are watching, kids will still burst into your discussion time. How you respond to those interruptions will go a long way toward determining if kids feel like a welcome part of your community life or a burden that has to be endured until they are old enough to leave you alone.

This also means that you need to consider what time of night your MC meets. Most people have their kids to bed by eight or nine, especially if they are under five. Start your meeting early enough so that parents can enjoy the evening and get home by bedtime.

Parents also have to make community a priority. It’s hard to go out on a weeknight. (Believe me, I know.) Other kids will steal your kid’s toy, and blow snot on them, and there will be a dessert you don’t normally let your kid eat. And it might be stretch to get home by bedtime. You can’t have everything meet your version of perfect all the time. As parents, we have to be willing to meet other parents (and non-parents) halfway. It’s fine to get together and to establish community-specific habits and practices. Just remember that yours are not the only children on earth, and their specific happiness is not the only happiness to be considered. Mutual submission is an invaluable part of community life.

Our MC is far from perfect when it comes to integrating kids. If you visited us, you might find it too chaotic for your tastes. All I can say for us is this: Making our kids a real part of our community is important to us. And we work hard to make it a reality. I think that what we do mostly works for our group, in our context, for right now.

I’m so thankful that people made me and my children feel welcomed at MC. I hope I can always do the same for others.

Image: "Peasant Family House, after Market," by Konstantin Makovsky (1876)