Children are always welcome to Orthodox worship! Although an Orthodox service is not formal but familial, it has a distinct sense of reverence toward God and his saints. This is particularly perceptible (and may even be striking) to visitors from other religious traditions, which at times have very modern and relaxed forms of worship. In order to understand what this reverence means to us, the following is what we teach our kids about church and the behavior we expect of them in church.
How one prepares for church is very important. Our experience in church is very much determined by our preparation. Careful preparation will give us a sense of anticipation of something important and special, even a sense of awe and reverential excitement. We go to church joyfully, to meet God and to be in his presence. The preparation for church happens in every moment of our life, through the building up of a special atmosphere within our hearts and minds. We cannot reasonably expect our children not to feel indifferent or out of place in church on Sunday if Sunday morning is the only time we give a thought to God. Children especially cannot act church once a week and, regrettably, this is precisely what many parents expect of their kids, entirely unreasonably: “we are in church now, behave accordingly!” Children do not put on a show of piety, at least not at a young age. Rather quite naturally children will act out their heartfelt habits. To put it another way, the manner in which we are in church is prepared by the manner in which we are at home and everywhere else. The good character which gives us a fuller experience of church is cultivated every day, especially as an inner atmosphere.
And now here are a few concrete things we do to build up this atmosphere in your children. They themselves have been taught some of these things and will be taught the others in time.
- Every day—or at least most days—we should engage in practices such as are:
- We speak about church often, what happens there, what we learned, etc
- We pray often
- We read the scriptures and the saints
- The preparation of Sunday morning begins with how we get up. We should get up at the same hour in a manner which becomes a routine, so that our Sunday does not begin with a chaotic atmosphere, which tends to linger on and could throw off the peace of the entire day. We also get up early enough to arrive at church before the service begins without rushing and anxiety.
- The first thing we do is say a prayer, even if short: “Lord, help me this day.” Alternatively, we should be mindful of the fact that it is never too early to introduce our children to the Jesus prayer. It is one of the strongest defenses we have against temptations and the hurting of ourselves and others. Actually, elements of this ancient Christian practice—of course, entirely divorced from any spiritual dimension—have parallels in contemporary medical strategies of dealing with psychological and psychiatric illnesses. So, teach your kids this pure prayer so that they can mature well in Christ and have a good defense in the trials which will come.
- We then wash carefully, comb our hair, and brush our teeth without hurry and well, because we will enter a holy place, we will be in the presence of God, and we will receive the life of God.
- We dress in Sunday clothes, clean, respectful, and proper. The clothes don’t need to be expensive at all, and certainly they should not be flashy. Also, these clothes should be reserved only for church and should be like no other clothes; no running shoes, T-shirts, shorts, baseball caps, etc. These church clothes should be such that someone who doesn’t know us could tell that we are not going to a playdate, or to school, or shopping, but to an important meeting in a very special place—again, without being flashy. This use of special clothes will give your children a lot of the sense that church is special.
- It is also a very good practice to ask the children to prepare their own church clothes the day before. Also ask them to make sure that their shoes are clean. If you prepare the clothes and shoes for them, you are not preparing them for church; you are rather taking away from them the sense that church is special. Church is special to the extent to which they themselves need to prepare for it, need to put effort into it; it is not special if you make the effort for them. Things that are being handed to us by others will never be as valuable to us as the things for which we ourselves work hard.
- On Sunday morning we also keep the conversations in the family to a minimum, and certainly in a low and calm voice. Also, we do not text or communicate with friends and do not check any social media. Our thought is on God, whom we are preparing to meet.
- Also we don’t eat or drink. We do not drink or eat from the evening before, that is, Saturday evening. If your children are too small to fast, then of course they can eat, but even the meal can teach your children that church is special: they could have a special food for Sunday morning (a food which they can only have on Sunday morning and on feasts), and less and less of it over time (so that fasting is learned slowly), or they could eat in a special place not used on other days of the week, they can say a special prayer before it, etc.
- In the car we continue the peaceful atmosphere or we pray, or listen to hymns. Everyone, as a family, can say the Jesus prayer in turns. If a child is too small for prayer, give the child an icon to hold, or a cross, or an icon or a Bible book to color. We don’t tell jokes, we don’t laugh, don't criticize each other, don't scream at each other, don’t listen to secular music, don’t watch movies or cartoons, etc.
- We confess after the age of 7. Introduce the idea to the child, explain it, give an example by confessing yourself.
How one enters the church:
- Right before entering, we remember that we are about to enter a holy place. We remember how we ought to behave in it. We also remember what is about to happen.
- In front of the church we cross ourselves, then we open the door slowly, not like any other door.
- We venerate the icons in their proper order, saying prayers and lighting candles. This year we will have icon stands of the kids, at their height, so that they can venerate icons on their own, without having to be picked up by their parents.
How one behaves in church:
- We do not bring strollers in church. They take a lot of space and impede the service and/or the movement of people. Feel free to carry your baby in a car seat, but make sure you place the car seat on the floor in front of you, and not on a bench. We ought to be mindful of older people who could use the occasional sitting.
- We do not walk quickly or run in church. We walk slowly.
- We do not bring any food or drinks into the church and we do not eat or drink in church anything except what the church gives us and has been blessed (such as antidoron).
- We stand and do not sit unless we have to.
- If we sit, we don’t cross our legs.
- We do not talk in church. If we have to say something, we say it in a low voice, so that we don’t disturb others.
- We pay attention to the words of the prayers and hymns as if they were our own words. We do not say our own prayers during a service, but only before and after. During the service our thoughts are not on ourselves at all and we are not deep in our thoughts, but we keep our mind on the service itself, on the prayers and the hymns.
- We sing with the choir as much as possible.
How one takes Communion:
- We are mindful that in the holy communion God shares his life with us.
- When the children get ready to take communion they should cross their arms over their chest. Otherwise smaller children will fidget with their hands and the older one will have the tendency to put them in their pockets. Hands in pockets is one of the rudest gestures one can do in church.
- We do not venerate the icons when we approach the chalice, nor after we receive communion, but we line up for it and stay in line.
- We approach the chalice slowly, and we get close enough to it so that the communion cloth can extend from the chalice to our chin. We do not stand too far back, out of a false sense of piety. If God can enter our stomachs and all sinews of our flesh, certainly we can draw close to him.
- We take the entire piece that the priest gives us, without trying to bite only a part of it and without pulling back until we have closed our mouth.
- We do not kiss the chalice or the hand of the priest before or after taking communion.
- After we receive communion, we do not pull away abruptly, nor do we step back, but to the side, because we may bump into someone or cause a spill. We step away slowly.
- If we drop a piece of communion, we wait until the priest catches it and we receive permission to go.
How one takes the antidoron:
- We take only one piece of the antidoron and we pick it up with one hand while with the other we make a cup under it, so that we catch any crumbs that may fall. We place the bread on this cupping palm, We then eat the piece out of this palm and we suck or lick all the crumbs on it.
- We put the antidoron directly in our mouth only if we dip it in wine, but we still cup the other hand under it so that no piece of it drips or falls to the floor
- If pieces of the antidoron fall on the floor, we pick them up, put them in a napkin and give the napkin to a parent, so that they can be given to a server or the priest
- If we want a second piece of the antidoron, we can go back for it but only once everyone else in the church has had a piece. We consume it just like the first piece
How one leaves the church:
- When there is no school and we stay to the end of the Divine Liturgy, we line up to venerate the cross. We kiss the cross and then, if we wish, we can also kiss the hand of the priest which holds the cross.
- We should make an effort to stay after the veneration of the cross in order to hear the prayers after communion. If we do stay in church, we should not use this time to chat with others. If we wish to talk to others, we ought to step outside.
- If we wish to venerate the icons, we do so in order but without taking too much time out of another false sense of piety, but we are mindful of others who may wait on us in line for veneration. Certainly we can only venerate the icons in the pronaos/narthix.
- When at the door we turn around toward the sanctuary and bow down toward it, making the sign of the cross and giving praise to God, such as by saying “Glory to you, O God, glory to you.”
- We take church with us and try to keep it with us until we come back. It stays with us in our manner of being, which should be patient, joyful, kind, and peaceful.
All of the above can be summarized as follows: everything we do before church and in church should be done so that we cultivate in ourselves the sense that church is special, that in it we meet Christ.