Book Review: Parenting in the Pew

By Robin Turner of All Saints Dallas

Too often, children (and their parents!) get the impression that going to church is about not doing things: don’t move, don’t make noise, don’t distract, don’t be impatient, don’t bother your sister. Sunday worship ends, and children and parents leave feeling frustrated, embarrassed and unfulfilled. Robbie Castleman’s short, practical book, Parenting in the Pew, provides insight for parents about how to break this cycle of discouragement and embrace the weekly opportunity to welcome children into the most important, most fulfilling, most eternal task they will ever engage in: the worship of the triune God.

Originally published in the 1980s and updated in the early 2000s, Castleman, a mother of two sons and pastor’s wife, shares short, theologically grounded chapters covering how she learned to engage her sons in various aspects of corporate worship—prayer, music, learning from the sermon, tithing—all with a focus on introducing them to the most important work they will ever undertake: worship. I can think of over two dozen families I have personally worked with who have benefitted from intentionally engaging with Parenting in the Pew and implementing strategies tailored to their own family and church contexts.

Parenting in the Pew is emphatically not about behaviorism or performance; it is about worship. Castleman establishes early in the book that God desires the worship of children, so when we occupy them with other activities instead of teaching them how to engage in worship, we misguide children and rob God of something he deserves. Children do not need to be quiet and still in church; children need to meet and worship God.

Practically, Castleman walks through processes of explaining the what and the why behind each element of corporate worship and then includes tips for how to help children meaningfully engage in each piece. For example, she addresses the common problem of meltdowns and frustration while getting out the door on Sunday mornings. She encourages families to prioritize laying out clothes and packing any needed items the night before, and then create a joyous atmosphere in the morning by having a special (albeit low-effort) breakfast and listening to music as the family gets ready. Sunday morning is a time of joy: How can my family plan to make it the most anticipated day of the week from the moment we wake up?

Castleman’s tone is direct, and some of her views may be controversial; but even in places where families disagree with her methods, they’ve shared with me that disagreeing with her guidance has provoked thoughtful conversations that have helped solidify their own family standards. For instance, I’ve spoken with families who disagree with her teachings on tithing, Sunday dress or the role of children’s classes, but who have been encouraged to intentionally teach and guide their children in these areas based on their own views.

In my experience, Parenting in the Pew is best read and discussed in a small group of other parents of children of similar ages. The opportunity to exchange practical tips for a particular context and age range proves helpful; and knowing other families are pursuing the same ultimate goals provides encouragement on difficult days. In two-parent homes, having both parents on the same page is helpful; and for single parents, the camaraderie of a greater church family with the same goals proves invaluable.

Over the course of my last decade of work cultivating children’s spiritual formation in Anglican congregations, and now as a parent, the most important, sometimes daunting and occasionally frustrating task has been introducing children to corporate worship in a compelling and intentional way. Even within church contexts, this can feel counter-cultural. The insights and wisdom found in reading Parenting in the Pew in community have deeply encouraged me for personal engagement with corporate worship and equipped me to intentionally come alongside my youngest brothers and sisters in Christ as they grow in the knowledge and love of God.

Robin Turner studied spiritual formation and leadership at Portland Seminary (DMin) and Christian formation and ministry at Wheaton College (MA, BA). Her work over the last decade has been devoted to helping local churches value and nurture children’s spiritual formation. Robin lives in Dallas, Texas with her husband, Sam, and son, Davy.

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