October 23, 2018

Welcoming Young Families

“How did it go?” My mom’s words came through the cell phone ear piece with equal parts excitement and apprehension.

“I have learned things about church design that had never occurred to me before,” I answered flatly with a tinge of exhaustion. I had just attended my first service with a six-week old baby, and I would see things with new eyes from now on in every church I visited thereafter.

You see, church design matters to me as a member and worshipper, but it also matters deeply to me as a capital campaign consultant to churches around the country that are considering investing hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars in renovations or new buildings.

This was my first conversation—my first thoughts, really—about how we have or have not designed our worship spaces to be welcoming for young families. We talk a lot about accessibility for differently abled folks, but not once have I had a discussion about accessibility for young families. You know, those young families we all desperately want at church? Well, turns out, I’m learning from my own perspective as a brand-new parent, that they might be coming because you make them feel welcome and comfortable, or they might not be coming because it is difficult for them to feel at ease, welcome… like they belong there. It might be a hassle to go to your church!

We often focus on programming and educational offerings focused on young families, thinking that that is the key to drawing them in. But, I will argue that it might be something much simpler: is there space for young families in your church?

You might be thinking, We have a nursery for parents to drop off young children, and that is all they need!

I applaud you for having a nursery. It might be the perfect solution for some parents who want to worship alone in peace. But, I’m here to tell you that simply having a nursery is not enough. Some people might not feel comfortable leaving their child in the nursery for any number of reasons. Others might see value in having their child in the church service. Whatever the reason, having space for young families to worship together is important.

Here are a few thoughts and observations from my newly opened eyes:

Is there designated parking for new or expecting parents? Walking across the puddles in the parking lot in church clothes, trying to push a stroller with one hand and hold an umbrella over the stroller with the other is—in a word—stressful. Walking across that parking lot in the same attire and company in the snow or in the boiling heat is also stressful. Walking anywhere while pregnant can be stressful… Make it easier on them by giving them reserved parking.

Is there a seating area in the back of the nave with easy access to an exit? You might want them up front, but parents might feel more comfortable in a place where they don’t feel like all eyes are on them when they try to make a quick get-away if behavior goes south.

Is there an area where parents can still participate in the service while also remaining “outside”? No matter how many times parents hear others say that their baby’s cries are a welcome disturbance, it can still feel embarrassing to have heads turn when your child has an outburst. Having a place to feel separate but also together with the congregation – a viewing area or a narthex with windows and speakers – is a sort of safety net for parents.

Is there a designated nursing room or nursery space for infants? Do you have a designated quiet, private space for nursing mothers to sit comfortably if they choose not to nurse in public? Is there a rocking chair, a changing table, a lock on the door?

Are there changing tables in the women’s and men’s restrooms or another gender-neutral place? Don’t assume that only women change diapers! And while you’re at it, are the tables stocked with wipes, diapers, and/or hand sanitizer for emergencies?

And a few additional thoughts:

Are the ushers or greeters trained to watch out for young families? There is nothing more comforting than having someone jump up to hold the door for you with a reassuring smile when you are silently trying to expeditiously exit the sanctuary with your hands full of squirmy baby, diaper bag, stroller, service bulletin, and who knows what else…

Do you have children’s activities available for use during the service? Busy bags with crayons, coloring books, books, and other small items for fidgety hands and busy minds can be an exciting thing for older kids and a relief for parents. Even simply having an “Episcodoodles” pad and pencils in the pews can help.

To set up your church to better welcome young families, put yourself in the shoes of a parent and take a look around, or better yet, ask a young parent what they would like to see in your church!

The original text of this article has been edited to reflect ECF's current programs.