Sarah Morice Brubaker: Does the cry room have a place in God’s house?

Maybe. But the default ought to be to have all God’s people in worship.

In my childhood church it was the most comfortable seat in the house. The pastor and the congregants got straight-backed pews with dense cushions. The inhabitants of the cry room got a sofa. A window looked out into the sanctuary. The sound from the service was piped in. Though it was ostensibly for children, my grandmother, in the last years of her life, preferred to sit in there. She had coughing spells, and she didn’t want to disturb the people sitting in church.

I write today as some sort of formal and officially-trained theologian leader person – whose dissertation, moreover, considers space and place. One supposes this might make me an expert on the ecclesial space known as the cry room. But I also write as the mother of two young children. I am very familiar with the cry room -- and its richer, better-staffed cousin, the church nursery. It’s in both those capacities that I’d like to think with you about what these spaces mean.

Considered in the best possible light, the cry room is a well-meaning attempt to satisfy some competing needs. Children need to cry, breastfeed, be loud, color, have diapers changed, or snack. Parents need to spread out the contents of the diaper bag, feed children, and hopefully catch a few snippets of the sermon.

And other parishioners need a veil of protective silence; they need not to be made uncomfortable during the serious business of worship.

Right?

That’s the problem. A cry room has an ambiguous status: it can be a way of accommodating or excluding, blessing or cursing. To have a cry room or a church nursery is to ask the urgent question, “Who is worship for?”

Certainly one hopes that most Christians would agree that being incontinent or preverbal or wiggly are not grounds for excommunication from God’s people. But then what does it mean if a church sanctuary is a space from which certain kinds of people are excluded for being bothersome? Who are we if, when we say “worship,” we mean “that activity where a certain group of people are protected from hearing the cries of others, so that they can better focus on Jesus of Nazareth”?

Might I gently suggest that if that’s what we’re about, we ought to rename our church the First Congregational Day Spa?

I’m not saying that all cry rooms should be abolished. I can quite see the advisability of a cry room, for example, in a church where a number of people use hearing aids and can’t participate if there’s background noise. I certainly don’t blame parents who make use of cry rooms.

But the theological default is to have all of God’s people in worship – including, especially, the most vulnerable. Which means that a cry room departs from the default, and stands in need of explanation.

Happily, there are good explanations to be found. The church I attended in college had a prominent notice in every bulletin: “Children bring wonderful gifts to worship and are encouraged to stay throughout the entire service. If you feel your child would be more comfortable in a less structured setting, there is childcare available in the basement.” I’ve heard of one pastor who makes sure that the church nursery is her first stop during the passing of the peace. One of my seminary students made the nursery into an inviting children’s area – and put it right in the rear of the sanctuary.

That’s leadership. Unfortunately, the very people who tend to get identified as “leaders” are often protected from the encounters that teach these skills. If you have achieved a high enough status that your time is spent mostly with those level-headed grown-up decision-makers whose opinions matter? Well, frankly, you might not have the skills you need to lead others in a conversation about vulnerable people in worship.

But you can learn. Just as surely as we Official Church Experts can learn what Barth said about eschatology; so too can we learn about fragile, loud, incontinent bodies, very young, very old, or very out-of-control people. I suggest spending time in the cry room. Not as someone with more important things to do who can graciously spare two minutes. Go as a student. See what worship feels like through a glass window, through a sound system. Listen to a coughing grandmother. Fumble ineptly with the parts of a sippy cup. Get snot on your Sunday best. Feel out the limits of your expertise.

In other words, learn.

Sarah Morice Brubaker teaches theology at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, Oklahoma.