The three of us walked up the stairs and took our seats. I pulled out the coloring books and crayons and peered down from the balcony to watch others file in. Alyssa, 5, had never been to “big church” before.
When I told the kids we would be going to Sunday night church, I braced for the whining and protesting. I suppose by my voice they knew it wasn’t up for debate this time so they reluctantly embraced picking out coloring books and their own plastic baggies of crayons.
Growing up, Sunday night church wasn’t optional. In fact, there was this unspoken current that if you were truly devoted to Christ, you would always be at church on Sunday nights (and every other time the doors were open as well). I’ve found myself wrestling with this. Is my faithfulness to God really determined by how many church activities I’m present for? That seems quite legalistic on the surface. But on the other hand, if I am faithful to God, won’t I want to be gathering with His people at every possible opportunity? Clearly, I’m still wrestling with those things.
But this particular Sunday night, I wanted to be there.
I began reflecting on what my children were involved in at church: Sunday School, Children’s Church, children’s missions groups, and life groups. In each one of those activities, except life groups, they are learning Scripture at their level. I have no doubt they are learning much more in those classes than they would sitting in an adult-level service. I’m so grateful for the many adults who give of their time and gifts to teach my children. I see the fruit of their labor in my children’s lives almost daily.
However, I realized my kids are rarely attending anything church-related that isn’t child-centered in some way. So when they both whined about going to big church that night, I simply told them, “Not everything about going to church is about you.”
During the sermon, Drew, 9, and Alyssa happily colored and I was able to pay attention. At one point while the pastor was talking about Jesus giving us direct access to God, Alyssa stopped her coloring and whispered, “What does ‘access’ mean?”
I was stunned. Here I was thinking they were simply occupying themselves for a half hour but on some level they were listening.
My husband was at work that night and I told him on the phone later, “I think it was really good for them to be a part of a church service and it not be all about them. They were able to be a part of something larger than themselves, not focused on their level.”
The experience really opened my eyes.
Kids in Control
My mom, the former grade school teacher, and I were having a conversation over lunch about kids in general in this generation.
She said she noticed these days that kids are more and more in control over what they are and aren’t involved in, instead of parents lovingly but firmly guiding them. We were talking about all sorts of situations, but it made me think of church.
Faithfulness or Duty?
As I mentioned, growing up, going to every church activity simply wasn’t an option for me or most of my friends. If I didn’t like sitting in big church as a child, too bad; I could bring a coloring book. If I stayed out too late on Saturday night as a teen (even for a youth group event), too bad. I had to be in church the next morning even if I nodded off during the sermon (and yes I did).
On one hand, this taught us the value of faithfulness and sacrifice and giving of your time for something more than your preferences. But I think an unintended consequence to this approach is many of my generation fled the church as soon as they could and haven’t looked back. They rebelled against going to church out of duty, and I’m not sure I blame them to some degree.
Those of us who didn’t abandon the church sometimes cater to our kids in the opposite direction. Recently Drew announced he didn’t want to go to church the next day (and in witty fashion asked how it could be a day of rest if we’re at church half of the day). That statement stung me deeply, and I started having all these fears about him ten years from now leaving the church because of all those years I made him go. Just that fear alone could easily drive me to make sure he only goes to activities he likes because the last thing I want him to do is flee the church when he’s outside of my care.
But catering to our kids’ wants and preferences constantly aren’t going to create God-following adults either. Instead they’ll become adults who, if they’re still plugged into the church, will only go when it’s convenient or it’s something that appeals to them, and they’ll never develop the steadfastness that comes with faithfulness when things aren’t always perfect.
Searching for an Answer
So what’s a parent, who loves the Lord and desires more than anything to lead children to follow Him, to do?
Studies show that the leading factor of whether a child raised in the church will stay in church or not actually has nothing to do with the church. It has to do with the parents. If a child is in church every time the doors are open – either out of duty or because it appeals to them – but doesn’t see her parents in a living, vibrant relationship with God themselves, she is less likely to take hold of a genuine relationship with Christ herself (of course these are generalizations; certainly every prodigal isn’t a product of this).
My prayer has always been and will continue to be that God will make Himself real to my children. That they won’t possess a hand-me-down faith. That they’ll fall in love with Jesus and follow Him with all their hearts.
But until that happens, what do I do?
For now, or until God reveals to me something different, I choose:
- to teach my children the saving grace of Jesus in my home first.
- to make church attendance a priority, where they learn to give of themselves in worship to God and service to others
- to allow my children to be in child-centric learning environments so they can learn Scripture at their level (in our church that’s Sunday School, Children’s Church, and missions groups)
- to not habitually cater to their preferences on what activities they attend simply because of what they feel like doing or not doing (for example, “no, we’re not skipping Sunday School today,” or “yes, we will go to worship service even on days where there’s no Children’s Church.”)
- to not get caught up in being everywhere all the time, to be okay with saying no sometimes – for the right reasons
- to teach them that we do things we don’t always want to do out of service to the Lord and to other people. That whole dying to self thing needs to be a concept they start learning early.
- to above all, be constantly prayerful about all of these decisions – the big ones and the little ones – because my children may have different needs than others and only the God who created them knows the best way to train them to go.
Clearly, I’m still wrestling with much of this. Can you offer some insight or thoughts?
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