I recently joined in on a debate on Facebook that was discussing the value of having children attend worship service with their parents instead of offering a separate service or Sunday school for kids during the same time. While, as a general rule, I try not to engage in debates of any kind on Facebook, in fairness it started more as just me commenting on a friend’s status about the topic and then seemed to snowball from there. I didn’t realize until reading through the responses on Facebook that this is a sensitive topic that is dividing congregations. It surprised me because it seems to me it should really be a choice made by the parents, based on what’s best for them and their children at the time.
Since having our first child 11 years ago, my husband and I have attended churches that offered a “children’s church” or Sunday School during the main worship service, churches that only offered a nursery, and even one church that had children’s church only for pre-schoolers, so I think we’ve had a good sampling of the different methods and we know what works for us and what we want for our children (more on that later).
When I was engaged in this “friendly” Facebook debate, one of the points I made was that I wanted church to be a place where my children wanted to be, not something they had to do every Sunday. The response I received from a well-respected Pastor friend of mine was that “have-to” isn’t such a bad thing. As he put it: “Have to do is not as evil as it’s cracked up to be in modern parenting circles. You have to stay out of the road as a toddler playing with your blocks. You have to practice the piano if you want to take lessons. You have to eat food that’s good for you, you have to get that cavity filled, you have to learn to share, and on and on. Kids catch on really quickly that they ‘have to’ do the things that their parents value, and isn’t parenting our shot passing on what we value most?” Fair point here. Sometimes as parents we make our kids do things because we know it’s what’s best for them. Certainly if you are raising your children to be Christian this should include regular times of worship. But if it’s our job as parents to make sure that our children are experiencing worship and time with God’s word, what is our role as church leaders?
Recent studies tell us that one in three young adults are unaffiliated with a church. This doesn’t mean they don’t believe in God, just that they’re not real interested in attending church. According to Focus on the Family, 22 million Americans say they have struggled with faith or relational issues and therefore quit going to church. There have been numerous studies and reports on why people are leaving the church or aren’t interested in attending in the first place and most of them report reasons along the lines of : church goers are judgmental and hypocritical, churches rebuke anything secular, Christianity is too closely linked to certain politics, etc., etc.
Whether these opinions have been formed by personal experience or by reputation…either way the church has a big problem on its hands. The reality is churches are not immune to sin. Some churches (regardless of denomination) have judgmental people sitting in the pews; they have ministers in the pulpits who are leading double lives; they have fundamentalists that will tell you your music is evil, or your politics are sinful. These things happen and they happen because churches are made up of and led by people. Loving, well-intentioned, flawed, sin-filled people! So how do we keep today’s youth from becoming part of that number in a few years? I believe it comes back to a personal relationship with Christ.
I have attended churches with the aforementioned problems and left churches with lesser problems. I have seen politics and back-stabbing, extra-marital affairs between church leaders, and mismanagement of church funds. So what keeps me from losing faith in church all together? What makes me seek out a new church when I see too much sin infiltrate a place that has been an extension of my home and family? What is keeping me from becoming a part of that 22 million Americans? My relationship with Christ.
I was very fortunate that in my high school and college days I developed a very personal relationship with Christ. This relationship developed through Bible studies, service and missions work, friendships with other Christians, and some amazing worship experiences. Like any relationship, my journey with Christ has seen its ups-and-downs, but throughout the last 23 years of my life it has been there, this burning desire to have a relationship with Christ, to know Him, to be closer to him. And so, I continue to attend church.
Yes, I have been angry at church, I have taken long breaks from church and I have questioned if there is such a thing as the “perfect church” (reality-check: there isn’t!). But each time I’ve been hurt or disappointed and felt I could not continue where I was, I have laced up my shoes and started the “church shopping” experience again. Because I know that in order for me to grow closer to God and continue to be strengthened in my faith, I need church. I need people more experienced and different from me to share their thoughts and perspectives. I need to participate in live worship with singing and praise. I need to be surrounded by friends who will pray for me when I ask and even when I don’t ask, who will help keep me accountable and lift-me-up when I’m feeling down.
So, now to get to the point and come full circle. As a church leader, I believe our responsibility to children is to cultivate relationships with Christ. To teach our children what a relationship with Christ feels like — the joy, the grace, the love. To create in them a desire to be in relationship with Christ so deeply that even when (because it will happen) they are let down or disappointed by a church, they won’t give up on the church. And I believe the best way to do this is to reach the children on their level. Speak to their young, immature hearts about God’s sacrifice and Christ’s love for us in a way that they can comprehend. Create in them a desire for the Lord and to be in relationship with Him.
If your church can do this during a single service, that’s awesome! I personally don’t think that my young children will get the same out of the sermon that is shared during the main service as they will out of the children’s service our church offers. However, when one of my kids asks if they can sit with us for a change, I usually say yes. I want them to try different ways to hear God’s voice and experience the Holy Spirit. But most of all, I want them to love the Lord with all of their heart and I want them to want to be at church because of this love.
So while I agree that “have to” is an important element of parenting, and I may find myself telling my kids they “have to” attend church at some point, I know that one day they will be out of my care and will have the freedom to choose whether or not they want to go to church. It is my prayer that the choice will be easy.
(And should that Pastor friend of mine happen to read this little blog post, I want him to know that while I might not entirely agree with, I completely respect his thoughts and experience on this topic, both as a pastor and a father.)