Children and worship: how do we create life-long church-goers?

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).

praying childWhen 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.)

 

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Dear Nana

Author’s note: My maternal grandmother, Dorothy Elizabeth Pope, died of ovarian cancer in 1997. She never got to see me as an adult, or meet her great-grandchildren. I miss her terribly and so often something will happen, or I’ll see something that will make me think of her and think “I wish Nana could be here to see this. She would have liked that.” This post is a collection of these thoughts.

Dear Nana,

Did you know I learned to crochet? When I sit with a new skein of yarn and work up something new and unique, I think of you. Of all of the needlepoint and quilting and embroidery you did over the years. I think, I bet Nana would be proud of me and think it’s cool that I am doing something creative with my hands. I bet we would love going yarn shopping together!

Hannah's sewing project
Hannah modeling the flannel pajama bottoms she made herself in sewing class.

Nana, did you hear that Hannah is learning to sew? And Daniel, too. Oh you would have loved the little pillow alien he made in art class. And Hannah? She’s so talented. She can already make clothes from a pattern! She made the Kermit the Frog flannel pajama pants which are just adorable. You would be so proud. 

Nana, did you know that all of that Barbie furniture you made me when I was little, well I saved it all. And now, my kids play with it. All of those hours you spent, focusing on every little detail to make canopy beds, refrigerators, pool tables, kitchen appliances, and even tiny clocks, books and ice cream sundaes. It was so worth it! A new generation is getting joy out of your hard work. They may not be as careful with the delicate yarn and canvas pieces you made as I would like, but I know you made these things to be played with, not sit in a box. So I remind myself that a little wear and tear done in love is OK. Then I tell them about you. They ask me questions about you. They would love you and think you are awesome. 

Needlepoint Barbie furniture
Daniel and Olivia getting ready to play with the Barbie furniture you made.

Nana, would you be surprised to hear my kids love your tuna and noodle casserole? Probably not, since Vanessa and I always asked for it when we were kids. Every time I make it I think of you. Once I even tried to make your meatballs and beans dish! It didn’t turn out as good as yours, but Hannah, Daniel and Olivia thought it was delicious! I wish you were here to teach me your recipes. I remember how every summer we came to visit and on our first day you would always say “I’m going to the grocery store, what would you girls like to eat while you’re here?” No one ever planned an entire week’s worth of meals around what we wanted. That made me feel so important.

Nana
My beautiful Nana when she was in her early-twenties.

Nana – Did you know that sometimes I come across something with your handwriting, a card, back of a photograph, letter, and I start to cry. Did you know how hard it would be on the ones you left behind to not have you here with us anymore? I bet you did. You knew loss.

Dear Nana, save me a spot next to your recliner. We will have a lot of catching up to do.

Love,

Jelise

When our kids remind us that what we’re teaching them does make a difference

As parents we dish out a hundred bits of advice and instruction to our children every week. By repeating ourselves over and over we hope that we will impart some small intelligence. That we will provide them with the tools they need to be empathetic, honest, open-minded, and compassionate. That they will grow to know the difference between right and wrong, how to take responsibility for their actions, win humbly and lose graciously. But often it feels like we are a broken record that has become background noise and our children have, at best, decided we are spewing eye-roll-worthy old-people talk and, at worst, have tuned us out completely.

But then.

Then there are those moments that stop you in your tracks and convince you that you are getting through. That the seeds have been planted and some of them are starting to sprout. Those are the moments that make this whole parenting gig completely worth it.

My son’s hockey team has not had a particularly winning season. They’ve lost more than they’ve won, and a few of the games registered scores that made even the winning team feel bad for them. But they had an excellent coach who was not only encouraging, but gave every child lots of playing time and made them feel like they were good enough to be on that rink. Not once all season did my son cry a tear or throw a glove in frustration at their loses. If you had seen my son play hockey in his first season, just last year, you would know that this has not always been the case.

Daniel after hockey game
Daniel proudly wearing his bronze medal and sweaty mop top after a tough game.

Today their team entered the semi-finals of the season as the 3rd seated (out of 4 teams in their division) to play the 2nd seated team. Earlier in the week my husband and I had talked about  well-known under-dog stories, like the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, in an attempt to encourage him to believe their team could win the semi-finals and make it to the playoffs. When we arrived at the rink the 1st and 4th seated teams were already playing and to everyone’s amazement the 4th place team was beating an undefeated, crazy-good team of boys and girls. The game was intense and the crowd was completely wrapped in it, cheering for these underdogs. I excitedly turned to my son and said, “See Daniel! Look! The Blackhawks are winning and they’re playing the Capitals! See, just like Daddy and I told you, anything can happen. Your team has just as good of a chance as winning as the other team, even if they’ve beat you before!” I thought, this is just the pep-talk he needs to go out there and give it his all. But my dear boy had another thought. He said to me, very matter of factly, “Yeah, but it doesn’t really matter if we win. All that matters is that I have fun and try my best.” Oh. My. Word. To say my heart was bursting with pride would be an understatement. My little 8 year old son was reminding me about what was important. Things that his father and I have said to him and his sisters hundreds of times! He not only knew what to say, but he truly believed it.

I’d like to say my son’s team won their game today. They didn’t. But they played their heart’s out, and made the other team work for the win. It was a very close, very exciting game and that little 8 year old left it all on the rink. And at the end when the two teams lined up to shake hands, he was beaming with joy, just as if he had won.

Thank you God for these moments. And for trusting me and my husband to get it right, at least some of the time.

Romans 8:38-39