May 4, 2015 | The churchy thing floating across my Facebook and Twitter feeds this morning is an op ed on Huff Po by a Presbyterian pastor about why it’s such a bad idea to allow kids choose whether or not they go to church.
The writer opines that giving kids the choice to go to church or not tells them that church is optional and, further, it tells them it doesn’t matter. The analogy she uses is that if you tell kids they don’t have to bathe or that they can eat what they want, they won’t make good choices. So, too, with regard to connecting to God and a community of faith in worship.
Sadly, there’s a full collection plate of bad thought in this. As it happens, once kids have basic grounding on eating and hygiene, research shows that they actually do take pretty good care of themselves. Indeed, they’re often much more conservative than their parents would be once they’ve had a few pieces of candy. And, in California at least, they’d bathe pretty ideally — enough to develop healthy immunity without being unsanitary and wasting water. So, the analogy doesn’t hold. Given proper guidance and modeling, kids can make good choices.
The more difficult question — and one that respects children as feeling, thinking beings — is what would encourage kids to choose church? And what makes them not? We want to think that it’s because there are other shiny things out there that distract them. But that’s not always the case. Perhaps not even often. And here’s where that “healthy guidance and modeling” comes in.
When kids have meaningful relationships with other kids and adults at church — not just their parents, but a community of caring adults of all ages — they enjoy being with them. When they understand why adults they love and admire value the time they spend in a community of worship, service, and learning, they want to engage in that community, too. The trouble is that adults cannot often explain their own participation in church let alone why their kids should go beyond “being a good person,” “developing values,” or, worse, “because we said so.”
This became clear to me a few years ago when I met with teens in two congregations from different Mainline Protestant denominations. We talked about what church meant to them, what they liked about it, why it mattered. They had lots to say about youth group and mission trips, and a little bit about worship (especially music). The had very positive feelings about church overall (though they did routinely feel that preaching was boring).
When kids understand why adults they love and admire value the time they spend in a community of worship, service, and learning, they want to engage in that community, too.
But when I asked them if they thought they would continue to attend church when they got to college, there was a long pause. Finally, someone spoke up in each group. “No,” they didn’t think they would. Why? In the first case, the boy who braved the confession that he didn’t see himself as a college churchgoer said that he thought college was a time for exploration, including spiritual and religious exploration. “I think you’re supposed to see what else is out there and kind of find your own way,” he said. Others in the group agreed: being an adult is about making independent choices, including about religion.
Teens in both groups threw out another reason for leaving church behind: once you have your values from the church you attended growing up, you should be morally set. That’s what church is about. This moral formation angle was a also consistent refrain of former Mainline Protestants who I interviewed in a study of the religiously unaffiliated across the country: “We’ve got it: Be good people. Share some of what you have. Find a purpose for your life.”
Now, perhaps unsurprisingly, when I asked parents in the same congregations why they thought it was important to bring their kids to church, they only reason anyone offered was because church facilitated moral development. Some did mention that kids made friends at church, but they didn’t see that as a primary reason for coming (even though it was often very important for the parents).
Further, when I asked parents how they talked about their own faith and what they valued about their connection to a church community, most said that they rarely or ever had such conversations. “Just getting them here is enough of a hassle,” one mom said. “If I start talking about God at the dinner table, there’s no hope.”
Inviting kids to choose whether or not to go to church may not say that God is unimportant, that faith doesn’t matter. It may say that parents cannot adequately and authentically explain why it does matter in the context of lives that are filled with moral ambiguity and contradiction.
No hope, indeed. Parents — and, I’d add, many clergy — are often incredibly inarticulate about why being a member of a community of worship, service, and learning is important. They have a hard time explaining why they choose to go to church beyond the “good person” rationale. Kids take their cues from that.
However, when I asked parents to describe their own connection to their church communities, there was much depth and beauty in their responses. Eventually. And with considerable encouragement. Most nonetheless felt awkward sharing their own faith stories, which often involved revealing considerable vulnerability, with their kids. My sense was that parents were uncomfortable getting real about the sufferings of life with their kids, with its deeper and often wrenching mysteries, because they were unpracticed in such conversations. They had all kinds of stilted, churchy language but little that allowed them to describe the complexity, beauty, and meaning of their own spiritual experience.
It also seemed that challenges on the basis of faith to the structures of privilege that benefit their families might reveal parents as less than faithful to the teachings of their tradition. Stopping at “do unto others” and having a great mission trip experience to write about on your college application essay was about as far as parents were comfortably able to go with why church mattered in terms of service to the world outside its doors. As one dad put it, “You don’t want them really to get too far into that ‘sell everything you have and give it to the poor’ business. You want them to get a job and have a good life.”
In this light, inviting kids to choose whether or not to go to church may not say that God is unimportant, that faith doesn’t matter. It may say that parents cannot adequately and authentically explain why it does matter in the context of lives that are filled with moral ambiguity and contradiction.
At the end of the day, wrangling kids into church isn’t going to make much difference in terms of whether they stay as adults. It’s just not. And for most Mainline Protestants and the majority of Catholics, that has little to do with bad science or retrograde sexual teachings.
Given this, what might make a difference is helping adults understand and articulate to kids why they, failed and loved human beings trying week by week to live out a relationship with God a little better, think church matters. That’s an ongoing conversation, not an event. Parents and other adults in a kid’s life need help making that happen. They need to understand why church matters to kids beyond simply setting a functional moral compass.
When kids know that story, when they know deeply and truly why church matters to the most important adults in their lives, it turns out that it tends to matter more to them, too. If you’ve got that down then go ahead, ask kids to choose church or not. I double dare you.
Elizabeth Drescher, PhD is an Adjunct Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Santa Clara University. Her forthcoming book Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of American Nones will be released by Oxford University Press later this year. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The Immanent Frame, The San Francisco Chronicle, The San Jose Mercury News, Religion Dispatches, Sojourners, CrossCurrents, and a number of other national publications. She co-edits The Narthex with Keith Anderson and is the editor of The BTS Center “Bearings” blog. You can find her on Twitter @edrescherphd.
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