Converting Parents and Raising Children to Go to Church

I feel like I need to begin by saying that as a twenty-something without any children I am not at all qualified to talk about parenting or how parents should raise their children. However, a friend recently sent me an article that I thought was very good. I am curious to hear the thoughts of our readers with children, and their experience of raising children in the faith.

Shelly Wood recently wrote an article over at the Huffington Post titled “When Church is a Choice.”  She opens her article with a statement often heard among parents today:

We have decided to let our kids choose whether or not they go to church and to pick their own religion. We tell them God exists, but how they choose to believe in God, or whether they go to church or not, is up to them.

Wood then goes to express her concerns about this way of parenting, and is quick to point out the problems with this line of thinking:

When kids are told that church is a choice and that religion is a buffet of entrees in which they can pick the one’s they like the best and ignore the ones they don’t, kids hear this:

Religion doesn’t matter. God is there if you want Him, or not. Take Him or leave Him. He’s around, if you want to give Him a call. Otherwise, don’t worry about it. Live a good life. Be a good person. You will be fine.

If I told my kids that bathing was a choice and that they were free to decide whether or not they wanted to bathe or brush their teeth… my kids would opt out of the practice and ritual of good hygiene. Gross, I know. But true.

Despite her reservations, Wood is convinced that parents who adopt this principle are well meaning. She writes: “It’s not that they are saying that God isn’t important. They are saying that religion isn’t important to know God.”

Ultimately, however, Wood sees the buffet style of religion and spirituality being advanced by parents today as detrimental to society. For this reason, Wood creates a list of do’s and don’ts for ministering to this generation of parents. Her ideas for getting back this generation of parents are very insightful. Here is a quick summary of her points:

Don’t:

  • Shame them, it never works.
  • Preach hell, fire, and damnation.
  • Develop programs. These are a short-term fix.

Do:

  • Cultivate honest conversations about God and science. Let people know that even if they do not ascribe to a certain church teaching they are still welcome in the Church.
  • Be willing to have really honest conversations about suffering and death, about prayer and discipline, about mission and service.
  • Support honest conversations about money and sex, about power and greed, about love and struggle.
  • Work to develop conversations outside of the church, where God becomes a friend before a major life event happens.
  • Work on developing authentic rituals and spiritual practices.

Does Wood’s insights resonate with your own experience? I am especially interested to hear how our readers’ church communities are seeking to develop authentic rituals and spiritual practices that reach out to modern parents and their children.

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6 comments

  1. I’m not sure I get the bathing/hygiene comparison. Eventually, if you don’t observe hygiene, there will be serious consequences, from social ostracization to infections, etc.
    If you choose not to go to church, the eventual serious consequence is – what? The hellfire and damnation or shame you’re not supposed to preach? The inability to act with a moral center, because everyone who doesn’t go to church is horrific and amoral?
    When church-going is part of the household’s discipline, making children observe that discipline is – long-term – somehow beneficial, I’d imagine, even if those children, as adults, cease to be church-goers. If nothing else, they’ve been formed to be respectful of others and of the group(s) with which they are associated.

  2. A better analogy might be the musician. No instrumentalist likes practising scales and arpeggios, but without that early discipline it simply isn’t possible to manage many passages that you encounter later on and can play without having to think about which finger to use next — a similar muscular memory to the one which helps us to walk and keep our balance.

  3. If you were a kid, would the people you saw in church move you to say you really wanted to be part of that?

  4. When I get this question in parish talks (which I invariably do) I use the analogy of language. Would you delay teaching your child your language to try to give your child the “option” of which should be his or her first language? The analogy works because religious belief entails a whole worldview, and it is that whole understanding of the world, imbibed in early childhood, that allows the child to understand and make choices about religious beliefs later on, just as it is someone’s first language that allows them to learn a second language. There are some obvious pitfalls to this analogy, but it generally makes sense to people.

  5. I guess I would start by asking, what age are the kids being given this choice? One Sunday in 6th grade, I had an argument with my parents over going to Mass. The end result was an agreement that if I wanted to go, they would make sure I got there. If I did not want to go, they would not force me. In hindsight, I suspect they were both relieved to no longer have to go themselves as they also “dropped out”. I went on to join a religious order while neither of my parents ever really returned to attending any church on a regular basis.

    Mine is one story and certainly not to be generalized that all kids given a choice at that age will ultimately remain in the Church.

  6. Our parish is part of a Lutheran high school community, a new and establishing relationship yet to be fully worked out. An observation I shared in my sermon the past two weeks is that as a result of my self-obsessed Boomer generation who I believe coined the “we’re not going to cram our religion down our kid’s throats” form of spiritual child-abuse we have 2.5 generations with significant populations of unchurched individuals. The Boomers who stayed till the kids were confirmed and then moved on (leaving the Church trying to figure out what to do with their “contemporary music”) to their next new thing raised the Gen X kids with some disconnected memories about church, but mostly that it wasn’t that important.

    At our school we have about 30% of our kids have no knowledge of the Christian faith and are lost in Freshman Theology. I am going to teach a 1 semester class to bring the very basics of the faith to them. I plan to try to gather the parents weekly to create a place of faith talk and community and teach them what I am teaching their children daily. My prayer is that a portion of them (all!) will respond to the Gospel and become members of our community. “Everyone” tells me I will fail; I set my success bar at 1 student and family. Does anyone else have any experience like this?

    Please PRAY for me! No, really…..

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