against their will

Parents will sometimes talk to me about the struggle it can be to get their young people to church. It can be hard for a whole range of reasons – tiredness or sickness, insecurities or relational tensions, ‘boredom’ and the lure of other events (sports, birthday parties etc). But parents can also be faced with resistance to church attendance as a child starts to gain (and fight for) degrees of independence and particularly as they transition from a church’s children’s ministry into “adult church”.

I don’t believe the importance of church (a gathered community of believers) attendance can be overstated. Many would posit that they can ‘do faith’ without regular church participation or aside from meaningful engagement with a faith community but my understanding of the place of the church in God’s plans – as well as research and anecdotal observations over many years – tells me otherwise.

Because of this I think that church attendance with a bad attitude or church attendance where the distractions of your heart/circumstances are louder than the drums or church attendance that ‘costs’ a great deal to make happen (see my previous post “At least we came!”) is still better than not attending at all.

What do we value?

A family will always orient itself around what it values most. Whether those values are articulated or subconscious they are the driving force in your family. The priority you give to education or to sport, music and other extra-curricular activities, the pace you live life at, the way you allocate your time … all these things are reflective of what you value.

A starting point is determining the VALUE you place on church engagement – for yourself, for your children, and for your family as a unit. Identifying that (and potentially raising the profile of it in your thoughts and actions) is important. Scripture places quite a high value on being an active part of a faith community – both for what you GAIN from that but also because of what you GIVE to that (which in turn makes it possible for others to gain). As we seek to be fully devoted followers of Jesus we need to be growing in our love for His Church and responding to His invitation to be part of building it.

Our young people need to HEAR that spoken and SEE that modelled.

When can you decide?

As a teen or pre-teen if I was given the opportunity to decide when I attended school – I don’t think I would’ve logged many hours. If I only went to music lessons or sports practice when I felt like it, I might have missed more than I went to! And there were many times when, if I was given the choice, I would’ve slept-in rather than gone to church.

But the reality is that those things were all more important than they felt at the time and the external imposition to keep attending was not only important for my development (in regards to education, personal disciplines and faith) but necessary to counteract my ignorance, apathy or immature resistance.

Our young people WILL need to be made to go to church sometimes.

Inciting a rebellion?

The most commonly expressed fear of parents is that by “forcing” their child to attend church they will cause them to resent it or rebel against it. Two thoughts on that …

1.    They WON’T love church more by not attending.

Ultimately a love for the church is most fully experienced when our own revelation of God and relationship with Him cause us to see the church as HE does and embrace it in all its beauty (and brokenness). Initially though, our enjoyment of church will be connected to the relationships we have and the sense of purpose we experience as we find our place of service and ministry within the church family we’re part of.

Leaving your young people at home will not help them develop a heart for the church.

2.    Any resentment they develop will be related to their experience of church rather than the fact they were forced to attend.

Young adults who walk away from faith or church may say that being forced to attend as a child was the reason – but there will always be more to it than that. Research cites issues like the ‘hypocrisy’ of Christians and Christian leaders, the seeming unwillingness of the church to embrace ‘questioners’ or to remain more connected to culture or to engage in social issues (particularly around justice), or experiencing a lack of acceptance or relational connection, among the reasons young people ‘abandon’ their faith.

It’s not just the making them attend that will cause the ‘rebellion’ – it is more about a perceived lack of value, of connection and acceptance; of relevance and encounter. A conviction of the importance of their engagement ought to fuel parents to advocate strongly to see their child find their place. To facilitate meaningful peer and mentor relationships. To recruit older teens, young adults, leaders and adults to partner with them in championing their child in faith and life. To empower their child into ministry and serving – a factor widely acknowledged to be part of general well-being (in secular and church environments) as it feeds a sense of purpose and meaning. 

It maybe be hard to get them there, it may take a wrestle, it may feel like a battle – but I say, die trying! Do what you can to give your young person every chance of thriving. 

(Topics for further conversation include how to encourage a church that isn’t actively engaged in connecting with your child or family, what to do if your child is keen to attend a different church than yours or when the time might be right to change churches to ensure more full engagement of your young person. For future blogs perhaps.)

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