Should we make our children go to church?

I saw a couple of tweets by Beth Moore a couple of days ago that I thought were about right. They were these:

In retweeting these thoughts, I added one of my own. I recalled how – despite being a believer – I kicked against going to church in my teens. I said it was boring, uncool, not valuable, etc, etc. I noted how my parents, at no point, simply told me it was my choice and I was free to give up going.

Their response was to insist I keep going to church and, if I refused, I was threatened with the fullest range of sanctions at their disposal to make clear that this was not a legitimate choice and it was significant enough for them to fight me on it. The choice was clear to me: go to church and be (potentially) bored for an hour or two or have an excruciating month in which my life was not worth living. It seemed like a straightforward, sensible choice to me.

I look back on those fights and am so grateful my parents took that decision. They made clear that church was important and I was going to be made to go, just as they would make me go to school. I know it would have been all but impossible to get me to go back had I been permitted to jack it all in. I am now a pastor of a church and am quite sure I would not be had they not taken this approach.

I was, therefore, quite surprised by the kickback I received on Twitter for voicing that view. I was variously told that it is a ‘wisdom issue’, that insisting children go to church is ‘legalistic’, that we shouldn’t judge if parents happily let their children reject the church and other such sentiments. Are those things true?

Let’s just start by stating something obvious (it is sad to have to state this but here goes), making your kids go to church won’t make them a Christian. I do not believe if you insist your children go to church that they will automatically come to faith. However, we can’t be that surprised if our children drift off from the church when it is treated as something we (or, more to the point, they) can take or leave.

But, is this merely a wisdom issue? The Bible is pretty clear on the importance of teaching our children about the Lord and his things. This is not something that is an optional matter of choice for believers but something the Lord commands us to do. We teach our children things both by the things we tell them and in the example we set them. Scripture is clear we are to bring our children up in the fear and admonition of the Lord and it is similarly clear that we are not to forsake the meeting together of ourselves. Teaching our children that church is something they can take or leave – or they can jack in when they become teenagers who aren’t that keen on it – does not seem to be close to the Spirit of Proverbs 22:6 or Ephesians 6:4.

Similarly, it is very easy to brush things off as legalistic when someone is suggesting there are commands and principles in scripture that we ought to follow. But scripture is quite clear about training children in godly things and teaching them the ways of the Lord. The idea that this doesn’t include meeting with the Lord’s people – when this is specifically commanded of the Lord’s people – is laughable. We can call that legalistic if we like but it seems no more legalistic than following any other of the Lord’s commands.

As my friend rightly said on Twitter:

The Biblical view of how adults ought to treat their children in respect to the things of God is pretty clear. There is no Biblical category for teenagers. In fact, as I write this, somebody just replied to the above tweet this way:

But I could make that exact argument of my 4-year-old. He often doesn’t want to do stuff I tell him and plenty of people in our culture think I shouldn’t! ‘Kids need to be kids’, they aver. ‘Don’t be too hard on them, they don’t know what they are doing’, they say. But the scriptural command is clear. What is not clear is why, at 13 or so, we throw the teaching of the Bible out on its ear because they stropped about going to church. My 4-year-old has done that and nobody thought it unwise to insist he comes anyway.

We send a pretty clear message to our children if, when they insist they aren’t going to school, we kick off and bring out the sanctions but when they do so about church we simply give way. We implicitly tell them that rejecting the church doesn’t matter as much as not going to school. It is difficult to see how Fathers – who bear the responsibility for the spiritual well-being of their children in the home – are taking that responsibility seriously when what they deem to be spiritually best for their children is something they permit their children to reject. We wouldn’t allow children to take that decision on their health when going to a doctor or dentist – and the law doesn’t insist we must – but we seem OK doing it when it comes to the church.

Sure, our children may reject the church when they are adults. We can’t pretend there is a simple straight line between getting your kids to church and their becoming believers. But that will very much be in spite of everything you have taught and exemplified rather than logically in line with a choice you willingly permitted them to make.

The point here is not that if we force our kids to go to church they will become believers. It is that we can’t be surprised that they drift off from church and never come back if we’ve essentially told them that is a legitimate choice for them to make. It is that we must ask ourselves how seriously we are taking the call to oversee the spiritual welfare of our children when we are willing to let them choose what we consider to be spiritually detrimental choices. If we wouldn’t let them risk their physical health this way, why settle for any less for their eternal, spiritual good?