A common cry of anguish in churches is about keeping children and youth in the church. Why don’t they want to stay? Why have they drifted off? I have written before about the number one reason young people don’t stick around. You can read that here.
But it pays to ask the question, before our children drift away, how we can help them love the local church. Here are a bunch of ways we might do that.
Make it a priority
If we never show up to church unless we don’t have anything better on, we can’t be that surprised if our children reckon that to be a normative pattern. If we sack off church any time a “special event” comes up, we tell our children that there are more important things that we can prioritise. We almost certainly don’t think of it that way, but it is the message we are sending. The more common and regular those “special reasons” become, the more it seems church is just what we do when there is nothing better or more pressing on.
Showing up to church regularly, making it a clear priority for us and our family, sends the message that church is important. Your children will never learn to love what they never actually attend. They won’t love people they never see. They won’t enjoy things they never engage with. Unless our children see us making our local church a clear and present priority, they won’t either.
Speak well of your church
As a general rule of thumb (though see the point below), we should speak well of our churches. It is good for our children to hear us say what we have found encouraging about church. It is good for us to voice what we have found encouraging about church! Joy is infectious. If our children see that we genuinely love the church – if they hear us saying good things about the church – they may well begin to feel some joy in church too.
By contrast, we all know there are negative nellies out there who suck the joy out of everything. There is nothing more miserable than someone pouring cold water all over somebody else’s joy. If our children don’t tell us (because they don’t always), we won’t necessarily know when they have enjoyed church. But if the first thing they hear after a service they were encouraged by or a time together they enjoyed is our dissection of the sermon and moaning about all the stuff that was sub-optimal, we are going to extinguish those embers of joy with a bucketload of cold water.
Be honest about its failings
One thing that always annoys children (and, let’s be honest, adults too) is when people try to put irritating positive spins on what is clearly not good. Like when your mum insists, ‘tidying up can be fun!’ Well, no it isn’t. Let’s just admit it’s not a great job but it needs doing. A bit of honesty about reality rarely goes amiss. The same is true when it comes to the church.
I have said above we should – as a general rule – speak well of our church. I stand by that. We want to accentuate what is positive and encourage our children to dwell on those things. We are more likely to encourage them toward love and enjoyment if we do.
But with that said, sometimes things in church just aren’t good. Maybe there aren’t m/any young people for your children to befriend. It’s okay to acknowledge that may be hard for them. Perhaps a sermon preached wasn’t so great. That’s certainly easier to dissect when your dad is the pastor who happens to be preaching them. Admitting that sometimes things aren’t so good is just honest. All too often, in an understandable desire to only speak well of the church, some parents refuse to acknowledge that anything might be hard or done badly. If your children see you constantly refusing to recognise reality that way, how will they trust your perception when it comes to the good and encouraging things you want to emphasise?
Just as always speaking negatively of the church will extinguish joy pretty quickly, refusing to acknowledge objectively difficult or less than excellent things is hard too. Despite what many people seem to think, your children don’t actually need other children in order to love the church. But they probably do need people to acknowledge that can be a difficult setup for them. Your children don’t need Sunday School to be A-grade every week. But they do need some acknowledgement, if it wasn’t so good, that it’s not ideal. We need to make it clear that it’s okay to sometimes recognise things are not as good as they might be.
Be clear on why you go
One of the reasons talk of what children need tends to go awry is because we focus on the wrong things. We assume the kids drift off because there is no youth work so that has to become a priority. But few seem to contend with the fact that, if we are winning them with youth work, we aren’t necessarily winning them to Christ and his church. The same goes for the view of having children their own age. If that’s what is necessary, if there aren’t any children their own age, well it’s fine for them not to come to church then, right? But I’d hope most of us would be clear that these aren’t why we go to the church.
Given that sometimes things in church will not be excellent – and we should be honest about that – we are forced to answer the question, why do we keep going and put up with it then? Indeed, why do I keep going and saying I’m enjoying something that is often not great? If I don’t like a particular restaurant, I don’t go back. I find somewhere else that I do like. If they stop serving the stuff I enjoy, I find another place again. That’s how we deal with most stuff. So, why should the church be any different?
We go, ultimately, because Jesus tells us we should. We go, not to where everything is most excellent, but to a place that is seeking to be faithful. We go, not where the preaching is necessarily best (however we might judge that), but where it is faithful and consistent. We go, not where everything is necessarily professional and slick, but where we can serve and be useful for the kingdom. These are all things that Jesus calls us to do. At the risk of using a dirty word, we sometimes go out of duty. Not negative duty, but joyful duty.
Why is it that we can acknowledge sometimes things in church are hard but we are going to keep going anyway? Because Jesus asks us to. How can we end up loving what is sometimes not obviously easy to love? Because Jesus asks us to, his Spirit empowers us to and the church isn’t really about consumer choices. When we’re clear about why we are going – because Jesus asks us to and we go primarily to serve others – our children will at least understand, whether things are good or bad, there is a better reason why we are going at all. And that may just lead them to love the church even a little bit.