It has become darkly humorous to me how the fretting over youth leaving the church has lead to a sort of self fulfilling prophesy. We worry the youth will leave, but are somehow shocked and appalled when they do just that. Fortunately I think there are the rumblings, on the deeper end of the register, that the problem may at least be attributed to a far deeper issue that has taken root in the heart of our ecclesiology currently at large. A while back it began to be commented on that our consumeristic approach, our requirements of church, and then what the church produces to meet the demand, is revealing to us; that we have been floating in a pacific ocean that is only one inch deep across. And this certainly contributed. Shallow theology leads to shallow Christians. Life then happens and suddenly shifts left… Not to mix too many metaphors here but when building a house on sand, don’t be surprised when it collapses. Plenty of churches are like cheap contractors that build mini mansions slapdash. It looks great for a few years then falls apart. However this is not the only problem. A new one has been started to be observed. We have finally begun admitting we ran the kids out of church on a rail, that we hewed ourselves, under the guise of faithfulness.
Discipling the Kids Out
Recently Jared C. Wilson published an article over on The Gospel Coalition How to ‘Disciple’ Your Kids into Church Dropout Status. All in all, I would commend the article to you. It resonated with me and my own experience. Both of my sisters have left the church and I worry my youngest brother will become a regular attender out of habit, and being a good ole boy, more than out of any real love for Christ and his bride. And several of Wilson’s points are clear markers of where things went wrong for us. But I have a nit to pick. There is one additional point I would like to add to his list: Ignore any and all objections that your kids raise about your church.
I’ll grant early on that this one is a bit more subjective. And it solidly resides in the realm of extended time requirements, thought, and discernment. However, I do think that there is a solid Biblical ground to stand on with this point. Beginning with Eph 6:4 “Fathers do not provoke your children to anger (NASB says exasperate), but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” If that was too clear let me nuance with the principal that underlies, “You shall not boil a young goat in it’s mothers milk” found three times in Scripture: Ex 23:19, 34:26, and Deut 14:2. The point being not to use something that is meant for the giving of life as an instrument of death. I remember Matt Chandler relating the story of Cameron in Ferris Bueler’s Day Off and how he started kicking his dads restored vintage sports car denting the fender before shoving it out the window off a cliff. The whole time shouting how his father had loved the car more than him. Chandler ended the illustration saying he never wanted to put his own kids in that position toward the church he pastored. How many parents have done this to their kids and they are simply in the laity?
Paving the Way
I am well aware of the cottage industry that is children’s and youth ministry. And I think there is a subtile lie imbedded in them, “Everything is Awesome!” to quote one of the recent prophets of our time. But the reality is that the road to hell is not just paved with good intentions, but as Screwtape reminds us.
“Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” Screwtape – Letter
Youth and kids are more observant than we give them credit for. So despite the smash and sparkle they are surrounded with a good number are very aware that one size fits all is a bad approach to discipleship.* Unfortunately, free childcare for an hour of calm, or a chance to socialize with other adults is a lure great to many parents. And if the church can throw the promise of spiritual instruction into the bargain… well then, regular attendance becomes mandatory. Voddie Baucham has rightly pointed out that children’s/youth ministry is not for the kids, it’s for the parents.
But deeper than that, or better yet, behind all that is my concern over the tendency for parents to be happy in a church and just chalk up objections to kids being lazy, or whiners. Which kids can be. And yet never examining if they are killing their kids souls by requiring attendance in a place that is actively sapping the life out of them.
In my life I have been in churches that were dynamite and churches that were a living hell. I remember very fondly a small church near our home that shepherded my single mother and my siblings. This church was underfunded, older, and one of the most loving places I have been. It was the kind of place that never gets any attention from the blogosphere, had clunky traditions, and was still making a snails pace out of the 1950’s. And yet they challenged my sisters and I to fully participate in the life of the body, we grew there. And my mother required our attendance. I think the key was that my siblings and I were not treated as leverage to get my mother in the door, or something to be sent to the children’s wing. We sat in the service. We sat in the business meetings, we even sat in the choir. And at every turn we were welcomed and then patiently and lovingly taught. If one of us didn’t want to go and were forced we never regretted it.
But I can also remember a church that we were required to attend that actively suffocated our souls. I can remember trying to explain the problems to my mother and step father, but because they had friends in the church the answer boiled down to, “we are happy, so deal with it.” Now I don’t think that this church actively pushed my sisters over the apostate edge, the lure of sin is strong, and the desire for it is deeply rooted in all our hearts. But I do think at best that they put the final nail in the coffin. So I wonder, often, would a change of church, would listening to our repeated objections have changed the outcome? And lest I sound petty, I will point out that we were actively barred from participation in church activities because a leading deacon decided my mother and step fathers marriage was sinful. Despite, dear reader what your views on remarriage are. Punishing children and separating them from the body on behalf of the parents is spiritually abusive. I really do wonder if a change of church, though it would have been socially difficult for my mother and step father, would have been worth it? At the very least would the bitterness I see from them toward the faith be reduced?
Parents are not to be slaves to the desires of their children, They are to train them. Wilson rightly uses the word disciple in the title of his article. But proper discipleship requires the ability to assess the disciple. Or as another Wilson** has said, “Recognize the frame of your children.” In general when I am discipling young men still living under their parents roof, and they object to their parents church, I will stand with the parents. Even if I share the same objections to that particular congregation. However, I would encourage parents to consider if you are discipling you kids right out of church, and using the church to get them out. Outsourcing is not an option, I sometimes want to ask parents, the very rude question of, why did they have kids in the first place. It seems like many parents are constantly trying to get rid of them. Perhaps the Church itself should also remind parents to count the costs when it comes to kids. If you don’t want an bore of a child who is glued to screens then you have to be the kind of parent that teaches them to entertain themselves without screens. I wonder if a lot of parents are like the guy Donald Miller talked about on his book tour years ago. “Like if you think you are the kind of guy who fishes with his kids but you never go fishing with them; then you are not that guy. A character is what he does not what they say.” If you think you are the kind of parent who would have disciplined kids but you never discipline them, you won’t have those kids.
It may seem as though priorities are conflicting here. The hierarchy for parents Biblically is, God, each other, the kids, everything else. And if parents are truly growing from a church then there is legitimate reason to assume the kids might need to hunker down and learn. But far to often I see families staying in churches because of power, control, status, social connections, all things they don’t want to loose. Church is not a country club. If any of the afore mentioned, are reasons a parent is choosing to stay then they are not in that particular church for the right reasons. Church is for the worship of God, and to be fed by His Word. Everything else is secondary. If the kids are not worshiping or being fed and are spiritually dying then it is time to say goodbye to ten wonderful years ruling with an iron fist the handbell choir for the last ten years.
If kids are expected to be spiritual titans then they have to be built up, and that is just not going to happen to them in a place that they hate, or that dismisses them. Parental involvement is required. Kids need to know the why, at some point at least, and it needs to make sense. Even if they don’t understand it at the time.
Ultimately, time, thought and discernment is required. Kids can be lazy, they can be short sighted, obtuse. But at least ask are they exasperated, being killed with that which was meant to give life?
*And I am speaking on genuinely macro levels here, all curriculum from a publishing house usually a prerecorded DVD or in a slight improvement taught by someone who glanced at the lesson the previous night before bed…
**Douglas Wilson, Father Hunger. I know, I know you are not supposed to say anything about him unless you are throwing bricks in his general direction. But as his has informed us that just means he will be scooting around to corner to celebrate his persecution with a very nice bottle of whiskey.