Parents, Stop Sunday Schooling your Kids out of Church

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This will be the first installment of a two-part series. Tim Wright here and Jonathan Aigner here have significant ideas which are worth our attention in thinking through our “theology of the church” with respect to the participation of children and students in the life of the church. 

Tim Wright notes the shift the western church has made over the last 40 years to enculturate kids with their own programs. Unfortunately, one of the unintended consequences of this increasingly ubiquitous model of the church in North America is that many young people are losing — and have forever lost — any meaningful touch points with the rest of the congregation. He argues that by segregating our kids out of worship, we never fully assimilated them into the life of the congregation: “They had no touch points.  They had no experience. They had no connection with the main worship service—its liturgy, its music, its space, its environment, and its adults. It was a foreign place to them.”[1] 

Not coincidentally, once kids finished with the children or student ministries departments of the church….many simply left the church as young adults.  Former youth group kids, now in their 20s and 30s, figured, “Hey, my parents dropped me off at sports. My parents dropped me off at piano.  My parents dropped me off at church.”

But now?  Young adults can easily connect the dots:  “Now, I don’t play sports; now, I don’t play piano. I guess church was in the same category – a passing fancy of my childhood, an age-appropriate activity to eventually out-grow.” 

Over the last 40 years, children and students have enjoyed tailor-made programs suited to engage them, persuade them, and woo (and wow) them to become Christians. Yet we didn’t raise them, teach them, show them, or disciple them to become Churched Christians. Perhaps that reason, in part, is why so few of the next generation attend church today; they’ve graduated out of the church we gave them.  As Tim Wright expresses it, “We’ve essentially ‘Sunday-Schooled’ them out of church—because we never assimilated them into church.  We never ‘church-broke’ them.”

 Five Guiding Thoughts for Parents

(1)   A Foreign Language of Worship?  If “worship services” are a foreign language to our kids by the time they turn 12 (and even more so by 18)…“Houston, we have a problem”.  Kids are more likely never to come back to participate meaningfully in a congregation if their discipleship is forever and only “age appropriate”.    

(2)   Discipleship Untethered to Congregational Life?  In trying to raise disciples of Christ, we must remember that disciples untethered to congregational life is an oxymoron both scripturally (as we read the Old & New Testaments) and historically (as we look back on the history of the church).  In fact, I’d argue that any Christian who is growing in his love of Jesus, will also be growing in his love for the body of Christ (for whom Christ died). 

(3)   What’s the Real Problem?  The main problem why children or teens fight their parents about church is not the church, nor the preaching, nor the style of music, nor the architecture.  Nor is it helpful for the parent to shift the blame onto the institutional church (i.e. “the church doesn’t meet our children or teenagers where they are”).  The real problem is a combination of: 

  • (a)   the foolishness and hardness of heart of our children or teenagers.  Simply put, many are not mature enough to recognize what they really need spiritually.  In this sense, children and teenagers are like all of us – rebellious sinners in need of grace.  AND/OR

  • (b)  our parenting which capitulates to the desires and whims of our children.  Parents often (too easily) give up the fight which occurs in the heart of the family for producing mature disciples of Jesus Christ.  AND/OR

  • (c)   parents effectively communicate through their actions that church is marginal to life.  Often, the church becomes a secondary or tertiary “thing we do” after football or soccer, band or scouts.  Parents effectively communicate to their children: everything else is more important for your life – school, homework, sports, instruments – than you attending both the worship service (1 hour) with your family and receiving age-appropriate teaching in Sunday school (1 hour) on a Sunday morning.   

 (4)   Disciplined Faithfulness Reaps Great Rewards:  What if kids and parents attended church together 40 times over the course of the next year?  (Think:  200 times from ages 8 – 12.)

As a parent, you’d have frequent congregational touch-points to talk about faith in the home.  Your kids would frequently see the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the ordination of elders, the welcome of new members, and the laying on of hands (in prayer).  They would pray for the health of the sick and comfort for families experiencing loss. Their ears would tingle at the exciting missionary reports from India or Africa about the growth of the Gospel. Slowly, they’d begin to develop a theological and spiritual vocabulary consisting of words like Trinity and Tithing, Grace and Gospel, Sacraments and Salvation.

These experiences of worship intersect in vital ways in the home. Precious points of doctrine can be explained. “Congregational memories” can be imprinted on the soul of your child. Slowly, your child’s congregational muscles begin to be formed — muscles which, when fully grown and developed — are some of the strongest muscles in our body for establishing and anchoring our life of discipleship.

By God’s grace, your child just might develop the attitude that participating in congregational worship is simply “something that we always do as a family,” which just might yield fruit into young adulthood and beyond. 

(5) Good Things are often Hard Things (at first).  In high school, I did not much enjoy reading Shakespeare or Homer, but I did so because it was good for me.  It forced me to stretch my imagination, my poetry, my reading level, and my general appreciation and enjoyment of literature. But now? I’d love an afternoon at the beach reading Shakespeare if such a time were gifted to me!

I also remember pounding my fists in anger on our family’s piano countless times growing up when I was age 8, 10, and 12 when my mom “forced” me to play piano.  But now?  I often sit down and play the piano for 45 minutes just for fun.

What if we parents had the same resolve for church that we did for soccer, drama, school, and music? We give countless hours to sports or music, but often fail to display the same resolve or commitment to church. It would be profitable for us, as parents, to simply ask: Why? (While…gulp…remembering that eternity is at stake.)

Final Story

I remember when our oldest son Kenyon was seven years old.  One day, after the worship service in Edinburgh, he remarked:  “Why does the pastor talk about ‘The Gospel’ all the time?”  (I was a student at the University of Edinburgh and not a pastor at this time.)  He didn’t understand everything from the church service at his young age, but that day (and many more like it) were moments that we had to shepherd our child’s heart, explain Christian truths, and bring the truths of Christ further into our home.  Congregational life was reinforcing home life in a way that was deepening and awakening spiritual truths in our young boy.

Is this challenging?  You bet.  Is it hard?  Sometimes.  Is it worth it?  You bet!  (Are these hard words for a pastor to write? Yes!)

In the next installment, I promise to do more encouraging — by delving into the ways your church wants to come alongside you to equip you on this hard road of parenting and its intersection with discipleship in the life of your child.

As your pastor, let me encourage you to continue to fight the good fight that exists in the home to form disciples of Jesus Christ. Go get ‘em!

How do I practically work this out? What does all this mean for my family in our congregation? We’ll delve into the practicalities in Part 2 of the series…

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[1] See Tim Wright, “Sunday Schooling our Kids out of Church”, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/searchingfortomsawyer/2014/08/sunday-schooling-our-kids-out-of-church/.

Jason Carter