My parents did me a great favor when I was a kid, they sent me and my sister to a pretty horrible Baptist Church across the street from Chino High School. I do not know why that was their pick. I do not remember one word from them about why we were there. But even though they never darkened the door unless I was in some kind of performance, one of them usually got up and took us to Sunday school. Usually we even “stayed for church” because we found it quite amusing.
I found out later they had been very burned by a nasty church split when they were first married and it soured them on Jesus and the whole church thing. That is a sad, often-repeated story — repeated by others of course, my parents guarded their own soul-wounds religiously. There are a few things my parents did not give me that can still burn me if I blow on the embers. But there is one thing they gave me that was inestimably more valuable than they expected: the church.
Protecting kids from the church
Being raised in a family where mom and dad were visibly not Christians and where Jesus was only mentioned in relation to a curse, I have repeatedly felt the need for more education when it comes to what it feels like to have Christian parents. Over and over, I run into thirtysomethings who want to make sure their kids are not bored in church, who are channeling their own bad experience of being obligated to something their clueless parents perpetrated on them, or who have been wounded in many ways they are afraid their kids will experience. I keep listening because I have so little natural empathy, since my recollection of the church at which I was dropped off is that it was about a hundred times worse than anything Circle of Hope could fall into. Yet it was in that very imperfect, even unorthodox and sometimes damaging community that I met Jesus at a very early age. I can’t imagine why they think depriving their children of the community in which they will learn faith, or even protecting them from it, is a good strategy.
Most parents I know act like school is inviolable, since getting into better schools on the basis of your past record is supposedly going to give you your best life. If they sign up their child for a sports team it is a covenant they must keep, so no matter when the game is or where it happens, the child must be there. Dance, musical instrument, tae kwon do, all sorts of enrichment activities fill up most of the week and the activity schedules dictate what is happening in the family. It all looks very religious to me. But if the church seems demanding, that’s an obligation that feels intolerable! There are a lot of reasons for that feeling and please know that I understand plenty of people have never felt it. But I keep running into it, which leads me to my main purpose for writing.
Don’t deprive the child of their church
As a follower of Jesus and as a person with my unique experience, I say that the best thing you can do for your child is give them a church. They need to grow up in an environment where they can learn faith. Here are my reasons for saying that, for now:
1) Your family is not enough
I have acquaintances who rely on their parents in Lancaster to come in and sit with their children while they do something together (and it is rare they do something as a result). They are on their way to isolating their kids in their nuclear family instead of training them to live in the extended family of the church. They undermine the sense that the church is a family in Christ by refusing to let it happen. They can’t even work out a mutual babysitting arrangement. I think that is a very practical way they deny Jesus his demand that he be more important than the family from which they came. Their children will likely keep their distance from Jesus and the church, too. Children need to be raised in a village and Jesus should be the leader of it. It is short-sighted parenting to think you have everything your child needs in the “relative” category. They need to be born into the body of Christ and surrounded with the grace of God, first and foremost.
2) Culture matters
What is my identity? In Western culture that has become a standard question children need to answer. Queer theorists may talk us out of this before long, but until then children must decide: male/female, gay/straight, what color, what place among the school cliques, even what political stripe. The place they get their Christian character is certainly in your family, but it is actualized in the church. If they never feel like they are part of an alternative community centered on Christ, they will probably join another community that is centered on themselves, or some identity they have adopted.
Making the community of the church is a parental top priority — at least if they want to raise children who can live life with Jesus. I am often amazed at what parents will give their children over to while they lightly visit a church, one they may not even claim as their own. What kind of child will come of that? Will they join the Fortnight community or Eagles Nation?
3) Lifetime assumptions form early on.
What is the meaning of life? That question will eventually be asked by your child. Even if they have consistent, loving Christian parents, they will still have to ask the question and get a decent answer for themselves (or get used to their despair). I thank God Mrs. Elrod often drove out to get me for Sunday school when my parents were indisposed or sick of it all (I can’t remember which caused her to appear). Sunday school was not that great, but Mrs. Elrod making me feel worthy of her effort, her undeserved service, made an indelible impression. I still remember what her front seat feels like! Her behavior spoke to me in deeper ways than her lessons. Children need a lot of opportunity to pick up grace assumptions in the church and plenty of acceptance as they mull them over.
4) It is your duty as a parent
I have already said this, but I wanted it to have its own bullet. Building the church is the responsibility of everyone who follows Jesus. We are, by our redeemed nature, bricks in the temple of the Holy Spirit. Each of us have value and cannot be replaced. The energy we bring to the redemption project of Jesus is multiplied far beyond our personal efforts by God and by the community we tend. In these times especially, children need to learn community, since they are being trained to sit alone in front of a screen all day, among other things. It is your duty as a parent to give them a chance to be saved from whatever they presently face and what will come. That salvation will come from a deeper place than just a resilient capacity to have their own mind. They will need the strength of a loving, Spirit-filled community to help them
5) You child needs to see mom and dad follow Jesus.
It is great when a child is teachable. But I think they mostly they get what is caught, not taught. Some people think they are wrecking their family because mom goes to her cell meeting once a week and dad puts the kids to bed. I think it would be fine to tell your two year old, “Mama is going to build the church. I follow Jesus and I hope you will too, one day. I am going to make sure I build you a strong community so you can become your true self. There is nothing more important to me than following Jesus. He is the source of all the love I have for you.” I think it is good for a child to know that the family is moving according to something outside the family — namely Jesus is leading them. If Jesus is not making the family, what will the child learn about who makes family? And if they ever read the Bible, what will they make of Ephesians 3?
Start now, even if you don’t have children yet
If the church is not good enough, reform it for the sake of your children, don’t leave it up to someone else. If you end up in a place where there is no church, make one; it is the vehicle for the work of Jesus in the world and your children need it. If you feel overwhelmed and want to hole up in your house with your shower gifts for four years until the baby releases their grip on you, have some vision, that child needs a healthy Christian parent, not merely a servant of their desires. The best time for the child to have a church is when they are 5-8 and forming some very important foundations for their later days. Make sure they have one. If your friend just had a baby and you can’t figure out what to do for them, give their baby a church, for Christ’s sake! I know people use that as a curse, so I am being cute, but it means “on account of Jesus” or “in light of the purpose of Christ.” We’re working with Jesus to prepare the way for the baby to walk into fullness of life when we build her a church.
I am happy Faith Breunle, Charlie Brake and Paul Woodward were around when I was in Jr High to demonstrate to me that Christians existed in the real world. To be honest, they were not that great of teachers or examples, as I look back. But periodically, I met up with their heart – the one that motivated them to keep making this crazy little church to which my unbelieving parents attached me. They opened up my imagination for what I might become and build. By most objective observation, what they were doing was very ineffective. But that ineffective thing was very effective when it came to me. I don’t think Jesus needs a great church. The little church in Chino created and lived in an environment where Jesus was assumed and honored. I wandered into that. They probably thought I was a weird kid, coming from those heathen parents, and all. I’m still a weird kid, only I know Jesus and that has made my life possible.
Maybe your kids won’t all be uniformly faithful. Trust cannot be coerced, can it? But I wouldn’t expect them to know Jesus if they don’t hang out around him. He’s in the body of Christ. It is being built all the time in every era with every new follower. If for no other reason, build it for your kids, for Christ’s sake!