Last week, one of the great young dads in my church sent out to his fellow young dads a link to a blog post, and copied me in: Top Ten Reasons Our Kids Leave Church (from here forward called “the post”). Naturally, as guys who currently have kids in pre- and elementary school, they hope that their little ones aren’t counted in that number one day.
I’m pretty certain I wasn’t copied in the email because I was being called out, but after reading the post, I found it interesting that the author seemed to be placing the bulk of the blame at the doorstep of the church.
I’ve pondered the post for a few days and, at the risk of sounding like a defensive church leader, I’d like to present my own Top Ten list. My reason for presenting this list is to combat the notion that the church is solely responsible for our kids leaving the church. Certainly, any and every church gets things wrong. But the fact is, there are just way more things threatening the faith of our kids than there used to be. Thankfully, the church has taken great steps to adapt. Relevant worship. Community. Video clips for teaching. These are not reasons kids leave the church, as the author of the post would have you believe. Rather, I find them to be important efforts to keep kids connected.
This isn’t a full critique to the post or even a point-by-point response. Rather, it’s just a few thoughts for young parents from a guy who grew up in the church, serves in the church, and has raised his own kids in the church (and far from perfectly in all cases, by the way).
So, I humbly submit my own list: “Top Ten Reasons This Kid Stayed in Church.”
1. My parents were heavily involved in church, and they made me go with them.
Let’s face it, when I was a kid, especially before the days of kid-focused Sunday morning programming, church was boring. Not because the pastor was, or the liturgy was, or anything else was. It was because I was a KID! I was too young to get it, and when you don’t get it, you don’t wanna go. Mom and Dad took me anyway.
2. My parents hung out with church friends outside of church.
My parents’ closest friends were their friends from church. So our families hung out together a lot. Their boys became my best friends, so on Sundays as I got into middle school, I began wanting to go to church to see them. Not the most spiritual of reasons, but it worked.
3. My pastor had a vision for more relevant worship.
The first reason in the aforementioned post that kids have left the church is: “The Church is Relevant.” Seriously? I have to confess that this first point biased me against the rest of the post. I am a pastor today because the church was relevant! In the seventies, it was risky to bring a guitar and a flute into the sanctuary (quit snickering, young dads), but my pastor did it. He left the pulpit to talk to us. What was once stuffy and boring began to have an affect on me because of its relevance. And my path to ministry began.
4. We only had three channels.
NBC. ABC. CBS. Oh, and PBS when you got the rabbit ears just right. It may sound silly, but the fact is, there was an extremely limited offering on television. Not to mention we only had one TV! So we watched programming together as a family, and it wasn’t stuff that rots your brain. Just one generation later, my kids have had access to more garbage than I can even get a grasp on. I won’t try to dictate television protocol to young parents. I’m just saying, it’s different today. And like it or not, stuff on TV can and will threaten the faith lives of your kids.
5. Ditto with music.
When I was in the formative stages of life, music came from a radio or a record. In either case, my parents were fully aware of what I was listening to because it was played publicly and out loud. There weren’t personal digital music devices with their own earbuds for each person on the planet. Being the Apple junkie I am, I can listen to music privately on my iPod, my iPad, my iPhone or my mac at any given moment. I can stream content – even explicit – from the web 24/7. Gone are the days of my sister and me gathered with friends in our family guest room, entertaining ourselves for hours by listening to our parents’ old vinyl, with mom listening to it all downstairs. Again, it’s different today.
6. Everyone I knew went to church.
Or at least they claimed one. In the sixties and seventies, the most radical people in the country to me were hippies. And they lived across the country. I grew up in suburban America where Christmas was still called Christmas, where the greatest enemies of the Lutherans were the Baptists, where my sixth grade teacher taught me to pray the Lord’s Prayer in sign language. Those days are long gone. America, while having always been a melting pot (and that’s a good thing, as far as I am concerned), now comes in way more flavors, especially religious ones. Like it or not, we are not a Christian nation, and while we may profess Christ, we must understand that our neighbors may not. That wasn’t true in my childhood. It is now. Which means that our kids are exposed to a lot of other beliefs vying for their affinity. And a simple friendly conversation can begin a challenge to the faith of our kids that we never intended.
7. I spent high school and college in a small group.
The author of the of the post seems to speak negatively about community. I can’t quite figure out his thinking, but I can’t over-emphasize that if I had NOT had Christian community during those years, I don’t know where I would be. But I certainly wouldn’t be writing this post. For the seven years of being an adolescent male with all that accompanies that, I got together every week with other guys like me, and we strove together to learn scripture, pray together, and model Christ. Ultimately, these guys became the groomsmen in my wedding, the godparents of my children, and I suspect, the pall bearers at my funeral one day. All because of small group community. For over 35 years now, these men have helped protect and inspire my relationship with Christ.
8. I had emotional experiences.
The post I am answering sets up ‘feelings’ as something negative, as something completely opposed to “external, objective, historical faith.” Frankly, I’m a big believer in that kind of faith. But why must that faith be mutually exclusive of a faith in which the Holy Spirit brings about – as John Wesley expressed it – a heart strangely warmed? I am as fierce a proponent of knowing the faith well with the mind as anyone you’ll meet. But without the heart, we have an academic pursuit and little more. I was blessed to attend Christ-centered retreats and discover Christ-focused music that drew me to the Lord in ways nothing else did.
9. I wasn’t exposed to the “gospel of health and wealth.”
In one regard, I am in full agreement with the post: Moralism and “Name it, Claim it” Christianity are NOT the gospel. I was not taught that being good gets me to heaven or that if I love God enough I will get whatever I ask for. I was taught the truth, that humanity is completely sinful and fallen and in need of a Savior. I was taught that life for Christians isn’t any easier than for non-Christians. In fact, I was taught that if I am serious about following Jesus, life could well be much more difficult. I wasn’t taught that, as a Christian, life is all about me, and that God stands ready to make much of me. I was taught that I exist to make much of God. There is a big difference. The reason this is important is that sooner or later, this theology will break down, leaving its adherents broken and disillusioned. And they will likely leave the church when that happens. Teach your kids the truth.
10. God has drawn me to Himself.
I don’t say this lightly: while the first nine reasons above have been important in my life, I truly believe that I am an active follower of Jesus in the context of a local church first and foremost by the grace of God. I could easily write another post called “Top Ten Reasons I Could Easily Not Be in Church Any More.” Throughout my life, while the above have been strong influences, they have always been at war with evil forces and influences contending for my soul. Without the amazing grace of God and his sovereign decision to have me where I am, I’m afraid that left to my own devices and decisions, I would not be where I am. Of course, this could quickly raise the question of why God is allowing his church to decline in America, why we are having to discuss the reasons our kids are leaving the church in the first place. But that’s for another time.
To you young parents: I hope at least something in my list resonates with you. You are raising your kids in a far different day than the one in which I grew up. Or in which even you grew up. The factors that threaten the future church-life – and more importably the salvation – of your kids are monumental compared to a generation or two ago. As your kids grow – if you aren’t there already – you will desire two things for them: their salvation and their happiness. In that order. Unfortunately, you can’t insure either one. But one thing you can do: try every way possible to impress upon your kids the gospel. If kids’ programming works, use it. If relevant worship works, do it. If traditional worship is better, do that. Lead by example. Make them do things they don’t want to do. And pray like crazy!
Finally, as you fight for the souls of your kids, know this: I am your biggest fan!