I grew up as the consummate ‘church kid’. Family fellowship, youth group, praise team – I did it all, and I loved it all. For my immigrant family, our need for community was exclusively met through our church. And though my little-kid self had yet to understand and appreciate the eternal beauty and significance of God’s kingdom lived out through the local church, I loved my church for the simplest reason: I knew I belonged, because people welcomed me there.
During my late teen years, our church suffered a painful division, and my family left. But I never stopped desiring the picture of unity in Christ lived out as a collective, even if I didn’t yet have the words to articulate anything more than a yearning for a stable and peaceful community. When I got married and moved to the city where my husband went to medical school, the church he was attending gradually became “the one” for us.
Finding and staying at our church was a precious homecoming. We fully expected to raise our kids in our church and never questioned that they would love and cherish it too. Since their births, we brought our kids each Sunday, sunshine or snow, tantrums or smiles. We actively participated as a family wherever we could, looking forward to when our children would grow into their identity as members of this corner of God’s kingdom.
Resisting Church and Parents
Then came my daughter’s preteen years, which coincided with the world-shaking appearance of COVID. Our family felt the sting of the “new normal.” COVID’s effects on church life were more damaging than its effects on any other facet of our lives. Without the consistency of gathering bodily with our church family, it grew difficult to see and remember the God-ordained necessity and goodness of church. For my daughter, her fear of the unfamiliar, her anxiety with social interactions, and her feelings of disconnectedness overshadowed all else. By the time the pandemic receded and church was gathering consistently in person again, she had made up her mind: she hated going to church, and it was the absolute worst thing for her parents to force her to go.
Sundays became fraught with tension and discord as she expressed her dislike with tears and anger. Having served in youth ministry, I had seen the trajectory for kids who didn’t have a strong attachment to church, and it didn’t bode well. I wondered: what if my daughter becomes another number in the growing “dechurching” statistic? If she sees church as intolerable now, what hope does she have of loving church later? If she didn’t love church later, how can her eyes ever be opened to Jesus?
In the weekly decision of whether to hold the line or to “do church” at home, we struggled to discern which choice balanced what we knew to be good and true with grace for the big feelings she couldn’t control. My daughter claimed that we didn’t care about her feelings, we were wrong about what was good for her, and we were against her. We had entered into that uncomfortable parenting territory of being accused of being and doing the opposite of who we were and what we were trying to achieve.
It is here that we are reminded of the one who walked before us, who is well acquainted with being profoundly misunderstood. More than anyone, Jesus knows what it is to be seen as the opposite of who he is. He was accused of being demonic (Matt 12:24), of intentionally deceiving others with false claims, when his very nature is divinity and truth (John 14:6). Yet he was unflinching in his mission to secure for us what we could never attain for ourselves. He lived a sinless life of perfect righteousness that culminated at the cross, where he died to pay the penalty that sinners deserve (1Pet 2:24). He rose again in victory over sin and death, accomplishing with all sufficiency the salvation of his people (Rom 4:25).
Our kids are not saved by the most supportive Christian community, the greatest youth programs, or their demonstrations of the brightest enthusiasm for all things church-y. They’re not saved by their obedience to our most godly and wise instruction. No amount of mature insight or good behavior can contribute to their salvation (Rom. 9:16). Our children’s salvation, like yours and mine, has always wholly hung on the sufficiency of Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross – a complete, free gift of grace (Eph. 2:8, Heb. 7:25).
So parents of “I don’t like church” kids, let’s remember that in our Father’s world, blindness precedes sight for those he loves. As we rest in the comforting knowledge that Jesus did not stop at any length to redeem sinners, we can continue to train up our children to repent and trust Jesus by his power and in his time.
We can lean on the body of Christ, our beloved churches, whose leaders and members love our kids with a love not their own (1 John 4:11-12).
We can pray boldly for the fruit of repentance and faith that we want to see in our children.
We can pray in distress and worry and receive comfort and peace (Phil. 4:6-7).
We can pray for wisdom and practical help (James 1:5).
However we pray, we pray in faith to a Father who loves us and our children, who delights to give us the Spirit who empowers all these things (Luke 11:11-13).
All the while, we continue loving our not-yet-seeing children, pointing them to the gospel in all those ordinary ways, drawing our hope for their salvation from the bottomless well of Jesus’s finished work on the cross.
Indeed, we can trust God will finish what he started (Phil. 1:6).