I had lunch the other day with one of the 80 year-old “shut-ins” in one of my congregations. It was a routine visit, primarily just to check up on her since I hadn’t seen her in a while. She sweetly asked if I could bring over a pizza because she had been “craving it for a couple of weeks now.” That probably gives you an indication of the kind of person she is; needless to say, I really enjoy our visits and I often walk away with little nuggets of wisdom.
As what typically happens with all my visits to my older congregations, the topic of conversation wandered towards the lack of young people in the church, and their reflection on their own children and grandchildren’s journey back to the church….or distance from it. In the midst of our conversation, this wonderful, sweet lady reported to me her son and his family finally had found a church they were comfortable in, after years of searching. “I’m happy for them,” she said.
And then she offered one of those nuggets of wisdom I so value, “My son always told me when he was growing up and even into adulthood how I never gave him the choice to go to church or not. But I told him, how could you ever make a choice if you didn’t have a reference to choose from? By making you go and participate in the church, I was giving you that reference…so you knew what you’d be choosing later on.”
By not giving her son a choice….she gave him a gift – the freedom to make an informed choice later on.
As someone who’s worked with youth and families, I see this desire to give their kids choice play out with parents. They let their kids decide if they want to participate or not – which is just the notion of faith being a personal choice being played out between parents and their kids. It was a personal choice for them…..so it stands it should be for their kids.
Parents, in case you didn’t know, you are the most influential persons when it comes to your son or daughter’s faith life. The NSYR, the largest study done on youth and faith, says this. There are lots of articles like this that reinforce that finding. And, there are Youth Ministry consultants like Rich Melheim at Faith Incubators that will tell you the same thing. Shoot, even ask your local youth director or youth pastor. You get the point: you have influence over your kids’ faith formation. If it’s important to you, then it will be important to them.
But I think most parents still want their kids to choose. Parents these days don’t want to be those overbearing figures in their kids’ lives, making their kids do something that actually is only important to them. No parent wants to be that psycho parent that we often see in the stands and sidelines of sporting events, pushing their kid the whole time while their kid simply hates it and goes through the motion – only to quit once they have the freedom to do so. Parents think the same about their kids and church too, I believe.
Yet, what if parents understood, like this 80 year-old congregant of mine, that not giving their kid the choice to attend church now actually will equip them to make an informed, intelligent choice later on? For her, it wasn’t an imposition on her son; it was exposing him to the witness and testimony of what the church is and can be for his life. Through the church, she hoped her son would see the role the church plays in testifying and embodying God’s presence and ongoing work in his life. By insisting her son be exposed to the church, he would know what church was all about, so that he could make that choice for himself and for his family later on.
I think such a message to parents does two things: one, it empowers them to make a choice for their children while still maintaining that freedom of choice for them. It empowers them to live into what all the studies and experts tell us about parents’ importance in the faith formation of their kids. Yet there is also another message, one I think that might be more powerful: two, it demands that the church’s role in youth ministry is primarily about testimony and witness rather than assimilating youth into the beliefs, rituals, and practices of the church in order to gain their loyalty later on. Think about it: if youth and family ministry is about the latter, then we actually end up not giving our kids a choice at all…..and in a culture where choice is valued by parents and kids alike – they might just walk away for good.
The former, however, becomes and invitation to come and see. We don’t know how and if their experience of church will take hold in their lives at the present, but we trust the Holy Spirit to work in them, and when the moment happens, in that prior experience of witness and testimony…….they will be equipped to make a choice.