Churchgoing needs to be non-negotiable
very decent, sensible parent knows that when children get to a certain age – early adolescence, say – it’s time to give them the freedom to make their own choices about religion.
What every decent, sensible parent knows is wrong.
I shall demolish this decent, sensible idea in three arguments. Before we get to those, however, we need to agree on a premise.
If a parent doesn’t believe deciding whether to follow Jesus is centrally important, then what follows won’t convince. In fact, if you think your child quitting hockey or piano lessons is somehow worse than quitting church, we have to have a different conversation.
But if you believe life utterly depends on being rightly related to God and that the normal Christian life is lived in Christian community, then we can proceed.
First, no other decision of like magnitude is left up to children at this age. Not schooling, not driving, not voting, not drinking, not marrying.
If you’re going to insist – and you will – that your kids still eat decent meals, refuse illicit drugs, avoid sex and go to school, then keep insisting they accompany you to church and participate in the other activities appropriate to their age. (They may complain, of course, but they may complain about any of these other rules as well.)
Second, let’s be clear that our culture is now positively hostile to young people continuing to hold to orthodox Christian beliefs and practise a consistent pattern of Christian discipleship. Your child’s decision about going to youth group is not occurring in a neutral, free space.
Sunday is no longer distinctive in Canada, but is now just a second Saturday. Minor league sports, shopping, part-time jobs, all sorts of entertainment – everything roars on full blast in direct competition with the gentler, quieter offerings of church.
Almost nothing on mainstream entertainment and social media supports a full range of Christian ethical values, let alone explicit discipleship to Jesus Christ as Lord. When do we ever see someone there who prays, goes to church, reads the Bible or deliberates over a major decision in consultation with a trusted pastor? Most of the virtual world young people inhabit nowadays is bereft of God, the Bible and the Church. Most of the time it fosters values in direct contradiction to what Christians believe and practise.
Religious communities succeed in retaining their youth if they invest in youth.
How then do you expect young people to even know, let alone commit themselves to, Christian truth? Who are their actual teachers? What are they being taught? What is being praised to them as virtuous and mocked to them as silly or stupid or sinful? Better keep them in church for at least a few hours a week against the constant din of sub-Christian or even anti-Christian messaging.
Third, keeping kids in church actually works. Not always, of course, and not for everyone. But scholarly studies of youth and religion in Canada have shown for decades that religious communities succeed in retaining their youth if they invest in youth, and they expect their young people to engage in what they provide for them – good Sunday schools, good youth groups, good summer camps, good music, good reading, and good staff and volunteers in each of these.
Who does this the best? Evangelicals. Who has the most to show for it? Evangelicals.
The shadow side of this reality, however, is that those who do not provide for their young people and urge them to participate in those provisions imperil their religious allegiance. Young people, like any other people, need constant reinforcement of good values against bad, good beliefs against bad, the reality of the gospel against the alternatives on every hand.
A new book by University of Waterloo sociologist Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme restates the academic consensus. "This choice-based approach … often ends up leading to a more secular upbringing, often despite the best intentions of parents.… Without parents or other key socializing agents [such as youth groups and camps] signaling the value of religious and spiritual matters in daily life, it is rare for children to spontaneously pick up an interest for such matters on their own."
And it will be equally hard to maintain such an interest if parents let their kids choose to quit.
So don’t let them.
John Stackhouse is professor of religious studies at Crandall University. Find more of these columns at www.FaithToday.ca/ChristAndCulture.