An old family picture shows how my parents dressed me on Sundays. Plaid pants. Stop-sign plaid. My legs looked like two, tall thermos bottles, those tartan flasks that came with 1950’s picnic baskets. Wool pants and a tweed jacket soaking up North Carolina sunshine and my sweat.
A recent wave of young couples returning to church reminds me of that picture. The weight of responsibility for their children as souls is sinking in. Grimy dogs of popular culture seem to be pawing at the doors of childhood earlier and earlier—porn, substance abuse, ethical ambiguity. Maybe church will form some kind of spiritual teflon coating and all that other stuff will just slide right off them?
“I had a bad experience”
But other young parents remember a heavier hand on them at church. Not just tweed but a moral straight-jacket. “There’s no way I’m doing that to my kids,” they say. Many such parents have been exposed to a weak strain of faith, like a flu shot injecting a dead virus. Lifeless moralism or anxious activism inoculated them against the real thing.
However, for some millennial parents, any excuse all will do to avoid the inconvenience of another early-morning struggle with shoes, socks and seatbelts.
“We’ll get into that pattern sometime.
“Church will always be there.”
“We can make up for it later.”
On the contrary, the local church often seems like a canoe with too many people not paddling, who assume its motion comes from sliding along an invisible current.
But how much should you push as a family to plug everyone in? Even if you have warm memories of friends, acoustic guitars, pizza, and missions trips, many parents still wonder. Let’s look at a couple poor motives, and then consider the only winning reason to make the effort.
Bad motive #1: Conservative moralism
When our kids were young my wife and I toured a Christian school. The guide made an off-hand remark that, “Our students learn quickly that God is always watching.” Didn’t sound like a warm fuzzy comment like, “His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me.” It was more like a celestial traffic cop, looking down from the clouds and ready to blow the whistle at any moment.
Take care if you only view church in terms of moral foundations. Like a backstop in case you’re not doing enough at home. If church is just for outcomes, if you’re driven only for the golden egg of good behavior, they will notice a gap. A gap in authenticity. You can con a con and your can fool a fool, but you can’t kid a kid. If your heart isn’t in it, they will lose heart too.
Leveraging church for good behavior is a bad idea. It centers faith upon values rather than beliefs. It fails to inspire kids to see the wonder of purpose behind morality. Morals are the fruit of genuine, meaningful faith, not the root. And rules without relationships lead to rebellion.
Bad motive #2: Liberal activism
On the other hand, young progressive parents sometimes view church only in terms of justice causes. They want their children to have a social conscience and expect they’ll get it by osmosis in worship or youth group service projects. But if church is just a civic center, kids hear a lot of what they should care about without ever connecting it to why.
Some progressives worry their kids will take faith too seriously and end up in sandals in the dust of a developing country. Or that they’ll start becoming embarrassingly personal about the whole thing. They’d prefer simply to keep things in separate boxes, where good deeds and social circles hardly overlap.
A subtle noblesse oblige can creep into civic-center churches. “Let them eat cake.” There’s good intent to share ones extras, but such compartmental activism can just reinforce social hierarchy in the name of charity. Activism disconnected from relationship turns into a quick fix. It’s a way to assuage guilt, but not a patient course toward long-term solutions.
Know your why
Children need leadership to frame life meaningfully. The Great Commission is not just about “teaching” but about “teaching them to obey.” But how can you keep it from devolving back into dead moralism or guilt-ridden activism?
“It’s a sin to bore a kid with the Gospel.” – Jim Rayburn
In the days of the early church, Christianity began to flood the Roman Empire like an underground aquifer. Pagan communities around churches experienced Christians as generous and engaged, not withdrawn in moral panic. Local churches faced outward as a natural consequence of what they were learning. Their gestures suggested human life is sacred, not just a commodity.
Just a mustard seed
The narrative of scripture centering that kind of faith community has a simple summary: creation, fall, redemption, restoration. It’s a story framing life in meaning. It provides a place to live with the mysteries of the great questions: Where did we come from, what’s wrong with the world, and what direction leads to healing and hope?
The heart of this narrative is a certain kind of love. The unconditional kind that wants what is best for another. When just a mustard seed of it gets into a life, anxious self-centeredness starts fading and a different kind of motive begins to rise. Thomas Aquinas described it centuries ago. Love “wills the good.” With this motive, conservatives face outward in ways that connect and progressives look beyond the quick fix.
Children can experience their parents’ authentic faith, meaningfully. They may not be willing to wear tweed. But let them sense that when you’re making the effort with shoes, socks, and seat belts, at least you know why.
“One generation shall commend your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts,” Psalm 145:4.