(Editor’s note: This is one of our all-time most read posts, written by the incomparable Miriam McKenney. During our transition between editors, we want to take a look at some posts that have been particularly of note to this community–both to refresh our memories and to celebrate all the ways we’ve grown together, the ways you’ve grown as families, and the ways you have grown in your own relationship to Jesus. We’re praying for and with you, as you continue to grow Christians day by day.–rachel jones)
It’s time to be completely honest: my family hasn’t been attending church regularly. After thirteen years, we decided we needed a break from our church, and our church needed a break from us. Over a year later, I’m ready for us to return. Will my family want to come with me?
Back in my day, there were no choices about going to church. My dad is an Episcopal priest. You went, or… actually, there was no or. We went. The end. Being forced to go to church caused me to rebel and not go anywhere regularly for many years, until we found our parish fourteen years ago. We were drawn in by the focus on outreach, and the large quantities of kids and families. Finally, I thought. A church I want to attend, and no one is making me go.
It didn’t take long for our priest to get me involved in church life. Within a couple of years, I was regularly working in the nursery, joined the choir. Then I was elected to the vestry, followed my girls through ten years of Godly Play as an instructor, helped with VBS, edited the church’s newsletter, and read lessons in church. My husband David was Treasurer, Finance Committee chair or member, you get the idea. And don’t get me started on how involved our oldest daughter Nia was in the church and diocesan youth programs. She ended up being a diocesan camp counselor.
Now, you may be thinking. What’s the problem? This all sounds great, and it’s what God would want for you: a solid faith community full of great people, a good priest, and excellent music. (Did I mention Howard Helvey?) What could go wrong? What did go wrong?
For one thing, after Godly Play, the youth program… wasn’t. There was “youth group,” but it was random, and poorly attended. It often felt both lacking and forced. My oldest suffered through, because she was highly involved on a diocesan level. But for my younger two, they wanted a solid youth group at our church. So, I did what I usually do – I volunteered to create and run a program. That didn’t work out.
After thirteen years, I felt over-involved and also strangely disconnected. The girls began grumbling on Sunday mornings. They felt displaced. It seemed to them like only the little kids mattered. I had to agree with them. All of us felt tired and used. I wanted a separation, and my family agreed.
Then, the unthinkable happened. Our priest announced he was leaving. Great, I thought. Now people are going to think we left because he’s leaving. Oh well, whatever. We went ahead and became those folks who only attend church on Christmas and Easter, with a random Sunday thrown in now and again.
The last few weeks on the couch with my injuries led me to an incredible realization. Ignoring the fact that we all decided not to go to church regularly, I had deprived my girls of a faith community. David and I are adults, and Nia is too, and we can make our own decisions, no matter how smart or stupid. But the girls are still young enough to need guidance, and I started to feel that I had failed them. Perhaps the strong-arm tactics of my parents, who gave us no opportunity to say no, was the right way to go after all. I can’t imagine my mom wanting to go to church every week, EVERY week, and yet she did it. I can’t help but ponder what I should have learned from that experience, and what I should learn from my more recent choices.
Perhaps I should learn that as parents, and as people, we’re all here doing the best we can with what we’ve been given. Our parents before us did the best they could. We all have to carry the cross of the generation before us. How we do that impacts the choices we make as parents, and those choices will cause our children to face similar choices. What will they do when they have kids of their own? That’s what I can’t stop thinking about.
Maybe I should learn to trust in my chosen faith community. What would be different about me if we had stayed? What would have stayed the same? I’ll never know. I do still feel good about my decision to take a break, but somewhere in the back of my mind, I hear a voice calling me back to church. Could it be my Facebook churchgoers, gently urging me to return? Is it my non-Facebook parishioners who sent me cards while I was recovering, saying that they missed me? Maybe. Or maybe it’s God in all of those voices. Maybe this whole process has been spirit led, and the spirit is now leading me back to church.
Should you make your kids go to church? I know what my mom would say: she’d say yes. As for me, I’m not so sure. I will say that if you find joy at church, take your kids. If the joy begins to fade, explore that as a family. Work through it. Consider their feelings and opinions, but remember – you’re the adult. Trust that you’ll make the best decision for them, and for you, that you can.
Pray and meditate about your decision. Talk to God, and take time to listen to what God has to say to you. Remember that God’s voice may come from the mouths of your children, your friends, your colleagues, and your enemies. Read your favorite scripture. I pray that wherever you are in your relationship with God in community, that you are at peace. I’m not, and I plan to fix that.
Do you attend church regularly with your children? How is it going?
If you need to make a change, how do you work through it?
It is an incredibly difficult time for my own family to find a church home for any number of reasons. Technology and being teenagers has made my children agitated and attention challenged. I’ve heard the phrase that Satan never works harder than on a Sunday morning. If I actually gave any power to the notion of Satan, I would say my own home applies.
As a woman, I have always struggled with how infrequently the Christian teachings can relate to my own life. I can only imagine how irrelevant it must be toward my teenaged girls. So, instead of forcing anything, I’m often choosing to show my faith and God’s works to the girls these days.
Getting them to volunteer or help other people seems to be a more effective lesson these days. Also, I’ve made the case that understanding the Bible, and its references, are essential toward their secular education, as Biblical references are laced throughout their literature, history, and social studies.
Lately, the girls have shown interest in attending Catholic services, as we have moved to a new town that is largely Roman Catholic. I know they are doing it for social reasons. Also, it’s an exercise in exposing them to a dogma that I–as a young Catholic myself–chose ultimately chose to decline. Still, getting to that church every Sunday is the path of least resistance these days. So we endure.
Already they are asking me very interesting questions that I suspect will be beneficial in the long run. Thus, I expect many interesting conversations in the coming weeks, and will be open to whatever other avenues God provides to influence my girls.
However it can be done, right?
I’m a Godly Play trainer in Australia and I love it. But I wonder if it is so good that children find it hard to leave it. The storytelling and wondering and responding takes you so deep that other programs seem shallow in comparison. We’re exploring Godly Play for youth, multi generation settings and with elders. I hope you’ve been able to keep connecting with the beautiful words and practices of Godly Play.
That was a hard one for me. I grew up Catholic, but the sort where skipping church without letting Grandma know was a science. I do chose to attend church, but my local church offers very little to children and my husband isn’t religious and doesn’t attend, so after a while they stated wanting to stay home, too. I stopped making them go unless my husband was working Sunday mornings. What really got me is that was a decision I made over a year ago and the first question everyone asks at church is still, “Where are the kids? ” Not “How are you?” or even “How’s your family?” And of course there’s a look when I reply, “At home with their dad.” Needless to say I’m finding myself attending a lot less, too. I’d like to be valued for myself at church and not just my ability to drag kids along.
Wow, Holly, i hear you about not feeling valued for YOU being there – we are people first, not moms first. What great feedback! Thanks.
I grew up unchurched and was baptized as an adult. I remember longing to go to church as a child. I had a lot of curiosity about religion in general. I read the bible by myself. Now I have 3 kids of my own, and I can’t seem to communicate to them what drew me to the Church. They hate going to church. They hate Sunday school. Every Sunday morning is a battle and we all end up grouchy and stressed out.
We’ve taken a step back from church, due to a number of circumstances. Every priest drums into our heads constantly that we need Christian community. But sometimes a mediocre community is worse than no community. Sometimes I feel exhausted after another morning of cold shoulders and “are you new here?” even after I’ve spent over 7 years at a parish, served on the vestry, done pastoral visits at nursing homes (sometimes visiting the parents of the same people who ask if I’m “new here”). Sometimes reflection and contemplation away from church is not a bad thing. I’d rather see my kids seek out things that interest them about Christianity than force it on them in such a way that they want to reject it as adults.
Nurya Love Parish says
I’m glad you found your way to Grow Christians. We’re no substitute for an in-the-flesh church, but here we are trying to figure out how to communicate the faith to our kids in such a way that they find it meaningful and relevant. I hope you return. I am so sorry that your experience in your local church wasn’t helpful to you communicating the faith to your children. Praying for you, and for them, and for the church you’ve stepped away from.
Nica, I hear you. You’ve named some real issues we have in the church. One thing i can’t stand, for example, is being over-welcomed. Makes me never want to return! I pray you find a good community, because you’re right – no community is better than a mediocre one. Peace to you and yours.
Fran Ota says
As long as we focus on attendance, and not living the teachings outside our doors, it’s a no go. It may sound simplistic, but Jesus and his followers had no church, although they did attend synagogue and temple. But the ministry was carried on right where they were, and did t worry about or even encourage ‘attendance’. My kids have each found their own path – one attends church, the others different faith groups. My husband is an atheist from a Buddhist family. I believe church attendance/survival of our traditional ways of church are less important than what people believe about others, and how they treat others. Living what we believe right where people are in their living, every day, is much more important.
Nurya Love Parish says
I don’t hear the author focusing on attendance for its own sake, but rather recognizing that practicing faith includes engaging in worship. It’s hard to be the church – the body of Christ – in the world without being part of the gathered body at worship on a regular basis. Heck, I find it hard to be the body of Christ in the world even as a regular participant in common worship! In an age where the teachings and practices of the church are at risk due to continued decline in engagement, I appreciate that Miriam wants to raise her kids to keep them going. When I was a child being raised with no religion, I needed an anchor for meaning and purpose. The church taught me a language for God and a set of practices to know and serve God. I do what I do now (with this site and my other ministry) so that our language and practices survive for future generations – not necessarily for the kids currently inside our walls, but for the kids now beyond them to discover in the years to come.
Forcing anyone to go to church I believe, is never the answer. I am really not sure what the answer is, but I do believe it is important to attend church as a family while you have that opportunity. There are many reason young people choose to stop going to church. I continue to pray that our child ( now an adult) that doesn’t attend church very often will realize the comfort, support and love that you receive from having a church family means as you grow older. The older I get the more I realize what a blessing my Church family is.
I’m never about filling pews or Sunday school classes for no good reason; I’m about there being community, not matter how small or big. For me, it’s about the desire, the longing, to be in a place that fills you as a result of the community and as a result of the Trinity. Thanks for your feedback, I appreciate it.
Fran, you’re right – it’s not about numbers, it’s about quality of the experience. My family has church in the woods sometimes. I love your words here: “Living what we believe right where people are in their living, every day, is much more important.” Thanks for your comment!
These days, people go to church, because they want to, not because they are pressured by external forces, whether their families or society. Those who have had a life changing experience with Jesus Christ, which he deemed the “birth from above” in John 3, have internal motivation. Having had that experience, the Holy Spirit then grafts you into the church, the body of Christ. Those who have experienced the “birth from above” and have become “a new creation” as the Apostle Paul put it in 2 Cor. are much more likely to stick with church attendance and worship, even if they change congregations or even denominational affiliation.
Great points! Thanks.
D. B. Lear says
My family story has a different take. Our five kids were regular church goers with variations in enthusiasm. I should explain this particular event was 35 years ago when our youngest daughter was confirmation age. Our priest was a dear man but very ‘old school’ and didn’t approve of women clergy. When our daughter was confirmed this priest said, “Now the boys will be acolytes and the girls will be altar guild.” Our girl said, But I’ve always wanted to be an acolyte!” “No” said he, “The boys will be acolytes and the girls will be altar guild.” She never went back.
You hit the nail on the head. Our kids need to feel included on their terms. Wow. I’m so sorry that happened to your daughter. You’ve made me appreciate my dad, who while old school, appreciated my desire to be an acolyte. So i was the first female acolyte at our church!
Alan Cowart says
There’s a certain vulnerability in saying No. Thanks for sharing!
That’s so true regarding vulnerability. Thank you!
Very well written. We do not attend regularly for many reasons. We still pray at home and have conversations that involve God, Jesus and how we should live our lives. We may not attend every Sunday but have also gone during the week for pancake suppers and to support other events in the church community. Regular Sunday attendance is not what is required for our family.
What I love though is that our children ask to go to church or when the next time is we’ll go. I pray that never changes – them wanting and asking to go.
Yes! I love the asking to go! That means there’s something there that draws them, something they feel connected to. That’s what church should be. Thanks for sharing this, Margaret.
Janice Douglas says
I come across this all the time as a former Sunday School teacher and current Warden. My kids came with me pretty much every Sunday unless they had a good reason not to. (I never considered sleeping in to be a good reason). It helped that they had a lot of friends in Sunday School. It also helped that they were generally compliant kids. Not all are. But as they got older, other things took precedence, namely work (teaching swimming lessons). And here’s the irony, I consider church to be mandatory, much like swimming lessons. Our kids had to learn how to swim, full stop. We wanted them to be safe in the water and able to teach other kids when they were older. A lot like church. It provided them a way to be safe in the water and teach others when they were older. I am confident church will play the role it’s supposed to play for them in their lives as they grow completely independent of us.
Janice, what a great analogy, church and swimming! Both have life saving properties, to be sure! I have a friend with four kids who swam competitively, and it meant missing some church. But when they weren’t swimming, they were at church on Sunday. I’m going to share this with her – she was my Godly Play teaching partner.
Grace Smith says
I think if you have to force your children to go to church, you’ve already failed at a critical step. The steps are: 1) convert your child–bring about love for love in response to the love of God and teach the necessity of repentance as the only thing necessary when we fail 2) catechize your child. I used a Baltimore catechism 6-8th grade omitting Romish things 3) pray with your family.
My mother tried to make us kids go to church. I was in love with the church because of my Lutheran school formation. But my younger brothers were living in a state of sin–and, of course, they got nothing out of church.
I do admit many people in my church lost interest in attending after a woman priest came. She was a excellent pastor and administrator, but people said the just didn’t get what they used to out of the service. (Theologically, we would say it was an inavalid Eucharist.) But the effect in the non-theologically trained people was simply not to get joy and nourishment anymore.
Thanks for your comments. I believe I’ve succeeded in raising kids who want to be where I am. They loved being at church until they felt it had nothing to do with them. Even if they didn’t love it, they would still go if we went. Peace to you.
Jeanne M. Rettig says
Florine Postell says
Well said. All the McKinney’s are missed at Calvary. No doubt about it. A break is really important to see what you really miss and what new yearnings emerge. Much of church is habit: the rituals, the predictability. More ppl need to mix things up a little, just to keep things fresh.
I went on a year long journey 2 years ago to visit different house of faith, and in 52 weeks I attended 58 new places. I wasn’t looking to leave, I wanted to understand Cincinnati as a community. Learned alot about myself. I still call Calvary home base, but I sometimes like going back to other places because of the unique experience I had.
when you’re ready to step through the doors, there will those ready tol embrace you like that Prodigal Son. Can’t wait! Until then, there is purpose in your journey.
Love to you and the guys, Florine! I appreciate your comments. I remember you being gone from Calvary, and then you were back! We will do the same. See you soon.
As another “clergy kid” I identify with this! My finally found parish’s rector just announced her (well deserved) retirement. Not sure what iis next.
I’ll be praying for you as you discern!
Ann Fraser says
I love the honesty and openness in your posts. Thank you for sharing where you are, how you got there, and what that has meant–good and bad–for you and your family.
Thank you Ann, for your encouragement. I appreciate it.
Beth Hardin says
As I was growing up, my family went to church. Every Sunday. As a family. Including exchange students (of course, not required to share beliefs or even participate in a traditional way – but expected to attend family outings). I recall no resentment or distaste every developing for that choice. I was formed by the gospel primarily on the basis of that experience. I sought out church as a college student, returning to the Episcopal church after an “evangelical world tour.” I have been nurtured by church communities throughout the five decades of my life.
That said, the challenges for families today are different. It’s a 24-7 world, with less cultural or community support for church attendance. Youth sports and other activities are scheduled on Sunday mornings.
Regular church attendance is a more intentional spiritual discipline for people of all ages now. Perhaps that is why I value it even more. Discipline is gift; intentional church attendance is a discipline. “Sabbath as Resistance,” as Walter Bruggemann argues, counters the culture that overwhelms us as individuals and families.
Great insights, Beth! You are so right about the Sabbath – i love to practice intentional unbusyness. I refuse to be overburdened!
Betsy Rogers says
Thanks, Miriam, for this very thoughtful piece. I always learn from your contributions here.
Thank you, Betsy, for your encouragement!
Thank you for this insightful essay. I’m in the same place right now. And now I don’t feel so alone!
You’re welcome – and you’re right, you’re not alone! I’m glad you found this community.
Pete Johnson says
Very well written! I think as we all age, and our children age, we revisit these questions. But here’s what I learned: the church is always there for us to return to when we’re ready. I view that as my parents’ greatest gift to me: that our growing, ever-different Episcopal Church is there, and unconditionally always wants me back. I have told my daughter that. She’s on her own and will make her own decisions. But that home is there for her, too, whenever she chooses.
“the church is always there for us to return to when we’re ready.”
Pete, I hope that is the case, but with fewer people making worship attendance a priority in their family life, just how is the church always going to be there? The church is the Body of Christ, and each of us are members, bringing our particular gifts to the “party.” As fewer people commit to being in community with one another, it is not a logical conclusion that the church will always be there. WE are the church, together, all ages and stages…God loves us and always wants us back, for sure, but the church as we know it is already changing in ways that may make it impossible to sustain.
I understand the pressures parents are under on weekends in particular with the competing demands of sports, etc. But life is always a matter of choices and priorities. Our kids see what we choose and notice how we live.
You’re right, Nancy, our kids are more likely to follow what we do vs. what we say. We have to be a people who want to be in community. Great point!
Thank you, Pete, I told my adult daughter the same thing.