When Church Is a Choice

"We have decided to let our kids choose whether or not they go to church and to pick their own religion. We tell them God exists, but how they choose to believe in God, or whether they go to church or not, is up to them."

I have heard this statement from parents many times. They usually say it proudly, like they have really thought about it and have come up with a great answer as to whether or not they would take their kids to church.

I have no doubt that the decision is well-meaning. Parents want their kids to find their way to religion without it feeling forced or pushed upon. They want their kids to know that church is a choice, but they are not obligated to attend. They might say they were forced to go every Sunday and hated it, so why would they ever infringe that on their kid? Or, they might argue that there is not one right religion and who are they to provoke one religion on them? Or, they might argue that church's can be exclusive and divisive and do more harm than good.

Whatever the reasons, when parents don't make their kids go to church, I am certain they are doing so out of protection. It's not that they are saying that God isn't important. They are saying that religion isn't important to know God.

Here's the problem.

When kids are told that church is a choice and that religion is a buffet of entrees in which they can pick the one's they like the best and ignore the ones they don't, kids hear this:

Religion doesn't matter. God is there if you want Him, or not. Take Him or leave Him. He's around, if you want to give Him a call. Otherwise, don't worry about it. Live a good life. Be a good person. You will be fine.

If I told my kids that bathing was a choice and that they were free to decide whether or not they wanted to bathe or brush their teeth... my kids would opt out of the practice and ritual of good hygiene. Gross, I know. But true.

If I told my kids that nutrition was a choice and that they were free to eat whatever they wanted... we would have Oreos for breakfast.

What kids hear when their parents say, "It's up to you," is "It doesn't matter to me, and therefore, it doesn't matter."

What concern's me more, is I see a generation (my generation) of parents telling their kids that church is a choice, and I wonder, what happened to that generation? Was it the "I'm free to do what I want any old time" culture? Was it the fact that the church is human and therefore can be hypocritical and hurtful? Was it the feeling that the church did not move with the times?

What will it take to get this generation back?

Here is what's not going to work:

  • Shame. Shaming people back to church only creates bitterness.

  • Hell, fire and damnation. That ship has sailed.
  • Programs. They work for a short term fix, but not for the long term relationship. They look good on banners and in brochures, but studies show they don't provide true spiritual growth.
  • Here's what might work:

    • Really honest conversations about God and science, about the Bible and authorship, about Christology and salvation. Allowing people to not be afraid to say, "I do not believe that" and still be welcomed and received as part of the body of Christ.

  • Really honest conversations about suffering and death, about prayer and discipline, about mission and service. Allowing people to practice their faith in very tangible, life-giving ways.
  • Really honest conversations about money and sex, about power and greed, about love and struggle. Allowing people to be real and authentic and to name their struggle in a safe community, without judgment.
  • Conversations outside of the church, in coffee houses and around kitchen tables, where God becomes a conversation partner, before a life event happens. Because when that event does happen, suddenly there is no foundation, no life preserver, no faith and God's name is raised as an option to consider and suddenly He becomes the Bad Guy, who could have prevented the event all along.
  • Ritual, reverence and spiritual practice. Religions need to hold to their religious practices that frame their identity. People are hungry for substance, we cannot feed them white sugar. Our order, sacraments and creeds matter in that they define how we come to understand God. We cannot lose sight of who we are, out of the desire to be something for everyone. We need to be who we are. If we are Presbyterian, be Presbyterian. If we are Lutheran, be Lutheran. People know when we say things only to make them happy.
  • We, who do the church thing, need to be mindful of how hungry people are for real substance. Let's be sure to provide them with the Bread of Life and trust the Holy Spirit to do the rest.

    This post originally appeared on Creating Scared Communities.