A month ago, I decided to start home churching my 14 year old daughter. For months she had been complaining about attending church and simply not wanting to go at all. The advice from everyone in the church community was as you might guess – “Don’t let her think for a second that church attendance is optional. It shouldn’t even be up for discussion. You simply just go.” Alternatively, a recent Christian article surprised me when it said that the greatest at risk teenager in America is not the teenager whose parents are atheist or agnostic but those teens whose parents are Christians. Apparently studies have been consistently showing that about 88% of Christian teenagers no longer attend church two years after high school graduation.
I was taught by the church that a good parent ingrains the Christian faith into their children so that it’s all they know. The desire being that our children will reject secular ideas, beliefs, behaviors, actions and people. Hmmm, according to statistics, this approach isn’t working. I’m guilty of implementing it, but not anymore. I’m going against the religious current and not only is there no support for that, there’s condemnation. I would argue that we are on the same side and I’m just looking for a more effective approach.
Why are kids leaving the church? There are many theories. I argue that no matter what the external reasons are – the internal one is that their faith in God was never one that they personally took ownership in. It seems that many have learned to go through the religious motions. They showed up at bible study, at church on Sunday and played the part of the “good Christian” because, for most, someone made them do it. Have we taught our children to conform to the expectations of others by making them conform to ours? When kids leave home, the expectations of “the others” in their lives usually changes. Let’s face it, in the adult world, for the majority, the expectations of others are quite contrary to spiritual growth and good self-care. Belonging is so incredibly primal that we all gravitate to where we sense it exists. When kids leave home, where and how they belong often changes drastically. What do we belong to if we don’t have opportunities to develop our own beliefs? It’s as if we want to teach our children to think for themselves except for the important stuff like our values, our judgments and our prejudices. Those things our children need to accept unquestioned and take for granted, while thinking critically in all other ways. That creates some significant cognitive dissonance.
An interesting twist to this is that we parents, are encouraged, if not expected, to drop our children off in Sunday school so they can learn about God. Most parents abdicate learning about God to someone else. Often, in mega churches, it is a complete stranger. Somewhere, myself included was the idea that as parents, we are not the ideal candidates to teach our children about God. Ideally, we model the religious activities that demonstrate we have a relationship with God, worship him or revere him. There’s some belief ingrained in Christian parents that the other mom/parent/person who is volunteering to be in Sunday school with our children is somehow more equipped to use the worksheets provided to them to teach our children about the most important relationship they will ever have.
When I take a step back and talk to my daughter about what she has learned after 14 years of regular church and Sunday school attendance, its appears to boil down to an indoctrination for how God cares mostly about her outward religious activities and not so much about her or her heart. With all due respect to churches and Christians and humans that I believe with all of my heart are doing the very best they can with the resources that they have….I’ve discovered that what my child has really been learning is how to be a class act Pharisee.
At best, most of us were taught to emulate Bible characters, who are complete strangers to us. No one currently alive knew them and none of us know anyone who once did such as a grandmother. The characters of the Bible shared their perspectives and beliefs, colored by their life experiences. None of us ever knew them personally. In my experience, when something isn’t personally relational, it isn’t usually personally applicable. We’ve been taught to superimpose the faith of strangers, their wisdom, and their stories into our lives like a template instead of seeking God directly in the divine creation of our own. How many of us never develop a relationship with God because we’ve been trained to think we already know him based on what people we’ve never met said about him. Most of what we learn in church is intellectual knowledge of God that over time reinforces a faith that lives only in our minds. Our knowledge of God can often become the barrier to knowing God. We can ingrain the minds of our children, but their hearts seem to fall to the wayside. From what I see, our world is full of big minds and small hearts.
It took many decades and a tremendous amount of heartache and pain for me to approach life and God with this mindset. To follow the divine in my heart instead of a church, pastor or dogma. To begin to run off that Pharisee that lived in my mind and alter that faith that only lived in my mind. Faith that I won’t walk away from because it goes up against the expectations of someone else. Faith that is the foundation for where I will belong instead of faith that can be modified to achieve belonging somewhere outside of myself. A faith that is my own. A faith that resides in my heart. A faith I can take personal ownership in everywhere I go.
With Jesus as my guide, from now on, the focus is going to be on my daughter’s insides rather than her outsides, her heart rather than her mind. The real desire of my heart is to inspire my daughter to seek the God that exists in everyone and everything. Instead of seeking the sin in herself and the world to discern what to reject, it frees her up to focus on who and what to love. Maybe along the way, we might inspire others to do the same, much like Jesus did when he was here.
The world doesn’t need any more Pharisees.
“Seek first the kingdom of God and all these things shall be added unto you” – Matthew 6:33