"How's it going?"Now, I don't know the ladies. I don't know what the one lady has gone through with her kids. But I do know that more and more, kids are seeming to be an inconvenience at church.
"Great! My youngest one is in high school!"
"Oh, you must be so excited!"
"I am! I'm almost done! One more left to get out of the house!"
When I was growing up, there was a nursery provided for children from birth until three. After that, children were expected to be in "big church" with their parents. Several of the churches I attended had a small thing upfront for the kids before the big sermon. The minister or another staff member would tell a brief Bible story and expound on the moral during the course of a few minutes. Children were then expected to go back and sit with our parents and pay attention, or at least be quiet.
Let's fast-forward. My church, the same church I overheard the conversation, has a program for kids from birth through eighth grade. Children are never in "big church" until they are in ninth grade. I'm not talking about the kids are there for everything but the sermon and then they leave - I'm talking about the kids aren't there for one song, one prayer, nothing. From the moment they get out of Sunday School, they are up on another floor having their own version of church. This version is supposedly designed to better maintain their interest and to make the Bible appealing and relevant. My son is only 2, but the day is coming when he will be expected to go with the others his own age to that service. DH and I am going to say no.
I believe this current model of a children's program has been a long time coming, and is a reflection of what is going on in the church at large. Many other churches have the same type of program. When I complained to someone at my church about the children not being in the service, I was told that the program was started because adults were complaining about children being in the service. I guess we Baptists take everything literal except for Matthew 19:14.
When my family and I joined our current church 11 years ago, the church still had the mini-sermon up front with the pastor before the big sermon. Then we went to the children's church format that pulls the kids out after the music, before the sermon. Then the adults deemed the transition between big church and children's church too disruptive, and someone made the decision to have children's church last all service long. Around this same time a NEW! EXCITING! program was begun for middle-schoolers, and off went the kids too big for children's church.
What are we teaching kids by having special programs for them until they are grown? I believe that we are teaching them that church is something that you must tolerate when you are grown, much like working full-time or paying taxes. By making a point to amuse and entertain them, we aren't doing them any favors. Sure, they might like going to church better because of the fun program, but what attitude are we teaching them to have? Unless the church is planning on completely scrapping the standard format of a church service (which some are, but that's another post), the kids will graduate through all of the programs, sit through a service for the first time, and they will not come back. Not everything about the faith is supposed to be fun. There has to be some sense of discipline instilled while children are growing up. Life is not all fast-paced messages sprinkled with colored lights and a strong bass beat.
I have no problem with teenagers and young adults having fun in a religious setting. I know that a church service can seem to last for hours. I am making the argument that there is a time and a place for such things, and Sunday morning should be different than Wednesday night or Sunday night. Children need to grow up exposed on a regular basis to a variety of ways to express their faith. Please note that I am also not criticizing measures that are being taken to draw in non-believers. My post is written for believers who are already members of a church.
I heard a fact a few weeks ago that young people are largely not coming back to the church as they grow older. Apparently, the trend used to be that while church-raised youth slack off during the college years, they typically return to the church once they had kids of their own. Now it appears that my generation is not coming back. I know some will make the argument that my age group is not coming back because the church is not relevant to us. That the church doesn't speak to us, it doesn't minister to us where we are in life, in the world that we live in. Technology serves to connect my generation like no other generation before. We are more likely to have close friendships than we are to have a close family. So the reasoning goes that we therefore need a different type of church.
I know there is no one clear-cut reason for why those in their 20s aren't returning to church. But I think that I know at least one of the reasons: the attitudes of those older. Go back and re-read the conversation at the beginning of this post. If this lady feels free enough to say this in church, you can bet that she says this to her kids. There is an attitude that has seeped into the church from the mainstream world that conveys children are a cross to bear. The church seems to have bought into the lie that children are an unpleasant fact of life that one must endure. There are a lot of factors behind this sentiment, and to try to go into it would be a whole other post that I am not equipped to write. I just know that the sentiment didn't originate in the church; it has permeated the church because we try so hard to fit in. Even to the point of tossing our own kids out of the church service. We say it's for them, but how much is it really for us? How much is it so that we don't have to train them how to behave, so we don't have to get the dirty looks from those around us when our kid is less than perfect?
Kids pick up on adult attitudes, even if nothing is said aloud. When we make excuses for them to be somewhere else during one of the most important things of the week, we are teaching them that we have better things to do. We are teaching them that we can't wait until they're older. Then once they do get older, we wonder why they don't come back to where they spent their childhood not being welcomed.