January 9, 2009

Is the church Anti-Children?

A conversation overheard recently between two ladies at my church:
"How's it going?"
"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!"
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.
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.

11 comments:

  1. Heather: 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.
    Me: Amen to that. This is something I've considered for a very long time. I remember when we felt so big to be able to sit in church. And no, the kids can't be expected to hang on the pastor's every word -- but even though I didn't get what was going on at young ages, I began to grow through osmosis.

    As you hinted, as well, the idea that children's programs are more "relevant" and easier to understand actually fosters a peer level of understanding rather than a maturing level of understanding. We tend to treat children like two-year-olds for far too long. We talk to them in ways designed to keep them content, and don't begin the necessary steps for maturing them early enough. Here's a rule of thumb: simplify what you're saying to your children only after it becomes clear that they didn't understand you the first time. Use "grown-up" vocabulary on your children earlier and they will pick it up and be able to understand other adults when they speak, including pastors.

    Heather: The church seems to have bought into the lie that children are an unpleasant fact of life that one must endure.
    Me: I don't suppose you'd be shocked to know I agree with this statement. ;-)

    Heather: 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?
    Me: I definitely understand that embarrassing feeling! But I think it's important to say (and I'm sure you'd agree) that the ones in children's program leadership are usually the most sincere about it. They really feel like it's their mission to pour themselves into the lives of children. For them, it's a faulty m.o., not a faulty motive. But apart from them, I think there is a significant constituency of many churches that uses people with a love for children as a convenient way of shutting those brats up, whether they recognize this motivation or not.

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  2. Heather - this post touches on a grave misgiving I have had about the children's/youth church services for a long time. My husband and I do not have children yet, but I have already struggled about what to do here. My first inclination is to bring them into the church service with us as early as possible (aka, whenever they will not be a disruption). I know that doing this will require some very intentional training, and I am more than happy to sign up for that - I love intentional child training. In short, thanks for sharing your thoughts - you have added fuel to my fire!

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  3. Sarah: glad I could be of help! I must admit that prior to having children, I was annoyed at the disruptions caused by children in church. I didn't realize the importance of kids learning to sit and listen through the service until after my own son was born.
    Steve: thanks again for backing me up!

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  4. Our church actually has Kid's Zone, which is separate children's church that happens at the same time as adult church. It's full of music and activities, and the kids really love it. I agree that it doesn't teach them to sit still and listen during the sermon, which is what we were expected to do as kids. However, our youth pastor said that the reason behind it is not to keep kids from annoying the adults, but because kids learn the Bible better in a hands-on environment, rather than just listening to someone preach. Also, it keeps them fired up and excited about church, so their attendance is less likely to drop off as they get older.

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  5. Heather:
    Your church's program sounds very similar to the program at my church. The youth pastor and also the children's director at my church both say things similar to the argument you have given above. This type of program might be acceptable if it was only done for the youngest children but I can't support it being done for older elementary and above. As I stated in my original post,I am concerned that children who grow up in this type of church program face serious obstacles when they are grown and expected to attend regular church. It is my personal opinion that we spend far too much time making things enjoyable to children at the expense of developing their moral character.

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  6. this is a great post. i have never understood the premise of separating families during this very familial time! as you said, religion and learning about God can and should be something fun, but there is a time for it which is not Sunday morning.
    well said, i couldnt agree more
    r

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  7. To echo many of the comments you are receiving today, very well put. I think your last paragraph in the post sums everything up the best. Why would children return to a practice where they never really felt welcome in the first place? An excellent point. It puts the Sunday school at our church into a whole new perspective. Thank you!

    -Francesca

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  8. "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."

    This is such a sad thing... as a mom of almost four, for every person who compliments me on my beautiful, sweet children, I get someone who says with a roll of their eyes, "You poor thing!"

    In effect, my children are being told right in front of them that this stranger sees them as a burden to me. I loudly proclaim how much I enjoy my children, how I wouldn't have it any other way, or even a phrase of my friends..."Oh, we're just getting started!"

    It is just a shame that this mentality has seeped into churches as well, where children should be the MOST welcome, as Jesus said "Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these."

    Thanks for visiting my blog!

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  9. I'm a bit late, but I couldn't agree more with your post.

    Before I had kids I was the youth minister at our church. We asked the Pastor if we could have a teen Mass for music styles etc. His response was No - why should there be a seperate liturgy for any certain type of person he said. Everyone should feel welcome at all the services and not excluded because of age, language etc. At the time I was annoyed, but now I realize his wisdom. Your points clearly show it as well.

    Our church has 1 Mass a week that where there is a children's liturgy of the word- that is they go out for the readings and the sermon, but then they come back. And it's only 1 service. I think as a Catholic we have it a little different since most of our churches don't have nurseries - so the kids are expected to be there. Better there than not to go.

    I am always amazed by the generosity of some folks with my kids - the compliments they pay and the attention my kids get from some of the older folks who become like second grandparents. I am sometimes put into tears by the mean things people have said to me too about how my children have no right to be there if they make a peep. I actually had a lady walk up to me before the service started once and tell me to take my child out. He wasn't loud or upset, and that wasn't her job. She just took it upon herself. Our priest even asked me why I wasn't inside the chapel with him.

    One priest once said that it was great to have the mix. It teaches the adults to have patience with the children, and it teaches the children how to act in church to see all of the adults. He wasn't talking about massive disruptions of course, but the little noises all children make.

    Thanks for a great post and things to think about. :)

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  10. Great post! Our church does it a little differently. There are Sunday school classes for all ages during one hour of service and then first grade and up are expected to be in "big church" with their families. That way they get their peer experience, small group, whatever you want to call it and also get a dose of the regular church service.

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