It's a well-rehearsed line I've heard plenty of times:
"I really just wanna focus on my children right now, so we're gonna step back from church activities for a little while."
As a father-to-be, the topic of loving my children well has been on the forefront of my mind. I think it's the basic aspiration of every parent to have their child grow up better than they did. We can all name ways in which we want succeed at our parenting in ways that our parents did not.
But we also know that life is more complicated than merely naming our aspirations and watching them happen. Schedules get filled, patience gets worn thin, and we find ourselves doing the very things we swore we would "never" do.
So as I'm about to say one of the things that I will never do, I'm quite aware that the chances of me perfectly keeping this promise over the next 18 or so years is pretty nigh impossible. But, that said, here's the promise:
I won't forsake the church in the name of being a better parent.
It's a pattern I've seen over and again. As children get older and their schedules become more demanding, parents recognize that something has to give. There is just no way parents can meet every expectation of the modern American family. School, sports, extracurriculars, not to mention jobs and cooking and keeping the house tidy.
And then you come to a church and there's Sunday morning and small groups and missional communities, and, oh, if you could please volunteer on Wednesday night and join the deacons and help out at the picnic. And, hey, we should meet for coffee and I'd like to mentor you, and I think you should mentor this teenager, and are you in an accountability group? A book club? A Bible study? A life group?
It's like churches expect you to drop everything and just do church stuff for the rest of your life!
Parents have to make some choices. What gets cut? What gets priority? And so, almost inevitably, parents make the choice to take a step back from all those church commitments. It seems difficult to measure the tangible benefits of them all (unlike the admittedly clear benefits of team sports, academic clubs, etc.). So, the logic goes, it probably wouldn't hurt to back out of a few spiritual commitments.
How wrong we are.
"Parents, for better or worse, are actually the most influential pastors of their children," Christian Smith, a religious sociologist, states. "Parents set a kind of glass ceiling of religious commitment, above which their children rarely rise."
The number one predictor of whether or not a parent will succeed in passing on their faith to their child is their own commitment to it. When parents talk about their faith at home, are active in their congregations (meaning more than just Sunday morning), and clearly live out how important their faith is to them, children are 82x more likely to be involved in their faith as they transition into young adulthood. In other words, the likely hood jumps from 1% to 82%.
82x more likely? I can think of few things that have that kind of likelihood.
Now, this assumes that our priorities are in place to begin with. Perhaps our goals for our children are more social, financial, educational, or athletic. Perhaps we're hesitant to pass on our faith because we want to give our children the ability to choose for themselves. Perhaps we're not even convinced that this whole following Jesus thing is worth it in the first place.
Well, it may help to remind you that the children of actively religious parents are more likely to have better self-control, social skills, and learning abilities. Not to mention those active in the church live longer, report higher levels of life satisfaction, and are better able to handle crisis and stress. Even if you aren't convinced about all the claims of Jesus, you might be better off pretending that you were.
But for those who are convinced that following Jesus actually is the best possible way to live, when we use our children as an excuse to back away from our commitment to the church, then we aren't just shooting ourselves in the foot—we're blasting it off with it a bazooka.
Backing down from church commitment neuters our ability to stay committed to our faith. And when we hinder our ability to do that, we become more prone to create a home environment in which faith and religion are periphery. Our culture will happily tell us how to spend our time and where to place our priorities. When we remove the voice of the church from our lives, then we have no anecdote to the busy-sickness that our culture elevates over the values of Jesus.
We shouldn't be surprised, then, when our children grow up with little to no interest in the faith of their mothers and fathers. When our commitment to the church can be so easily traded away to make more time for other activities, then of course our kids will grow up recognizing that church is little more than an extracurricular that really doesn't seem to do much good.
There is no more pious-sounding reason to not volunteer at your church than "I want to focus on my kids right now." But there is not a dichotomy between "loving my children well" and "loving my church well." Instead, the two walk hand in hand. When we have a healthy and vivacious relationship with Jesus' church, then we are putting ourselves and our children in an environment that poises us for emotional, spiritual, and intellectual health and well-being.
If you truly want to help your kids know Jesus and give them the best opportunity to keep their relationship with Him alive for years to come, then stay committed to your church. Join that small group. Volunteer in the Sunday school. Quit the seventeenth club that your child is enrolled in and have her watch you serve in the kitchen at a funeral. Or lead a Bible study. Or meet your accountability partner/group for coffee. Do it for your own health.
Do it for the children.