Kids in Culture and Implications for the Church
My Kids are my Sunshine (but not just in the good way)
In our family, Michelle and I have faced an ongoing battle to make our kids a part of the family rather than the center of the family. The path of least resistance is to play whatever games our kids want to play at a moment’s notice, to absolve them of any responsibility for the maintenance of our home (which leads to my daughter’s room having an invisible floor), to make sure they are entertained at all times (it would be a sin for our children to be bored!), and to tend toward being the proverbial helicopter parents who cannot allow their children out of their sight. I don’t know why Michelle and I both struggle with this tendency to make the entire life of our family revolve around our children, that might be a post for another time.
The result of this child-centric approach to family is largely negative. First, it breeds selfishness in our children. When life at home is contingent on their whims and fancies, we are training them to expect that everyone should bow to their wishes. Connected to selfishness is tremendous impatience. They come to expect that whatever they desire is a higher priority than anything else in all creation. Why should they have to wait for five minutes to play a game while I finish doing the dishes? We are training them to be absolved of responsibility. They can throw all their clothes on the floor–Michelle will pick them up. They are unable to learn how to solve problems. Whenever there is a conflict or problem they know that a parent will swoop in to solve it. They believe this because too often Michelle and I have failed to let them work it out themselves.
On the whole, a family where everything revolves around the children cultivates deep and lasting dysfunction in the children. Helping our children mature into healthy adults is far better accomplished by helping them to see themselves as a valuable part of the family. Weaving them into the fabric of our family, not making them the center of it, and thereby teaching them responsibility, mutual concern, selflessness, contribution, patience, and sacrifice.
I believe the same thing is at work in church communities. The decisions we make about how to engage our kids have implications, just as the decisions Michelle and I make in our family have implications.
Implications for Personal Formation
When we structure the life of the church in a way that communicates to children that they are the center around which everything revolves, we are forming them (or discipling to use biblical language). The church teaches them to be selfish, impatient, and irresponsible in the same ways Michelle and I often have taught our children this. It’s not done on purpose, but it happens.
When this is true it is a substantial problem. Jesus gave all his followers the task to teaching new followers to “obey all he has commanded.” This certainly must include our children. Jesus, the King of kings, said he came not to be served but to serve. Paul said that the church is a body that looks to the needs of the whole. If we structure our community in a way that fosters selfishness, lack of responsibility for the other, and an expectation of being served, we are forming kids away from what they are meant to be.
Implications for Being the Church
In these formative years we are also teaching them what it means to be the church. Many people decry the selfish nature of church engagement in the United States. It can seem the focus is more on whether we like the music, preaching, groups, or carpet color than whether or not the church is a faithful representation of the bride of Christ. What we do with kids in our community today will shape their approach to the church in the future. We are teaching them today either to go on the never-ending journey of church hopping for self-fulfillment or to engage whole-heartedly in the always-imperfect community of faith. We are training them to focus on what they can give or what they can receive. We do this powerfully through our approach as much as (or more than) our words.
The pursuit of teaching kids what it means to be a part of the body of Christ in a church community can be thwarted in two ways. The first is what I’ve already been saying–to engage them in ways that teach them they are the center of the universe. The other way is to keep them from offering themselves and their abilities as a gift to the community. Too often churches treat children as something to be managed until they grow up and can participate in the “big church.” How damaging! Paul’s metaphor of the church as a body teaches that when any part of the body is sick or not functioning it hurts the whole. Children (and youth) who are a part of our communities are not “body parts in waiting.” They are a part of the body now, and allowing them to function as such is essential to the overall health of the body. We should encourage them to give themselves as a gift to the community, not subtly indicate that someday they’ll grow up and be a real part of the church. We need to show our kids what it means to be the church!
It gives footing to our fear.
There are many reasons for centering all we do around children–either in a family or a church–but I believe one large reason is fear. I know that an underlying fear drives many of the unhealthy ways I engage my kids. I fear that if I don’t cater to them they will grow up to feel unloved. If I don’t watch them all the time they will suffer some debilitating injury. I have to fight these fears to fight my behavior. I think there is also a fear in the church when it comes to kids. We have heard the statistics about how many kids leave the church. Then we hear our own kids say they don’t want to go to a worship gathering because it’s boring. They don’t want to do a service project because it’s no fun. Out of this they may even say they don’t like church–or God. This breeds the fear that we will force our kids away from God. If they are bored, or challenged, or frustrated, then they will leave the church, and God, and it will be our fault.
THIS IS A LIE. If we can glean anything from the inexact studies that have been done on why kids disconnect from church and God as they grow up, it is that entertaining them and catering to them is a part of the problem. They have not felt challenged to make faith their own. They have seen a faith that is more about pizza parties that sacrificing in the way of Jesus for the life of the world. They are not encouraged/challenged to draw near to Jesus–love him and be loved by him. They don’t feel connected to the whole church because they have been sectioned off to be entertained and kept content. It is learning to follow Jesus and live as a part of the fabric of his church that has the most impact on their future.
And the reality is that even in that there are no guarantees. We may do everything right and they may run from God. We may do everything wrong and they could cling to him. If you are following Jesus you probably need look no further than your own background or that of people you know to see this.
The reality is that very often doing the right thing is the hard thing. It is easier to have my kids play video games than it is to have a conversation. It is easier to intervene in their problems than to allow them to face them. It is also very easy to focus on the moment over long-term implications. The things that form my kids well in the long run are often hard in the moment. In our churches we are called to help kids become followers of Jesus–people who love God and their neighbor well. Doing this will most certainly require an approach that sees them as a valuable part rather than the center.