Wednesday, August 02, 2017

My Church Must Change

There’s a thread of an idea that pops up at the end of a previous post that I wanted to take a few more moments to explore, since it’s been cropping up over and over again throughout my life.

Parents love their kids, or at least they should. In properly-functioning family units, which would hopefully include most Christian families, parents generally fulfill their responsibilities more consistently and effectively, though none of us can claim to have achieved perfection in parenting. Far from it.

But some parents cannot resist putting a finger on the scales to help their kids through life. This is the source of all kinds of trouble.

A teacher friend regales me regularly with sad and funny stories of parents calling or coming to see him on behalf of unmotivated teenagers in the hope of getting them marks they don’t deserve. I’m even hearing stories from Human Resources people about parents stage-managing their child’s first job interview. Those do not generally end well.

Sadly, Christian parents are not exempt from working church leadership on behalf of their kids. Some examples follow.

Working the System

I first encountered this many years ago when helping lead a youth group. A new church building had just been erected, and there was sustained pressure from congregants (none of them young) to move the weekly youth get-togethers to the new facility. Eventually we gave in, but found it an ongoing struggle to keep the warmth and relaxed atmosphere we were used to in a big, bare, institutional setting. Why do it at all? Somebody figured the building would draw more kids than a meeting in a house, where they might feel awkward or singled-out. To this day I’m convinced it was the wrong move.

In a different gathering a couple of decades ago, yet another unnecessary church split was initiated by parents who were “tired of the old hymns” and wanted a modern “worship team”. Tease out their reasons a little and you find the push was primarily about making sure their little Johnny or Jenny had some public way to express his or her “musical gifts” — gifts that were obvious to the parents but far from evident to the congregation. The affected families eventually went elsewhere.

More Maneuvering

Then there are the stories I hear from a friend whose Christian organization helps facilitate short-term missions. He tells me there is constant pressure on the elders of local churches from parents who want their teens funded to do summer volunteer work in the Developing World, despite the fact that it is a headache to supervise their little prima donnas, and despite the fact that none of the kids have any useful skills to bring to the table. While church leaders are reluctant to sponsor what are essentially paid vacations, they also want to keep interested kids … interested. Assuming they really are.

These sorts of stories are common, and two things about them are notable: (1) the energy to “better” the child’s situation comes inevitably from the parents, not the child; and (2) it is nearly always thought that it is the church that needs to change, not the child’s ideas about the church.

When this happens, elders are usually forced to take a position of one sort or another.

Reactors and Non-Actors

Now, there’s more than one kind of elder, but in my experience groups of church leaders do tend to develop recognizable collective personalities.

At one end of the spectrum, there are reactive elders. The hair on the back of their necks stands up at every complaint or suggestion from the sheep, they are quick to tinker to try and improve things, and often not so careful to pray and think through the potential consequences of change.

At the other end, there are hidebound elders. These guys won’t budge on anything, and no matter how serious or sweeping your concerns, there will always be compelling “spiritual” reasons not to act on them.

In the middle are the elders who will take your concerns under advisement, pray about them and act in good conscience when the time is right. They don’t jump at shadows, but they don’t assume the way things run currently is perfect either.

The latter two sorts handle interfering parents much better than the first sort, for obvious reasons.

Aw Mom, You DIDN’T!

And there are very good reasons indeed for elders to be cautious of such initiatives from parents, the foremost being that parents are almost always the least useful sources of hard data about what is happening in their teen’s lives. As part of the very natural process of becoming independent, teens tend to pull away from mom and dad. They tell them less and less about what they are thinking and what’s going on in their lives. We are all familiar with asking “So how did school go today?” and hearing, “Okay,” or “The usual.” Not much information imparted there. This happens in good families as well as bad ones.

Now of course with years of experience observing their children, most decent parents still retain a pretty good instinct for who their kids are at their core. But with respect to some current (and often very important) aspects of their children’s lives, at many points in their development the parents are effectively stone blind. It cannot be any other way.

An Example

Here I can only rely on my own experiences. In my teens and twenties, I too was uninterested in church for a good long while. For various reasons it did not suit me. One was that my musical tastes, hobbies and interests were vastly different from the Christian kids my own age. Another was that I was in the process of experimenting with various kinds of worldly behaviour, and running into church kids at school at the wrong moment was proving embarrassing. Yet another was that I had basically burned my bridges with all the girls my age in youth group that had at one time interested me, and wanted to try my chances elsewhere. In any case, I would rather have been working or in clubs than expected to show up for a weekly meeting somewhere.

These were not issues I cared to explain honestly to my parents. I wanted to cut ties, but I couldn’t say that. So the story I gave them was that church was the problem.

Excuses and Reasons

I can’t remember exactly what I said: probably that the other kids were standoffish and hypocritical, that the teaching was feeble, that someone there had hurt my feelings, or some variant on the above. None of it was precisely false. All of it had a real basis in fact. But at the root my account of my problems with youth group was a little overdramatized and tainted by self-interest. I was holding kids only a couple of years older than me to standards higher than I was prepared to live by. The real reason I disliked church was that it worked on my conscience. I didn’t want to live in two worlds, and I wasn’t prepared to give up the one I enjoyed more.

Anyone with a spiritual bone in his body knows my real problem was that I had no ongoing, sustaining, personal relationship with Jesus Christ happening. I wasn’t praying and I wasn’t reading, so I wasn’t growing in the Christian life. Period. As it happens, I also wasn’t in the most mature or faithful youth group in the world. But so what? Even if I had been, I would have wanted out, probably with even greater urgency.

At the root, the problem was me.

Hmm, What to Do?

Did my parents know this? Sure, on some level it must have been obvious I hadn’t taken my baptism seriously and wasn’t walking with the Lord. I could talk the talk from years of church experience, but I wasn’t showing evidence of spiritual life in any consistent way. But because I wasn’t communicating honestly, all they had to work with were the excuses I gave them.

Can you see how they might have wondered if they should get involved on my behalf and try to sort things out? What a disaster that would’ve been!

I have a feeling many of the concerned parents who complain to church leaders about the Way Things Are Here are at least to some extent being gamed by their kids. There is no guarantee when a teenager tells you why he’s uninterested in church that he is telling you his reasons in order of priority, and there is no guarantee he is telling you all of them.

Buyer beware.

Sometimes They’re Right

Now, all of this is not to say that parents who step up for their children are always in the wrong. As much as I believe children ought to be seen and not heard, it’s not impossible one or more of their kids has flagged a genuine systemic problem or that he or she has a genuine spiritual burden, in which case elders would be unwise to pay them no attention at all.

But here’s how you can tell: the kid will do the stepping up, not the parents.

When something really matters to you as a teenager, are you going to trust your parents to communicate it accurately to the powers that be? I don’t think so. The more important the issue really is to the child, the more likely it is they’re going to want to be heard. If a 17-year old really wants to go to Honduras to help install a new water pump in one of the villages, you can bet he’ll have done his homework and be able to tell you exactly what he can contribute. If there are serious deficiencies in your youth program, you can bet that young, spiritual believers can explain them a whole lot better than their parents can. If the crusty old dirge-like hymns are turning off their school chums and driving them away from the church meetings, Johnny and Jenny can tell you this with more passion than their mom and dad ever could.

Talk to the kids. There is no “lose” in that kind of approach, is there?


  1. One thing I have invariably found about parents: for them, their kid is the only one in the world. I have not found that they have any readiness to hear the message, "Johnny may want X, but there are 29 other kids in his class who do not." There may be 29 others; but they are other-parents' others, and hence, not really of interest to these parents.

    And the same is the natural tendency in the church: what Johnny "needs" is, to his parents, more important than anything the Youth Group or the local church itself genuinely needs...and alas, often more important than anything spiritual too. In their well-meaning but short-sighted haste to see Johnny "happy," they fail to perceive the chance for his real spiritual discipline and personal growth. They fail to help him grow up. They steal his chance to do it right out of his hands.

    What Johnny most often really needs is a view of the world in which he is not the only important one, and where he can discover the truth that other people and their needs are more important than his personal demands. He needs humility and perspective, not indulgence.

    Parents, though, find it easier to go with their guts than their heads on this one.

    1. It's probably more complex than that, IC. We have to consider that Johnny or Jennie have their own prescribed destiny and, in my opinion, that will subtly drive what they need. What I mean by that is by this example: To me it is an insane concept to imagine that I could step inside a pile of metal (or molded carbon fiber nowadays) and reliably travel through the air at 620 miles/hr to get from one country to another. If dependent on me we would all still be commuting via horse and buggy. So, we need the vision, talent, drive and potential that the J and J's are equipped with from birth to move humanity from point A to point B. Society and parents clearly or subliminally realize that and accommodate J and J when possible actually doing good by that and fulfilling important destinies. Now destinies are large and small (in apparent importance) so that the accommodation is a natural mostly subliminal process reaching up to an overt deliberate encouragement on part of parents, relatives, friends and organizations to pursue given talents. The road and morality of how such talents should be realized hopefully should include the positive things you mention but, by our nature, that is not always guaranteed. Thus, I for one admire and appreciate the work of the Holy Spirit in continually equipping humanity to meet the next challenge and ultimately assure that we can meet our needs. So yes, if you are mainly suggesting that the teaching of moral fiber and growth must go with all that, then I agree and I think we all realize that the overall process is flawed because humanity is what it is.