Friday, September 17, 2021

Too Hot to Handle: Where the Grass is Greener

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

If there’s a single more common inter-generational issue in churches today, I can’t think of it right now:

“My kids want to go to that church down the road …”

Hoo boy.

Tom: I bet that church down the road has a worship team, Immanuel Can.

The Church Down the Road

Immanuel Can: It could be. They could also have a big youth group, a modern music program, and maybe a nice gym too. Or maybe not. I’m not sure those things are always the determining factor, but sometimes maybe they are. Should we care, either way?

Tom: Well, the kids care, apparently. Or do they really?

IC: Well, they care about something. And I’m not too sure how many conversations go, “Mom, Dad … I want to go to the church down the road because the theology is more accurate there.”

Tom: Yeah, that’s probably a rare one. Not impossibly rare, but less likely.

But it’s definitely a thing — and it’s been a thing going back thirty or forty years in my personal experience. Your kids may want to go somewhere other than where you’ve put down your roots. And what’s a parent to do in that case? I mean, I went some really goofy “Christian” places as a teenager.

A Better Environment

IC: That’s the question. Now, if your church is evangelical, and “the church down the road” is the Mormons, the Moonies or the JWs, then I think you’ve got one kind of situation; but if it’s some form of evangelical, then the issues are quite different.

Tom: Right, and that’s usually what we’re talking about: conservative evangelicals vs. liberal evangelicals. On a really wild day Protestants may elect to go Orthodox or Catholic to seek out a better environment for their children. They will rarely turn to the Moonies.

But that brings up an interesting question: What really constitutes a “better” church environment? Is it always what we think it is?

IC: That is indeed one question. The other question is whether, even if you’ve got “the right church” yourself, you can be effective in forcing your kids to agree that you do.

Tom: Well, “forcing”, no.

The Choices We Make

How old are these hypothetical kids?

IC: I don’t find that children usually arrive at the point of thinking of departing from parental church-choice until they are teens; so I’d say mid to late teens, or in a few delayed cases, as late as early twenties. After that, bothering to pause for parental permission stops even being an issue, really.

Tom: Right. As a kid, I didn’t always like the churches my parents took me to either, but it wasn’t until my mid-teens that it occurred to me I could always just not go. Actually, it was about the same time I realized it was perfectly possible to skip school regularly and not suffer any adverse consequences. Grade 10. A watershed year.

At the same time, I didn’t really have anywhere else I wanted to be instead, so I just kind of kept doing the same thing. You had a little different situation, if I recall …

IC: Yes. There was a local church that was better for me … at least, it was better for that stage of my development, and better in light of some of the conditions in the other local church I had been attending. Whether its theology overall was better is a slightly different question.

What’s On the Menu?

Tom: We are living in a consumerist society. If you don’t like the selection at Walmart, you can go to another big box store. If you don’t like what’s on TV, you just change the channel. That mindset bleeds over into how we think about churches — “Let’s see what these guys have on the menu,” and so on — which is a relatively new thing. For most of church history checking out the competition wasn’t really an option, or at least the stakes were a lot higher if you did.

Do you think it’s important for teenagers to explore a bit today — or at least potentially useful?

IC: I would say this: that today there is lots of choice, and people can go where they want to. Now, that may be good or it may be bad; but it is what it is. For young people, that means that if they want to explore, you can’t really stop them very easily. So you get a choice: they go exploring, but you allow them, so that they feel free to discuss their choices and experiences with you, and process their learning with you. Or you try to stop them, and eventually they go exploring anyway — but in the second case, you get no say in how they process their experiences. But stopping them from exploring altogether? That’s a very difficult option to practice today, and one that stands to have very dubious results.

Reinforcing or Undermining

Tom: I’ve mentioned before, I think, that I went to a Pentecostal youth group at one point, and even to some of their Sunday meetings. It was definitely a different experience. I don’t know what my parents thought about it — I mean, I know they weren’t thrilled, but I don’t know if they were concerned there was a serious chance of me going Charismatic. For me it was more of a social thing, but it was time well spent all the same. I got to see firsthand the things we had in common as well as the things we didn’t, and I found it actually reinforced what I believed rather than undermining it.

But I don’t know whether that would be every teen’s experience.

IC: I would say that a lot depends on how positive and educational the spiritual environment at home has been. Young adults who are already in possession of solid, basic scriptural understanding will tend to sort out the situation for themselves; those that have less training or none at all are probably going to be more inclined become confused or to make worse choices. Either way, the right time to prepare for that is in earlier childhood, not when they are in their teens.

Staying Positive

Tom: There’s a spectrum of possible reactions if a child says he or she would prefer to be somewhere else. Some people feel it’s very important to attend church as a family and would feel betrayed and hurt. One or two mothers I knew back in the day would have considered it a personal humiliation. Others might shrug and say, “As long as you’re going somewhere.”

So let’s say it’s your seventeen year old that comes to you and says, “Dad, I want to go to the Baptist church across town,” how do you feel about that? I mean, chances are he’s just met a girl, but he seems serious.

IC: I would say pay very close attention to the phrase, “I want to go …” That’s a very valuable opportunity. At some point in their lives, children move away from home. At that point, all that you’ve got to keep them involved in a church at all is “I want to …” So don’t kill that; encourage it. If your relationship stays positive, you can also talk about their questions and issues about the new place, when such come up, helping your child process his or her experience. If you’ve been negative, that door is likely to be closed.

The Divine Plan

Tom: Yeah, that’s good. I remember my dad telling me at one point — and my memory is questionable, but I think it was around sixteen — something like, “This is it. You need to start making decisions for yourself, and I’m happy to help you if you ask me. But I’m not going to tell you what to do, and I’m not going to weigh in with my opinion on every decision you make.”

That was a very useful exercise. It immediately dropped the responsibility for my happiness, well-being and spiritual development right where it belonged: into my own lap. I had to start figuring out how to relate to God on my own, not through my family.

IC: That’s the way it HAS to be. Look, I understand parents who want to protect their kid and direct him or her into the right path: that’s a biblical responsibility, as well as a healthy, natural impulse. But as one of my friends has pithily put it to me, “From the moment they’re born, you begin a process of letting go.” From the complete helplessness of their first moments, the divine plan for their lives is to become progressively more independent of their parents, and more personally committed to Christ — on whatever terms that entails. Parents who get in the way of that are making a huge mistake.

Photo: TurbulentForce


  1. Well said. And from the kids, teenager's perspective, my eldest son respectfully told me in a moment when he thought I was going to inform him regarding one of my (many?) convictions:

    "Dad, just remember, you've had 18 years to brain wash me. I probably know most of your views and stands on these issues"

    I was kind of glad that he had matured from a boy to an adult and knew it was time for him to start taking responsibility for his own life choices and thoughts.

    On the other hand, I very much respect a comment, of the late and at the time elderly scholar F. F. Bruce, which he made re. his own primitive theological upbringing and specifically being schooled by an a dad who was an "uneducated theologian". I believe the context was a leading question in which the interviewer was tempting him to criticize his childhood church upbringing for it's insular and narrow viewpoints.

    "Of all the theological things I've learned from my father, there are very few which I've had to unlearn"

    I quote both of the above quite frequently to myself. They've given me pause as well as being very helpful when I consider the difficult responsibilities in spiritual parenting.

    1. Eighteen full years, Russell? Hope you've got him walking completely in lockstep ... :)

    2. He's almost 40 now. I need a cane, and he seems to be flying with his own wings.

  2. We will be joining you shortly, it appears, probably with cane included.