I used to run into this question all the time as a youth minister. Put simply, bribing teenagers with pizza only works until they’re old enough to drive and buy their own pizza. Then parents have to “make them go to church.”
This is one of those topics that opens itself up to dozens of tangents, many of which are worth pursuing but I’ll try to chasten my writing and concentrate on a single question: Why, liberal readers, does the very idea of “making” your kids go to church cause so many of you/us to cringe?
By way of diagnosis let’s note a few dissonant realities. First, none of us cringe at making our children eat healthy foods and avoid gulping sugary sodas before bed. We make our kids brush their teeth, we make them go to school, and we make them visit their grandparents. In short, we make them do all kinds of things that are good for them and rarely do we hesitate. So, why do so many Liberal parents pause when it comes time to make their teenagers go to church? One possible answer is that they do not see church as that important, so it isn’t worth the same effort as making their kids do math exercises or eat vegetables. But for the sake of this post, I won’t address this possibility. Another possibility is that as North American culture has become increasingly secularized, more and more events for kids (soccer, hockey, birthday parties) are scheduled on Sunday mornings, meaning that kids and teenagers have better and better reasons for pressuring mom and dad to skip church. This is not a non-issue, but I also won’t address it here. (Ever wonder why so few Jews play football? Just consider the title…“Friday Night Lights.”)
I think it is more likely that most Liberal parents hesitate to “make” their older kids go to church because there is a fundamental tension at work between three concepts that I’ll symbolize with three words: Liberal, Religion, and “Make.”
It is not the case—at least I’m not addressing these types of cases—that LiberalEvangelical parents do not value religious education and church. Rather, Liberals, by definition, believe in personal choice and are deeply hesitant to force anyone to do or be anything without good reason. (The book that launched this website, Lost in the Middle?, does and excellent job of digging into the history of the term “Liberal” and its earliest roots in Evangelical movements.) But yet, as we’ve already noted, Liberal parents force their kids to do all kinds of things that their kids don’t want to do. So why, for so many Liberals, does religious education not rise to the level of linguistic or scientific or mathematical or physical education? Why will we force our kids to brush their teeth before bed, but never consider having them read their Bibles before turning out the lights? (Believe me, I’m not on my high horse here. I’m describing my own actions as a parent.)
The root cause of our discomfort comes from the way in which Liberals think about the value of religion i.e. it is only valuable insofar as it is a free choice. Liberal religion grew out of the European “Wars of Religion” which came after the Reformation and caused horrible suffering and death as Protestants killed one another and Roman Catholics, Roman Catholics killed Protestants, Protestants and Roman Catholics killed Anabaptists, and everyone killed Jews. These were dark days for Christian fellowship, but the aftermath saw the birth of the ecumenical movement and of Liberal forms of Christianity that treasured personal commitment and freedom of conscience above doctrinal purity and confessional loyalty.
This tradition persists today in most Western churches, even conservative ones. Say what you want about the Mike Huckabees of the world, even they wouldn’t advocate forcing non-believers into the pews. For conservatives it is important that people be free to choose their religion, but it is more important that the individual choose the right religion! Conservatives tend not to have a problem forcing their kids to attend church, because they think of this as doing the child a great service i.e. maximizing the chances that the child will someday make the right choice on their own and accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior. Notice the word “accept.”
The thing that stands out about Liberal Christians of all stripes (and I have only anecdotal evidence for this) is that they value the “free choice” aspect of the religious equation over the “correct choice,” and I must say that I agree with this assessment. However, they/we make a tremendously important blunder when it comes to religion and the notion of “free choice.” I’ll state the matter bluntly. By not raising your child within a religious tradition, you are not allowing your child to “choose for themselves.” Rather, you are giving them no options to choose from. These last two sentences likely make next to no sense to many of you, but that is due to the fact that Liberals so fundamentally misunderstand religion. Try as we might to free ourselves from the historical shackles of confessionalism and doctrinally driven churches, we’re still thinking about religion like citizens of the seventeenth century. We still think that religion is primarily about what one believes i.e. what propositional truth claims one is willing to adopt and confess.
If this is what you think, that religion is akin to a true/false quiz, then I wouldn’t at all blame you for hesitating to “make” your child go to church, a place where these propositions are drilled into their head and they are pressured to assent to doctrines which they may not agree with. No doubt religion, at its worst, can be like this. However, I’d recommend pausing a moment and looking at what it is that your church actually does. Forget what the larger culture has told you religion is about. What does your church do? How much of your congregation’s life is centered on doctrinal assent and affirmation? If you’re in a Liberal or a LiberalEvangelical congregation, I’d be very surprised if more than 1 or 2% of your church’s energy was spent on this.
I’d encourage you to think of churches less as teachers of doctrine and more as teachers of language and cultivators of habits. The biggest dilemmas you and your kids are likely to face in your lives will not call on you to spell or do calculus or to know all of the planets or organelles in a cell. What you will most desperately need in times of existential crisis will not be a list of true religious propositions. What you will need is a set of well cultivated habits, a skillset that might fruitfully be compared to a language. You’ll need to be fluent in a set of symbols and ideas and actions and rituals that will help you be a good partner, a good parent, a good friend. Your kids are going to face personal and existential crises, including your death (may be all be so lucky as to have our children outlive us!), for which they will be ill prepared if they, at those moments, are “free to choose” a tradition to draw on. Imagine not having learned any language, but being “free to choose English or French or Mandarin” when you find yourself needing to speak words of comfort or encouragement. If you don’t make your kid learn the language and the habits of your religious tradition, you are actually taking choice away from them. You are in effect allowing them to be free to be Buddhist or Muslim or Christian or Pagan in the same what that I am free to go to MIT and major in physics, or compete as an Olympic swimmer, or write a novel in German. No one is stopping me from doing these things, but I do not have the tools and am not adequately prepared to do any of them.
So look at your kid, tween, or teenager there on the couch. Look past the tomato sauce on his cheeks, the dirt on her jeans, or his practiced nonchalance as you speak to him and ask yourself if you want her or him to have some resources and skills and symbols to fall back on when life smacks her or him upside the head. It is a royal pain for so many parents having the conversation about religion, maybe even harder than having the sex conversation. So let me offer a line that’s worked for me.
YOU: “Yes you have to go to church with us, because you will need moral, spiritual and religious skills much more than you will ever need calculus or need to know the original 13 colonies.”
TEENAGER: “But I don’t believe all that stuff.”
YOU: “Belief has nothing to do with it. Now wash your face and get in the car.”
Believe me, the culture has trained, is training and will continue to train your kids and teenagers to think that religion is largely about belief and they will throw that back in your face whenever they can. So fight back, not by telling them they have to believe, but by defusing the belief question. Church is more like practicing an instrument or a sport, you must participate to get the benefit, and the benefits accrue whether or not one believes.