The number one topic that brings people to my blog via Google search is whether or not to force kids to go to church (Google has put my page, “Should You Force Your Kids To Go To Church?” at the top of search results on the matter). Given how many parents search on the topic, it is obviously a common problem and question.
I have not yet had the experience of dealing with this as a parent since my kids are so young, but I happen to have a wealth of first-hand experience with the issue: I was a kid who NEVER wanted to go to church.
Reflecting on years of reasons for desperately wanting out of church, I would not have been able or willing to articulate those reasons to my parents. I can now, however, encapsulate the spectrum of my personal experience in the following eight reasons.
For those struggling with the issue, I hope this list encourages you to dig more deeply into your kids’ excuses of “I just don’t want to go” to identify and address the real underlying reasons.
1. They think it’s boring.
I put this here not because it is a real reason, but because I bet this is the most common thing that all kids say about church. I probably told my mom this 1,000 times, but what I really meant if I could have expressed it was one of the other real reasons on this list. Don’t accept this as a reason unless the youth program at your church really is poorly conceived (in this case, consider other churches where the youth program is more solid).
2. They would rather (fill in the blank).
Addressing this one really depends on what you fill in the blank with. It is either a heart issue (they have no desire to prioritize God in their lives), or a schedule issue. By heart issue, I mean that they would literally rather do anything than go to church because they don’t have a strong relationship with Jesus (see number 8).
For kids who have their hearts in the right place with Jesus, but would rather do other things, there is likely a schedule issue. If they would rather sleep, have you overscheduled them to the point that they desperately need rejuvenation? If they would rather see friends, have you allowed for enough social time during the week? The list could go on, but the key point is that everyone needs time to breathe. If your list of required activities during the week leaves your kids feeling like the only optional activity they can clear to make time for themselves is on Sunday morning, their schedule may need to be revisited. This doesn’t mean they will be willing to cut activities themselves, but it does mean you may have to work with them on it.
3. They don’t have friends there.
I don’t have to tell you how important social relationships are to kids. If they feel like they have no one with whom to connect at church, the feeling of alienation will outweigh the ability to learn or worship. This is something that younger kids probably won’t be able to express and older kids won’t be willing to express. I was a shy kid who had trouble making friends, and dreaded church from 4th to 6th grade because I felt alienated. You can treat this situation proactively just like you would at school – make friends with other parents, talk to the teacher, invite kids over to your house, etc.
4. They don’t like other kids there.
It’s one thing to have few or no friends at church. It’s another thing to outright not like other kids. Just like at school, church groups can have bullies, snobs, mean kids and more. Depending on the situation and the potential to rectify it, it may be best to look for another church. Yes, in the “real world” we can’t always run from the people who bother us, but church should be the one place our kids can feel safe. I would rather teach my kids lessons about how to deal with difficult people pretty much anywhere but at church (if possible).
5. They don’t like their youth leader/teacher.
My husband, after misbehaving during middle school youth group, was told by one of his teachers that he was “going to go to hell.” You can imagine how he felt about her after that. I went to a youth group conference in high school and, when I didn’t get emotional about the message like other kids, was told by my youth group leader that there was “something wrong” with me. I never wanted to go near that youth group leader again.
The other possibility is that the leader has no credibility with your kids – too young, a hypocritical lifestyle, inexperienced, etc. If kids don’t respect their youth leader, they won’t value their church experience enough to go. This is especially true for middle and high schoolers.
If there is a legitimate and significant reason why your kids don’t like their leader or teacher, I believe it is absolutely appropriate to find another church.
6. It’s not relevant.
While it would be great if every church had a fabulous curriculum to really make the Word relevant to kids, in reality, this is the job of parents. Church does not replace the application of faith at home in daily life. If you don’t pray with your kids, study the Bible with your kids, or talk about faith with your kids at home, relevance is mostly left at the door of the chapel.
One major relevance issue stands out here, from my experience: if your child’s notion of Jesus and faith has been boiled down to heaven/hell or saved/not saved, church quickly becomes irrelevant. This was hugely true for me. All the churches I went to focused so much on salvation that there was no emphasis on a living faith. As far as I was concerned, I believed in Jesus and was saved, and then couldn’t see why I really needed to go talk about it more each week. If you’re not applying faith at home, your kids may come to see church as a redundant message about a decision that they feel they have already made (to be saved or baptized).
7. They don’t believe in God or are doubting Christianity.
I read a fascinating study recently showing that most adults who have turned away from the church started doubting God in middle school (I’m going to write a separate blog soon on these findings). The more doubt your kids start to have, the less interested they will be in going to church and hearing about topics that aren’t directly related to their specific questions at the time. Having an ongoing faith conversation at home is critical so you can relevantly address these questions.
(Need help learning about and understanding the biggest challenges to kids’ faith today? Check out my new book, Keeping Your Kids on God’s Side: 40 Conversations to Help Them Build a Lasting Faith.)
8. They don’t have a strong relationship with Jesus.
Practically speaking, this reason trumps all the other reasons. If a child is old enough to have a strong relationship with Jesus, that will likely outweigh all of these other things. If the relationship is weak or not there, then all the other reasons come into play. This is where we, as parents, have to really shepherd the hearts of our kids, by understanding where they are, why they are there, and what is needed to help lead them to where we want them to be with the Lord.
OK, your turn! Parents with older kids, what other reasons have you dealt with/are you dealing with? What approaches do you recommend or do you NOT recommend taking?