How Do I Keep My Kids from Hating Church?

drum-church-music

Our son E, who is two years old, ran in front of the church’s stage at top speed, giggling and clapping his hands. He chased his friends, crawled across the floor, and even gave one friend a high five at the end of a song. We meet in a school auditorium where the stage sits about three feet about the seats and spacious front area that is left open for energetic children. This particular Sunday the worship team chose energetic songs for a service focused on children.

When the band transitioned to the “Happy Song” by Delirious, which is a kind of anthem that celebrates God’s love, I lost it. Tears welled in my eyes as he jumped and galloped to the music. I remembered the first time I heard that song in college. It was a bit weird and off-beat, but it also tapped into a powerful sense of joy and freedom in celebrating God’s love. I’d come from a fairly conservative church, so clapping and shouting and moving anything other than my mouth during worship felt a bit different.

If there was ever a high point in my days as a church attending Christian, it had to be those days in college. I was still learning about my faith and tiptoeing around more charismatic forms of worship. I envied my roommate who came from a Vineyard church. He had this sense of peace that came over him during worship that I couldn’t quite imagine for myself. As we sang “The Happy Song” and some Hillsong numbers in my Christian college’s chapel, I began to sense there may be something to this.

Worship was where my faith really took root in my early 20’s. My theology fell apart in seminary, and while I put the pieces back together, worship sustained me. Then again, worship was also the cause of my greatest conflicts within the church as generations divided over musical styles and song choices.

Seeing my generally quiet and reserved son literally jump for joy at a song that sparked my own discovery of freedom and joy in worship, I also remembered how bitter I’d become throughout my 20’s. I’d been so critical of the church, and I was especially critical of the music. In fact, the most important step in my healing from church was hanging up my guitar and taking my hands off music completely. I just couldn’t be that guy any more. I didn’t want to have an opinion. I just wanted to participate in whatever my church offered and leave things at that.

I’d been a part of the worship wars, and the thing about a war is there’s never one side with clean hands. I was critical, and I was criticized. I treated people like problems to be solved or dismissed, rather than as members of the same body of Christ. And many did the same to me. I don’t know who fired the first shot in the different churches I’d attended, but I do know there was a lot of “shooting” in other churches during those years as well.

As I saw E’s joy during worship and remembered the way I’d fallen out of love with the church throughout a series of conflicts and bad experiences, I wanted to shield him from that same crash. He’s only 2, but he already loves church. He loves the music. He thanks God for the drums at night… along with corncobs and playgrounds. He loves going to the two-year-old room with his friends. How can I make sure that joy for gathering with God’s people for worship keeps happening?

I’m not sure that my approach to church is the best option for him. I’ve basically chosen to disengage from the mechanics of the church service because it had been a source of toxic experiences in the past. However, E doesn’t have that history. He can pursue his own path, and I want to guide him as he makes his own decisions and discovers God for himself.

So much of his future seems to hinge on the course chosen by myself and my generation:

Will we welcome his priorities and the ways he worships God?

Can I advocate for ALL generations in the church, not just the ones that pay the bills?

Can I walk the fine line between giving him things to do at church so that he feels involved without turning him into a minion that serves the whims of the older leaders?

Can I give him positions of responsibility that come with enough oversight to help him take ownership for the community without shutting down his original ideas?

While we have many denominations and traditions, church has to change, at least a little bit, for each generation. It needs to feel sacred and holy and “right” to each generation. And this balance is not easily held.

You may notice that I’m addressing these questions to myself and really to us, the people who go to church today. We are the people who are preparing the church for the next generation. Will the next generation find a place where they can belong and worship God or will church strike them as a foreign place that caters only to the spiritual preferences of Generation X and Millennials?

There are things our leaders can do, but in my experience, the leaders were often willing to listen to me throughout my 20’s. They did try to bring in young leaders and train them. Some churches did this better than others, but for the most part the leaders were at the mercy of the congregation.

While some leaders asked too much of me or didn’t really want to take me seriously, things wouldn’t have been so bad if it hadn’t been for all of the crap they were taking and all of the crap I was taking from the church attendees and members. I received criticism directly and others directed their criticism at the leaders. It was a huge power play. And I understand the desire for church to look a certain way. It was ironic actually. While fighting to preserve their particular form of church they accused me of trying to remake church in my own image.

It will be really easy to repeat that mistake again with E’s generation. Anecdotally speaking, so many people in my own generation had to fight for our places in the church. Others started their own churches. And still others opted out altogether. The first two, who had to fight or start from scratch, are the ones who will be deeply invested in their churches. Change for the next generation won’t be easy. And it’s not like we can plan ahead for this. Who knows what spirituality and worship will look like in the next twenty to thirty years?

As I watch E run and jump for joy in church, I want to shield him from all of the criticism and petty arguments that could come his way in the future. But even more than that, I want to tell his story and hold him up for everyone to see.

Do you see this raw joy and wonder? This is what it means to be childlike. This is what we should aim for too.

The tragedy of church isn’t that the young people have failed to conform to the standards and plans set up by the adults. The tragedy of church is that the adults have failed to become childlike. We’ve neglected the amazing gifts right in our presence that our children have been offering us. We’ve pushed and pulled and squeezed the younger generations so hard to shape them into our own images that they’ve been shot right out of the church.

Then the older generations point fingers at the worldly young people who don’t care about church and the Barna Group releases an alarming survey about the coming downfall of the church so that pastors can wag fingers and authors can write books offering the solution…

I confess, most days, it’s hard to become childlike when cynicism appears to be perfectly valid.

I don’t know what becoming childlike will look like, but for today, I want to say to my son that I’ll always make room for him to experience God’s joy and presence in church. I’ll always welcome his perspective and the ways that he learns about God. And I’ll do what I can honor the lessons his joy has to teach us all.

 

We See You

Early Morning on Playground

Our toddler, E, is running up the steps and zipping down the playground’s small slide on his stomach. Our newborn, B, is strapped to my chest, a heater pack on a hot fall day wiggling from time to time, threatening to wake up before I have time to run home for his bottle. We need to head home soon.

I hear her before I see her.

When I do see her, I can hardly take my eyes off her.

Maybe five or six years old, she’s running behind her father who is five paces ahead and engrossed in a call on his smart phone. He’s muscular, wearing a perfectly fitted shirt and what I imagine to be designer shorts. It’s as if he’s walked out of a catalogue and onto a playground where a little girl started chasing him.

He only acknowledges her when her shouts are audible for everyone within a few blocks.

“What? What’s wrong?” he demands.

If he’d spent ten second listening to her shouts, he would have known.

“I want you to stay right here!” the girl says as she points at a spot next to the playground. “Don’t walk away while you talk on the phone. Not like last time. You can’t leave me here and walk all the way down the bike trail. I’m afraid of being alone.”

He nods and says, “Yeah.” With that he turns away from her and resumes his phone call. He may as well be a mile away.

Resigned, she stomps over to the swings and glides back and forth on her stomach, staring down at the mulch. A few other kids her age are wrapping up a game of tag and catch her eye as they charge past her.

I see her loneliness and heartache, and I feel the challenge of my position as a man. I don’t want to be that creeper guy on the playground who goes over and talks to random little girls, you know? But her loneliness and perhaps even fear strikes a place deep within me from the past. And I know that pain, and pray out of that pain that God would send someone to see her, to pay attention, and to let her know how wonderful she is.

I want to scream across the playground from where I stand with my two boys, “We see you! We’re here! You can join us! You’re always welcome to play with us. We’ll listen! We won’t turn away or walk away! You’re beautiful and kind and completely right. You should never have to be alone.”

But then B starts to squirm, and E gets that mad dog look in his eyes that portends both hunger and exhaustion converging, and I have to let my boys know that I see them. I have to go, luring E back to the stroller with promises of peanut butter sandwiches and crackers.

The other kids and their families hop onto their bikes or retreat to their cars. It’s as if we’d all agreed to leave once this girl set foot on the playground.

The man continues talking on his phone. E babbles to me about crackers and this sheep bath toy that I know we’ve lost during the walk. B makes a “sqwicking” noise as he settles into his pacifier.

The girl rocks on the swing, back and forth, back forth—alone.

If You Like to Get Hammered, Maybe Parenting Won’t Be Fun

IBeer Glass had a cross-cultural experience of sorts a few weeks ago during a theology conference. We had about 45 minutes to kill, so I suggested we walk over to my favorite brew pub that happened to be right across the street from the convention center hosting our conference.

The brewpub was wall to wall people, so we slipped a few doors down to a legit, gritty bar.

I think I’ve been to a legit, gritty bar once before. Maybe. Unlike the brew pub where folks order a flavorful, fresh beer on tap and enjoy it over a rich appetizer, many of the gritty bar folks hauled fists full of Bud Lights in wave after wave. I have no idea how many people walked past our table with 3 Bud Lights in each hand.

I’m sure people drank other things at the gritty bar. I’m sure some of the Bud Light drinkers even branched out. Perhaps they tossed in a Coors Light too.

Whatever they added to their epic beer consumption, I soon caught on to the goal. This was not about “enjoying” the beer. The beer was a mood enhancer, a mechanism for partying. You didn’t need the beer to taste good. You just needed to get drunk enough to lose your inhibitions without vomiting or passing out.

I presume bar fights sometimes enter into the picture as well.

This was a fun night out for many folks.

Needless to say, I couldn’t relate. Call me a killjoy if you must, but I’d rather think of my own jokes rather than relying on the booze to do the heavy lifting.

Later that evening I walked out of our final plenary session for the conference, longing for the quiet of my bedroom, snuggled up next to my wife. However, many people in downtown Columbus were just starting their evening. Some may have still been at the bar.

If I pulled over and told the people waiting in line at the night club about my ideal evening that involves reading a book on the couch next to my wife, many of them would probably give me a thumbs down or sneer, shouting, “Boring!”

I didn’t think for one moment that I was missing out. Booze and booming music? No thanks!

That brings me to parenting and “fun.” There’s a book out about parenting called All Joy and No Fun that addresses the demands and limitations of parenting.

I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve read articles about it and have heard some lengthy interviews about it. I have participated in conversations about how parenting changes your life and the limitations it places on you.

I’m not an expert by any means. We only have one kid with another on the way this July. So perhaps take what I’m about to say with a grain of salt.

However, I think the all joy to “no fun” ratio for parenting will be REALLY different for everyone. It’s really tough to come up with a hard and fast rule about what kinds of joy and fun you’ll have as a parent because we all have different needs and expectations about what is “fun.” In addition, our conceptions of fun may change when kids are in the picture.

On the one hand, my wife and I relish a quiet evening at home. Having a kid asleep upstairs isn’t a major burden. We’re not fans of the times that he wakes up screaming, but for the most part, we’re not missing bars, clubbing late at night, or cruising the city after midnight because that wasn’t our lifestyle to begin with.

It would be nice to go out more often for artisan NY style pizza, but for the most part, having a kid hasn’t been the kill joy that it may be for those who want to party all night—Whether that’s clubbing, lengthy bar outings filled with cheap beer, or leisurely sipping a Saison at a brew pub.

There’s no doubt that one must reign in the bar hopping and beer guzzling in order to be a responsible parent. You need to be present. And if you hire a baby sitter, you can’t ask the baby sitter to come scrape you off the pavement outside the bar after last call.

Look, parenting is tough. You will be super sleep deprived for the first 6 months, if not longer.

You will have your patience tested by toddlers who would rather die than put on shoes.

You will be pooped on, peed on, and spat up upon over, and over, and over.

You will repeatedly ask, “What’s THAT smell?”

It’s not convenient. It’s almost always messy. We all have to make sacrifices. We all face limitations because of kids. Life changes.

And yes, there are many joyful, wonderful moments.

I watched my son take his first steps. We play together with his stuffed animals each day, and he’s kicking his imagination into high gear. Peter Rabbit has attempted to eat just about every object in our living room at this point.

My son loves digging in the dirt of our garden, and he can haul his wagon down the sidewalk on his own. He can wiggle to music, and there’s nothing better than sweeping the floor with his very own broom.

There are daily interruptions and tests of my patience. There are incredible joys and accomplishments. Every parent knows that. Every expectant parent can at least imagine that as well.

However, when it comes to the all joy/no fun balance, remember that every person has different needs.

The extroverted mother will hate being stuck inside all winter with her kids. The introverted dad will wince at the thought of going to story time with ALL THOSE PEOPLE.

The beer-guzzling champion who wants to settle down will have to give up on a particular version of “fun,” while the quiet bookworms will eventually figure out time to read and drink tea as is their habit, but they’ll never have enough time to read all of the books.

All parents need to make sacrifices for the sakes of their children, but those sacrifices will be different for each of us.

Some will sacrifice more fun than others. Some will find more joy in the daily ins and outs of parenting than others.

In my own case, I’ve found different fun and different joy in being a parent compared to when we were childless. It’s not like the fun stopped with kids or the joy only reached epic levels when we brought our son home from the hospital.

Yes, we don’t hang out with friends as often as we used to. Yes, our lives look quite different than before parenthood. There are times when the all joy/no fun mantra feels accurate.

At the same time, our son has redefined joy and fun for us. However, I can say without judgment that other parents have found that transition to be far more difficult.

I spent most of my adult life fearing parenthood. Seriously. Straight up anxiety attacks and all. Now, I can’t imagine a greater joy than parenting alongside my wife. Our family is evolving and changing, and for the most part, it’s changing for the better, even if we had something pretty awesome to begin with.

My wife is my favorite person in the world, and having a child together has added more than it has subtracted.

It would be presumptuous to suggest that every family’s transition to children will be the epic win we’ve experienced. It’s going to be different for everyone, even if I can guarantee that effectively parenting will most certainly require passing on the gritty bars where people walk around with three Coors Lights in each hand.

Then again, I can’t imagine getting much joy or fun from slamming back six Coors Lights in a gritty bar to begin with, so what do I know?