You're pulling off a military-level logistics operation by attempting to get you and your children out of the door in time for church. You've managed to rustle up enough clean clothes, are not on any rotas this morning and are quietly rejoicing when you hear the words you have been half-dreading, half-expecting for months now: "I don't want to go to church today. Can I just stay home instead". Or a less polite version of the same sentiment.
What should you do?
There are lots of different factors to consider, the age of your children being a crucial one, but here are five different strategies that may help:
Make it very clear that you are willing to listen. This is important at every age level as we are seeking to help children develop into adults who make good and wise decisions in life in consultation with others.
A three-year-old can throw a tantrum because they want to wear a princess dress to nursery or their swimming kit to church so listening does not always mean you agree with every demand. But hearing what the problem is shows that you respect them enough to work out if there really is a genuine issue. Are they telling you they're bored at church, anxious, lonely, overlooked, pressurised or mistreated? Have they been teased at school for going to church? Have they fallen out with someone? Are they simply trying to assert some independence? Could they be angry at some hypocrisy they've observed in your life? Or are they simply reflecting your spoken, or even unspoken but nevertheless projected, resentment of church commitments?
Whatever their age or reason for the outburst, all children deserve a fair hearing. The right time to decide may not be as you're locking the door to leave, but make sure you agree a time when this can be discussed and you can listen properly.
Once you have discovered the reason or emotion behind the child's reticence for church, we can explore things further. Taking the time to understand things from your child's perspective is important if you are going to be able to come up with an effective way forward.
As you explore, your honesty can be very supportive. Helping children to know there are times that you are bored or upset in church too or that you don't know what to say to people sometimes on Sundays can open the door to a more authentic and honest engagement with church life for both of you. This can also help to set realistic expectations about what church life is really like.
Once you have got to the bottom of the frustration, you can explore other perspectives such as what church is for, why you prioritise it as a family, and the many advantages of being part of a church community.
Finally you can explore solutions. We will look at a few in the next section, but any solution could be tried on an experimental basis. In this way you could try something for a month, and if that didn't work, another tack can be attempted.
So now you know that your child finds Sunday morning services difficult, perhaps there are some things you could experiment with to remove some of the challenges:
- Is there something they could bring to church services to help them through it – a toy, a journal or even a pet?
- Could they bring a friend along too – a possible double win for the kingdom!
- Is there something they could do at church to feel more included – a role or responsibility? With one seven-year-old we gave him a large tin of Celebrations to distribute after the service for a couple of weeks. Not only did he feel special, but he spoke to all sorts of people who would normally have ignored him.
- Is there something you could do as a family to make the morning special – a regular breakfast outing before church, or a picnic afterwards?
- If the difficulty is with the Sunday School, why not see if your child would do better in the adult service with a worksheet or digital device.
If these aren't working, is there another way in which your family can do church?
- I have friends who tag team for church – they take younger children to the family service and older children to the evening service.
- If Sunday mornings are the challenge – for example a clash with a beloved sporting activity – perhaps look at flexible ways around the issue. Many churches have Sunday evening services, homegroups or even Saturday night events.
- Perhaps you may need to consider trying a different church, or even allow them to take a break from church. This last option does not need to be seen as failure. Your child is taking an important step in taking responsibility for his or her own spiritual life. There are still ways in which to include them in the church community (through hospitality, socials etc) and to draw out them out spiritually (through praying together, family decision-making, values, priorities, etc.) These come under our final two points below.
4. Team up
As things develop, seek to be working in partnership with your church. Any reasonable church will want the whole of your family to flourish spiritually and so if we are humble in our approach there should be a way to have helpful conversations about these things with the pastoral team, the Sunday school helpers or those that serve in children's and youth ministry roles.
While your children are still small it is entirely appropriate to say something along the lines of: "I know you don't want to go to church but this is something that we do as a family together so we need to stick together on this one." There are no hard and fast rules about where the age barriers are for this, but you should feel happy the issues raised by your child are not significantly serious.
Once your children are older and are making decisions about their lives: eg what subjects to study at school, how they spend their leisure time and what they do with their money, I think we are in a different situation.
However joined up our thinking is with other leaders in the church, there is also the question of how joined up we are socially. For children in smaller churches there is often a greater sense of church as extended family. But whatever size church we go to, there is a lot to be said for inviting church folk around for meals and babysitting and help with DIY or homework projects to forge and deepen mutual relationships.
5. Be a home church
Helping our children to become all that God intends them to be was always going to mean a lot more than making sure they attend church services. We have a responsibility to model something of our faith in every aspect of our lives. Maybe ask yourself:
- What are the ways we can incorporate worship into the fabric of our family life?
- Do we offer to pray for things together with our children when we face a difficulty?
- Do we help our children see that honouring Jesus is an essential part of our family's decision-making?
- Do we take opportunities to help children understand God and the Bible outside of Sunday church services?
- How can we strategically use leisure time and holidays to increase the spiritual health of our family?
- Would a Summer festival or mission trip benefit your family this year?
- Could you and your older teens sign up together for Street Pastors?
- Could you take time off to work alongside your children in the Church holiday club?
Could these family-based spiritual activities be the means to kickstart your child's spiritual health and give them an appetite to not just attend church but be part of the mission of God that our churches are meant for?