Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Youth Ministry Question: Parents and Students Attending Different Churches

Why do some parents allow their students to attend different churches?

It's is a phenomenon happening in the American church that I've been pondering. This post on Scot McKnight's blog brings up the issue as a father struggles to discern how to lead his family and stay true to his ecclesiological beliefs. I've known a number of families who have made this decision (some of you read this blog too, so I hope you'll speak up in the comments!)

There are two variations of this phenomenon:

1. The children leave and the parents stay. The family has gone to the same church together for awhile, but the children have grown up, met some new friends, and decided to go to another youth group/church in town. Or the students simply stop going to church altogether.

2. The parents leave and the children stay. For a plethora of reasons, the parents decide that the church they've attended just isn't right for them. However, they see that their children have friendships and connections that they want to maintain at this church. So they let their teenagers stay at the church while they leave and start attending another church. Or the parents simply stop going to church altogether.

I think there are plenty of positive motives and outcomes for this decision. First, this allows students to self-differentiate and own their faith in Christ. When a young person is trusted enough by their parents to explore their faith options and make decisions on their own in the context of a familial dialogue between parent and child, then a personal faith tends to be the result. This also allows for parents to be members of a body where they can sincerely worship and serve. If a parent cannot sincerely worship and serve within a church body for theological and Spirit-led reasons, then staying put could feel like an ecclesiological stay-together-for-the-kids. Both parent and student must take ownership of their faith as independent members of the greater Body of Christ. Attending different churches is inevitable as soon as the student leaves home for college.

However, this is my biggest question: why would a parent allow their student to be at a church where they couldn't/wouldn't worship? If you are actively discipling your child, why let them be at a place that doesn't match your beliefs or practices, especially if you believe those practices are ultimately unhealthy? Could this also perpetuate the already-fractured structures inherent in our familial ethos of America? Churches already tend to split families up by programs and demographics, so perhaps attending totally different churches isn't much different. Yet that also doesn't make it healthy. Shouldn't families desire to worship together, as a communal act of praise to God? I also wonder if this phenomenon is more recent due to the consumerism inherent in our culture. One can now find a church that suits their own needs and desires. When that church gets old or feels outdated, they can find a new one, a Church 2.0 for their ever-changing whims.

What is our theology of family and church? That's the deeper question here. When Scripture tells us to impress the Lord's commands on our children and describes whole families who choose to follow the Lord together, it seems that family is deeply important to one's spiritual formation. However, there are other passages that connote a responsibility and relationship between an individual and Christ, one that goes beyond family ties. There is both individual and communal responsibility in the process of salvation. The church becomes our new family in the kingdom of God, with each of us becoming brothers and sisters in Christ. In any church, there is a responsibility for the older to disciple the younger. Theologically, this is a significant reason why youth ministry exists in churches--we are the advocates for fostering this kind of environment for spiritual formation of young people.

I imagine my son, Copeland, approaching me at age 16 and saying, "Dad, I've been thinking and praying about it, and I want to start attending the Anglican church down the street. I love the liturgy, and there's something about it that just makes me feel like I belong." I would have a difficult time saying no. Even as a pastor, I'd probably take a Sunday off just to go worship with him at the new church. I want my children to fall in love with Jesus and His church, not my own preferences. However, if he wanted to start attending a nearby Buddhist temple, I don't think I'd approve that decision so readily.

What do you think? What are the positives and negatives of families who attend different churches? Share your thoughts and stories in the comments.

1 comment:

  1. We fall into Category #2. In our particular situation, God called us (the parents) away from the church we had attended as a family. It was unexpected, as we had no huge problems/issues with our church at the time, but it was clear God was calling us away. I truly believe that our situation has worked because it was what God was calling us to & he equipped & gifted us for the task. In talking to our kids, they would agree that from an "adult church" perspective, the new church is where they would be more likely to attend. However, the former church Youth Group, although smaller, offers more opportunities for community, service, leadership & has the BEST YOUTH STAFF EVER who truly love on our kids. For a time the kids did double duty & attended both churches (their choice). They eventually, gravitated back towards the old church which we supported. For our family, this scenario worked, however it is not ideal & I would caution parents before they make this type of move. It will take extra time, participation, communication & prayer. I truly believe that God gave our family specific gifts to be able to thrive in this scenario. Being a homeschooling family, we have lots of time w/our kids & didn't feel like they were being pulled away from us by attending a different church anymore that just being separated by Youth Services/Sunday school would have. We have friendships with the youth staff at our former church & still participate in activities where parents are encouraged to attend. We are proactive in communicating about our kids with the youth staff & they with us. We've encouraged our house to be a "hangout" house which has allowed us to continue to get know students/friends at our former church. We have kids who are very willing to share what they're learning & processing. It also helped that we did not leave our former church over any divisive issues, so we were able to maintain relationships there. The bottom line is that for us, we had to be obedient to where God was calling us & trust Him for the details.