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Weekends are full. Especially with a family.
From the word ‘go’ on Saturday morning, us parents can find ourselves hurriedly pushing kids out of the house to get to morning band practice, swimming lessons or sports matches. Afternoons bring parties – trying to remember which of the 39 Reception children is the birthday boy or girl this week, and whether you remembered to buy an appropriate present or will be forced to put cash in a card again.
Then there’s work. Dad’s working a Sunday shift this weekend, while Mum’s brought home an important project she needs to complete for Monday. The fridge is empty, so at the point where cereal for every meal becomes boring, someone with a credit card and driving licence will need to do a supermarket run, and because your eldest’s feet have been growing like he’s had hormone injections, you also need to get him to the shoe shop for a measure and yet more overpriced shoes.
Oh, and speaking of growing, the garden’s getting out of control and desperately needs a mow.
Everyone’s exhausted, and it’s only 7.35am on Saturday.
I can’t help thinking life was simpler back in the 80s and 90s when I was a kid. Shops were closed on Sundays, so fewer people worked on this day, and very few extra-curricular activities happened then. You basically had to get everything done on Saturday, and anything that didn’t get done then, simply didn’t get done.
On Sunday, you were forced to take a rest, forced to slow down, forced to do nothing – or, at least, a bit less than you did on other days.
Fast-forward to today, and we’re a demand-based people, leading increasingly frenetic lives which are both inspired by, and demanding of, the availability of pretty much anything we want, anytime we want it.
How does this affect our involvement in church?
There are so many activities competing for our time that, if we’re not careful, church will become one of them.
We often discuss how to make services more accessible to families, perhaps by meeting at a different time or on a different day. Maybe your church already does this.
But I’m not actually sure that the day, time or venue of church is the big issue for Christian parents. I think the most pressing issue for us is that of priorities. In the fight for our time, how will church fare?
For those of us who call ourselves Christians, and who want to raise our kids to know and love Jesus too, part of our discipleship is a growing understanding of our place in God’s family, the church. If we allow church attendance to slip down the list of priorities, then how will our children learn to love and be loved by their Christian brothers and sisters?
Regular church attendance is not only healthy for us and our children, it’s pretty nigh-on vital if we want to see growth in our discipleship. Unless we’re rooted in a family of believers who all desire to grow close to Jesus, we will find our own motivation waning.
There will be a point in this article where you accuse me of legalism, if you haven’t already, so let’s just get it out of the way now. Yes, it’s quite possible to have a legalistic approach to church which demands weekly attendance, no ifs, no buts, and some kind of unappealing ‘works-based’ methodology, whereby God is more pleased with us when we go than when we don’t.
This, I hope you know, is rubbish. Paul said so in Philippians 3:4-11. That doesn’t necessarily make it easier to believe, but at least we can start to get our heads round it, hoping our hearts will follow.
There’s a different, equally damaging kind of legalism, however, which we don’t like to talk about so much. And that’s the legalism which says that church attendance is only an activity – on a par with football practice, shopping for birthday presents, or going to the cinema – and therefore it can be as easily discarded from our week as our other leisure plans. I don’t feel like it, so I won’t go.
Do you see how legalistic this approach is? It reduces church attendance to something we do, something we go to, rather than a more natural coming-together of a large and diverse family, to love God and each other.
No one has to force me to hang out with my nuclear or extended family. It’s a joy to get together with those I love, united by our common familial thread.
This is the dream for Christians, too – that we would love seeing our church families so much that the decision over whether or not to go on Sunday morning (or whenever your church meets) wouldn’t even be queried.
A slippery slope
Laying aside both the legalism of believing God will love us more if we go, and the legalism of believing it’s merely an extra-curricular activity, does it really matter if we skip church?
One answer is no, our faith does not depend on it. Occasionally we have events or things which crop up on a Sunday and are important for us to attend. But another answer is yes, it absolutely does. It is the primary means by which we gain a glimpse of the Kingdom God has for us.
Having non-negotiable events which clash with church every few months, or even having the odd Sunday at home to enjoy some peace while your other half takes the kids, is one thing. But the danger is that the exception starts to become the rule. The more you miss, the harder it is to go back.
Before we know it, we’re making a mental ‘pros and cons’ list, where church is pitted against all the other possibilities for spending our time, rather than holding the priority it should have in our week as Christians.
It becomes easier to accept invitations which clash with church, sign your kids up for activities during church time, or catch up with work at the time you might have considered going to church. It just doesn’t seem to be much of a problem anymore. Church has become yet another option in our smorgasbord of potential leisure activities.
Should all Christians go to church?
Listen, there will be people reading this who, for health reasons, cannot attend church regularly or at all. There will be people who are currently attending a church but struggling with it. And there will be people who did go to church a long time ago, but somehow haven’t managed it with children, and articles like this just make them feel guilty.
Only you can make the call as to if or when your family will go to church from week to week. But let me share with you a few truths.
As an adult Christian, your faith probably won’t be too affected by missing church here and there. But your child, who has been on this planet for a far shorter period, and for whom it takes a lot less time to form or break a habit, may find their faith affected more deeply.
A month away from church as an adult is nothing. A month away from church for a 4-year-old is 2% of their life.
We make time for things we think are important. If we think that an important part of growing as Christians is to be surrounded by other Christians who encourage and challenge us, then we need to make time for that to happen – for us, and for the small people God has gifted to us. Yes, there are lots of ways this can happen, but the primary way is by showing up whenever your church meets.
And there’s more. Our culture is becoming increasingly introspective – that is, we are becoming more concerned for our own welfare than we are for other people’s welfare. When we apply this to church attendance, we end up asking the wrong questions: What am I getting out of this? What are my kids getting out of this? Is this worth setting aside a couple of hours for?
But Jesus set us a different example, one of loving and serving others, putting their needs (and smelly feet) before our own (John 13:13-15).
A primary reason we and our kids go to church is to work out what this looks like for us. Just by being there, we are an encouragement to our Christian brothers and sisters who see us sitting in the pew, trying and failing to get our many little people to stop banging or climbing or whatever they’re into this week.
As we grow into our fellowship, we discover the gifts God has given our children, and are able to help them work out how to use them to serve others. We develop a framework for not only being part of a family which supports us, but being part of that support network for others.
Rachel Turner, in the brilliant (and FREE – which means you should all stop reading this article RIGHT NOW and go and do it) Parenting for Faith video course, has a lot to say about how we educate our children in the importance of church family. How it’s not just about turning up and hanging out with our friends, but about looking out for the lost and lonely.
(Encouraging our children to do so is not the focus of this article, but you should definitely check out the course for more theological ponderings and practical tips.)
It’s hard to choose church
I know the temptation of the world. I have a football-mad nearly 10-year-old who I have tried – and failed – to find a Saturday morning football team for. It’s not happening – the leagues are all on Sundays, which means all the teams have to play then. We’ve always opted out because of church.
It’s heartbreaking wondering whether I’m holding Mister back from his natural sporting ability by choosing church over football. But I also know that our kids can be the most accomplished in the world – playing on all the teams, reaching a high grade on several instruments, performing in loads of shows – yet, as Jesus said, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Mark 8:36)
For me, it comes down to: would I rather have an adult son who was an excellent footballer, or a mature Christian? There are never any guarantees of the latter, by the way, but choosing football over church at this age wouldn’t make it very easy for my son to mature in his faith.
I want our son to grow in his relationship with Jesus, to understand the Bible more, and to discover his unique giftings within our church family. I want him to have Christian role models who aren’t us, so that when the time comes when he no longer considers us the authority on everything, he has others to turn to who will speak of the same love of the same God. I want him to know that sometimes church is hard and difficult, but that we show up anyway – because simply showing up blesses others.
God, in His grace, has provided weekday football training for Mister, numerous holiday football camps, and this year he may get to play in the school team as well. For now, my husband and I need to trust God that the sporting gifts He has given our son will bring glory to Him.
And that, I think, is where this discussion ends for me. With trust. Trust that our children will turn out OK even if they don’t attend that extra class on a Sunday. Trust that they won’t suffer socially if they don’t attend that party which clashes with church. Trust that God will help us finish our work in six days, even when we have pressing deadlines.
Some activities are ‘extra’ curricular. But church is never an ‘extra’ – it is the lifeblood of our faith, and by building our week around it, our kids will get the message loud and clear about where our priorities lie.