“Dad, I want to go to church”

“Dad, I want to go to church” March 28, 2013

This past weekend my wife and I fell into an interesting dilemma. Our 12-year-old son wanted to go with a friend to church. My initial response was, “Sure, no big deal.” I spoke with the friend’s mom on the phone about it, and she came by and picked him up on Sunday morning. He spent the morning and part of the afternoon with them and their church friends.

Shortly after I said okay, I started looking around on the internet to see what kind of church this was. It looked “harmless.” It’s part of the Church of God denomination. One of those churches that seems to be trying its hardest at being “relevant.” I really didn’t do much more digging.

We heard from our son throughout the day about how things were going. He seemed to be having a good time. After we picked him up, he told us about a couple at the church who were really nice to him. He said that the husband asked him what he believed, and he told him he didn’t “believe in God.” To which he responded, “That’s okay.” I guess that’s a much better response than could be expected.

After spending the morning and part of the afternoon thinking about this situation, and talking to my wife about it, the first thing I could say was basically, “Sometimes, church people are very well-intentioned, and they are some of the nicest people you’ll ever know. But, they can also think and believe some really unhealthy things, and end up unintentionally treating people terribly.”

Later in the day, my wife said we should sit both of our kids down (our other son is 13) and have a much longer conversation about this. Family story time.

I hadn’t really thought much about the fact that my kids seemed so much younger when we were caught up in the “church world.” Before I had quit my job as a church “professional,” they had already stopped attending services months prior. My kids would have been about 8 and 9. And, because of the nature of the complementarian culture that had been created, she had really only made a few friends through the church. (If that doesn’t make any sense to you, you probably haven’t been involved in a church like that.) My family hadn’t been nearly as invested in the whole thing as I had been. When I asked my kids to tell me what they knew, they couldn’t remember much.

I tried to sum up my own history of being heavily involved in churches for most of my life. I told them that I had gone from being an assistant youth pastor right after high school, to a “worship leader,” then getting ordained as an elder/pastor, and finally joining the staff of a much larger church. My wife explained that she hadn’t been raised in church, and that really her only exposure to church had been through me.

This was when I realized that what I was trying to explain was that churches can be a very positive thing for the individuals involved, the surrounding neighborhoods and cities, and the world. But, although we would not be who we are today without them, and we would not know many of the people that we do, our experiences with churches have been more negative than positive. We have been harmed more than helped by churches.

Now, of course, there is one way to go from this kind of conversation. Many people have been hurt by churches, and they have decided to shut down that conversation completely. They are simply uninterested. And, that is okay. Because I think that many churches do more harm than good, I think it is better to completely disconnect from that world than to stay in a toxic environment – just like a spouse should leave an abusive one, rather than stick around in hopes that things will change. But, I am not convinced that this is or should be the end of the conversation for everyone.

Which led me to explain that there are basically two kinds of churches: ones that do more good than harm; and vice versa. I don’t think any group of people can be a purely positive force in the world. We unavoidably do damage to each other. But, I think there is a spectrum. The difficulty is that where each group falls on the spectrum is highly subjective. I don’t think anyone can come up with an objective assessment of which churches are which. We each have to decide what is good for us. (I think that more people who have any interest in church at all should study how cults function. It can be pretty revealing to learn how similar these two kinds of groups can be.)

We then told them that if they wanted us, as a family, to try to find the first kind of church, we would totally be on board with it. But, as their parents, we have to help them decide what would be healthy. And, at this point, we’re not convinced that evangelical churches – that, for example, demean women or gay people, or have very specifically defined gender roles, or tell people God hates them and will send people to hell forever – fit our own, subjective, “positive force in the world” definition.

After all of that, though, we asked our younger son why he wanted to go to that church in the first place. His response? A girl. Anything else? Nope, he’s not interested. Oh well. If nothing else, this helped me rethink some things that I hadn’t in awhile. And, I hope we helped them understand where we were coming from. But, for now, we’re not going to try to find a church. And that’s okay.

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  • rachel

    This was really interesting to me. I have an 8 year old, and she knows I don’t believe in God, and from time to time she’s told me (perhaps because of this fact) that she does believe in God. I have always responded, “That’s okay, you can believe in things differently than I do,” and that seems to be that. She’s never expressed a serious interest in attending church, and we’ve never gone, although I’ve wondered from time to time if I “should’ take her to a variety of religious services (Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Pagan) so that she can have a glimpse into a variety of religions (you know, to make an “objective” choice). But I haven’t, partly because I resist the idea that she should have to choose any religion — and where do I take her for the atheist/humanist sample?

    Your story also reminded me of my own (brief) relationship with religion… I started attending confirmation classes at a Methodist church down the road from my home when I was 15, mostly because the people were so nice and accepting and loving. When I realized that the end goal was a public affirmation of my faith in God, I quit.

    This all makes me think that the allure of churches, and religion in general, to kids is often just the sense of belonging and ritual that these spaces offer. Where is my community, my ritual? What can I offer as an atheist parent that rivals this sense of higher power? Is love and acceptance within my family enough?

    And, it reminds me that sometimes I just read too much into everything. My daughter likes churches, but I’ve come to realize that it’s mostly about the big statues, the stained glass, the singing. Sometimes I just need to relax, and let her figure things out herself, answer questions only when asked, and not worry. I really am pretty confident that if I support her responsibility to form her own beliefs on the subject, she’ll come to the conclusions right for her.

    Anyway, your post felt really relevant to me, and I felt like I was in the room with you for that conversation. Thank you for having it. 🙂

    • Thanks, Rachel!

      My hope for at least the last few years is that my wife and I have taught our kids to think critically more than anything else. It’s what I wish I would have even known how to do when I was much younger, and a much younger parent.

  • atimetorend

    I fled a new reformed type (sgm) church a few years ago. I was really moved by your highlighted statements:

    “Many people have been hurt by churches, and they have decided to shut down that conversation completely. They are simply uninterested. And, that is okay.
    “I don’t think anyone can come up with an objective assessment of which churches are which. We each have to decide what is good for us.
    Those can be very rare words to hear!

    I would not be in church, but have stuck with it because of my wife, who has not wanted to give it up, and we have found a healthy place for both of us, me as an unbeliever , my wife as a believer trying to hold on to her faith, and both of us de-toxifying.

    We also have kids similar ages going through similar things, and it is touching to see your approach to teaching and valuing their critical thinking skills. I am so thankful my kids are out of the evangelical world where they are now encouraged to think critically about everything, without religion being an exception to that. Enjoyed this post very much, thanks. And Rachel’s comment too.

    • Thanks for the comments! I think it is sad that so many people are so unaware that this form of evangelicalism is not the only thing out there. Almost everyone I know wants community, but I don’t think we necessarily have to chunk everything in order to find that.