Today I’m excited to share a guest post on this important topic from Dr. Daniel Christensen.
“What can I do now to help my children commit to church when they are adults?”
I ask myself this question a lot because I want my children to have a life-long dedication to church. I want them to have mornings when it seems like the sermon was just for them; to experience what it’s like to have a song pass through their emotions and come to rest in their soul; to find a Jonathan to their David or a Ruth to their Naomi; and to use their God-given gifts to edify others.
I even want them to break down in the middle of nowhere while riding in a dilapidated youth group van, just so they get the full church experience.
“How can I protect my children from the world, the flesh, and the evil one?”
I ask myself this question a lot, too, because I hate when my children get hurt. I adamantly protect them from dangers like sunburns and moving vehicles, so how much more should I protect them from greater threats like a sinful world, a coaxing flesh, and a lying devil?
I want my children to experience both ends of the shepherd’s staff. I want the staff’s hook to guide them into the flock and the staff’s end to keep the wolves of the world at bay.
“Then my children will be well,” I tell myself.
This security, however, is only an illusion. My experience as a church member and a pastor has convinced me that the greatest threat to my children’s life-long commitment to church may not come from outside the flock, but from inside it. The teeth of wolves may be long and sharp, but in the church it is the bites from sheep that always seem to penetrate deepest.
“How do I prepare my children for getting hurt by the church?”
One of the greatest impulses I have as a father is to protect my children. At times these instincts are so strong that they teeter on irrationality. Sometimes I can’t think of a reason why the furniture in my daughter’s room shouldn’t have protective foam pads on the corners. She’s 9.
That feeling, however, must not keep me from encouraging my children to have important experiences, even if there is a risk for injury. In the end, I would rather my children commit to church and train them for the experiences they will have. So how do I prepare them?
In exploring the answer to this question, I am convinced that these three things are crucial.
1. Model forbearance.
Once when I was a pastor, a husband and wife decided to permanently leave our church after they were inadvertently overlooked on the day pictures were taken for the directory. I liked the couple a lot and was saddened when I realized our scheduling mistake. I apologized sincerely for the blunder and assured them that I was thankful for their membership in our church. In the end, they expressed that they were too hurt to return and chose a different church to attend.
Committing to a church includes times of getting overlooked, being criticized, and having our feelings hurt. Like a scraped knee, these occasions should not be ignored, but appropriately dressed in order to restore the individuals and the church body to full health.
In Colossians 3:13, Paul tells church-goers two ways to do this. First, “bear with each other.” This means that people must endure difficult times in the relationships they have at church. Second, “forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another.” This means people must pardon the complaints they have about others. Then Paul states the basis for doing these things: “Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” Jesus chose to bear with us and forgive the grievances he had with us. Therefore, we may not deny these to others.
Parents fail to model forbearance to their children when they harbor anger and resentment toward others in the church. They pass on to their children an inheritance of bitterness that grows and is never uprooted (cf. Heb 12:15). Parents who hold grudges against others forfeit growth and maturity in their lives and in the lives of their children.
2. Don’t church hop.
Parents who hop from church to church teach their children to live within a suffocating standard of perfectionism that will leave their soul gasping for breath. Christians must understand that there will be no perfect church until heaven and apply that reality to their church experience (cf. Rev. 21:27). Church-hoppers may attest to this verbally, but practically they don’t.
In most of the letters that Paul wrote to churches, he addresses problems in the fellowship. Sometimes the challenges were doctrinal (e.g. 1 Tim. 1:3). Other times they were external (e.g. Col. 2:18). Still other times, they were relational (e.g. 1 Cor. 6:1).
Paul’s counsel was not for church-goers to abandon these imperfect churches, but to be a part of the remedy that would bring about resolution to the problem (e.g. 1 Cor. 6:5).
3. Work on your child’s conflict resolution skills at home and at school.
Taking a holistic approach to conflict resolution will help your child deal with all relationship trials, including those at church. Any parent can do this by training their children in the fundamentals of conflict resolution.
For example, helping your child to articulate their feelings when they get hurt, guards against unhealthy reactions, from losing their temper to giving the silent treatment. Also, validating your child’s emotions when they are vocalized helps them feel recognized and understood. And teaching them to apologize equips them for making mistakes.
Like a rising tide lifts all boats, working on your child’s conflict resolution skills in every area of life will undoubtedly help them when they get hurt by the church.
All relationships, including those at church, come with inherent risk because they require a certain level of vulnerability, which creates the possibility of being hurt. To try and prevent my children from getting hurt by the church may be natural, but thinking I can succeed is just naïve.
It seems the wisest approach is to teach my children how God wants them to respond when they do get hurt by the church. If I can’t prevent them from getting wounded, I can at least help them prepare for it in a way that pleases the Shepherd who experienced immeasurable hurt so that theirs might be healed (cf. Isa. 53:5).
Have you ever been hurt by a church experience? What would you tell your kids about getting hurt by the church?
Dr. Daniel Christensen lives in Salem, Oregon. He has been married to Erin for 13 years and they have three young children. He is a professor at the Salem Campus of Northwest University, teaching in the areas of Bible, theology, philosophy, religion, and history. He and his family attend Salem Evangelical Church.