“Our Children Don’t Get Anything Out of the Service”: Worship as Training for Life

I have a six year old. Truth be told, if we would let him, he would sit in front of the television for hours consuming hours of programming about sharks. But we (Rae and I) don’t allow it. “One hour a day!” we say. Why? Because, if we do let him watch that much TV, the child’s brain will turn to mush. He will never learn how to engage the social world. He will be become passive. He will probably gain a lot of weight. He will learn to live life from the vantage point of the remote control.
Most parents know this instinctively. Entertaining television programming about sharks can certainly teach a child a lot of stuff about the sea world. But it can only go so far in terms of real life. The child must learn to read, learn to listen/pay attention to a real human voice, learn to stay focused without screen change every .4 seconds. I’m sure my son has A.D.D. or A. D. H. D. It is the brain patterns most easily developed within our media driven culture. But I must nurture my child into real social existence. Or else he too shall become a statistic. He too will ever lack motivation for anything else but the next immediate titillation.  This is why for me, when my son says “but daddy, I just don’t get anything out of the worship service,” I am not the least bit surprised. It is a teaching moment – not the occasion to run to the next mega church Disney service.

These are the reasons I get sad when I hear a parent tell me “my children don’t get anything out of the service, we need to look a another church” There are good reasons to seek another gathering of people. Mission is one of them, not a childs’ attention span. Don’t get me wrong eh? If the church as a whole is flat-out unengaging. If the church does not attempt to incorporate children into worship. If the church lacks hospitality for children, if the church itself is just another TV show passively consumed, then yes we have a problem here. Parents should should ask why and ask how we the pastors are leading the situation.

It would serve us well to look at the cultural paradyms behind the statement “my children don’t get anything out of the service.”

We should be asking, “What counts as education?” American society says “learning outcomes.” The accumulation of information/skills and the ability to use that information/skills. The church says education is more than this, it is the acquiring of a way of life, skills to live life with God. “How does one learn a way of life?” American Society says through a set of cognitive progressions (stages of growth per brain development). The church says, yes there are cognitive progressions, but it is also a deeper understanding/perception of moral and spiritual realities of life that comes through immersion into a community.  The U.S. education system and culture industries basically buy into and promote the ways of (what I have called) American Society and it is everywhere. It is the way of most university educated people and the average person on the street. Does the church (and our children) even stand a chance?

There’s enough literature out there now on what we have learned about churches and child development and the educational ways of (what I have called) the American Society. Kenda Creasy Dean is now famous for showing how the churches of the US are shaping children into a moral deist therapeutic faith. American children, in other words, grow up to think of God as a personal moral therapist available on call when needed to solve a problem and make life happy. I’ve seen this happen in teenagers lives for years.

So, at this point, what I do when parents say to me ““Our Children Don’t Get Anything Out of the Service” is a gentile nudge around three statements. I ask these parents, please remember three things:

1.) There’s an encounter with the living God here at our worship service. Your son/daughter need to be coached into that reality. They need to be prepared for the reality that we gather into His presence so that we might in turn know His presence in every area of our everyday lives. Let us join together then, we the church and the parents, to help our children become people sensitive to the encounter with the Almighty Forgiving and Saving/Renewing God in our lives and in our daily walk.

2.) But Discerning God is Rarely Immediately Obvious. God is hidden. So your son and/or daughter and our church need to learn and be sensitized to discerning the presence of God. If we put God into sound bites or hyped up worship experiences, then your child will learn instinctually that church is the only place he or she can find God. And this simply isn’t true.  In our world, especially given the dominant educational and media frameworks, God has been framed out of our sightlines. God has become a privatized internal experience. Part of being in worship together is the place for all of us, including our children, to learn how to discern God. It takes subtle encouragement, asking questions, nurturing in the right direction, not pushing too hard. We the church and the parent must come together to help our children or else they will become moral therapeutic deists (I love that nomenclature J).

3.) Children Ultimately Will Follow/Imitate Their Parents and Adults They Can Respect – therefore one’s children and how they are progressing can function as an excellent diagnostic for our own level of engagement with God. I must be careful to not overstate this because children all develop differently. But let’s face it, eh? If we are forcing our children to do something we are ourselves are disconnected from, it ain’t going to happen.  If we send our children to a more “passive” entertaining form of worship service, they will ultimately learn to become observers of the Christian faith not livers of the way of Jesus and His Kingdom. If they see our life with God as something we do when it offers us something pragmatically advantageous to the American life, it will become something to be used when helpful, put on a shelf when not, they too will do this. Any differential between what we do and how we live as a family could prejudice them for a lifetime against Christianity as a false form of ideological existence.

I have heard this phrase “Our Children Don’t Get Anything Out of the Service” several times a year for all the years I’ve been in the ministry. Each time we her it, I think we pastors should encourage parents to get it out among other parents, pastors and talk about it. Put it out there and carefully let us together nurture a culture of Christ for children. We really need to see this as everybody’s blessing. How do you handle this in your own home? Pastors what do you do with this complaint inevitably comes to your church? We need help if we are to get through the crisis of our children walking away from Jesus in our times.

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