By Dr. Jim Dempsey
As a children’s pastor, I hear from parents whose kids resist coming to church. I cringe when parents tell me they aren’t coming because of this. I’m tempted to shout back that church is God’s idea, and attending is not an option! (Hebrews 10:25) I want to point out that people who do not connect with church miss major components of the Christian life, like comfort, encouragement, and accountability.
But I resist the temptation to shout. I don’t preach. The concerns of these parents are valid, so we need to have solid advice for them, and we need to deliver it gently. Here are some questions that I frequently hear, and the advice I share (gently) with parents:
How firm should I be in insisting my child attend church?
This depends on the age of your child: Firmer when they are young, more flexible in the last couple of years they are at home. (See the age/stage notes later in this article.) How firm also depends on the reasons for their resistance so be sure to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit. God alone has the ultimate answer for this, so ask His advice. (James 1:5)
My child has a problem with a friend or church leader. What do I do?
If your child is young, go to that friend’s parent or to the church leader directly, drawing others in only if a one-on-one appeal doesn’t solve the problem. As your children get older, help them to address these problems themselves. This is a valuable adult skill. All of us should be ready, when we confront others, to hear their criticisms first. Teach your child that the rebukes of a friend are more valuable than the praise of an enemy, according to Proverbs 27:6: “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, But deceitful are the kisses of an enemy.”
Can the church help?
Church leaders want your child to love church, so enlist their help. Tell your child’s teachers that your child is resisting. They may have some insight to share. Ask friends and loving adults to speak to your child at church to ensure he feels welcome. Introduce your child to other adults and say good things about your child in front of her. Help your child find jobs to do in the church to make church more appealing. While you can’t expect the church to change its primary functions for your child, it should be open to your input. Don’t just complain to your church leaders. Come to them with concrete suggestions that you think might help your child enjoy church more, then trust the Lord to lead you and your church leaders.
What steps can I take to make church attendance more positive?
Let your child get to know the church as you do. Take him to the church to meet the pastor and others who work there. Help your child think of the church building as hers as much as it is yours. Help your child think about the building as less important than the believers who make up the church. This helps your child focus on people and their needs, not on the building or the events that occur there.
How much push-back is normal?
Each child is unique. What you experience with one may not be the case with your other children. Parents can influence but cannot dictate how their kids will feel about church. Strive to learn the reasons for resistance. Some may be frivolous, as when a certain teacher’s perfume is annoying. But remember, what seems frivolous to you may be truly bothersome to your child. Some reasons are age related so knowing the following developmental factors helps:
Infants/Toddlers – Beware of normal ‘separation anxiety.’ Usually this lessens as a child learns that mom or dad actually will return. Most teachers know how to handle this, so drop your child off with confidence and expect the resistance to go away within 3-4 weeks. Consistent attendance on your part is helpful.
Preschool – Most preschoolers like to attend ‘Sunday School’. When a preschooler resists, it may be due to the unfamiliarity of the environment or a sensitivity of the child to noise or the chaos of large groups of kids. Kids brought regularly to church usually fall into a routine and have fun. Try bringing your child early so that he arrives before other children when the room is quiet and orderly.
Childhood – Children in the elementary years usually attend willingly, as long as friends are there. Peer relationships become important. Most children adopt the parent’s attitude toward church, so be careful that you speak positively about your church. Resistance may stem from a personal problem like shyness, or interpersonal issues like bullying or conflict with teachers or kids.
Pre-teen and early teen – Some children begin to resist at this stage. Some question everything required of them, and church is not exempt from this new quest for independence. They may have friends who don’t go to church, or who go to a “cooler” church. At this age, they are aware of alternatives. Listen to your child’s reasons for resistance and don’t shame them. Use these conversations as opportunities to point out the reasons you have chosen your church. Don’t feel you have to defend your church, but focus on the positive reasons to stay involved.
Late teen – Other goals in life begin to press on the time commitment that church represents. Teens may have jobs, school and extracurricular demands that seem more important than church. Their choices reflect their heart condition and reveal their deeply held convictions about church. If busy-ness is the reason, perhaps you can help your child cut back in other areas. By doing so, you teach your child a valuable life lesson in setting priorities. Let the Holy Spirit lead you whether to make firm demands or to test your child’s choices by giving them the right to stay home.
If she lives in your home, receiving your support, you have a right to demand she attend church, but this is not always the wisest decision. Remember that soon your teen will make this choice without your oversight.
Suggestion: Have your older teen write up the pros and cons of attending church, then discuss that report together. I found that by asking a teen to analyze a decision, slowing the process down, he is more likely to decide in line with your own desires. At the very least, you learn about your child’s heart and know how to pray for him.
Dr. Jim Dempsey is Children’s Minister and author of Parenting Unchained available on Amazon. He leads parenting conferences and hosts a weekly radio show. Contact us at Mr. Mark’s Classroom if you would like to get in touch with him.