This picture hangs on the wall of my office at church. I love it because it shows so clearly the tensions that church often creates within our families. Mom and her daughters are on one wave-length while her son and husband are obviously on another.
I’ve been a pastor for thirty years and in that time I’ve seen just about every way churches and families can relate to each other. Not all of them fit into the Rockwell vision of idealized America, but all of them do demonstrate how complicated family life and connection with a local church can become:
· I’ve known many families who thrived in their local church. The parents were committed followers of Jesus and reared their children in the faith. When their children grew up, they did the same.
· Some families in my churches have fallen apart. Not because of church but because of any one of the many stresses that families experience today. But in their cases, the things they believed within the church weren’t enough to save their families.
· Other families, as their children grew older, didn’t experience divorce or anything like that. Instead, they just drifted off, like a boat cut loose from its mooring. The kids got so involved in school, sports or hobbies, that the parents simply abandoned church for the sake of their kids’ interests.
· I’ve seen other families on the verge of falling apart be restored in church. Husbands and wives got right up to the brink of dissolving their homes then people who loved them came alongside and lovingly called them back to the basic truths of their faith. Through God’s grace, they listened and did the hard work necessary to put their lives back together.
And I’ve seen almost every other situation in between. Through all this I’ve come to believe in six specific ways families can get the most out of church:
1. Find a church home. Can an individual or family follow Jesus without being connected with a local church? Yes. But not very well. The New Testament is clear that our faith as individuals is deeply intertwined with whatever local body of believers we’re connected with as our “church.” Families that get that not only are obeying biblical truth, they’re also positioning their children for future spiritual success. For older couples, their church home often becomes their closest group of friends.
2. Limit your kids’ involvement in extra-curricular activities. With today’s explosion of extra-curricular opportunities for our kids, parents today are faced with a dilemma. There’s not enough hours in the week for children to do everything they want to do in addition to the things they need to do. First, there’s school work, of course. Then there’s soccer, dancing, cheer-leading, baseball, karate, language instruction, SAT preparation, football, basketball, music practice, drama and so many other things that you can’t keep track of them all. Oh yes, one other thing: church. But with a list so long, church inevitably gets pushed to the end of the line. What does that say about our true priorities? For families to get the most out of church, some decisions have to be made about just how much we allow our kids to do.
3. Be careful about how you process painful experiences at church. Churches are far from perfect and most of us can point to painful experiences we’ve had within them. But when, especially, parents bring their children in on discussions about church problems or individuals within our church, they can do more harm to our kids than they realize. Our children don’t have an adequate frame of reference to understand how everyone in church is limited and broken by our own sin, and that brokenness sometimes results in causing pain to others. Instead, our children just perceive it as hypocrisy. I’ve known many children who’ve been permanently turned off to church because of this issue.
4. Relive the faith experiences you have at church within your home. A great disconnect often takes place in modern American church life between what goes on at church and what goes on at home. We are “religious” at church and “normal” at home. Apart from creating the kind of religious schizophrenia so common to Christians today, that approach also sets families up for spiritual failure. Instead, we should look for ways to bring the two together. Discussions around the table of Bible lessons our kids learned in Sunday School. Working on church mission projects as a family or couple. Actively seeking to interpret family life experiences through the perspective of the faith we learn about on Sundays. Including God-talk within normal family conversations.
5. Connect with a small group of like-minded people within your church. Whether you call it Sunday School, home group, small group, men’s group, women’s group or something else, for your family to get the most out of church, you must share your life with some other people. When we feel alone in a church, it will never be anything more than a religious activity. When we’re in relationship with other people on a similar spiritual journey, though, church becomes a true spiritual home.
6. Take responsibility for your own spiritual well-being. When all is said and done, your family can’t get the most out of church by just sitting back and letting the church do things for you. The programs, ministries, services and missions projects most churches offer are opportunities for you and your family to grow spiritually. But churches can’t do the work for you. Each family must assume responsibility for their own spiritual health. When they do, church can become a foundation for an authentic spiritual life.