In a recent survey from the Pew Research Center, 69% of the respondents say they attend church because they want their children to have a moral foundation. There are other reasons listed, which I’ll touch on in another post later this week, but for this post, I want to focus in on this particular statistic.
The idea that 69% say they attend for the sake of their children intrigues me. As I read that reason, it makes me wonder what happens when the children are all grown up and able to make their own decisions. The question that I would have, then, for parents for whom this is the primary reason would be: can you not give your children a moral foundation at home? It feels like, on some level, that this reasoning for attending church is a way for parents to avoid the hard work of parenting.
In some sense, this feels like outsourcing one of the most important functions of parenthood. But it also doesn’t surprise me.
As parents, we have an obligation to raise our children so that they are ready to become adults. As one person put it, we’re trying to make sure our kids aren’t assholes for the rest of the world. In my opinion this would be the case regardless of church attendance. It is possible to have a moral foundation without attending worship on a regular basis. Can the church supplement the building of this foundation? Absolutely, but it should not be the primary builder.
Now, you have to realize, as a pastor, it’s difficult for me to say that. Of course, I want people to be attending church on a regular basis, especially if they have children. But I’m not so naive as to say that the only way children can get a moral foundation is by going to church. Being taught to do the right thing, to care for other people and to have some integrity in your life transactions is not a way of living that is exclusive to the Christian faith. Unfortunately, I think there are some who would argue that even Christians don’t do a great job of living like this, and there are certainly times when they would be right.
When I started in ministry, my first position was as a youth pastor. Youth pastors do some amazing work with teens. At least, the good ones do. I was not a great youth pastor. My energy level and creativity weren’t really up to the task, and I burned out of it pretty quick. I was more interested in laying a spiritual foundation, while those I worked with were more interested in being attractional and cool. The youth themselves were great, but some of the adults made it a struggle. Two completely different visions about what youth ministry should be, and it led to a lot of stress that nearly caused me to rethink my call to ministry in the first place.
One of the things that I saw in a lot of the parents was that I was expected to be the primary source for spiritual direction for their children. Which you would think is what a youth pastor is for, but the reality of the situation is that, even with the most involved youth, I was only going to see them for a grand total of 5–6 hours each week. The family unit has more influence on child/youth’s approach to faith than any other factor. And yet, here we are with 69% of people who say that one of the major reasons they attend church is to give their children a moral foundation.
Obviously, I want to encourage people to attend worship as often as possible. But maybe we could temper our expectations of the church just a little. If you want them to have a solid moral foundation, and you want the church to be part of building that foundation, great. Take them to church. Be engaged. Get involved. And they will follow your example. But if you are looking for the church to fulfill one of the primary functions of parenthood, then you need to take a step back and reevaluate some things. Your children are more likely going to follow what they see in the home.
So, pay attention. Teach them, and more importantly, show them, how to live a decent life. And, certainly, again showing my personal bias here, take them to church. Not because you believe they need to go to church to be decent people, but because it is an important part of your life. They watch you, and whether they admit it or not, you are the primary shaper of their future.