Photo by Gonzalo Díaz Fornaro.
“I’m not going to church.”
Perhaps you’ve heard those words in your own home, from the mouth of your teenager.
Or maybe you’re a leader who’s heard it from a young person declaring that they’re done with church.
We often hear from parents that they aren’t sure what to do when their kids voice these kinds of statements—sometimes pretty forcefully. They wonder what to do in response. Should I say, “As long as you live under this roof, you’re going to church”? Or should I just let them stay home?
The good news is that these might not be the only two options.
I’m so grateful for the wisdom of pastor and author Eugene Peterson on this issue. Recently I was re-reading Like Dew Your Youth: Growing Up with Your Teenager. While originally written the year I was born (1976!), Peterson’s honest take on some of the defiant statements of adolescence still hit home in profound ways, even as I parent my own adolescent daughter.
Peterson devotes a chapter to “I’m not going to church!” When children are younger and parents serve as both authority and teacher figures, the line is a bit easier here. But adolescents are taking on more agency. They are not just learning from their parents; they’re making their own decisions about things their parents have decided up until now. This shift requires a shift in our parental response.
When it comes to church attendance, parents tend to resort either to authority, bullying, or bribery. “You’ll go because I say so,” “If you don’t go, you won’t get to use your phone for the week,” or “If you go, you’ll get extra screen time this afternoon.” Or exhausted parents simply walk out the door and drive to church in peace, without a fight but without a teenager in the car.
Interestingly, Peterson reminds us that in this season we are invited to become more honest about our own faith with our kids in response to these kinds of pushbacks. He quips, “No parent is required to mount an advertising campaign on behalf of the Deity.” Rather than talking up how great God is or how great it is to be a Christian, let’s live out our faith journey honestly in front of and alongside our kids. This fits squarely within our Sticky Faith research findings that young people with parents who share about their own faith journeys tend to stick with faith after high school.
Peterson goes on to articulate an expanded response to a teenager that I wish I had space to quote in its entirety here. I’d like to memorize it for the moment those defiant words come out of the mouths of one of my own kids (they haven’t yet) or one of the kids I serve at my church. Here’s an excerpt from his dialogue (bold emphasis added):
I remember having those feelings myself; in fact, I still have them from time to time. The only trouble, though, with staying away from church at a time like this is that there is no way to continue the conversation with others involved on the other side of some ideas and practices that obviously matter a great deal. For the first time in your life you’re beginning to think and feel as an adult. Many of the things that you’re finding distasteful are what you experienced as a child in the church. Wouldn’t it be more reasonable to take your thinking and feeling into the sanctuary each Sunday for the next few years and test it out there? If you stay home you don’t have anybody to argue with or test yourself against—except your childhood memories. You are changing and learning very rapidly now; the church needs your new vision and experience.
… Nobody would want you to swallow uncritically everything that is going on in the church, but if you walk out of the room the possibilities for adult, responsible debate are eliminated.
… Part of my responsibility as a parent is to try to keep you in the flow of experience as long as possible so that you feel as much and face as much as is there and so be equipped to make good, adult decisions. … You may feel that the church doesn’t appreciate your perspectives or your ideas; and in all honesty I must tell you that it might not. But I do and I would like to keep on hearing about them.[[Eugene Peterson, Like Dew Your Youth: Growing Up with Your Teenager (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994 [orig. 1976]), 24-26.]]
While this kind of response doesn’t fully resolve the issue, it sure creates a different context for the conversation—one built on invitation and respect for the faith journey of the child emerging into adulthood.
What ideas do you have for responding to pushback from kids about going to church or youth group?
What productive conversations have you had with teenagers about this?