Recently a parishioner introduced me to a friend of hers, and later said something like this: "They are really great people. I keep inviting them to come to our church...but I have noticed that really nice people sometimes think they don't need to go to church." We had a good yet somewhat discouraging chuckle together.
If your only reason for going to church (or participating in any faith community) is about being a better person or being a nicer person, I would agree that you don't need to go to church for that. How many times have you heard someone say, "that 'non-christian' is more Christian than some actual Christians I know."
But - news flash - you don't go to church to become a nicer person, though hopefully a faith community will be a place of challenge and growth for its members. You also don't raise your children in the church to make them into nice people - they are going to learn that from you in a 24/7 master class on being in the world, and a few hours at church a week cannot outweigh the influence that you have on them.
There are meaningful reasons to participate as a family in a community of faith that go far beyond creating good people. As the saying goes, "it takes a village to raise a child." The church is about the only village that many of us have left.
First, three caveats:
- What I describe below comes from my experience raised as a child in a Presbyterian church and as a professional who ministers to children and youth - both of which were and are very positive experiences in healthy congregations. Not all faith communities provide these healthy benefits.
- What I describe below only applies if you actually participate in a faith community on a regular basis, not if you just make sure to have your name on the rolls, or even just show up every so often.
- Although these are benefits to children in a faith community, almost all of them are also benefits for active adults as well.
1. The church is the last place for children to participate in an inter-generational community. As a child who grew up far away from extended family, had I not been a part of a church community I would have grown up with no relationships with anyone over my parents' age. The wisdom that can be shared, the support offered and the experience of just having conversations with older adults can be priceless for a child of any age. I have very fond memories of an older woman in our church who was close friends with my parents and who would attend each and every one of my brother's and my birthday parties as children. My most vivid memory is finding her at the end of each party napping on the couch. It is hard to quantify what that relationship gave to me, but looking back now I can understand how it shaped the respect and courtesy I have for older adults. This can be applied when it comes to children having relationships with adults younger than their own parents. It was always the young adults at church whom I admired the most, whom I looked up to and respected. These were the people I wanted to grow up to be. I just don't think that life outside the church is set up today to create these kind of relationships.
2. Being part of a church community gives children and youth a chance to express themselves in more open ways. While some people may consider the church to be a place of conformity, in reality choosing a faith community that is even just slightly removed from a child's regular social life allows them to move beyond the boxes they may find themselves in at school or in their neighborhood. For me, growing up in a church community provided the space to actually embrace the person I wanted to be without worry that I wouldn't fit in. I constantly encourage especially our tweens and younger youth to know that church is a safe place where they are loved for whom God has created them to be.
3. A community of faith provides for a diverse pool of adult mentors. This is obviously connected to the first point above, but it is about even more than just being able to interact with adults of different generations. Connecting with other adults helps children and youth experience professional and life choices that might be different from those they see in their family or among close friends. The congregation I serve today is full of people who practice a great variety of professions - attorneys, physicians, architects, engineers, plumbers, builders, teachers, professors, musicians, computer programmers, entrepreneurs, nurses, social workers, salespeople, scientists, librarians, accountants and the list could go on and on. I can't tell you how many young people in my congregation have explored vocational options through the adults in our church, with adults who might not have been a part of their parents' social circles outside of the church community. This past year in youth group our high school students met with a variety of adults in the congregation who were not just successful professionals, but who also used their ingenuity and their integrity as people of faith to make the world a better place.
4. Being part of a congregation gives children and youth the chance to experience how a community makes decisions or resolves conflicts together. As a child raised in a large and diverse congregation I was able to watch as conflicts were stired up, as decisions were made, as compromises were reach, and as the community moved on. I learned, not just from my parents but from other adults in the community, the things that pulled our church as a whole in one direction or another. I watched as some adutls chose to behave like children when it came to conflicts and how they had to save face or find a way to restore their place in the community. I watched as new ideas bubbled up from within the church. I watched as adults completely changed their mind and their hearts on certain issues. I watched as those who I knew held very different polituical views or perspectives could find common ground in their life of faith. I came to understand that even thoough a congregation could be so united on one issue, it could still be deeply divided on others.
5. A faith community provides unending opportunities for leadership development for children and youth. I can't think of another organization in our culture today that can so easily lift up children and youth into positions and moments of leadership other than the church. In the congregation where I serve, children are constantly invited to participate in worship leadership, whether they lead an entire service for the community or stand side by side with adults to give witness to the diversity of the generations. Youth, especially within my tradition, are again and again called upon to add their voice to the conversations of the church at large. They serve side by side with adults as equal participants in decision-making and discernment. As a teenager, I served in my congregation not just as a deacon but as a deacon representative to our mission committee. In a church that had a formidable amount of influence in the community and financially in our benevolences, I was a valued voice as the group made decisions about where we would serve as a congregation.
These are just a few of the ways that children and youth can benefit from participation in a healthy faith community. I could go on and on about how a church can support children and their families in times of crisis, how the church is a wonderful place to expose children to a variety of music, and even how the church can give children a solid vocabulary for ethical behavior.
What are your experiences of being a child raised in a church, or what benefits do you witness your own children reaping in their full participation in the life of the faith community?