A couple of weeks ago, Kathy wrote an intriguing post
raising the question shared by many who are on similar journeys of departure from “normal” Christian expressions: “What will become of our children?”
A couple of days ago, I got an email from a friend who is thinking about leaving his institutional church to start a house church, and he posed similar questions about how to help support his child spiritually during the in-between period.
The issue of our children’s welfare is huge, because it hits such a sensitive place in our hearts. Here’s how Kathy put it:
“…lots of people i know have shifted their beliefs about God & life but when it comes to their kiddos, they are still quite adamant about making sure somehow they go to youth group & ‘real church’ and learn about God in the typical ways.”
It’s almost like institutional Christianity is so ingrained in our lives and culture that even for those who are leaving the institutions to find more “real” ways to follow Jesus…we still harbor just a twinge of doubt–like we’re gambling with our faith just a little bit with the decision to leave. And we’re willing to take that risk ourselves, but we don’t want to put our kids at risk–if indeed it is a risk. We feel safer with what we feel are more “tried-and-true” methods when it comes to them.
That, of course, presumes that institutional Christianity actually is a safer method.
I wouldn’t presume to be an expert on this topic; I’ve made plenty of mistakes with my child (and with other people’s kids also), and all I have to offer to the conversation is my experience. But my own son The Director has literally grown up in the context of our transition out of the institutions; and while I can’t speak for him, I have watched his own journey with interest. I’d like to share a little bit of what has happened with him.
I think God must have already been preparing us for this season back when we were still leading worship in an institutional setting–because for some reason The Director was not raised speaking the typical Christian vernacular. This was never made more plain than the time when he was 4 or 5 years old, playing in the McPlayland thingy at McDonald’s, when he asked another child’s father, “Do you worship God?” (Actually, he had a little bit of a speech impediment, so it was more like, “Do you worship Dodd?”)
The father stopped short, raised his eyebrows, looked at us, and said, “I’ve never heard anyone ask me that question like that before.” And that’s when we realized we’d never taught The Director to refer to believers as “Christians”! As worship leaders, we were always encouraging people to worship God–and that’s the only way he knew how to pose the question.
Since that time, The Director has had a front-row seat to the whole process of our departure from the system. He has watched us be exploited and abused on multiple levels by people working in that system. He’s watched us struggle with venturing into unfamiliar waters, watched us try (and fail) to make our ministry work within the old patterns. He’s seen us struggle with our own faith as our religion failed us. And he’s had some struggles and questions of his own.
But he’s seen some other things, too. He’s seen God’s faithfulness to our family; he’s seen prayers answered, and provision come. He’s seen us admit our mistakes and learn from them. And probably most important–he’s seen us doing our best to live a real and honest faith in front of him, encouraging him to follow along with us without shoving it down his throat.
I think the two fears I’ve struggled most with concerning The Director have been 1) the fear of losing him (probably all parents deal with that one); and 2) the fear that he would not follow Jesus when he was old enough to choose. And yet, I think we knew enough to realize that ultimately, that would have to be his own choice, or it would not be worth anything to him. I didn’t just want some token sinner’s prayer to assure my own heart of his salvation; I wanted him to experience and love Jesus as much as I did. And The Wild One and I both knew that a faith and love like that has to be born in the heart, not programmed by religious ritual.
For us, anyway, that approach seems to have been the best one for him. He is a strong believer, and his faith is his own. He doesn’t believe because his parents do; he believes because as part of our journey, he has experienced Jesus for himself. This is how I described him on Kathy’s blog:
- He has a strong sense of justice.
- He has no tolerance at all for churchy Christianity, wants no part of it. We can barely get him to step foot into any church building.
- He has no set “quiet time” to speak of, but talks to God as he goes.
- He has been turned off by every youth group he’s encountered; he thinks the kids are fake.
- He has non-Christian friends who disagree with his beliefs but who respect him. He can interact with them freely without following them into sin. He has a strong moral compass.
- He loves Jesus very much, and wants to use his gifts to make a difference in the world.
- He gets excited about any endeavor he hears of that shares Jesus in a real way without being religious.
He is not what I would call a “safe” Christian, in that he doesn’t speak the Christian-ese lingo or do all the churchy things that make us feel better about our children’s faith. But I do believe he is a true Christian–that the faith he has is real, as is his relationship with God. And that matters more to me than any of the other stuff.
What I’m saying by all this is that The Director’s journey has occured largely outside the walls of the institutions, and I believe he has turned out well. And I can also tell you that most of the damage done to him (and there has been some) occured within the institutions–and some of it was directly related to the pressure I was under while on staff. Which, for me, begs the question I alluded to before: Why do we assume that institutional Christianity is a safer environment for our children? I know there are many success stories there–I don’t discount that. But why do we assume that’s because of the systems and programs themselves?
Or perhaps a better way to frame the question is this–especially considering those of us who (as Kathy mentioned) are leaving the institutions but want to keep their children involved in them–
If our own spiritual and emotional health has not done well in those institutions…why would we assume that those environments would be any better for our kids?
As Kathy said in her post…no easy answers here. Raising children outside the institutions does not guarantee their spiritual health anymore than raising them inside the walls. But in having walked this road a few years with a child growing up, I truly believe our children will fare better in an environment of honest faith than in an environment of religious programming–and that has more to do with us as parents than it does with what church we attend, or don’t attend. It has more to do with the heart of faith that’s modeled for them than it does the particular structures they grow up with.
And if you’ll indulge me for a moment while I brag on my kid…whenever The Wild One and I feel discouraged at the apparent lack of results we sometimes feel about ministry, we look at The Director, and we realize that in him God has given us the greatest success we’ve had in ministry thus far. His faith, his relationship with Christ that stands on its own, is worth every hardship we’ve ever faced. He is truly an amazing man, and I could not be more proud of him.
(Photo courtesy of The Wild One.)