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You can’t make me: Should kids be forced to go to church?

You can’t make me: Should kids be forced to go to church?

The Episcopal Café and Forward Movement are partnering to bring you highlights of their excellent materials.  The Episcopal Café shares their mission to inspire and empower Christians around the world and to encourage spiritual growth.


This piece is one of the all-time favorite posts from Forward Movement’s Grow Christians


by Miriam McKenney


It’s time to be completely honest: my family hasn’t been attending church regularly. After thirteen years, we decided we needed a break from our church, and our church needed a break from us. Over a year later, I’m ready for us to return. Will my family want to come with me?

Back in my day, there were no choices about going to church. My dad is an Episcopal priest. You went, or… actually, there was no or. We went. The end. Being forced to go to church caused me to rebel and not go anywhere regularly for many years, until we found our parish fourteen years ago. We were drawn in by the focus on outreach, and the large quantities of kids and families. Finally, I thought. A church I want to attend, and no one is making me go.

It didn’t take long for our priest to get me involved in church life. Within a couple of years, I was regularly working in the nursery, joined the choir. Then I was elected to the vestry, followed my girls through ten years of Godly Play as an instructor, helped with VBS, edited the church’s newsletter, and read lessons in church. My husband David was Treasurer, Finance Committee chair or member, you get the idea. And don’t get me started on how involved our oldest daughter Nia was in the church and diocesan youth programs. She ended up being a diocesan camp counselor.

Now, you may be thinking. What’s the problem? This all sounds great, and it’s what God would want for you: a solid faith community full of great people, a good priest, and excellent music. (Did I mention Howard Helvey?) What could go wrong? What did go wrong?

For one thing, after Godly Play, the youth program… wasn’t. There was “youth group,” but it was random, and poorly attended. It often felt both lacking and forced. My oldest suffered through, because she was highly involved on a diocesan level. But for my younger two, they wanted a solid youth group at our church. So, I did what I usually do – I volunteered to create and run a program. That didn’t work out.

After thirteen years, I felt over-involved and also strangely disconnected. The girls began grumbling on Sunday mornings. They felt displaced. It seemed to them like only the little kids mattered. I had to agree with them. All of us felt tired and used. I wanted a separation, and my family agreed.

Then, the unthinkable happened. Our priest announced he was leaving. Great, I thought. Now people are going to think we left because he’s leaving. Oh well, whatever. We went ahead and became those folks who only attend church on Christmas and Easter, with a random Sunday thrown in now and again.

The last few weeks on the couch with my injuries led me to an incredible realization. Ignoring the fact that we all decided not to go to church regularly, I had deprived my girls of a faith community. David and I are adults, and Nia is too, and we can make our own decisions, no matter how smart or stupid. But the girls are still young enough to need guidance, and I started to feel that I had failed them. Perhaps the strong-arm tactics of my parents, who gave us no opportunity to say no, was the right way to go after all. I can’t imagine my mom wanting to go to church every week, EVERY week, and yet she did it. I can’t help but ponder what I should have learned from that experience, and what I should learn from my more recent choices.

Perhaps I should learn that as parents, and as people, we’re all here doing the best we can with what we’ve been given. Our parents before us did the best they could. We all have to carry the cross of the generation before us. How we do that impacts the choices we make as parents, and those choices will cause our children to face similar choices. What will they do when they have kids of their own? That’s what I can’t stop thinking about.

Maybe I should learn to trust in my chosen faith community. What would be different about me if we had stayed? What would have stayed the same? I’ll never know. I do still feel good about my decision to take a break, but somewhere in the back of my mind, I hear a voice calling me back to church. Could it be my Facebook churchgoers, gently urging me to return? Is it my non-Facebook parishioners who sent me cards while I was recovering, saying that they missed me? Maybe. Or maybe it’s God in all of those voices. Maybe this whole process has been spirit led, and the spirit is now leading me back to church.

Should you make your kids go to church? I know what my mom would say: she’d say yes. As for me, I’m not so sure. I will say that if you find joy at church, take your kids. If the joy begins to fade, explore that as a family. Work through it. Consider their feelings and opinions, but remember – you’re the adult. Trust that you’ll make the best decision for them, and for you, that you can.

Pray and meditate about your decision. Talk to God, and take time to listen to what God has to say to you. Remember that God’s voice may come from the mouths of your children, your friends, your colleagues, and your enemies. Read your favorite scripture. I pray that wherever you are in your relationship with God in community, that you are at peace. I’m not, and I plan to fix that.


Wondering how to engage your whole family in Christian faith?  The companion to The Path, the Family Storybook recounts the major stories of the Bible, from creation to revelation, in a way that engages children (and those who love them!).


Photo by Howard Helvey


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Marshall Scott


Later, as a seminarian in a large parish, I watched a small number of families who dropped the kids off for Sunday School, and then went off to the club. I watched the families who stopped attending when the kids lost interest. They were modeling that church participation was for children, and, literally, childish.

So, should children be forced to attend church, much less to attend worship? That’s definitely a family decision; but it needs to reflect the value of church for the parents as parents and as adults. Prayer shapes work and work shapes prayer; and that includes our prayers for and our work in raising our children.

Marshall Scott

A personal reflection: once my sister and I were old enough to be left at home without letting in strangers or burning the house down (granted, that age was younger then than we would allow now), going to church was up to us. Note, though, that my parents continued to go to church, and to make it clear that they went to church for what they got from it. They talked about the community, about the sermon, about their work as volunteers.

What I learned from that was that participating in the church was an adult activity. Sure, there was Sunday School and other activities for kids; but church was meaningful for grown-ups. Since there was nothing I wanted to be more than to be grown up, I became committed to church.


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