I felt battle-weary as I limped from my preschool daughter's Sunday school room. She had started church as a member of the newborn class?a pastor's child, no less. My husband and I had worked to help our children love church. But little Allie was shifting into battle mode, complete with her own air-raid siren, as soon as her classroom came into view.
Well-meaning friends gave plenty of contradictory counsel. "Just let her cry it out, Hon'." Around the next corner I'd hear, "Never force her to go, Dear. She might hate church for the rest of her life." I carried the additional burden of trying to get to my class with this cute, dimpled child wrapped tightly around my left leg!
If you're like most parents, you have experienced at least one of those leech-like moments. Or maybe your deathly ill child has made a miraculous recovery as soon as he's sure it's too late to leave for church. Maybe you've experienced the "pew slouch" or the classic "eye roll" from your 10-year-old.
We can force our children to go to church, but can we make them like it?
Make a List
A good place to start is asking your child why she doesn't want to go to church. Help her talk about her feelings, remembering that they can be difficult to express. As she talks, make a list. Then you can begin to work through her concerns, item by item.
While you're listening, carefully guard your responses. When I hear, "My Sunday school teacher doesn't like me," my natural response is, "Of course your teacher likes you." Instead, I can guide my child in a positive way: "I'm sorry you feel your teacher doesn't like you. Can you tell me why you feel that way?"
Cindy Layman, a 13-year children's ministry veteran, says parents should check to make sure there isn't a legitimate problem with the class or Sunday school teacher. Investigate by asking specific, but nonoffensive, questions, and try sitting in on a class. If you notice areas that need improvement, speak privately with the teacher. If the problems persist, express your concerns to the church's leaders.
Often, however, the problem isn't with the teacher or the class. Kids have their own reasons for resisting church, and their struggles usually disappear with maturity. In the meantime, there are several things parents can do to minimize the battles.
Examine Family Routines
Think about your Saturday-night bedtime and Sunday-morning routines. It might help to try an earlier bedtime, especially if your child is having trouble getting up for church. You can also help relieve Sunday-morning stress with a little advance preparation. With five children, if I don't plan ahead, I end up with ten Sunday shoes but no pairs?and plenty of stress to pass on to my children.
Work ahead on getting ready for church just as you would make early arrangements for a party. And give your kids some choices along the way, such as whether to wear the blue dress or the yellow one. But don't offer the choice to boycott church.
It's possible your child's objections to church reflect some of your attitudes. To find out, ask yourself:
Does my child hear me speak disrespectfully about people at church, especially a teacher or pastor?
Does my child see "duty" or "privilege" reflected in my attitude toward church involvement?
Do I have negative attitudes toward church that the Lord wants to change?
As it is in many struggles, prayer is your best offensive weapon in the Sunday-morning battle. Pray for your child and for yourself, asking the Lord to make you a good example of positive church relationships.
Plan Special Events
Make an effort to tie fun into churchgoing. One couple encourages their child to invite friends home for visits after church. You can also plan a special family party as a reward for developing a good attitude toward Sunday school.
Since children get excited about giving gifts, let your child choose a gift for her teacher. Also, consider inviting your child's teacher to dinner so they can get to know each other on your child's turf.
To help increase a younger child's comfort level, take him on a field trip to church during the week. Tour the classrooms, including yours, and let him know what you do while he's in class.
Give Good Reasons
Explain to your child why your family goes to church. Read Hebrews 10:25 and show her that your family obeys God by attending church and worshiping with other believers.
Show her the instructions for kids found in Ecclesiastes 12:1: "Remember your Creator in the days of your youth." Remind her that your family is able to learn about Jesus and minister to people through the church, as well as receive ministry from others.
Reassure Younger Children (3-7)
When leaving a younger child in Sunday school, tell her where you will be and when you will pick her up. Show her the clock and where the hands will be when you come. Build trust by returning then.
At drop-off time, don't stay in the classroom more than five to ten minutes. Crying usually stops in less than 20 minutes, even though you might see it start up again at pick-up time. Don't give in to those tantrums. Psychologist E. L. Thorndike reminds us, "Behavior which achieves desirable consequences will recur." If your child likes what happens when she throws a tantrum, she will repeat the behavior. Instead of reinforcing the tantrums, encourage good behavior with rewards.
Inspire Older Children (8-12)
"If it's important to you to have your child in worship, it should be important to you to find out what your child is receiving from worship," says Cindy Layman, who has trained hundreds of teachers. After church, Cindy and her husband ask their children if they remember the points of the sermon, and then they help their kids apply what they heard.
If your older child has trouble understanding the sermon, ask him to write down questions he has. Sometimes planning a special lunch to discuss questions provides a surprising and intimate sharing time.
If your child doesn't have friends in Sunday school, encourage him to invite friends to attend with him.
Don't Give in to Guilt
Should parents make kids come to church? Think about proper health and nutrition. We often have to make our children eat vegetables and go to bed on time. It's not pleasant, but we do it because it's good for them.
Children aren't the best judge of what's best for them. That's one reason God gave them parents. Proverbs 29:15 says, "The rod of correction imparts wisdom, but a child left to itself disgraces his mother." Family-life specialist James Dobson has said that forcing a child to go to church won't psychologically mar him for life, cause him to hate you forever or lead him to rebel against God later in life. If those things happen, it's not because of church attendance.
After Jesus ordered his disciples to let the children come to him, " ? he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them" (Mk. 10:16).
I've seen him bless my children?and I've been blessed, too. Gradually, the battles have died down. We've kept the consistency in attendance, answered a number of our children's questions, and invested much prayer. And now that Allie is back in her class, I've regained the circulation in my left leg.
When she's not speaking or writing, Rhonda Rhea incites her five children to hassle-free church attendance at the St. Louis-area church where her husband, Richie, serves as senior pastor.
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