My 10-year-old son does not like church. While my worship leader husband stands before the congregation singing and drawing hearts into focus, I stand by a boy who doesn't even move his lips.
In the past this frustrated me immensely. I wanted everyone to see my kids following the rules and singing with smiles on their faces. I wanted them to see that the Harms family had it all together. But, as I struggled through my frustrations, I became aware of the sinfulness in my attitude. Like the cup Jesus speaks of in Luke 11:39, I was trying to look squeaky clean on the outside. But by ignoring my son Owen's heart, I was unclean on the inside.
I've realized I cannot make my son love church any more than I can make him love mowing the lawn. And by pushing him to keep up appearances, I'm teaching him to be like the Pharisees. Instead of focusing on his heart and relationship with Jesus, I'm telling him the inside doesn't matter, but the outside does. That is the last thing I want to do as a parent.
Realizing we needed to change our game plan, my husband and I began talking about what is best for Owen's heart. Some of the changes we made as a result were misunderstood by some, and maybe even seen as "non-Christian" to others. It's true the outside of our cup was looking a little dirty, but we had changed our focus to the inside. We started making decisions based on Owen's needs, not on what was considered the norm.
Going against church culture
Our first non-traditional decision was allowing Owen to opt out of the church Christmas program.
Dressing up like a shepherd and singing on a stage in front of 200 people is definitely not his thing. We gave him a pass on the program and chose to do a small family service project instead. We purchased bedding and delivered it to a local homeless shelter. Instead of feeling forced to perform the Christmas story in front of a crowd of grandmas and grandpas, he took part in God's call to serve the poor. In Matthew 25:40 Jesus says, "I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!" Owen now has a first-hand experience fulfilling the call of that verse.
Another major change we made gave our son a voice in his own spiritual life.
We gave Owen the opportunity to quit attending our midweek church program. A fifth-grader, he was too young to be with the "cool" youth group kids, but he felt old and out of place with the younger kids in the children's group. Each Wednesday evening the stress level in our home skyrocketed as we argued about his attitude toward church.
Owen was given a choice: attend the midweek program, or go through a book at home with Mom. He chose home. Now on Wednesday nights we drop our oldest off at youth group, our youngest off at the children's program, and let Owen stay home.
For fifteen minutes each Wednesday, Owen and I read out of Randy Alcorn's Heaven for Kids book. Though our one-on-one time is brief, Owen is always engaged and even asks questions about things that confuse him. Ephesians 6:4 says, "Father's do not provoke your children to anger by the way you treat them. Rather, bring them up with the discipline and instruction that comes from the Lord." By changing up his routine, we have removed the exasperation and introduced some training.
I am confident these decisions are right for my family, but I still have to resist the temptation to justify myself to everyone who gives me a funny look. When we do things that are counter-normal in the church environment, we are often met with some misunderstanding. I wanted to ensure everyone that we were okay—that we were not falling away from the Lord, that our son was not lost in the world.
But my son is not a cookie-cutter Christian either. Some things that work for the majority, do not work for Owen. I have had to hold my tongue a number of times and let God remind me that it's okay if not everyone understands the decisions we make for our family. We are not called to submit to the rules of the church culture. We are called to submit to Christ.
Evaluating our own childhood experiences
In choosing what is best for our kids, my husband, Corey, and I have found it helpful to look back on our own childhood experiences.
All parents make mistakes and triumphs during the childrearing years, and we can learn from those. My folks were pretty strict about my attendance at church events: Awana, youth group, services, and so on. I remember a time during my late elementary school years when I dreaded getting on that big yellow bus to head to Thursday afternoon Awana. My mom didn't let me quit, but she was proactive enough to have me assigned to an adult mentor she knew I enjoyed spending time with. Though I didn't like much about my last couple years of Awana, I did enjoy the time I spent with my leader.
Corey's family was involved in a church, but his parents were relatively hands-off when it came to spiritual training. Corey found his way to a great youth group and his faith flourished, but he knew that he wanted to provide more hands-on guidance with his own children. We have taken into account our past experience in making decisions for our family. We are not forcing Owen into things that we think may turn him away from church, but we are not giving him a free ride either.
Parenting with prayer
The changes and decisions we are making for our family would never work without the most important element: prayer.
Parenting is tough. It is not a one-size-fits-all job. We cannot know beforehand the outcome of our decisions. But we Christians have a powerful resource that we have a tendency to undervalue: prayer. We have a direct line of communication to the God who created our children and chose to put them under our care. When we are confused, we can pray. When we are uncertain, we can pray. When our children stand tight-lipped and disinterested through worship, we can pray.
It is not our job to make our kids perfect. And it is certainly not our job to make them look perfect to the outside world. It is our job to be diligent in training them. It is our job to be aware of their strengths, weaknesses, likes and dislikes. It is our job to love them and direct them toward Christ.
When all is said and done, the faith of our children is in their own hands. We are simply the ones holding the reins as they grow.
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Kim Harms is a freelance writer living in Huxley, Iowa, with her husband and three sons. In addition to writing, she operates 500 Dresses, a clothing ministry to Haitian children, and can be found online at KimHarms.net or on Twitter at @kimharmsboymom.