An Act of Discipleship
For families with kids, Sunday mornings can be a theater for spiritual drama. Whether you have toddlers who scream that their church shoes pinch, or teenagers who slouch out the door fifteen minutes late, it’s not easy to get to church. And the struggle doesn’t necessarily stop once you’re in the car. Kids often grumble about their Sunday school classes, complain about fellowship time, mumble through hymns, and squirm through the sermon. Their objections are many and vocal: too long, too quiet, too awkward, too boring. Sometimes, our kids just don’t like going to church.
As a grown-up church kid who is now the mom of a toddler and a teenager (plus two kids in-between), I’m all-too familiar with this hurdle. And I’m convinced it’s worth overcoming.
When our kids are resistant to church, our first inclination may be to get out of the uncomfortable weekly ritual. We all know parents who’ve demanded that their church amend worship to suit their kids. Or who start looking for another church—one with a schedule or style they think will be more appealing. Or who simply stop going to church altogether. Maybe you’ve been tempted to do the same.
But one of parents’ chief responsibilities is to train our children to be worshippers. And bringing our kids to church, whether they like it or not, is an essential act of discipleship. The local church may not seem exciting, but when God’s people worship together in spirit and truth, we obey the Father and have fellowship with Christ (John 4:23–26). When parents commit to weekly faithfulness in gospel-proclaiming churches, we teach our kids that there is nothing more important for their souls.
So, when your toddlers or teens don’t want to go to church, pray for the help of the Holy Spirit. Then, engage their hearts in five ways:
1. Acknowledge kids’ experiences.
Church is not always easy for kids, and it’s fine to acknowledge that. If they are young, church may seem boring or restrictive (I have to sit still! I have to be quiet and listen!). If they are older, it may still seem boring or restrictive (It’s too much like school! I’d rather be doing something else!). We can listen to our kids’ experiences, and we can even sympathize. The local church—an unassuming gathering of ordinary people engaged in predictable practices—isn’t always easy for adults either. We can confess that sometimes we feel the same way they do.
2. Remove practical obstacles.
Having heard our kids’ concerns, we can evaluate the underlying issues. Sometimes, our kids don’t like church for reasons that are not necessarily spiritual—and are mostly fixable. We can be sympathetic here, too. As an adult, you’ve likely figured out some practical strategies (coffee, comfortable shoes, and crock pot lunches) that help you engage on Sundays, or, at very least, prevent you from disengaging. We can assist our kids to do the same.
Young kids, for example, may resist sitting in corporate worship because they are legitimately hungry by eleven o’clock. Giving them a snack before worship demonstrates your concern for their bodies and pacifies their grumbling bellies. Likewise, pens and paper for taking sermon notes can employ fidgeting hands and wandering minds, and unfussy church clothes can head off the inevitable itching and squirming brought on by tags and ties.
Older kids and teens may stumble over other obstacles: tiredness, self-consciousness, fear of missing out. And parents can help. Setting a reasonable Saturday night bedtime will make the Sunday morning alarm clock less jarring. Arriving early to church will prevent an embarrassingly public walk down the aisle to the only empty seats. Establishing clear, consistent, and joyful family habits for Sundays will help take the sting out of forfeited activities.
3. Teach kids that church is good.
Of course, we can’t remove every difficulty. The specific people who make up our church, the elements of our corporate worship, and even the divine object of our worship can all be obstacles to our children; but they are obstacles we can’t change simply to suit them.
This is where we do exactly what we’ve always done as parents: we lovingly instruct our kids. When toddlers demand ice cream and candy for dinner, we tell them that chicken and broccoli are much better for their bodies, and we insist they regularly eat them. When it comes to church, our kids don’t always have a taste for what’s good either. It’s our job to instruct them.
First, we set an example by our own actions and attitude. In our kids’ hearing, parents should pray for the church: giving thanks for the elders, asking God to bless the worship, and interceding for church members’ needs. On Fridays and Saturdays, we should start preparing for Sunday with an attitude of joyful anticipation. On Sunday afternoons, we can talk about how the morning’s sermon convicted us of sin and helped us to love Christ more. Our own genuine love for the church is a compelling testimony to our kids.
Beyond that, we help our kids understand worship. Throughout the week—or with whispers in the pew—we explain that worship is our chance to hear God speak to us (when the Bible is read and preached) and for us to speak to God (in prayer and song). We also tell them why we do these things. Whatever a four or fourteen-year-old might assume, church worship is not something people thought up. God commands us to gather for worship (Heb. 10:24–25), to sing praise together (Col. 3:16), to listen to preaching (1 Thess. 2:13), to pray together (Eph. 6:18), and to give generously (2 Cor. 9:7).
And then, we use every opportunity to show them from Scripture that belonging to the church is essential for believers. When we teach Bible stories to little ones, we highlight the fact that Adam and Noah and Abraham all worshipped with the rest of God’s people. Gathering for worship is simply what the followers of God do. With older kids, we teach them that the New Testament Epistles were not written primarily to individuals but to first-century churches. Those familiar memory verse commands to pray (1 Thess. 5:17) or pursue holiness (1 Pet. 1:15) are actually tasks for the whole church to do together. With teens, we remind them that their ultimate future is not in making the basketball team or getting into that elite college; their ultimate future is as a worshipper in the heavenly church (Rev. 7:9).
Meditating on these truths can stir the whole family to love the church God loves, even when it’s hard to sit still.
4. Affirm kids’ kingdom value.
Sometimes kids don’t like church because they feel like they don’t belong. They assume the sermon isn’t directed at them, that no one at church cares about them, and that on Sunday mornings they are simply warming the pew. As parents, we must intentionally and regularly counter these false assumptions by affirming kids’ kingdom value.
The same Christ who welcomed children into his arms and his kingdom welcomes our children into his church today (Matt. 19:13–15). The congregations of the Old Testament (e.g. Ezra 10:1) and the churches of the New Testament (e.g. Col. 3:20) included children—so the words of the Bible, whether read or preached, are intended for kids. Their prayers are spiritual weapons (Ps. 8:2), their praises are important worship (Matt. 21:9–11, 15–16), and their godly example encourages the whole congregation in holiness (1 Tim. 4:12). Far from being incidental to the local church, kids are vital.
5. Invite kids’ participation.
Finally, we invite our kids to contribute. We don’t ask them to love the church in the abstract; we ask them to love their own church in concrete ways. In turn, these acts of obedient love are tools the Spirit uses to knit our children to the church and cultivate feelings of love in their hearts.
We call them to be present in worship, to actively listen to the word, and to sing heartily—however lisping or cracking their voices.
We also call them to serve. Even very young kids can join us as we visit church widows. Kids can pray for persecuted believers around the world and for unbelieving people in their own community. They can give coins from their piggy banks to support gospel ministry. They can wipe tables and mop floors and pick up trash. They can smile and make friends. With encouragement from us, our kids can use their gifts for the good of the body.
I wish I could say that these five practices will take immediate effect in the lives of your reluctant kids. They might. But, then again, they might not. And so we look for the help of the Holy Spirit, and we persevere. Our kids might not like church this Sunday, or next Sunday, or five years from now. But teaching them to love “the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28) is worth every sacrifice we make.