My daughter remembers the exact date. It was one year ago, exactly, that we left the church where she had been since she was nine years old. From ages nine to fifteen, that was the other center of her life, besides our home. My youngest was six when we started there, and hardly remembered going anywhere else.
There are a couple of reasons for that. One, we home school. Church, for most homeschoolers, is more than someplace to go on Sunday to learn about Jesus. It becomes the place you socialize, the place you learn to sit in a class of kids your age, the place you learn to respect and relate to other adults besides your parents, and the place you go for extra-curricular activities.
At least it was for us.
Another reason is, I’m a single mom. When you have a single parent family, your church becomes more important to you- a family extension that fills in some gaps left by your broken home life.
At least it did for us.
The us includes me, and my three children. And since my church was my social hub and my family extension, I invested there. Teaching in children's church, teaching Missionettes, volunteering at VBS, volunteering in missions- it was all very intentional on my part. Because my kids were receiving there, I wanted to put back, and I did.
And it wasn’t perfect, but no one and no place is, and I knew that and accepted that, because we aren’t either. We stuck it out through occasional individuals involved with church programs who were rude or hurtful, general personal slights, you know, real life stuff that happens everywhere, and you just have to get over. And I always told the kids when they complained about someone or something, look, this is life, rude people are everywhere, even church, this is as good a place as any to learn how to respond in a godly way to negative people and circumstances.
Because there are good people everywhere too, and look at all of those- some of our best friends are here. Plus, if we accept people the way they are, imperfect and sometimes different from us, we can expect the same grace for us, because we need it too. I was very firm on the fact that changing churches would not prevent people issues, and we might as well stay where we were and be faithful. This is part of our identity in Christ, to be a part of a body of believers for better or for worse.
I did that for my kids (as much as for myself), to teach them about life and relationships and people and church. And I think that message got across pretty well.
Up to a point.
I don’t want to go into details here of the events that led to us leaving our church. What I do want to do is address leaders, pastors, and children’s workers and make a small point that might be helpful if your goal is to actually understand and care for people- you know, pastor stuff.
You see, I don’t think you realize how deeply you are affecting the kids in your congregation.
Particularly homeschooled kids, and kids from single parent or troubled homes.
When you, dear senior pastors, associate senior pastors, children’s pastors, women's pastors, elders, church administrators, small group leaders (have I missed anyone?) start having issues with a person or family serving in the church, stop for a minute and consider the effects of what is happening on their children. You may not think the parent has the right vision, or the right doctrine, or the right DNA, or maybe they are high need or you have other concerns, but have you considered their children’s vision, doctrine, DNA, needs and concerns? You see, YOU are in their children’s vision. You are the embodiment of Christian doctrine to the kids. They see you as representative of Christianity, and of Jesus' DNA. And they are watching you, and what’s going on between you and their parents.
In case you missed it, children and teens have an unerring nose for anything done for religious purposes or show. They can tell real from performance in a heartbeat. They are not always, as someone more than once suggested to me, picking up the prejudices of their parents in their attitudes toward a pastor or leader.
No, they are making their own observations. They notice if you can’t tell them apart from their sibling or remember their name after attending your church for several years. They notice if you have absolutely nothing to say to them but “my how you’ve grown” if you speak to them at all. They notice if you gravitate to people dressed a certain way and of a certain status. They notice if you ignore some people and chat up others. They notice if you never just “hang out” with them or other regular people, or show any interest in sharing people’s lives outside of church events. They notice if you have time for doctrinal debates with their parents, but not to be there for them in a crisis. They notice if their parents spend all their free time volunteering at the church, but then no one shows up at their house to bring a meal or help when someone is sick.
Mostly they notice how you treat kids, of all ages. And that becomes the great measuring stick for them to determine your character. And frankly, that speaks louder to them than all your sermons, and means more to them than all your programs.
In the process of discussing things with my leaders in my final year, of face to face meetings that I initiated to try to work things out, not once did my kids’ names come up. The discussion was all about their church, their vision, their programs, their plans for church growth, and whether or not we were loyal and fit into all those. There was no sense from them that it was our church too, and we as a family had something special to offer the body of Christ.
Their vision was not our relationship with Jesus. Their concern was not our spiritual growth or health, or our emotional or physical well-being. These things were never mentioned.
Finally, their deepest concern certainly wasn’t anything to do with a personal relationship or future with any of us. Including my kids.
Sadly, much as I would like to believe otherwise, I really didn’t get the idea from anything that was ever said that the pastors considered how our family leaving the church might affect my kids, or their faith, or their friendships, or their daily lives. Does it matter to them that my daughter cried herself to sleep the night after our last service there and many times since? Does it matter that it impacted her so much that she still remembers the date? Does it matter that I’ve had to work very hard with all three of my kids on trust issues- and still do?
My prayer is that seven years of my efforts to teach my kids positive truths and principles of Christian relationships and respect for church leaders within the context of a local church haven’t totally been nullified by this end result. Definitely, the kids are the ones hurt the most by the whole thing.
By the grace of God I'm not expecting it to happen in my family, but I know people who went through circumstance like these as kids who NEVER went back to church.
And this isn’t just an anniversary rant for me and mine. Let me cite a few other circumstances I am aware of where kids are the silent victims in different churches situations.
There are doctrinal differences between one family and church leaders. The results are that the family leaves the only church the children have ever known. Shortly afterward, the father passes away suddenly. The widowed mother and orphaned children are left without their father OR a church family to support them.
A children’s pastor is released or “shuffled” to another position in the church. The child of a single parent loses the weekly interaction with the father figure in his/her life and grieves that loss on a level similar to that when his/her parents divorced.
The Sunday school teacher who has been faithfully serving for years and loves the kids is determined to be too old and out of touch. She is removed in lieu of younger teacher who knows how to use the new media system, but has no idea about any of the kids’ personal histories or home life. Some kids from troubled homes “fall through the cracks” because the new teacher isn’t involved at the personal level with the kids and their parents.
While reorganizing the children’s program, a decision is made to drop the middle school aged children’s church class because those kids are old enough to go into the service. The fact is missed that some of these kids’ parents don’t even go to the church, and after they lose the security of a small relational group they feel safe with, they stop going to church altogether.
A church is too small to have a special needs class, but the volunteer children’s church teacher is willing to work with the one who is in her age group. She has a heart for special needs, and the parents feel safe leaving their child with her. However the church has no care system for their volunteers, and so when this teacher isn’t valued or supported in her efforts, she eventually leaves and goes elsewhere. The new volunteer teacher they find to replace her isn’t sensitive to the special needs situation. The parents eventually stop coming to the church because they don’t feel there is a place for their child.
All of these scenarios are real. All of these decisions happened on an adult, leader, organizational, or program level, and yet affected kids and their families on a deeply individual personal level.
So my request is this: Pastor, elders, church board members- think about how your decisions are affecting the least of these. Before you hire that new children’s pastor who can take your children’s program “to the next level,” before you change Sunday School teachers around or restructure age groups in classes, or get a fancy new curriculum, or write the volunteer schedule for the nursery, or chose to let a family leave your church because of disagreements without really making an effort to work things out…. think about the kids involved. Not the numbers of children, the actual individuals. Think of faces, think of names, think of their personal circumstances. Now think of how their lives will change as a result of your decisions.
You are an adult. You have been through many changes by now, and “restructuring” is no big deal. But for kids, it is different. Even a small change is a huge shift in their universe.
Please stop a minute before you say and do things that are going to rock their worlds.
I know these kids aren’t your “tithing units.” But they have souls. They matter to Jesus. Saying you care about children from the pulpit isn’t the same thing as showing it on a personal, interactive level.
Oh, and by the way. Don’t try to fake it.
They hate that.
Epilogue: After five months of visiting churches, my kids and I agreed on one we all liked. Since then we have attended there every Sunday. We sit on the back row and participate in the services. We do not volunteer, nor do we have any interaction with any of the pastors or leaders.