Let me preface this whole thing by saying that I'm not church bashing or complaining. This is some stuff that is on my heart and mind, and I'm currently wrestling with it and working it out. I don't believe there's one right, cookie-cutter answer, but I do believe we are called to act upon what God reveals to us and lays on our hearts. I made a commitment (that I don't always keep) not to fuss about things that I am not taking action to change, so I'll share what we're doing, and I'd love to hear your thoughts.
I've spent a lot of the past several years out of a traditional church environment, specifically, in a home church. There are good and bad things about a home church. There are certainly aspects that I miss, and there are things that I love about being in the more traditional environment. (I know that some of the people at my current church reading this are balking at my use of the term "traditional" to describe that particular church, but please understand, I only mean it in comparison to where I'm coming from.) One of the things that I have wrestled with and continue to wrestle with is my children and church. My son spent the first three years of his life with us, worshiping, studying, learning, playing, eating snacks, talking, playing with toys, etc. For most of his life, this was his complete church experience. We were often surprised at the things he learned or picked up on. It was not geared toward him at all really, but he seemed to be grasping concepts well above his pay grade, and it often led to very grown-up discussions with our little man. Lots of times, I felt (and still feel) that I learned a great deal from him. There is something to be said for childlike faith! To be totally honest, though, I don't think this is always a good thing. I do believe grown-ups should have time for grown-up discussion.
We then felt led to move to a more traditional environment... (most of you know the story).
Anyway, we were then faced with being separated from him for the first time ever. Now, don't get me wrong. There's no rule that our kids can't be with us. In fact, one of the things we really loved when we first came to our new church was that our children were welcome to be with us, in the service and in Sunday school. Initially, Ephraim loved going to his own class. He was excited to go and barely gave me a wave on my way out the door. After a period of time, this changed. I don't think he dislikes his class, but he just wants to be with us. So, I'm torn. Do I care? Do I force him into his class because it's just the normal thing to do? What's the lesson that I'm teaching? Am I "spoiling him" by giving in to his desire to be with us? In the back of my mind, the one thought that has kept me from pushing too hard about him going to his class is that I don't want him to feel like church, or his class, are punishments. I don't want it to be this big "YOU MUST GO TO YOUR CLASS" thing. I know lots of people who look back on their church experience as just that. "We went to church Sunday morning, Sunday night, Tuesday night visitation, Wednesday night, in the rain, snow, or in a hurricane. We just did not miss church." Sometimes people say this as a positive thing.... and sometimes people don't. I really want my son to LOVE church. I want him to enjoy corporate worship, fellowship with his friends, encouragement of other believers, and FUN. I want church to be a JOY to him, as it is to me. I want him to LOVE being with God's people, even if the people he particularly loves to be with aren't in his peer group. I'm okay with that. The downside, of course, is that my life is a bit more difficult. He's welcome wherever we go, but the environment is much more traditional than a home church. We're still on a bit of a learning curve with that. It just isn't appropriate for him to talk and play and interact with the grownups in the same way. So, then the other part of me thinks that I'm doing the opposite of what I want to do anyway, taking my son to church and asking him to basically be quiet and still for several hours. Will he grow to hate church because of this? I don't know.
I have to confess that I'm a reader. It is probably one of my greatest strengths and weaknesses. I love to read books, and I love to read the full gamut, from one extreme to the other. So, I really do know the two extreme viewpoints about children in church. There are avid proponents of children's ministries, pointing out the fact that children can learn at their level, engage with their own peer groups, have fun, and really enjoy church. There are also avid opponents of children's ministries, suggesting that parents tend to abdicate their roles as their children's spiritual leaders by relying on the ministry to do their work for them, that it leads to the breakdown of the family, etc. I guess I fall somewhere in the middle. I know God has called us to be where we are at this point in time. I do not think that children's ministries are bad. I am the product of a great children's ministry where tons of wonderful memories were made. On the other hand, I can definitely see the validity in the opposing point of view. (By the way, I hate that it is an "opposing" point of view, but we Christians are nothing if not polarizing from time to time!) I do definitely want my husband and I to be the spiritual leaders and teachers to our children, more than anyone else.
Most weeks when we were separated, we went into our grown-up class and had a very encouraging, grown-up discussion, from which we benefited. At the same time, our son was in a class with his peers learning a Bible story or lesson at his level, from which he also benefited. Our two discussions were basically unrelated, as is usually the case, and there was little for us to connect on at the end of the day. So, I was kind of missing church being this catalyst for grown-up discussion with my little man.
Enter God. (He was there all along, but I suppose it was when we started listening.) Quincy went to our pastor and told him that he felt led to start a Wednesday night family bible study. We've been doing this for a little over a month now, and I really do love it. It is totally chaotic and crazy. It is not for everyone, but it has brought that discussion back to our home. (For those of you in class with us, I am always surprised at the things Ephraim listened in on when I thought he was just playing.) Here's how it works (for now). It is definitely a work in progress, but this is what we are doing, and this is where we have begun. We meet for one hour. That's it. We meet at 6pm and try to conclude at 7pm, so families can still be home in time for bed. Our goal is not to teach the children in the class, but for parents to teach their own children. Every week, we read a very small portion of scripture (in Hebrews 11 right now) at home as families. We discuss our few verses and then meet up on Wednesday nights. We start out the class by asking the children some questions about their thoughts, ideas, and understanding of the verses. I think the children were originally under the impression that this was a quiz to see what they'd learned, but I've hopefully clarified with them that it really is because their points of view are so enlightening and valuable. Who better to simplify things for an overreader/overthinker like me!?!? Next, we give the children activities, coloring pages, and the option to play with their own toys. They talk and play loudly. Sometimes we have to ask them to quiet down or pull one or two of them off the walls while we talk. Sometimes it is totally distracting... but it's real life. It is the same kinds of conversations that my husband and I have over and around our children every day. We all do it at home. We're just bringing that feeling of home to the church building. It stretches us all a bit. We have to learn to love each other, each other's children, each other's thresholds and ways of dealing with things. I can honestly say that I grow to love these people and their children one hour at a time every week. Practically speaking, the class just can't get too big. I do hope this will spur small family cells all over, though. The grown-up discussion lasts for 30-45 minutes. We have talked about some tough stuff, had some serious, in-depth discussion, even while the kids played a little too loudly, tried to eat crayons, or searched for dead bugs... just like normal life. ;) At around 6:45 p.m., we play a game with our children. The general idea is to have the games be family-oriented, faith-building exercises. At the end of each game, parents go home with questions to discuss with their children, in regard to the "secret lesson" behind the game. It's really all on the parents to keep the discussion going, to reveal the secrets of the games, and to see what their children understood and gained from the lesson. I really love that. We've had some great discussions with our little guy. It's pretty hilarious. Also, something has changed in him. I wouldn't necessarily say that he disliked going to church, but he was not generally excited; however, when Wednesday night rolls around, he is EXCITED. He says, "Mom, are we going to the kind of church where the kids and grownups are together and we play games?!?!?" When I respond with the affirmative, I generally get a "WOOO HOO!!!" from him. This makes my heart SO happy. I love, love, love our crazy little Bible study.
It's not perfect. It's a work in progress, but it is addressing the thing that I was wrestling with. It was almost like a "duh" from God... kind of like He said, "Hey, if you want things to be different, do something different."
I am 100% certain that God is pro-family. I feel like He is actively blessing the "sacrifice" of choosing to be with our children in the chaos for this Wednesday night study. This past week, we spent a lot of our grown-up time talking about the sacrifice of being family oriented and how that is a foreign concept, even in the church. We talked about how we have all been in different positions where we felt pressured to sacrifice our families for the sake of "whatever." I just hate that. I know with all my heart that no matter what other things God has called us to, He has most definitely called us to our families. My heart, and my husband's heart, really burns for the church to understand this concept and embrace it. I want us to be the kind of people who will not stand idly by and watch a family suffer for the sake of ministry. The people whom God has called, He has called to serve with EXCELLENCE, in all the things to which He has called them (including their families). He has equipped them to do just that. If their families are suffering, something is wrong. One of the people in our class on Wednesday pointed out that one of the requirements of a church leader is that he manages his household well. Do we take this seriously? I remember reading "The Emotionally Healthy Church" and having the veil ripped from my eyes. It really matters more what a leader looks like inside his home than what his ministry looks like to outsiders. My heart genuinely aches for those who haven't grasped this. There is joy and freedom in serving and loving your family well, and it does equip you to serve others even better. I believe this with all my heart. The church is the absolute last place we should look around and be surrounded by the "Cats in the Cradle" folks. Oh, may we model our Father's heart to our children in our daily lives! (As I am typing this, I am seriously, genuinely feeling an ache in my heart and stomach. This is so serious to me, and my fervent prayer for the body.)
There were several circumstances that led Quincy and I to develop this heart for family ministry, but more than anything, it was our son. Before he was born, throughout my pregnancy with him, and at his birth, we prayed a portion of John the Baptist's prayer over him (from Luke 1)... "You will bear you a son... He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother's womb. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord." It genuinely just dawned on me as I was writing this that this is part of a fulfillment of this prayer. As long as God lays it on our hearts to lead and encourage others to lead their families well, God is using our son to turn the hearts of parents to their children.
So, this is a tough thing. It is an indictment on the church that the "pastor's kid" joke is often truth, and that our ministers and clergy have higher divorce rates than the unchurched. It is relatively recently in church history that we shifted to regular family separation in church, and it is interesting that most churches have done away with Sunday night and Wednesday night services because members genuinely wanted time with their families. How weird is it that when we attend church, we do not have time with our families?
So, I do feel compelled to say again that I do not have all the answers to these questions. I'm wrestling with it still. I definitely see that there is a place and purpose for the different ministries in our churches, but I think we are missing a key ingredient when we fail to minister to the family as a whole. I can see that the church is on a precipice of change, another reformation of sorts, and I hope that the family obtains a more prominent role in this season of change. I, for one, am taking action with that thought in mind.
(For the record, I love my church and respect my pastor. It is very obvious that he loves his wife and children well. Those are the kinds of men behind whom we should all fall in line.)
If a pastor were unable to meet me for counseling because he promised to play ball with his son, I personally would tromp along behind him as long as the Lord allowed me. What about you? What do you think?