In the wonderful world of raising church kids, the church can be you’re greatest asset. Of course, from time to time, it can also be your greatest obstacle. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? Still, if you’ve been raising a church kid for any amount of time, you know exactly what I mean.
When a healthy church is at its best, it’s a parent’s BFF. It provides you with back-up for the spiritual training you’re already providing at home, it offers your kids positive relationships with both their peers and older people who they can look up to and learn from. A healthy church will provide your child with positive resources and programs that will help them make friends, learn Scripture, and develop the tools necessary to live a Christian life. Optimally, it’s a safe environment where you child can find a second-family, a “spiritual family” that will love, support, and encourage them throughout their lives.
That’s the up-side.
Of course, there’s also a flip-side that isn’t always so pretty. It’s this side that often presents Christian kids and parents with challenges. That’s what we’re going to talk about this month: How to deal with these challenges.
If you read last month’s article, then you know that I believe it is every Christian parent’s responsibility to provide their child with a healthy church environment, even if that means leaving a toxic church environment. (If you’d like to go back and read this article, check it out in the archives section.) We talked about some of the characteristics of a healthy church and why it’s an important part of your child’s spiritual development.
However, I don’t want to mislead you into thinking that choosing a healthy church for your family to attend will remove all church challenges anymore than moving into a house that isn’t filled with toxic mold will remove all maintenance issues. Just because an environment isn’t life-threatening doesn’t mean it’s problem free. Unfortunately, even in the healthiest of churches there will still be problems from time to time.
Why? Because the church is not a building, it’s people who are committed to following Christ and working together to accomplish the goal of evangelism and discipleship. Even though healthy churches are filled with people who genuinely love Jesus, they are still human beings with frailties and failures. From time to time, people cause problems. Sometimes the children of God don’t reflect the image of their Father. Because church kids are just kids with a child’s mentality, it’s difficult for them to figure out why the discrepancies between what they are learning in church and what some of the church people are actually doing. When emotions start to fly and relationships are painful, church kids can be left with questions and emotional pain of their own.
That’s why it’s so important that you, as the mature parent, recognize these challenges and times of questions in your kids’ life and do what you can to help them through it. Otherwise, their immature thoughts and undeveloped emotions could turn into barriers of bitterness, anger, or feelings of betrayal. Without your help, these feelings could become a huge hindrance in your child’s spiritual development causing them to not only question the church, but the Leader of the Church, Jesus.
So what can a Christian parent do to help their child deal with problems in a healthy church?
1. Be careful what they hear.
Do your kids know everything about your finances?
The intimate details of your marriage?
You last health screening?
Yeah, I didn’t think so. Just as they don’t need to know all the details of these adult topics, children to not need to know all the dirty details of every conflict that takes place within the church.
For instance, they don’t need to know the latest gossip about the elder who was removed from his position for sexual misconduct. They don’t need to hear your opinion on why the worship leader should be removed because her skirt was too short. They really don’t need to hear you complain about the pastor’s sermon or how you would run the church better than he does if only you were given the chance.
These are not conversations that need to happen in front of children. If you must have these conversations, (which is questionable in the first place) have them when the children are not around. Shut the door. Talk while they are outside.
If other people feel the need to share gossip or critical opinions of those in authority in front of your children, then I suggest you politely ask them to refrain until your children are out of earshot. The truth is that your kids just don’t need to hear it. Love your children enough to protect them from things they are not ready to hear.
Recently, I watched a movie called, “Ramona and Beezus”. (Cute, family friendly film!) In this movie, the family is having financial difficulties and the parents are talking about what will happen in the bank takes the house. The next scene of the movie shows what the littlest girl, Ramona, thinks this means as she imagines a big tow truck pulling up to the door and literally taking the house away while the family stands waving.
The point is that kids don’t always understand what adults are saying. They don’t always get that adults are just blowing off steam and may not mean everything they say. Instead they say, “The pastor doesn’t know what he’s doing” and they think the pastor can’t be trusted because he has no idea how to run the church. He must be stupid. The child thinks they can’t trust him. Why should they even listen to what he says---he doesn’t know anything?
Are you seeing the progression?
It’s very important that as a parent, you are careful what your child hears. Think about what you’re saying through the eyes of a child and edit accordingly.
Another thing you need to remember when it comes to being careful about what your child hears is that children are intensely loyal. If they think someone is hurting someone that they love, they will immediately see that person as an evil villain. They don’t look at both sides of the issue and look for middle ground like adults do.
Children think in black and white. People are bad and good. Keep this in mind before you let your child hear the story of the latest church conflict or the squabble you just had with another member of the church. These are things you want to talk about with your wife, your brother, or a close friend, but not your child. Because even though things may blow over in a week or two, it won’t just blow over in the mind of your child. They look at the person who hurt you or someone they love with suspicion for quite some time, maybe even permanently. So be careful and watch what your children hear.
2. Be Careful What You Say
You might think that this point is the same as the last one, but trust me, it isn’t. This point isn’t about protecting your child, but rather, what you need to say after your child has heard or seen the ugly side of the church.
You see, inevitably, no matter how hard to try to protect your child from gossip or critical talk among church members, a church kid will be exposed to it. They may hear about it from another child in the church or another church member. It may be impossible to hide the information if a pastor or friend leaves your life or the church. As your child grows older, it will be more and more difficult to protect them because unfortunately, there will be times when they will experience church conflict or recognize blatant hypocrisy. When these things happen, what can you do to keep these challenges from becoming a barrier to your child’s spiritual growth?
It’s at this point that you need to be very careful what you say. In fact, the first thing I would recommend is not saying anything but listening to what your child has seen or heard. Also, be very attentive to listen to what your child is FEELING. How is this revelation affecting them? What emotions are they experiencing? What questions has this information raised in their minds? Remember, their heart is more important than your opinion or even your hurt feelings. This is the time for you to be the adult and help your child through this difficult time.
The next thing you need to do is be honest---completely honest.
Correct any facts that may have been distorted or exaggerated in the story your child heard. As we all know, stories tend to grow the more they are told.
On the other hand, don’t lie to your child or try to cover things up. If a man was just put in jail for abusing his family, then be honest with your child and tell them the facts of what happened. They are going to find out eventually, and if it will only make matters worse if they think you lied to them.
After you’ve discussed the facts, you need to talk about how this information makes your child feel. Questions that could arise could include: “How could someone who claims to be a Christian do such a thing?” or “How could God let this happen?”
These are tough questions even for adults. Still, your child is looking to you for an answer. Although I can’t give you a blanket answer to give in every situation, I can say that your answer needs to include the fact that people, even those who call themselves Christians, are never going to be perfect, Only Jesus is perfect. Our job is to follow Jesus and forgive His followers just as we want to be forgiven when we make mistakes. Whenever your kids see hypocrisy, fighting, or sin in the local church, it’s your job to redirect their attention from the failings of the church to the unfailing nature of Jesus. He is the Leader we are following. Everyone else will let you down from time to time because they are human, but He is the Constant that you can count on.
It won’t be an easy conversation, but with the help of the Holy Spirit you can do it. As long as you keep pointing your child toward the truth that people fail and can be forgiven but Jesus never fails, you’ll go a long way toward helping your child overcome the challenges that come from problems within the church.
3. Be Careful Not to Put Your Child in the Middle
It’s been my experience that the majority of church conflicts have very little to do with right and wrong or moral failings. Instead, many of the conflicts and challenges that occur with the church involve bruised egos, battles over territory, misspoken words, hurt feelings, or even misunderstandings. These are the types of issues that end in one family leaving the church or ending a friendship with another family. When these circumstances occur, the children involved will inevitably find out what happened and be tempted to choose sides.
I’ll be honest---this is where it gets tricky.
It’s difficult because if you or someone close to you is involved in the conflict, then you’re emotions are in turbo-gear. You’re hurting and feeling betrayed. You’re fighting the urge to see your brother or sister in Christ as an enemy and trying to resist the temptation to take revenge. If the relationship was very close, then you may even be experiencing feelings of grief or depression. Right in the middle of all this inner turmoil, your child says, “Why can’t Tommy come over and play?”
At this point, every fiber of your being wants to say, “Tommy can’t come play anymore because his parents are dirty rotten rats who ………”
Bad idea. A few months ago, I read a blog by a pastor’s wife who had a much better way of handling the situation. She learned it when their family’s closest friends had a disagreement with her husband and took their entire family out of the church.
When her son came to her and asked, “What happened?” she honestly answered, “Tommy’s Dad disagreed with your Dad about something. Because Daddy really believes that he is doing what Jesus wants, he can’t agree with Tommy’s Dad. Tommy’s Dad decided to go to a church that agreed with him. But I want you to know that we still love Tommy and his family. This is a grown-up disagreement and it has nothing to do with you. It doesn’t mean Tommy’s family is bad, it’s just a grown up disagreement. No big deal.”
Reading this woman’s blog it was obvious that it was a big deal. Her heart was hurting very badly. However, she knew it wasn’t her son’s job to carry her pain. He was a child and he needed to see his parent doing the right thing and handling the situation maturely. So, she put her feelings on hold for a moment, and encouraged her son not to choose sides or allow bitterness into his heart.
When her son asked sheepishly, “Can I invite Tommy to my party---he is my friend?”, she said, “Yes, we’ll invite him and hopefully he’ll come.”
Even though Tommy’s parent’s didn’t return to the church, Tommy came to the party. Thankfully, all of the adults involved encouraged their children not to take sides but remember that even in disagreement, we’re all the family of God.
I think this Mom’s story is an excellent example for any Mom in her situation to follow. Lead by example and let your kids be kids. Don’t make them pick a side.
4. Remember to Count the Cost Before You Go to War
This last tip is just a gentle reminder to parents and really all Christian adults asking you to remember the church kids before you decided to go to war with each other. True, I understand that there are times when conflict is inevitable. There are times when you have to stand up for what’s right against what’s wrong. However, there are often times when conflict could be avoided if Christians would just let a few things go.
My advice to the parents of church kids is that the next time you see yourself heading toward a conflict based on an offense, a territorial issue, or a bruised ego, is to stop and count the cost that your children and the other children in the church will pay in the conflict. What will the church kids see and hear when the words and sparks start to fly? Is it possible that it would be better to let a few offenses slide rather than expose your children to a dirty church battle filled with anger, bitterness, betrayal and broken relationships?
What if your constant involvement in church conflicts causes your child to leave the church when they become a young adult? As Paul said to the Corinthians, “Why not just accept the offense?”
The truth is that as much as we hate to admit it, the real casualties in church conflicts are usually the young. They are the ones watching, taking it all in, saying, “Who needs all this stress? What’s the point of being a Christian, look how they treat each other!”
Sound far-fetched? Talk to any former church kid who’s walked away from the church and I’ll bet that too much conflict will be among their reasons for leaving.
The question that each Christian parent needs to answer is, “Is the war worth the cost?”
If you run the other family out of the church, but your own child follows 10 years later, was it worth it?
If you gained the leadership position you wanted but your child thinks you’re a hypocrite, was it worth it?
When it comes to church conflict we need to be very careful that we don’t win the battle and lose the war for the souls of our children. Whenever possible, if a matter can be resolved peaceably without your child getting involved, choosing a side, or being hurt, I beg you to take it. As much as possible, provide your child with a positive image of the church and church people by:
Being careful what they hear
Being careful what you say
Encouraging them not to take sides
And whenever possible, choose peace over conflict for the sake of your children.