As we wrap up our section on “Church Kids & the Church”, it’s time to talk about an issue that causes church kids and the parents of church kids an immeasurable amount of pain. It’s time to get down to the nitty-gritty and discuss how you, as a parent, can help your child overcome the attitudes, comments, and criticisms of people in the church.
Let’s be honest. Even as you read that last comment you could probably picture someone.
The elderly woman who loudly expresses in front of your child that, “in her day, children were meant to be seen and not heard.”
The gentlemen who comments that about your teenage son’s hair being too long or how he would never have been allowed to wear blue jeans to church. “
"The youth group’s music is too loud."
“The preschool class uses too much glitter in their projects.”
“Who let’s these kids run through the church, where are their parents?”
And the list could go on and on and on.
How do I know? Well, I was a church kid. Although the topics may have changed from whether or not wear a tie, to whether or not blue jeans were acceptable, to the questionability of earrings and tattoos, the attitudes of the people involved haven’t changed much.
On the one side, there’s a group of people (usually older people whose kids are grown and gone) who genuinely feel that things should be certain way. They are concerned about the house of God (which they always refer to in a slightly British accent) receiving the proper respect and reverence. They are concerned with preserving traditions and maintaining proper standards for a place of worship.
On the other side, there are children. They don’t remember the way things have always been---after all, they’ve only been on the planet a few years. They are naturally loud and messy, unpredictable and easily excited. Most of the time (although I will admit there is the rare exception) children aren’t trying to be disrespectful or to annoy older people in the church. For the most part, they aren’t even thinking about the affect their actions have on other people. They are just kids being kids in an environment that is supposed to be safe and loving. They aren’t thinking, “I’ll run in the hall to make Mr. Jones angry”, they are thinking “I’ve got to get there as fast as I can.”
Then there’s a third group caught in the mix---the parents.
They are the ones who get called into the Pastor’s office because their child ran in the hall and accidently broke the very expensive item that Mr. Jones generously donated to the church.
They are the ones who have to balance their emotions of pride that their teenager wants to join the worship team and serve God with the criticism their teen receives for playing the drums too loud.
It’s the Moms and Dads who listen to their daughters cry because of the harsh words of a critical woman.
Before God, it’s the parent’s responsibility to guide a child through the comments and criticisms, work through their emotions, and respond in a Christ-like manner to those who may not necessarily be acting in a Christ-like way. As parent, it’s your responsibility help your child navigate away from rebellion and revenge, and move toward understanding and forgiveness. Most importantly, it’s your job to help your child keep their eyes on Jesus and live in a way that shows their love for Him even when His people aren’t so lovable.
No problem, right? WRONG!
But heart to heart, former church kid to church kid’s parent, I’d like to share with you a few tips that might help you succeed at this very challenging endeavor.
Tip #1: Help Your Child Understand the True Meaning of the Word “Church”.
In his book, “Deep and Wide”, Pastor Andy Stanley explains the history of the word, “church”. This is a summary of what he teaches:
“As you may know, the Greek term translated 'church' throughout the New Testament is 'ekklesia'. What you may not know is that 'ekklesia' was not a religious term. It could refer to citizens called to gather for civic purposes. It was used to refer to soldiers called out to gather for military purposes. An 'ekklesia' was simply a gathering or an assembly of people called out for a specific purpose. 'Ekklesia' never referred to a specific place, only a specific gathering.” (59)
If you read chapter 3 of his book, he goes into a much fuller, more detailed explanation proving the basic point that when the New Testament talks about “the church” it refers to a group of people, not a building. If we are ever going to build a bridge over the generation gap and heal the wounds that have been created by the culture wars, everyone involved is going to have to understand and embrace this idea.
Those who are overly concerned with the pristine appearance of a building or property at the expense of the souls of children need to adjust their course and remember that buildings and property are just material things that can be replaced or repaired. They are not sacred or holy in themselves. It’s the people---the body of Christ that makes up the church. This includes children, teens, and their parents. So often throughout my life, I’ve wanted to ask the people who are borderline cruel to children in defense of church property, “What does it matter if we gain the whole world and have immaculate property, if we lose the soul of these children?” It’s a change in perspective: people over property.
On the other hand, parents and children are just as wrong if they place their personal freedom, their rights, or their desire for progress ahead of their concern for their older brothers and sisters in Christ. Galatians 5:13 says, “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.”
Just as the older generation needs to put on love and understanding toward the young people in the church, so the younger generation and their parents need to put on love and humility and learn to work with the older members of the church.
Basically put: Every person who calls Jesus Christ their Savior is the church. We’re all in this together. It’s time we realized this and began putting Paul’s words into action when he said: “Stop looking to your own interests; but each of you look to the interests of the others.” (Philippians 2:4)
Tip #2 Take Responsibility for Your Own Actions.
There’s not much you can do (except pray) to change the attitude and actions of others. The only thing you can control is your actions and your reactions and your child’s actions and reactions. Hence, if you are in a difficult church situation with people who may not be “child-friendly” or “teen-friendly”, you’re going to have to be the bigger person and choose to do what’s right hoping that the other person will follow you’re example and respond in kind. Even if they don’t, you still have to do the right thing and lead your child in doing the right thing simply because you love Jesus and you want to build up His “ekklesia”.
Tip #3 Always Employ Common Sense and Common Courtesy.
Now that we’ve addressed Tips #1 & #2, let’s get practical. How do we put these principles into action?
Again, I think it boils down to applying common sense and common courtesy.
Common sense: Even though we know that the “church” consists of people and that the “church building” is not sacred in itself, common sense still tells us that the church building and the church property belong to someone else.
Think about it: Would you allow your child to go to your neighbor’s home and play with their electronic equipment without their permission?
If they disobeyed you and did it anyway, wouldn’t you apologize and offer to pay for it?
Would you allow your child to go to the grocery store and “sample” anything on the shelves without paying for it?
Would you let them come to your office, make a mess and leave it in a shambles expecting someone else to clean it up?
Would you allow your child to run wild through a movie theatre or concert, making noise and disrupting the performance?
No, you wouldn’t do any of these things. Common sense tells you they are wrong. Yet, many parents allow their children to do very similar things in or to the church building because “it’s church.” Honestly, it makes no sense. Why would you allow your child to be less respectful of church property than you would business property, a neighbor’s property, school property, or any public property? Common sense tells us it isn’t right.
We need to apply the same rules of common courtesy that we apply in every other area of our lives to our church lives and remember that we take extra good care of things that belong to other people. When accidents happen, we apologize and we pay. Teaching our children these lessons will help them not just in their live at church, but in every area of their lives throughout their lives.
Having said that, I can’t walk away from this point without saying one more thing. Common sense and common courtesy go both ways. Just like you would never allow your child to intentionally trash your neighbor’s house, if your child accidentally broke something at your neighbor’s house and was sincerely apologetic and willing to make restitution, you would not allow your neighbor to abuse them, berate them, or humiliate them for an accident. Instead, you would apologize, remove your child from the situation and tell your neighbor that they were not allowed to abuse your child in this way.
In the same way, if your child or teen is living by the common sense/common courtesy rules of society and church life, and is still being abused, humiliated, or constantly criticized by the church simply for being a child it is time to kindly extract yourself and your child from that situation and move to a church that loves and embraces children. Trust me, there are lots of wonderful churches who are passionate about seeing children grow in their Christian walk. Rather than taking the attitude of the disciples and trying to keep the children away from Jesus, these children follow Jesus’ example and welcome them with open arms. With common sense and the help of the Holy Spirit, you’ll be able to discern which church is right for your child.
Tip #4 Don’t Foster an Attitude of Rebellion in Your Child.
It’s an easy trap to fall into---hurt, frustration, distrust, and even exhaustion leading you to say, “Oh, who cares what they think? They are just bitter and difficult and well, you can fill in the rest.” Although I have to say that this response may be normal, even understandable, years of experience have shown me that when parents pass this response onto their children, it’s also very dangerous.
I mean, I get it. Do we care that your child forgot to use their “inside voice” when they were excited and Mrs. Smith started huffing and puffing? Not really.
However---and this is a big however----if you plant a seed or even tolerate a seed of disrespect or rebellion toward Mrs. Smith, given time and a little more fertilizer (you know, the food that fuels growth) that rebellion and disrespect will grow. In a year or two, it won’t be about Mrs. Smith and volume control. Instead, your child will have an attitude of rebellion and disrespect about church in general.
Then it won’t be “What do they know about kids?” but “What do they know about anything? Who are they to tell me I can’t listen to whatever music I want, go wherever I want to go or do whatever I want to do? They can’t tell me not to drink, smoke, have sex before marriage, look at pornography, etc, etc, etc…”
Reality is that rebellion spreads like wild fire in the heart of a child. The worst thing a parent can do is feed a rebellious spirit. Soon they won’t just be rebelling against one cranky person, but every church person, every authority figure…even you. It’s a dangerous road that you need to avoid at all costs.
Tip #5 Foster Understanding and Forgiveness
So what’s the alternative to fostering disrespect and rebellion? Teach your child to liberally apply understanding and forgiveness. Going back to Tip #1, remind your child that the church is made up of people, and people are just people. We all have bad days, difficult experiences, hard times, pain in our physical bodies and our hearts, and many times there is a good reason that people act the way they do. (Not always, but often)
Whenever it’s appropriate, try to foster an attitude of understanding in your child. For instance, explain that the janitor who gives kids a hard time about leaving a mess, works very hard, and may be very tired at the end of the day. The Sunday School teacher with bad nerves may be taking medicine that makes her nervous. Try to explain to your child that even though their behavior may not be right, there may be a reason for it. As followers of Jesus and people who make mistakes ourselves, we need to be empathetic, understanding and compassionate whenever possible.
For instance, when I was younger, my Mom was asked to take over a class for an elderly woman who had a reputation for being mean. Going into it, everyone warned my Mom to expect a fight from this woman because she was losing her class. Instead, what my Mom received was support and gratitude. Turns out, the “mean” woman was really exhausted and overwhelmed. She wanted to quit the class, but didn’t want to abandon her responsibilities or let anyone down. She was a woman with a good heart in bad circumstances. When my Mom treated her like part of the “ekklesia” who deserved love, respect, and honor for her years of service, a little love went a long way.
Of course, I’ve also been around the church long enough to know that this isn’t always the case. Sometimes there really is no understanding the motives or actions of another person. I’ve known people who really were as mean and bitter as they appeared to be. So what do you do when love and understanding don’t solve a problem? Apply forgiveness.
Just because someone treats you or your child poorly, doesn’t give you the right to respond in kind. Jesus is very clear of what He expects of His followers.
Love your neighbor as yourself.
Pray for those who hurt you.
When someone treats you badly, return good to them.
Turn the other cheek.
Forgive and treat people the way you want to be treated.
These rules apply to children and adults. As followers of Christ, and parents who want to teach their children to follow Christ, it’s your responsibility to teach them to live by these principles rather than seek revenge or develop a rebellious attitude. Like I said before, if the situation is intolerable---change churches. Even then, you need to lead your child in forgiving those who hurt them and moving on. If the situation is tolerable and you’re going to stay, then forgiveness and understanding is the way to go.
Tip #6 Surround Your Child With Christian Role Models Who Love Children and Treat Them Well.
Remember the old saying about “Not letting a few bad apples spoiling the whole barrel”?
The same thing applies to church people and church life. Reality is that every congregation is going to have a few members who live to complain, be cranky, and cause problems. Remember: an “ekklesia” is a group of people, and every group of people has a few members like this.
However, in the vast majority of churches, these people will be the minority in the crowd. Every “ekklesia” also has many members who love kids, who want to see kids come to Jesus and grow in Him. They are excited about children’s ministry and youth ministry, and want was is best for your child and your family.
My advice to parents: Focus on these people. Involve these people in your children’s lives. If your particular church doesn’t have any people like this---find a new church---because they are out there. Just like a negative critical person can have a negative impact on your child’s spiritual development, a strong positive role model will help your child’s spiritual life flourish and grow. They will inspire and challenge your child to go further, try harder, and be stronger in their faith and throughout their lives. They are an asset in your parenting efforts, a gift from God to help you and your child.
My advice: Embrace them. Treasure them. Surround your child with good godly role models that prove that the bad apples are few and far between. Show your child the good side of the living, vibrant, thriving “ekklesia” that is the body of Christ. Do everything that you can to help them see church life as a big, red, juicy apple so they can’t wait to take a bite. Hands down, this is one of the best ways to help your child see past the difficulties of church life and into the benefits that come from being part of a healthy, thriving, loving ekklesia both now and throughout the rest of their lives.