When Church is a Choice


“We have decided to let our kids choose whether or not they go to church and to pick their own religion.  We tell them God exists, but how they choose to believe in God, or whether they go to church or not, is up to them.”

I have heard this statement from parents many times.  They usually say it proudly, like they have really thought about it and have come up with a great answer as to whether or not they would take their kids to church.

I have no doubt that the decision is well meaning.  Parents want their kids to find their way to religion without it feeling forced or pushed upon. They want their kids to know that church is a choice, but they are not obligated to attend.  They might say they were forced to go every Sunday and hated it, so why would they ever infringe that on their kid?  Or, they might argue that there is not one right religion and who are they to provoke one religion on them?  Or, they might argue that church’s can be exclusive and divisive and do more harm than good.

Whatever the reasons, when parents don’t make their kids go to church, I am certain they are doing so out of protection.  It’s not that they are saying that God isn’t important. They are saying that religion isn’t important to know God.

Here’s the problem.

When kids are told that church is a choice and that religion is a buffet of entrees in which they can pick the one’s they like the best and ignore the one’s they don’t…kids hear this:

Religion doesn’t matter. God is there if you want Him, or not. Take Him or leave Him.  He’s around, if you want to give Him a call. Otherwise, don’t worry about it. Live a good life. Be a good person. You will be fine.

If I told my kids that bathing was a choice and that they were free to decide whether or not they wanted to bathe or brush their teeth…my kids would opt out of the practice and ritual of good hygiene. – Gross, I know. But true.

If I told my kids that nutrition was a choice and that they were free to eat whatever they wanted… we would have Oreos for breakfast.

What kids hear when their parents say, “It’s up to you,” is “It doesn’t matter to me, and therefore, it doesn’t matter.”

What concern’s me more,  is I see a generation (my generation)  of parents telling their kids that church is a choice, and I wonder, what happened to that generation?  Was it the “I’m free to do what I want any old time” culture?  Was it the fact that the church is human and therefore can be hypocritical and hurtful?  Was it the feeling that the church did not move with the times?

  What will it take to get this generation back?

Here is what’s not going to work:

Shame. Shaming people back to church only creates bitterness.

Hell, Fire and Damnation. That ship has sailed.

Programs. They work for a short term fix, but not for the long term relationship. They look good on banners and in brochures, but studies show they don’t provide true spiritual growth.

Here’s what might work:

Really honest conversations about God and science, about the Bible and authorship, about Christology and salvation. Allowing people to not be afraid to say, “I do not believe that” and still be welcomed and received as part of the body of Christ.

Really honest conversations about suffering and death, about prayer and discipline, about mission and service.  Allowing people to practice their faith in very tangible, life giving ways.

Really honest conversations about money and sex, about power and greed, about love and struggle. Allowing people to be real and authentic and to name their struggle in a safe community, without judgment.

Conversations outside of the church, in coffee houses and around kitchen tables, where God becomes a conversation partner, before a life event happens. Because when that event does happen, suddenly there is no foundation, no life preserver, no faith and God’s name is raised as an option to consider and suddenly He becomes the Bad Guy, who could have prevented the event all along.

Ritual, reverence and spiritual practice. Religions need to hold to their religious practices that frame their identity.  People are hungry for substance, we cannot feed them white sugar. Our order, sacraments and creeds matter in that they define how we come to understand God.  We cannot lose sight of who we are, out of the desire to be something for everyone. We need to be who we are. If we are Presbyterian, be Presbyterian. If we are Lutheran, be Lutheran.  People know when we say things only to make them happy.

We who do the church thing, need to be mindful of how hungry people are for real substance, let’s be sure to provide them with the Bread of Life and trust the Holy Spirit to do the rest.


  1. Shelly, this is a really good posting. We first ran into a couple who saw it all as a matter of children taking the initiative in matters of faith over 50 years ago in conversations with a neighbor. We did not have any children at the time, and so, even if we had agreed with them, we could not have acted accordingly. When we did have children, we ourselves were very much engaged with a church. Not surprisingly, we had our three children baptized. And from that moment on we sensed we had taken on an obligation to provide nurturing in the faith for our children. Two of the three faithfully attended church through their high school years with very little urging from us. The third was not as ready to take on this responsibility for herself. She went, but there were also times when she stayed home.
    She recently shared a story with us about this. A few months ago, she went back to the town we lived in when she was in high school to visit a friend she had during these years. The two of them went to the church that they had attended together as high school students (“our church”). As they sat their together they found themselves moved to tears as they recognized that the church experience had been a source of the strong bond between them.

    As of today, two of my three children, including the one who just visited her high school friend, are active members of a church. The third was very active some years back, but had some negative experiences in the church’s wrestling with one of the major social issues of our time. She now clearly falls into the category of being spiritual without being religious. All three are appreciative of our efforts to nurture and encourage them. They value the fact that in our home they had the freedom to raise any questions and express any doubts without fear of a negative response, or any attempts to raise walls to keep them in line.

    Did we get something right? As I sit here, I have no way of knowing this. What I do know is that we made an effort, fallible as it was, to act consistently with our vows at their baptism. We also understood at every step of the way that keeping a positive relationship with our children was vital if we were going to be able to have any influence in their lives. Love was always the reality that outweighed any insistence on points of dogma or specific religious practices.

    Thanks again for your very sensitive blog.

  2. I know you are super busy but thought you enjoy this.      Missing you two already and you have not even left yet – I’m in trouble.  I hope you can find moments to take some deep breaths and rest.      You always make moving seem so effortless.with love,   Diane

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