What I Don’t Look for in a Church

After I first started having kids, I distinctly remember how important I thought it was for our family to attend a church with a strong children’s ministry. I thought that such a ministry would help our kids understand and embrace the Christian faith in a deeper and more tangible way, and that this would be even more important as the years go by.

But I no longer hold this to be a major priority for me and for my family. Here is why.

A study conducted by the Search Institute a number of years ago identified the main factors influencing the faith maturity of children. And the researchers discovered that family religiosity was more powerful than even church involvement. Specifically, the level of maturity of the mother was considered the most influential factor, even more so than that of the father. In other words, all that time I was thinking about choosing a church with a strong children’s ministry could have been better spent deepening my own Christian maturity.

It’s tempting to want to put all of our children’s spiritual development eggs into the church basket, sending them to their Sunday school classes while we go enjoy our own undisturbed worship and get what we feel we need out of the Sunday morning service. But I’ve come to realize that embracing this perspective results in a consumeristic view of church, where parents feel justified in leaving if the kids’ ministry or the worship or whatever else they are looking for falls short of expectations. The irony is that the best place to help our kids grow spiritually is right inside our own homes.

If you compare the amount of time our kids are in a church setting with the amount of time they are in the presence of one or more parent, there is just no comparison. My kids spend a total of about 4-5 hours per week in a church setting, if I include their weekly AWANA meetings. However, they spend an average of about 70-80 hours a week in my presence (and even if you don’t homeschool, your average would likely be about 30-40 hours more than the time your kids spend in church each week.) No matter how good their Sunday school teachers are, there is no way that brief time of influence can compete with my day-to-day example and witness to my kids.

In other words, we mothers have tremendous impact on the faith maturity of our children, by how we live, by how we demonstrate our commitment to Jesus in our own behaviors and lifestyles, and by the values we embrace in our day to day lives. How much do we display the fruits of the Spirit in the way we interact with others? How much does God’s heart for those who are considered “the least of these” evident in our lives? How deeply do we embrace values of generosity, hospitality, simplicity, and community? It can be sobering but also illuminating for us to recognize that our example in these areas and more will have so much more impact than the curriculum our church uses to teach our kids.

It’s important to be a part of a church community, but we should not expect that the church is going to be the main provider of spiritual teaching and development in our children’s lives. That responsibility falls on parents, and particularly on us moms. It’s not only an extraordinary responsibility and blessing, but also a biblical calling as expressed in Deuteronomy 6 to “impress [God's commandments] on your children.”

In next week’s post, we’ll ask the question of whether or not this all means that mothers are supposed to focus entirely on their families. (Sneak peek: my answer is no!) But for this week, if you are in a situation in which you are either dissatisfied with your church’s children’s ministry, or feeling called to a church community that doesn’t have a strong children’s ministry, have no fear: your relationship with Christ is the best teaching your children can receive on what it means to be a Christ-follower themselves.

As always, I love to hear what you think. Feel free to comment below!

18 Comments on “What I Don’t Look for in a Church

  1. I used to think that a strong children’s ministry was an essential part of a good church, but we’ve been in a church with a “dilapidated” children’s ministry (and I’m somewhat in charge of it, so I can label it “dilapidated”) for a number of years now, and it’s only made my dedication to teaching my children at home that much stronger. When we allow the church to do all of the spiritual discipleship of our children, we are neglecting our foremost responsibility as parents. Thanks for the reminder!”

  2. Having been at a church with a not-ideal children’s ministry and one with a great kids’ ministry, I can whole heartedly agree that the spiritual tenor in our home speaks more to my kids than anything else. It is a sobering reminder for us parents to pursue and obey God whole heartedly!

    I will say that it does help when all the glue bottles are full, teachers know what is supposed to happen next and snacks are ready to go, the kids learn a little more at sunday school!

  3. I really agree. My husband and I pastor a church and we struggle for kids workers per se, so kids church is not great. However, we have always believed that parents should primarily teach/disciple their kids and that the church should play more of a supportative role to that.

  4. We’re finding that belonging to a church where we share lives throughout the week (as opposed to only meeting for a weekly event) is complementing our discipleship of our children. We are definitely the people who carry primary responsibility, but we are in community which is also invested in our children too, on a daily basis.

    For us, the formal children’s ministry program has been replaced by loving relationships with people of all ages who are following Jesus 7 days a week. This has been brilliant because the kids are not just getting a weekly download of information and craft, but are seeing what trusting and loving Jesus, his people and his world looks like in all of life.

    This is the sort of children’s ministry we see as crucial – dynamic community fixed around Jesus, which welcomes children as real people.

    Thanks for the post.

  5. Wow! I go to make dinner and run errands and already you folks have made great comments! I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who thinks this way; sometimes in our churches, I think our pastors and leaders think that we need to invest so much money and resources to make our children’s ministries attractive and engaging so families come. Maybe it would be better to spend time and energy empowering and encouraging the parents to be the disciplers instead. And I love what you said, Cathy, about the power of a community to disciple children, and not just parents. I think what you’ve described is the ideal scenario, where the children are experiencing community with a wide range of ages and seeing faith lived out in all the different people they interact with, and not just on Sundays. Sounds to me you are part of a missional community. =)

    Thanks everyone! Look forward to seeing more thoughts!

  6. YES! This is a huge thing. I wrote about it on my own blog recently from the perspective of what my own parents did right. There was a white paper released recently by Eikon Community which concluded:

    1) Children were more likely to have vibrant faith if the parents weren

  7. Oh-this is good stuff. A subtle shift in focus by the church & voila! We’re off center, right where the enemy wants us. This is an important message for parents. For moms. Thanks for posting.

  8. Helen,

    I agree wholeheartedly. I also appreciated Cathy’s comment about the church sharing life through the week. The church is meant to be a community of shared life and struggle. Instead we often settle for something much less…and we suffer in all areas for it.

    As you may remember from our phone conversation, we don’t have regular classes for our kids – for many of the same reasons mentioned here. We believe that their formation is better aided through inclusion in the community…and even if we didn’t, we don’t have enough volunteers to do much without exhausting everyone!

    We try to include them in the worship gatherings and also in our day-to-day expressions of discipleship. However, if there is an emphasis on household spiritual development (particularly in tandem with a faith community that functions like extended family), and if our kids are invited to participate in the spiritual life of the church, it seems that having an occasional (even weekly) class for kids could reclaim some of its value.

    My wife and I don’t homeschool for several reasons. One of those reasons is that our kids are already around us a lot and we’re intentional about doing a good deal of learning activities together. They seem to respond very well to opportunities to have other adults teaching them. We find that even our preschoolers seem to have a greater attention span for lessons when they’re at “school.” This hasn’t replaced our own efforts to work on reading, handwriting, math and other skills, but as an addition it seems to have a powerful impact.

    I suspect the same would be true for children’s ministry activities. Perhaps their impact would increase greatly if they functioned as extensions of the family’s ministry to one another.”

  9. Excellent post! I agree and think that some of those “excellent” children’s programs are not beneficial at all. We left a mega-church with “wonderful” programs for a small church that focused on presching the Gospel to all ages.”

  10. I came across your site through a friend of mine (Carrie over at Live, Love, and Learn Together). As I was scanning your posts, this one caught my eye. I feel the same way about the parents being the spiritual leaders and I think, too often, parents are too willing to delegate the church for this position. I have never thought about this in terms of “What I Don’t Look for in a Church”, but it is so true. I have taught in the pre-school and children’s departments at our church for years. Through this experience, my heart has been burdened for parents to rise up a be their children’s spiritual leaders. Year after year, more and more parents are taking a back seat when it comes to spiritual leadership in their homes and I see the effects this is having on their children as they get older.. Now, I am not employed or anything by our church, but I have talked to our education minister about just this topic until I was blue in the face because as a mom myself (and a homeschooling one at that ;), it is a topic very close to my heart. I want other parents to want to be the spiritual leaders for their kids. But how? How do we get the parents to take hold of the reins; to see the value and importance of being their children’s spiritual leaders and not the church? I was so blessed to have had a mother who was very ‘missional minded’. I see the difference her spiritual leadership has made in not only my life, but also in the life of my siblings (and there are 10 of us!) Because of this, I see the difference my siblings and I are making in the lives of our children. {All the glory to God…Nothing that my Mother or we have done, of course, but what God has done and is continuing to do.} Anyway, I could go on and on, but Carrie has never steered me wrong on any of the books she has recommended to me so I am very excited about reading your book “The Missional Mom” and just purchased it on Amazon. I look forward to following your blog as well :)”

  11. I love this post! I do so agree that parents really and truly need to be discipling their children.

    This post speaks to me more than you can know. When I moved from home (I had never heard of the Stay at Home Daughter idea), I went directly to a Bible school. I graduated out of Youth Ministry at the end of the program and then went on to help disable parents of their parenting responsiblities for a few years. Only within the last year have I had my eyes open to what was happening and what I was doing. We no longer place value in the Children’s Ministry the way I was taught and lived it for so long.

    It is nice for the boys to have the social interaction, but the bulk of their discipleship now takes place at home, with us. I have also stepped down from any form of Children’s Ministry for awhile to evaluate true priorities in life and right now, it is my husband’s mission, my children’s well-being and futures.

  12. Pingback: The Real Purpose of Motherhood | Helen Lee: Author, Speaker, Missional Mom Helen Lee: Author, Speaker, Missional Mom

  13. Loved your post, April. And I love your description of your house church, too! In our church currently, the kids are with the adults for the initial time of singing once a month. I wish it were more frequent, because I really think everyone benefits from time together as a church family, even if the kids are noisy and occasionally disruptive. I bet your children will have fond memories both of their experiences in church and of your intentional discipleship, just as you have of your family. Appreciate your input!

  14. Hi Bret! Great to see you here, and thanks so much for your comment and for sharing what goes on in your church community. I don’t think anything is wrong with having Sunday school for kids, especially if there is so much emphasis as you’ve described on children being so integrated into the faith community already. I just wanted to challenge the notion that I do think some people have that choosing a church with a great kids’ ministry will ensure their children’s spiritual maturity. I know I don’t have to tell someone like you that, it would be preaching to the choir. =)

    And as for homeschooling, I definitely am not one who believes everyone is called to it, and I do think it is a calling. Kids can absolutely learn from other adults and I think benefit from those opportunities because I certainly am not strong in every subject! And so I agree with you, that I’m not advocating for the eradication of all children’s ministry activities. I do want to raise the question of whether parents rely on them more than they should without realizing that they are the ones who have so much to offer in terms of directing and deepening their children’s spiritual development.

    Great comments, Bret! It was an honor to be on the Missional Monks podcast and I wish you and your family blessings as you continue on your missional journey together!

  15. Pauline–thanks for visiting my site, reading the blog, commenting, and even buying the book! I’m honored. And you raise such a great point here–parents need to be willing to step up and be the spiritual leaders for their children and they need help in doing so by the church. In some ways, the church is complicit in what has happened because it has promoted a consumer-driven model in recent decades, one in which parents have seemingly been encouraged to abdicate responsibility. So the church needs to do more to educate parents; and then those of us who feel strongly about this can keep sharing and demonstrating in our own lives that this is an important part of parenting. Thanks for your contribution, Pauline! Come back and let me know what you think of the book!

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