Like if exponentially increasing secularism in “The West” is a problem, what is their program to juice sincere church attendance?
— Will 🐋 Menaker (@willmenaker) July 7, 2017
That’s a good question. I’d love to hear what you readers have to say — and if you’re just going to snark, save your time, because I’m not going to post it.
Here are my thoughts, for Christians wanting to keep their kids in the faith:
- Accept that there’s no such thing as a foolproof program for this. Religious faith is not something that can be programmed into people. There’s no killer app to make your kids religious. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t things you can do that make it more likely, but you should not be under the impression that there’s a secret formula for it.
- Don’t outsource your kids’ religious education. You are the primary religious educator of your children. Your church staff and Christian school staff can help with this, and should — but mostly, it’s on you. If the best you can do is support in every way your church and school as they teach your kids, that’s better than most. If you feel incapable of doing things in-depth yourself, then at least don’t undermine those who are.
- Practice your religion yourself. The most important form of religious education in families is by example. Studies have shown over and over that the best predictor of whether or not people become religious is whether or not their parents practiced the faith. It’s not enough to say, “This is what we believe.” You’ve got to walk the walk. You’ve got to live as if God were real — and not just on Sundays and holidays.
- The life of faith is 80 percent formation, 20 percent information. When I was in my twenties and a militant new convert, I used to think that the answer to our problems with fallen-away Christians was better catechesis. Now that I’m 50, have lived longer, have had my own deep and painful struggles with my faith, and have been raising kids for almost 18 years, I see that catechesis is only part of the picture — and not the most important part. I don’t mean to put down catechetics — I think we all know that we need to do more of it — but I do want to say that practices matter more than mastering information. (See #2)
- Don’t shy away from the big questions. “Why did God let Aunt Ruthie die?” It’s a good and serious question, and it deserves a good and serious answer — and “I can’t say for sure” is a better answer than something pat that’s designed more to short-circuit questions than to answer them. I can see now that much of the religion in my family’s life was (unconsciously) designed to wall off real moral and theological inquiry. I hear this a fair amount from people, talking about their childhoods.
- Encourage a sense of wonder. All true religion begins with wonder. Expose your kids (and yourself) to God’s presence in nature, in sacred art and architecture, in literature. Otherwise, you risk turning the experience of faith into dry moralism.
- Help them to see the universality and the historic dimension of the Church. It’s a big church, and includes in an immense range of human experience over the past two millennia. This is your children’s inheritance. Share it with them.
- Beauty and Goodness are greatly undervalued as witnesses and teachers. This point is implied by a couple of the things I said above, but I still wanted to say it. In a “post-truth” age, it will be easier for many young people to approach God through His manifestation in Beauty (#5) and Goodness (e.g., in the lives of the saints, and in deeds of heroic sacrifice, mercy, and compassion around them). When their minds are closed to the appeal of Truth — as mine was for a time in my teenage years — Beauty and Goodness can be the ways in. Don’t, however, fall for the trap that Truth doesn’t really matter, only subjective experience and kindness. They are all united.
- Practice little rituals of forgiveness. I will never forget being at Forgiveness Vespers at the start of Lent in 2006, and watching elderly Orthodox Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas bowing to little children and asking their forgiveness, and receiving their requests for forgiveness, as is the Orthodox custom. That made a huge impression on me, and I’ve tried hard to live by his example. When I speak harshly to my kids, or treat them unjustly, I repent by asking them to forgive me. They’ve told me that this means a lot to them. It would have changed my life had my father done that — and changed his too, I bet. It shows that humility is a real thing, and that we are all the same under the law.
- It’s not up to you, ultimately, but to God and to your child. God made us all free. He will not force us to accept Him. Nor can you force your children to accept Him. Do the best you can, and leave the rest to God. (See #1)
In sum, I offer the words of Robert Louis Wilken, the great historian of the early Church, who writes about the challenge facing us in the post-Christian West:
If Christian culture is to be renewed, habits are more vital than revivals, rituals more edifying than spiritual highs, the creed more penetrating than theological insight, and the celebration of saints’ days more uplifting than the observance of Mother’s Day. There is great wisdom in the maligned phrase ex opere operato, the effect is in the doing. Intention is like a reed blowing in the wind. It is the doing that counts, and if we do something for God, in the doing God does something for us.
Now that I’ve written the list, I see that Will Menaker’s question was not about keeping your kids in the Church, but about attracting more people to the Church. Well, a lot of what I said still applies, I think. I would add this, though:
Be the Church, not the World. Stop trying to conform to the world, to be “seeker-friendly.” Be different. Stand for something outside of your place and time. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, like cheap grace, is the deadly enemy of the Church. Fight it — and fight it joyfully.
Your ideas? What has worked for you? What has not?