This post may hurt some feelings, but that is not the goal. The goal is to shift our thinking toward a better solution for our families, children and community.
I often (though not often enough) hear parents say, "We really want to get our kids into church," or "We need to start going to church for our kids." My honest, initially unspoken response is, "Why?" The parents who say this are obviously not going to church. Here is the challenge: If church is not important in their lives, why should they expect church to be important in their children's lives? What are these parents really hoping for?
Parents who say they want to get their children into church are often loving and good parents. They ultimately want a good thing. I can attest that in the Southeast, there is still a bit of church influence permeating the larger culture, just not in the ideally transformative way. There is a sense of tradition that creeps into our thinking, and it blends with a pragmatic concern. The pragmatic concern of many parents is that their kids to turn out to be moral and well-adjusted. This blends with an older church-culture tradition of turning to the church and to God in general for such things.
The Root Problem
Understand that this is a great and awesome desire, yet the approach is shallow and misguided. In fact, it is neither truly spiritual nor truly pragmatic. This approach is not spiritual because we want the church to teach our kids what we as parents are tasked with teaching them. Many parents feel inadequate to teach their children about Christ. Why? Two possibilities: parents have not followed Christ in their own lives, or they have not sought to grow or mature in their own faith. Instead of discovering what it means to follow Christ and live for Him so that parents can teach their children, many just want the church to do it for them. (Interestingly, no where in the Bible does it place the primary responsibility of teaching the children on the church, but Scripture places that responsibility on fathers - Ephesians 6:4.)
This is also why it is not pragmatic. One of the biggest challenges children ministries and youth ministries have is the parents. Children can learn about Christ and what it means to follow Him. Yet, if what they are learning and seeing exemplified at home does not match what they are learning at church, then the parents can be undermining the very thing they claim they want. Multiple surveys have shared over the years that parents are the biggest influence in their children's lives (though as a parent it may not feel like it at times). At best, kids get three hours a week at church. The other 165 hours of their week is spent at home, school and in the world. If what they are getting in that other 165 hours conflicts with what they are getting at church, then parents may have an unreal expectation of the church's lasting impact for which they hope.
These parents may have expected their children were going to church to get a few life lessons and some character development. Now they literally have a new creation in their home, and they are not sure what to do with them next (see 2 Corinthians 5:17).
One scenario that too often happens is that of a child who receives Christ while at a church event, then when they come home, there is no support for that child's faith. The parents may not have even bargained for such a result. These parents may have expected their children were going to church to get a few life lessons and some character development. Now they literally have a new creation in their home, and they are not sure what to do with them next (see 2 Corinthians 5:17). But the only way these kids can truly have their character impacted is through the gospel changing them.
The common result is the child is not being discipled at home. Often the child is not old enough to drive, so their opportunities to be discipled at church are limited. These typically are the kids who fall away from church after high school. They later grow up and question the validity of their faith. But, they will probably have kids of their own one day and say, "We want to get our kids into church."
The ultimate responsibility of children learning about God falls on the parents. Parents cannot give that which they do not have. If a parent is not a Christ-follower, how can they teach their child to be? Very often, this is where parents shut down. We can feel inadequate to lead our children because we are not equipped to do so. Nominal faith begets nominal faith.
What is the solution?
Get Christ and get equipped! Parents who want their kids to be equipped by the church often treat the church like a sport or hobby. Drop the kids off for practice and maybe cheer them on if they participate in the Christmas program, much like they do at their soccer game. The difference is that parents can often become better versed in a sport their children play than in the life they are taught about in church. Parents will learn about the rules, gear, and culture of baseball, but shy away when it comes to the church stuff. Instead they leave all that up to the "church coach," i.e. the children's minister, youth pastor, or pastor.
Parents who truly want their children to benefit from God's wisdom and love must first receive it themselves. It is shallow to say we want our children to grow in these ways if we are not willing to grow in the same way and exemplify it. How can nonChristian parents raise Christian children? God has uniquely granted parents the privilege and responsibility of raising their children in the gospel. The church is called to support this and to equip the parents.
Our church is in the process of launching an initiative that specifically equip parents. Since I'm a father, my sermons often draw on this need to challenge and equip parents from the pulpit each week because I need it! Parents say they want their kids in church are good parents, but now it's time for follow through. Saying, "I want to get my kids in church" is good, but saying "I want to introduce my kids to Christ" is where it starts. The catch is that it works best if the parents have already met Christ themselves.