Finding a Church for My Kids

Last week I wrote about why, as a father, I’m not looking for the exciting children’s ministries I keep hearing advertised. And as a pastor, they’re not what I want to promise. Here’s more about what I’m looking for.

I’ve talked to several people who say their kids are their first priority in choosing a local church. It’s hard to disagree. I want to see my kids grow up to be zealous followers of Christ. There are few things I want more. What role does the church play in that? Here’s a list of the things I’m looking for, in priority order. Some may come as no surprise, but others may not be what you expect…

The state of Kentucky's minimum adult-child ratios and maximum group sizes for childcare services.
The state of Kentucky’s minimum adult-child ratios and maximum group sizes for childcare services.

1. Safety. If I’m not confident my children are reasonably safe in a local church, it’s a deal breaker. Reasonable safety means I know two adults are always in the room and both have been screened and trained. It also means they abide by the state’s minimum adult-to-child ratios and maximum classroom sizes (see at right). These are the minimum requirements. I’d like to see better ratios and rooms that aren’t at maximum capacity, but I wouldn’t accept any worse than meeting these standards.

2. A church where my wife and I will be challenged and strengthened in faith. Note that I’ve put this before anything about my children’s faith. I’ve had several conversations with parents who tell me they’re “suffering through” somewhere they don’t believe they’re growing, but they’re sticking it out because of the great children’s ministry. This is a noble thing to do. I also think it’s a terrible decision. Not just for the parents, but for the children.

Parents, please hear this, your own spiritual condition and growth are more important to your children’s faith than any church programs. Take a look at the diagram below if you don’t believe me. That diagram comes from a huge national survey of youth and religion. It shows the six most likely paths teenagers took to become faithful Christian adults. I’ll reference it several times below. The diagram is for youth, not children, but what’s invested in the childhood years continues into adolescence. You’ll see that four of the six paths include “high parental religious service attendance and importance of faith.”

Stop bearing through in a community that does nothing to strengthen your faith, just for your children’s sake. Your kids see you seven days a week. They’re in the church once or twice a week. You are their primary influence; the church’s programs are a complement. Sadly, since the inception of big youth and children’s ministries, the church has taught parents the reverse. The best children’s ministry in town… is in your living room.

teens who remain adult christians
Found in *Souls in Transition* by Christian Smith. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

3. A church where other godly adults will develop relationships with my kids. I put this next because we can do all the things below at home. We want the church’s help with them, but we expect to lead the way. However, we absolutely need the congregation for this piece. In fact, without this larger sense of a “church family,” I think our kids will miss much about what it means to be the church.

In the United Methodist Church, when a child is baptized, the congregation pledges to surround that child with a community of love and forgiveness. In my experience, First UMC of Lexington took that pledge seriously. There were people like Dulaney Wood and Dale Muse and T. O. Harrison, and later Hope Harvener and Paul Shafer and Aaron Mansfield, who took the time to get to know me and encourage me. I believe that made a big difference. I’m looking for the people who will be the same for my kids. You’ll see that having “many adults in the religious congregation to turn to for help and support” is listed as important twice in the diagram above. (more on this in “Exciting is Fickle“)

Where are we leading our kids? There's little more important.
Where are we leading our kids? There’s little more important.

4. A church that helps and encourages my children to pray and read Scripture. Do you notice from that diagram how important these are? It was interesting to see from the study that “frequency of youth group participation” or “satisfaction with youth group” were much less important than Scripture reading and prayer. Christian practices are important for forming people in the faith. I’m looking for a church that will help me teach my kids to pray and read Scripture.

I have fond memories of my parents praying with me and reading Scripture with me at a very young age. And then I had a youth minister, Jerry Ernst, who taught me to love and rely on the Bible and prayer. My parents started it; Jerry complemented it. Their teaching and example have influenced the rest of my life.

5. A church that is committed to teaching Christian doctrine and giving my kids an opportunity to ask questions and express doubts. You’ll also see in the diagram that most of the youth who continued in the faith had “no doubts about religious beliefs.” I’d be interested to know more about this. I don’t think it’s healthy or helpful to raise my kids in an atmosphere where they’re not allowed to question or express doubts. On the contrary, I think the best way to help them have “no doubts about their religious beliefs” is to (a) actually teach them what the Church believes, and (b) give them opportunities to ask lots of questions.

I think a lot of people who walk away from the Christian faith never understood what it was to begin with. In many places, the Church’s focus on teaching doctrine has been cast aside and replaced by social clubs that teach good morals or Bible lessons. I plan to teach my kids Christian doctrine at home, but I would appreciate my church’s help. (See “Why we’re teaching our kids a catechism“)

6. Opportunities for my children to have “religious experiences.” Finally, you’ll see from the diagram that “many personal religious experiences” shows up in four of the six paths. Those are defined as (1) committing one’s life to God, (2) having prayers answered, (3) having experienced a miracle, and (4) having a moving spiritual experience.

That’s an interesting, broadly defined set of experiences. No church can assure these. They can help, though, by putting my kids in a good position for these things to happen. That would involve (a) presenting the gospel and asking them about committing their lives to God, (b) teaching them to pray and spending time in prayer, and (c) expecting that God will be present in their midst and can work miracles.

In my own experience, when I think of things like this, I think back to camps and retreats. I’ll always remember some profound and life-altering experiences I had at Aldersgate Camp during summer camps and youth retreats. These aren’t the only times and places to have profound religious experiences, but I also don’t discount the power of a group of people gathered to worship in a special place and expecting the presence of God. That was routinely the atmosphere at the camps and retreats I participated in. We had lots of fun, to be sure, but we always had serious time devoted to worship. I hope my kids might have similar opportunities. I’d love to find a church that values these things.

How does all this look in simple practice? If I were put in charge of a church’s children’s ministry (something I hope never actually happens!) – I would probably do something very similar to our own “Family Worship,” adapted for a larger setting.

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4 thoughts on “Finding a Church for My Kids

  1. I find this article very spiritually helpful! I’m looking for churches for some time now, but I’m not really sure what church to look at for my kids. A church that helps and encourages my children to pray and read Scripture is a great idea. That will really help them grow spiritually. Thanks!

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