676) “Imposing” Church on Children?

By Rev. William Willimon, Pulpit Resource, First Quarter, 2009, page. 12

     I have met a number of parents who have gotten the notion that, while parents should train their children in academic and vocational skills, they should not “impose” ethical or religious values upon their children.  “We simply tell our children what we believe, but we also tell them that they are free to make up their own minds,” some of these people will say.  There was also the father who told me, when asked why his twelve-year old son was not in church one Sunday, “Well, he doesn’t seem to care too much for church, and after all, you can’t force him to go, can you?”  This same father, I noted, had no problems with forcing his child to go to baseball practice, junior high school, piano lessons, and Boy Scouts.  I assume he “imposes” these activities upon his son because he, as a parent, is sincerely convinced that participation will make for a richer and more satisfying life for his son in the future.  Why not feel the same way about church?

     Of course, we’ve all seen the victims of the parental approach that forced children into patterns of belief and behavior which were unrealistic for the child’s needs and abilities.  And we all know that, in spite of a parent’s best efforts, a child may not follow a parentally chosen path.  But there is a difference between saying, “This is our faith, our family’s faith, and the faith that we have promised to give to you, and therefore we want you to participate in this faith;” and saying, “As far as your faith is concerned, that’s a matter we leave completely up to you.  We have nothing to pass on to you, no experience of our own to share with you, no vision for your future.”

     While we do not mean to “impose” unrealistic or unnatural expectations upon them, neither do we mean to be dishonest with them about who we are and under what commitments we have chosen to live our lives.  We intend to live our lives in such a way as to say, “This is who we are and are trying to be.  Therefore, this is who you are.  This is our family’s way of doing things.  This is the witness to the truth which we have received and which we now, with God’s help, pass on to you.”

     I believe that many of us parents suffer from a failure of nerve in regard to the nurturing of our children’s faith.  We are certain that we will send them to school because we are confident of the value of education.  We are certain that they will take piano lessons because we are sure that enriches a person’s life.  We insist that they do household chores because we know that the ability to work is basic to adult happiness.  But we lack confidence that in matters of religion we have anything special to offer them.  We are going through a period in which everything is up for grabs, in which all values are being questioned, and many are being abandoned.  So who am I to pass on to my young who they are and what they should be?  

     In other words, we suffer, as parents, not so much from a lack of know-how but from a lack of faith in ourselves, our values, our traditions, and even our own religious beliefs.  

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Proverbs 22:6  —  Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.

Ephesians 6:4  —  Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.

Psalms 34:11  —  Come, my children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord.

Deuteronomy 4:9  —  Be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live.  Teach them to your children and to their children after them.

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Almighty God, we thank you for the children which you have given us; give us grace also to train them in your faith, fear, and love; that as they advance in years they may grow in grace; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

–John Cosin