The other day, when addressed by a parent about their child having a scheduling conflict with a church function, without thinking much of it, I responded: “I’m thankful for parents with strong priorities, yet I also am of the belief that [this function] is not the end-all-be-all. I’m willing to work with any and everyone for the sake of showing the church is not a negative, demanding thing, but a positive, affirming thing.” I wholeheartedly meant what I said. I’ve had a number of parents ask for my thoughts regarding children’s church attendance in relation to other outstanding extracurricular demands. Perhaps to a fault, I believe such instances are perfect opportunities for exercising grace. There are times in our life—both within and beyond the church—that warrant responses of grace, and what better instance than with parents and their children in the church.
Unfortunately, it has become all-too-easy for us, as pastoral leaders, to demand that church/attendance/participation be the line drawn in the sand for our youth (alongside all other members). In my opinion, such a stance is not as relevant as it perhaps once was some generations ago; and pressed to the extreme, it can be detrimental to young people’s view of the church and life of faith. (This does not mean that the church is somehow insignificant, subsidiary, or should be pushed to the wayside in relation to other things; yet, nor is it despotic--the church is of equal importance.) The church has all too often positioned attendance and participation to a level of heavenly heights—one that is reserved for Christ alone. Putting specific, unwavering demands on youth in the church (such as is occasionally the case with Confirmation) is unnecessary and actually communicates the opposite of what we hope for them to see and hear in Jesus.
Parents and students alike, struggle with the tension of the growing demands placed on our young people. Youth are given so many opportunities to learn, grow, and strive in various extracurricular programs. As we all know, these programs have become more prevalent in our culture over time—to the point that some have begun to push their way into time formerly set aside for worship and other church-related activities. Some parents move forward with firm priorities: church is always #1. Others, however, are unable to make such a clear and definite decision. Neither side is perfect in their choice, and each has its own gifts and flaws.
As we seek to welcome all of God’s children into the church, and as we teach and share with our youth the faith, let us err on the side of grace. Building and nurturing relationships in Christ is most important. When we force our youth—and anyone for that matter--to choose between church and other demanding activities, we put them in an unfair place and thereby suggest that anything other than the church is a wrong (bad) decision. The church is not called to function by a rigorous set of demands that are to be fully met, or else; but instead to serve as a place for all people—young and old alike--to hear God’s word of love in Christ, receive means of this grace, and affirm their promises made at baptism by learning and growing together in their faith. When given an ultimatum, the alternative becomes leaving the church; and unfortunately, this has happened far too many times in the past and continues even today. The church is not called to be strict and rigid, but grace-filled and welcoming. Err on the side of grace.