My child doesn't want to go to church

"My child doesn't want to go to church." Sadly, I’ve heard this statement from more than a few parents over the years. Some even say, “My child hates to go to church.” It can turn Sunday mornings into a miserable experience for parents and children alike. I have had some desperate, frazzled parents arrive at the classroom with a young child who is literally kicking and screaming. What’s a parent to do? Here are ten general suggestions that may be helpful. How you apply each may look very different depending on the age of the child—but the basic principles are the same.

1. Set aside time alone with your child to discuss his or her negative attitude toward church.

Ask specific questions that aim for the heart of the matter. This may take some time. Gently ask probing questions: Did something specific happen in class? What about the service don’t you like? What would you want changed? Sometimes children and youth are embarrassed to express hidden fears and anxieties. “I hate going” may be, in reality, “I don’t want to have to read aloud in class.” Or, “None of the other kids talk to me.” On the other hand, it could be that the child is expressing a more serious spiritual rebellion. Listen to your child. Know and clarify the real issues before responding and taking action. Acknowledge true feelings, but help your child to reflect on his or her feelings in light of God’s Word. Our feelings and emotions need to come under the authority of Scripture. As parents, we need to be careful in helping our children see this. We must also help them recognize unrealistic expectations. 

2. Communicate the “non-negotiables” lovingly, yet firmly.

From the time my children were very young they learned that the car wouldn’t go unless everyone had their seatbelts on. It was a non-negotiable rule whether they were 5 years old or 15 years old. Parents need to communicate a similar mindset when it comes to going to the corporate worship service—and, in most cases, Sunday school. (I’ll talk about exceptions to this last one in Part 2 tomorrow.) “You may not like going to church or sitting through the service, but we are your parents and we love you. God loves you, too, and has given us the authority, privilege, and responsibility to instruct you in His ways. One of the important ways we do this is by gathering together on the Lord’s Day to worship with other Christians and sit under the preaching of the Word. We are going to do this as a family—that means you, too.”

Please parents, take the lead in this and don’t relinquish your God-ordained authority! Sadly, I know of families who left wonderful, vibrant, God-exalting churches simply because their children expressed unhappiness with a particular aspect of Sunday school or youth ministry. Yes, there are times when parents may determine that a change in church is necessary, but a child’s dissatisfaction with secondary issues should not be a main consideration.

3. Carefully examine your child’s expressed thoughts and feelings and measure these against other reliable perspectives when applicable.

I don’t know about your children, but there were times that my children overacted to a situation, exaggerated or embellished a story, or simply related to me a limited perspective—leaving out some important facts or nuances! All that to say: don’t assume your child has the best perspective in any given situation. “I hate Sunday school because the teacher is SO boring!” Why not sit in and observe a lesson. Maybe the teacher is great but your child is not interested in spiritual things. Maybe the teacher is a little boring…that is a teachable moment, too. What if your child told you that he or she was bored in math class? How might you respond? Just because something is presented in a boring manner, that doesn’t mean your child cannot benefit from what is being taught, or grow in the discipline required in being attentive even when it is hard to do. Your child can also learn to be thankful and supportive of a teacher who is graciously serving the class. 

4. Address legitimate concerns with the appropriate teachers and leaders.

In my experience, many children and students needlessly experience Sunday morning anxiety due to a simple lack of communication. A classroom incident was not dealt with because a teacher didn’t realize what happened, or responded wrongly. Perhaps a student had a special need that was not communicated to his or her small group leader. Sometimes a face-to-face meeting between parents, student, and teacher can resolve these issues. In regard to the corporate worship service, this can be a little more difficult. However, it may still be appropriate for parents—or even a group of parents—to ask to meet with a pastor, elder, and/or worship leader and humbly suggest ways that children could be made to feel more welcomed in the worship service. Small things, such as the pastor intentionally addressing children and youth at one point in the sermon can be helpful. Allowing children and youth to serve as ushers or to hand out bulletins may help them feel included and valued.

5. Look for ways to practically help and encourage your child.

A little creative thinking and planning can go a long way.

    • For example, if the issue is that a child is having a hard time sitting through a long worship service, consider a special “Sunday bag” with a Bible, colored pencils, crayons, and even a My Church Notebook to use.
    • Help minimize Sunday morning anxiety by having your children pick out clothing Saturday night. Make sure your child has gathered and laid out everything he or she will need. Sometimes it not so much that a child hates going to church as it is the stress of the frantic Sunday morning process of getting out the door.
    • If your church posts the “Order of Service” online, read it with your children so they will know what to expect.
    • If a child is having a particularly difficult time, offer some incentive, such as a small reward. This can be especially helpful for dealing with a teenager. However, I would suggest that the incentive be something that is “relational” in nature—going out for a special time away with dad or mom.
    • Offer to visit and sit in on the classroom if this would be helpful.

6. Consider if any of your words and attitudes toward the church have contributed to your child’s perception.

Our words and attitudes make a great impression on our children. What we say aloud and the tone in which we say it often turns up in our children. If I, as a parent, establish a pattern of verbally criticizing the sermon, or the singing or other things related to the church, should I be surprised if my children don’t want to go to church? Ouch! I must ask, “Is my child’s negative attitude toward church in any way sparked and fueled by me?” If so, I need to confess this before the Lord, repent, ask His forgiveness, and commit to guard my heart and words in the future. I should also humbly confess to my children any sinful attitudes or words they have observed in me.

On a similar note, more times than I care to remember, by the time our family got in the car to go to church, I was barely on speaking terms with them! A real Sunday morning meltdown. Too little sleep the night before. Couldn’t find my Bible. Arguing with my husband during breakfast, etc. All things that started in me and came to be expressed through me. This can sour Sunday morning for the whole family. If that becomes the pattern, our children may come to associate going to church with mom or dad’s “bad attitude.” 

7. If the classroom experience is proving unworkable for your child, look for alternate ministry and learning opportunities during that time.

We had a child who really didn’t want to go to Sunday school at one time. After talking to him to get at the heart of the issue, we went and observed the class and noted some serious, legitimate concerns. We talked with teachers/leaders in order to communicate our concerns, and also to get their perspective. After careful consideration, we decided that this particular classroom situation could not be resolved in a manner that was beneficial to our child. So we decided to let him opt out of that class. However, we made clear that simply “hanging out” during the Sunday school hour was not an option. He must invest that time within another class or ministry of the church. We helped him find a suitable option and he thrived.

8. Understand that your child’s own heart condition may be at the root or a great contributor to the problem.

This is one that is hard for every parent to hear, but we must hear it: Our child may hate church because he or she is not a believer and is dull or even hostile toward spiritual things. No amount of denial, no amount of wishful thinking, no number of excuses can serve to cover-up this heart-breaking reality. As parents, our first instinct may be to demand change in the program: Make the classroom more fun. Make the youth group more entertaining and “relational.” Have less serious Bible teaching to allow more time to hang out. Before pondering any of these seemingly helpful solutions, we need to understand that changes such as these are not going to ultimately deal with our child’s heart issue. Furthermore, making Sunday school more fun or entertaining often serves in encouraging an unbeliever to happily continue along the path of unbelief as he or she feels comfortable within this more casual environment.

9. Pray, pray, pray!

Never underestimate or underutilize the power of prayer. Pray with your child and for your child.

    • On Saturday night, pray with your child about his or her Sunday morning experience. Dads: consider praying a “Saturday Night Special” blessing for your child using the booklet and blessing cards titled, A Father’s Guide to Blessing His Children.
    • Before your child enters the Sunday school room, pray with him or her.
    • Commit yourself to praying for your child’s heart toward the Lord.
    • Commit yourself to praying for your child’s teachers and the other students in the class.
    • Pray that the church as a whole—with all its members and ministries—will grow in displaying a beautifully attractive picture of what it means to love, honor, and cherish Christ.

10. God is sovereign, so never, never, never give up!

When a parent first hears the words, “I hate church. I don’t want to go!” it can be shocking and heart-breaking. Also, for utterly selfish reasons, it can be really frustrating for the parent. One more hassle to deal with. Out of fear or inconvenience it is tempting to throw in the towel and give up, “Fine, we just won’t go then.” Please, don’t take this option. Consider…

    • You and your children need the church. Your children, whether believers or unbelievers, need this means of God’s grace in their lives if they are to flourish.
    • Often, and by God’s grace, this negative attitude toward the church lasts for a season of time (even if it feels like forever!). Weather the storm, keep praying for and encouraging your child to weather the storm, too.
    • Without realizing it, your child may be absorbing more spiritual benefits from the worship service and the classroom than he or she, or you are aware. Seeds of faith are being planted, unseen to the human eye.
    • God is ultimately sovereign over your child’s heart.

Here is a final, encouraging word from an article by Nancy Guthrie:

…anyone who’s been a parent for long knows parenting requires a lot more than simply following the right steps to success. To raise a child toward godliness, we need much more than the good advice parenting experts have to offer. We need what only the Scriptures have to offer.

We need the commands and expectations of Scripture to keep us from complacency, and the grace and mercy of Scripture to save us from guilt. We need Scripture to puncture the pride that rises up in us when our child is doing well and we’re tempted to take the credit. And we need Scripture to save us from the despair that threatens to sink us when our child is floundering and we’re tempted to take all the blame.

While we have influence and responsibility, we don’t have control over our child. We can teach our child the Scriptures, but we can’t be the Holy Spirit in our child’s life. We can confront sinful patterns that need to change, but we can’t generate spiritual life that leads to lasting change. Only the Spirit can do that.

What we can do is pray for and parent our child the best we know how. We can keep trusting God to do what we cannot.

(“Divine Words for Desperate Parents,” www.thegospelcoalition.org)