Can you be a Christian without going to church? The short answer, of course, is yes. Being a Christian is about a relationship. However, there are some compelling reasons for being a faithful and invested member of a strong faith community. Children understand this. When we gather together to praise God and give thanks for the everyday miracles of living, beautiful and profound things happen.
On a personal level, this subject is very real to me. My family of origin had given up on church before I was born for reasons I still don't fully understand. My elementary school classmates represented a wide variety of faith traditions and I envied those who, along with their parents, made a weekly visit to a place called church, synagogue, mass, or temple. I wanted to go somewhere like that too. My classmates liked it, and I knew I would as well.
Children enjoy being part of a loving community that offers instruction and inclusion in a faith that stretches back across the millennia to a time before they were born and also far into the time ahead. It offers belonging, security, familial closeness, and community. Along with these there are friends, a peer group, and a safe space to encounter older children.
Children thrive in environments where there are many adults who love and nurture them. Extended biological family and extended family-like community enhances the safety of the world for children. This added padding of security allows a child to take healthy risks and to explore their talents in a safe and encouraging environment.
Think about famous singers who began singing in church surrounded by adults who gave them space to present themselves and their God given talent. John Legend, Katy Perry, Justin Timberlake, Whitney Houston. All of these began as children in a church where they were loved. They received a solid foundation on which to build a life.
Even though the company line of the entertainment industry decries the inherent good that faith communities bring to the world, there remain a substantial number of individual celebrities who have not denounced the faith of their childhood. This early faith stays on our skin and becomes part of our DNA.
Earthly, secular reasons for being part of a faith community are easy enough for most people to wrap their minds around but there are deep and spiritual reasons for being integrated in a group of faithful people. However, there are advantages that are more complicated and harder to grasp. And easier to dismiss.
Supernatural, soul deep truths about the nature of humanity and the nature of God are vivid to children. Although they typically do not have the vocabulary or life experience to express this, they have an appreciation of the teachings of faith. They want kindness to be more prevalent than meanness. They long for peace and joy in their homes and in their schools. Children are drawn instinctively to those people of faith that encourage these values. They know that the way of the faithful is a better way to live in the world.
In the absence of an adult actively discouraging or belittling it, children regard involvement in a strong, healthy faith community as a good thing. Take careful note of the adjectives strong and healthy. Choosing a faith community is not a decision to be taken lightly. Here are some factors to consider as you search for a community of faith.
Bigger isn't necessarily better. In a lot of areas, a crop of new Christian churches are arriving with professional bands playing really good modern music in a concert-like venue. There is often a young, handsome, dynamic, preacher who you may only get to see on a large screen since he is preaching live at the main campus of the church and your satellite campus has the sermon live streamed. These worship experiences are usually truly powerful, the sermons solidly based in scripture and the number of high quality ministry programs is impressive. However, there is typically a closed leadership circle, and little to no interaction with the pastor. Leadership accountability is notoriously lacking in these communities. However, these large churches may suit you and your family especially if the children's activities are solid and engaging. Be aware that big box churches have some drawbacks. If you are seeking a personal, intimate, relational faith community look at other options as well.
Be aware of the messaging. The Holy Scriptures are the only foundation that will produce a strong, vibrant, healthy faith community. Orthodox faith has been the backbone of community for thousands of years. There have always been and always will be groups that try to convince the masses that Scripture is unreliable, out of touch with the modern world, and wholly useless for 21st (or 15th, or 19th or whatever) century humans. This kind of heresy is not new. Listen to the message that the leadership presents and make sure that it is aligned with the word of God. Reading Scripture will help you to make that judgement.
Know them by their love. The Judeo-Christian foundation is love for God and love for each other. Every action we take, every work we do begins and ends with love. If you encounter a congregation that is marked by bickering, power struggles, and a constant need for fund raising projects, look elsewhere. Strong congregations are filled with people with generous hearts who give faithfully of their resources. There is no need to sell hot dogs or cupcakes or car washes because the people take responsibility for maintaining the community they love. Likewise, constant bickering about silly things like carpet, curtains, paint, flower beds, memorial benches and other non essentials will destroy a community in a New York minute. You will recognize a healthy congregation by their smiles, their compassion, their dedication to knowing, loving, and protecting the children and the way they offer solid teaching.
It is a sad truth that some churches have become their own worst enemy. The decline of church attendance in our country is no mystery to me. Many churchy people blame a Godless and profane culture for this decline, but I see it differently. I believe that many post WWII churches became a place where people gathered to exercise power and show off their church clothes. Too many of these groups forgot the real mission.
However, there are still far more congregations filled with loving, committed, faithful individuals who will welcome you and your children with open arms. Find a place to worship in Spirit and in truth (John 4:24) and a community in which you can raise your children. Then, attend each week and allow the truth to fill you up and help you grow.