Let me take you back on a blooper reel of my life. Sometimes I get invited to be on podcasts, and I have a bit of a routine for recording days. Make sure the audio/video works, have a glass of water on hand, turn off all my browsers, settle the dog upstairs so she doesn’t whine to be picked up, and silence my phone.
A few days ago, I was speaking with Katey Zeh to record for her podcast, Kindreds, and it was a lovely conversation until it got to a question about my work with Unfundamentalist Parenting. It was a fantastic question, and a good opportunity for me to share an important message close to my heart with the audience. So I revved up my passion, spoke up a bit louder and then ~~ some obnoxious music started blaring outside the room and totally threw me off my game. It was my husband’s ring tone, and he was upstairs and couldn’t get to it. I didn’t know if I wanted to stop the recording and disrupt the momentum or not so I just pushed through while the phone kept ringing, taunting me in the background.
My new routine is going to be: audio, water, browsers, dog, silence my phone AND HUSBAND’S PHONE.
It was a really great question (all of Katey’s questions were thoughtful, please go check out the podcast here.) I wanted to be sure that I answered it thoroughly, so here’s the extended version for my blog:
Katey: There are folks who are trying to figure out if and how they are going to raise their children in a faith community. They’re struggling to find a church that feels like a good fit theologically, but they worry about not exposing their kids to that kind of structured community. What advice would you give them about finding their people and raising their kids in church?
Okay, there are two complex questions embedded in here, and they are separate and related at the same time. The first is the struggle to find a good church that fit theologically, which is a topic that has plagued church leaders and culture watchers of our generation. It doesn’t just FEEL like there’s a massive shift in institutional religion, there actually is, according to research centers like PEW. Mainstream publications have reported trends and religious forums have discussed this ad nauseum. This creates a lot of instability and anxiety, as faith shifting is often not just a change of mind, but an upending of identity and sometimes the loss of community. I write often of my own existential angst traveling the faith shifting journey and know it is not for the faint of heart.
Many of us are disillusioned with institutional church. The question of whether to stay and reform it, leave and join something better, or stay home altogether on Sundays is intensely personal depending on individual context and life circumstances. What I would encourage people to remember is that faith is fluid, and religious observations don’t need to stay static. You can try different things and see what works best for you and your family—there’s a season for everything.
But I do have great concern for the children in our families, because we have a responsibility to honor and cultivate their innate spirituality. Children of parents who are unstable and confused about faith can feel unsettled, mainly because we can become so triggered by any faith curiosity in our children because of our past spiritual wounds.
This is what I find helpful: focus on the main goal of raising children in faith, which shouldn’t be to demand regular attendance in church, manipulating them into belief, or to manage their behavior. All of those things diminish vibrant spirituality. Our goal should simply be to provide a safe environment for our children to live out their inherent spirituality. Our children are wired with spiritual autonomy—they grapple with transcendence, struggle with existential questions, and enjoy moments of awe and wonder, quite apart from our adult intervention.
This takes the pressure off of us in some ways. For someone like me, who has had painful experiences surrounding church culture, it is liberating for me to know I can still honor my children’s spiritual agency without necessarily engaging in church-y activities and using God-language that has harmed me. God, or whatever one chooses to call the transcendent energy, exists beautifully outside of the walls of institutional religion, our children are free to engage in it through art, literature, pop culture, nature, secular or inter-faith rituals, the list goes on. I want my children to know they are free to explore and be spiritual in their own ways.
But it doesn’t mean we are excused from due diligence. Providing a safe environment for the children means we protect them from threats that strip them of their spiritual autonomy. Fundamentalist religion is one example, exposing children to fear-based teaching can be damaging to their spiritual flourishing. Consumerism is also rampant and infiltrates much of culture. Intentionally creating simplicity and mindfulness can take courage and discipline, but we will be doing the important work of giving our children spiritual grounding in tumultuous times.
Should you raise your kid in church? A better, more focused question is, how do I respect my child’s spiritual autonomy? If your church honors their spiritual agency and supports your family in creating that safe environment for the children’s spirituality to thrive, then yes! If it doesn’t support your goals then no. Our children and their well being deserves priority over our allegiance to any institution. Regardless of your church attendance or religious identity, if you are taking care to create a field of love around your children, that’s spiritual enough.
Sign up for my parenting newsletter and get the four alternative spiritual laws: