I Left My Church. How Do I Teach my Children Faith?

Aden Carroll from Raising Children Unfundamentalist asks,

“Six months or so ago my family broke with our church. We were members of a Southern Baptist Church with very strict rules and gender roles. We had missed a few Sunday’s being out of town and our pastor showed up to our house to let us know he was disappointed in our absence. He further informed us that our behavior and lack of Christian discipline would lead our children to hell.

The year before my husband and I had been having some marital difficulty and I had reached out to the church for guidance. My guidance came with instructions to be a better wife and woman. Having been raised in the Bible belt and grown up in a family that held tight to gender roles and a literal translation of the Bible, I fought within myself with our decision to leave. My children loved their church friends and my daughter in particular was saddened by our departure. She had many questions which I don’t know if I did a very good job explaining. Of course I couldn’t tell her what the pastor had said, so I went with some version of “we don’t believe everything that they believe.”

I worry that because of how I was raised and now my disillusionment with the church, I am sending her the message that faith isn’t important. I’m afraid of sending my children down the same path of indoctrination I went down as a child, and yet I’m also afraid of not teaching them faith. I want them to have their own ideas about faith. How can I do this without forcing a belief system on them?”

Dear Aden,

Six months or so ago, you did one of the most brave things you could do for your family. It’s hard being a woman in our patriarchal world, harder still to survive when it’s divinely sanctioned, where religious authorities enforce and reinforce the indignities of treating women with less than full agency over our own lives.

Leaving church is so much more than a change in schedule on Sunday mornings. It means abandoning the structure that held the meaning of your life, your family, and your spirituality, and I want to honor your courage and whatever emotion you may be dealing with going through such an ordeal. Whether it’s grief, confusion, anger, resentment, or relief—it’s all true, and I have felt all of those things myself moving away from the evangelical establishment of my past.

I hope that your pastor’s response, expressing his disappointment and threatening you with your children’s salvation has only confirmed that your decision to leave was the right one. Truly, I believe it was. A faith community should never be a place you’re coerced or manipulated into participating—a healthy church should keep their doors wide open, both to welcome all in as well as to bless those who choose to leave. A forced commitment does not lead to good fruit, but to indoctrination, religious abuse, and a slow death to vibrant spirituality.

Let’s settle in deeper with your parenting anxieties. Even though you saw the truth of the toxic “guidance” you were receiving at church, you wrestled with leaving because of your children. It reminds me of parents who stay far too long in unhealthy marriages because they were afraid of rocking their children’s world. I don’t think staying in a bad marriage is good for kids and I don’t think staying in a bad church is good for them either. If you already know how the church treats you as a woman, what poison is in the air, in Sunday school lessons, in youth group, in the songs, in the pastor’s preaching, that your daughter will be breathing? Tell her the truth. Tell her you refused to put up with sexism, because God knows your daughter will also need to resist. 

Here’s what I’ve been thinking lately about faith and parenting and indoctrination and spiritual autonomy.

We have, for so long, viewed faith in a paradigm of propositions. We think of it as a certainty of truth, and it is only because we think of it that way, that we think it’s something we can “teach” to our children. What if we thought of faith as the fullness of our experience of being human. What if faith is simply, becoming the truest version of ourselves in the story of our lives?

Your decision to break from your church is not turning your back on faith, it is you growing into a fuller version of who you are, and entering the next phase of how you live more authentically in your marriage, as a parent, as a woman. Your disillusionment with the church is an important part of your story of becoming more true—that is a worthy story to share with your children. You want your children to know, just as important it is for you to live fully into your story, it is vital for them. You’re showing them, beautifully, how to do just that, through surviving the trauma of your faith shift, making hard decisions for your family, and having difficult conversations to lead your children through the ups and downs of your family life.

Don’t be afraid you aren’t “teaching them faith,” because to me, you already are. You’re showing them how to sift truth from toxicity, to demand equality and dignity for yourself, and to move towards authenticity. And you’re doing all of this work so that they might be empowered to do the same in their faith.

Our faith is so much bigger than church attendance! It is a culmination of our stories—the way our bodies move through space and time, the way we feel, the way we experience the transcendence of the multifaceted, wild adventure we call life.

No one can take that away, certainly not your pompous, hell-raising ex-pastor. Take your daughter’s hand and go live a good life of faith away from that toxic community.

Wishing you faith and hope and love,

Cindy


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