Inspired by an assignment one of my students mentioned on Facebook, I wrote the following this morning. Thinking the question to be of possibly greater interest, I thought I’d post it here as well. Her assignment was to write about whether parents should force their children to go to church.
It depends on what you mean by “children” & “attend” & “force.” We take it as normal for parents to “force” their kids to do all kinds of things: brush teeth, eat healthy food, go to school, avoid violence, play in the yard rather than the interstate highway, etc. As a parent I am responsible to teach my children about what is good and how to achieve/experience that good. I do this with the implicit assumption that at some point they may choose to reject the good, but at that point it is their responsibility, not mine.
Part of my responsibility toward my children, and toward others generally (including students!), is to offer them the good more as an invitation than as a compulsion. If I offer the good merely hypocrtically, i.e., along the lines of “this is good for you, take my word for it, even though you see no evidence for my taking this good into my own life,” then I am doing them (and myself) a disservice. I want others to CHOOSE the good for themselves, not merely do it because I’m the parent (authority figure) and insist upon it.
As a follower of Jesus I am also bound by the Great Commission. Jesus didn’t say, “teach them – as long as they’re not your children – to obey everything I have commanded you.” I teach obedience by being obedient myself and including them in a community of obedience, that is, the church. This inclusion is much more than mere “attendance” on Sunday morning.
I take church, the community of those who are becoming participants in God’s ongoing history through their faith and the power of the Holy Spirit, to be an integral part of salvation. If I am going to love others as I love myself, I cannot help but want them to be included in the the fullness of the salvation offered by Jesus. I cannot force this salvation on anyone, and from what I see, God who could force salvation on people, generally chooses not to. The fact that we choose to vigorously invite others into this life with Christ is, according to the logic of that story, an act of love. If church is part of life, and I choose apathy – “Church is there if you, upon reaching an age where you can do so rationally, choose to go, you can go” – amounts to a “Your autonomous individuality is the most important defining characteristic you have, and in order to respect that, you can go to hell for all I care.” That sure doesn’t look like love to me.
Ah, but none of this addresses the practical problem of children who positively reject the idea of going to church. If they are of an age, and the church to which we’ve exposed them is nothing more than a Sunday morning event, then, alas, sometimes, depending on the age, we ought to acquiesce. Yet we do so with broken hearts (like God in Ezek. 33:11).
In the meantime, some of us have the opportunity to act as leaders in the church to make the life of the community so attractive and invitational that more are drawn in than are repulsed.
And we never give up.