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going to churchA preacher asked, “What are the five most meaningful moments of your life? If at least two or three didn’t happen in church, something is wrong.”

Well, then something is wrong with me. I do remember one moment, though, but it was about avoiding church—and God was there, too, because God doesn’t need church to get through to us.

20 years ago my oldest was seven, and we were having a rousing good time in the backyard playing a ball-oriented game of some sort. I don’t remember what, but it likely involved me knocking him to the ground repeatedly. I also remember the laughter, the sweat, the exhaustion, the joy, and above all my deep—I would say in retrospect, spiritual—connection with my son.

As the fall afternoon began creeping toward twilight, I looked at my watch and saw the time—5:30. The Sunday evening church service began at 6:30, and we had to get moving.

“C’mon. Time to go inside and get ready for church.”

His face fell. The laughter was gone. Time to go to church and be with God.

I’ve read the brochure. I raised three kids and I know darn well they do not always want to do what is best for them, for their own health and safety. Kids can’t call their own shots, and that’s why they are kids and you are parents.

So, even if kids think church is a drag, tough veggies on them. It’s good and right, and they’re going—case closed. There’s a time for Oreos and a time for kale. Church is kale.

Our church community at the time, like many others, was very big on “going to church.” God commands worship in the Old Testament (which meant some sort of sacrifice or offering), and the New Testament has a verse someplace about not forsaking the gathering of God’s people.

So Sunday was serious business. Up early, rush through breakfast (if at all), assemble your children so they look semi-presentable so no one can blame you for being a bad parent, grab your Bibles, and out of the house by 8:30 for several hours of age-appropriate worship services and the Sunday School classes.

If you do these things on a regular basis, regardless of what your children’s little hearts are feeling and minds are pondering, you will be doing “it” right, and you can expect amazing Christian results as your Christian children encounter all manner of worldly challenges through high school and college.

By the time Sunday morning ended early Sunday afternoon. Rip the church clothes off half way through the door, put on the fun clothes, eat lunch, and then go be a kid. Only to put a stop to it all a few precious hours later so you can do Sunday morning all over again in the evening.

My kids hated it. Sue and I hated it, too, but we just didn’t know it yet. We kept plodding along with the herd because, as I said, “going to church” is just what you do on Sunday. Sunday is the day of rest, and if that means running yourself ragged, so be it.

Messing with that system was playing with holy fire, and in retrospect we kept up with the routine out of an unstated fear of what others might say about us, and especially me, given that I was a seminary professor at the time.

But in recent years I’ve had some regret about never having the sense and courage to take a step back from it all to assess what was happening—to me and my family.

But my son didn’t have these sorts of socially scripted filters. “Time to go in and get ready for church” was met with spontaneous honesty: dread and irritation at going to that boring place again.

Again, I know what the playbook says. It doesn’t matter whether your kids want to go to church. Just force them. It’s good for them, you’ll see. In time, they’ll get used to it and see the benefit of “going to church.” All this is a building a solid foundation of certainty as they grow older.

Maybe. Sometimes. Sort of. Not always. Probably not even really all that often, if Barna’s statistics are any guide. Apparently fewer and fewer young people are convinced “going to church” is worth the time.

I believe in religious instruction for children, but the trick is finding some way to make it feel more like a joy than a twenty-pound weight tiedSimpsons church to a seven-year-old’s back, another hyper-structured chore to do, another box of duties to check off in a day’s work.

And I lament not being aware or wise enough to seize he opportunity to honor my son’s emotions. He was at that precious age where he would ask all sorts of spiritual questions with the kind of unfiltered honesty children this age are known for.

One evening, right around that same time, my son and and I were discussing, for some reason, the topic of heaven. He decided that heaven sounded perfectly boring and he would rather do without that type of eternal existence.

He had connected the dots. His experience of God here was a preview of the experience of God later. And he concluded that “going to heaven” was no different than ending play time and “going to church.” It’s hard enough being miserable for a few hours, but never ending?!

Only seven years old and his Christian education—which I endorsed and complied with despite the signals—had already unwittingly indoctrinated him into thinking that communion with God, whether now or later, was, in a word, a complete drag.

As parents we were told about the seriousness of getting our kids to come to church so they can be taught. Well, we did and they were. And in retrospect, I would like to think there is a better way. Yes, they were taught. But they caught a lot, too. And you know what they say about more things being caught than taught.

At the end of the day the parents decide how their children’s time is best spent. I blame no one, but I do have my regrets. I also believe God transcends our regrets.

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Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.