Parents, Power, and Promises
(Prov 22:6 KJV) Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.
In the public schools, a new academic year has just begun, amid renewed debates about the purpose, direction, effectiveness and costs of the education system. Prominent among these is the debate over the place of computer technology in the classroom. A few weeks ago, the cover story of Maclean’s magazine dealt with this topic, and quoted Maude Barlow, co-author of the book Class Warfare: The Assault on Canada’s Schools. Ms. Barlow said, “We are a society drowned in information and starved for purpose. It is that starvation that public schools need to address.” In my opinion, however, religious education, which the public schools cannot provide, is far more likely to give our children a sense of the ultimate purpose of life. Without that sense of purpose, they cannot have a truly meaningful future.
The religious education of children ideally begins at home when they are very young. Deuteronomy 6 tells parents: “Teach [God’s commandments] diligently to your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” (Deut. 6:7) In other words, a parent should use the various ordinary activities of life as avenues to teach about God. In Ephesians, Paul says that Christians should bring up their children “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). His choice of words is instructive: to nurture a child is “to promote and sustain the development of” that child. The word translated as admonition means literally, “calling attention to.” What Paul is prescribing, then, is an ongoing process of spiritual growth, which parents encourage by helping their children notice God at work in the world around them and in their own lives.
As a child grows older, the teaching of the home should be complemented by that provided by the Church through Sunday school and other youth activities. Unfortunately, many of our older children and teens do not regularly participate in these programs. Many churches react by trying to make their programming more attractive to teens. This is of course not a bad thing: providing interesting and attractive programs for our youth is always desirable. But what interests me about this response is that it assumes that the decision to participate rests with the child.
Making Sunday school attendance a matter for children to decide for themselves effectively places the Sunday school in competition with the host of other discretionary activities available to today’s children. For an adolescent, it’s an easy choice: the most entertaining and exciting activity wins, and on these criteria, the Sunday school cannot realistically or legitimately compete with the secular society. It has neither the resources nor the mandate to do so. All the Church really has to offer to the world is the Gospel of Jesus Christ; and while the Gospel is definitely good news, it is not exactly good entertainment.
Let me suggest that, in the case of the Sunday school, the children’s participation need not necessarily be voluntary. This is not really such a radical thought; the public school system operates in exactly this way. The law requires that children under the age of sixteen attend school whether they like it or not. The state justifies this law on the grounds that some minimum level of education is necessary for the well being of both the individual and of society, and this necessity takes precedence over the wishes of individual children. The hope is that by the time children reach age sixteen, they will have discovered for themselves the value of education, and will elect to stay in school.
What then of the Sunday school? Are we as Christian parents willing to say that what is taught in the Sunday school is of less importance than what is taught in the secular school system? If not, we should be prepared to insist that our children attend Sunday school on a regular basis.
Such a policy could raise many objections. To begin with, we live in a country where practising Christians have become a minority; in many of today’s classrooms, there may be only a few children who attend Sunday school even occasionally. A Christian child might therefore quite reasonably ask, “Why should I go to Sunday school when none of my classmates has to?” The fact that we live in a democratic society makes this question sound even more reasonable, for the notion of majority rule can easily be extended in a child’s mind to the conviction that the majority is always in the right. A parent can respond, and further the child’s growth, by helping him recognise that to be Christian is to be different. At baptism, Christians enter into a special relationship with God; so if I am a Christian, what’s right for others will not necessarily be right for me.
A while ago, two small girls rode by our house on bicycles, and I overheard a bit of their conversation: one was saying, with amazement in her voice, “You go to Sunday school?” “Yes,” came the reply. At which the first asked, “Who makes you?”
Many parents are unwilling to engage in what their children see as a power struggle over the issue of Sunday school attendance. Surely there are already enough issues where parents have to struggle with their kids; they don’t need another one. I agree. However, insisting that a child attend Sunday school is not a parental power trip; rather it is parental faithfulness to a promise made years before, at baptism. For in baptism the parents make a public profession of faith, and promise to bring the child up in that faith, both at home and in the fellowship of God’s people, which is the Church. So when a child asks, “Why do I have to go to Sunday school?” the parent’s answer isn’t, “Because I say so,” but rather, “Because a long time ago I promised, before God and the congregation, that I would bring you.” As parents we all want our children to be true to the promises they make; it is a big part of what it means to be a person of integrity. To treat the promises we made in baptism as serious and as binding on both ourselves and our children is to give a child a good example of faithfulness.
Being faithful to any promise has its costs. It means making a commitment and sticking to it, even when it is difficult or inconvenient. In the case of Sunday school, it might mean, for example, that the family goes skiing on Saturdays rather than Sundays, that sleep-overs are on Friday nights and not Saturdays, and that we choose sports activities which don’t regularly demand our participation on Sunday mornings, instead of those which do. These are sacrifices, to be sure, but compared to the sacrifices made by the early Christians, who suffered persecution and death for their faith, they are pretty insignificant. I’m not suggesting that it is never appropriate to do something else on a Sunday morning. But if we routinely decide to let our kids miss Sunday school — if we can bring them to choir practices and skiing lessons and hockey games every week without fail, but somehow we just can’t get them to church very often — the kids will notice. And they will quickly conclude that Sunday school isn’t really very important or valuable. Nothing we say to the contrary is likely to change that opinion; here, as elsewhere, our actions speak to our children much louder than our words do. No Sunday school program, however excellent it may be, is likely to make any significant difference in the lives of children whose minds have been closed by the belief that what is taught there doesn’t really matter.
Well, how important is Christian education? That depends. How important is Christianity? C.S. Lewis answers that question this way:
“[People] always think you are recommending Christianity not because it is true but because it is good. ... One must keep on pointing out that Christianity is a statement which, if false, is of no importance, and, if true, of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important.”
No doubt some parents try to get their kids to go to Sunday school because they think it will be good for them. They hope that it will keep them from getting in with “the wrong crowd”, or it will keep them off drugs, or it will keep them out of jail. But if the statements Christianity makes about God, Jesus, the world, and humanity are false, then it is completely dishonest and self-serving to use Christianity as a tool to manipulate the attitudes and behaviours of the younger generation.
On the other hand, if Christianity is true, then we owe it to our children to make them thoroughly familiar with what it teaches. Even on a practical level, it only makes sense to provide children with an accurate world view. Stephen Covey, in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, offers this illustration:
“Suppose you wanted to arrive at a specific location in central Chicago. A street map of the city would be a great help to you in reaching your destination. But suppose you were given the wrong map. Through a printing error, the map labeled “Chicago” was actually a map of Detroit. Can you imagine the frustration, the ineffectiveness of trying to reach your destination?”
If you’ve got the wrong map, you’re going to have a lot of trouble getting where you want to go. You could try asking someone on the street for directions, but as most of us have probably discovered at one time or another, such directions can be pretty unreliable. What we would need is a more trustworthy guide, the right map.
Every child carries a “map”, his world view, and he is constantly updating it based on his experiences. Some children have more accurate maps than others. Children who have trouble finding their way often stop and ask directions, usually of their peers. The directions they get are frequently unreliable. If we as Christian parents sincerely believe that Jesus is “the way, the truth and the life,” in other words, if we believe that Christianity gives us the best possible map, then we will want our children to get the best possible Christian education.
But won’t a child who is “forced” to go to Sunday school leave the Church at the first opportunity? Perhaps, but not necessarily; otherwise we would see a lot more 16 year old school dropouts than we do. But even if she does leave the Church, a young adult who has had a good Christian education has had that experience recorded on her map. And as all of us who have seen movies with pirates and buried treasure know, a map can enable us to get back to a place where we once were. Invariably in the movies, “X marks the spot” where the treasure is buried. For children who come to know Christ through the influence of the home and the Sunday school, the cross marks the spot to which they can return later in life.
Of course at some point all young people must decide for themselves about church attendance; the question is: when should that be? A study I read concluded that most young people’s understanding of the Christian faith stops developing at exactly the point where their formal Christian education ends. As a result, there are many adults who are carrying around a ten year old’s concept of Christianity, and believe that Christianity offers nothing more. Such people are unlikely to look to Christ for help in times of trouble. It is therefore important that a child’s Christian education be continued at least until the faith is being taught at a level of sophistication which would command some respect from an adult mind.
In most Protestant denominations, confirmation marks the point at which young people decide for themselves what their involvement in the Church will be. Helping young people to make that decision is part of the confirmation program. The period of instruction offered by this program is essential; after all, one cannot make an educated decision without an education. For this reason it is right for a parent to insist that a child attend confirmation classes. But the decision to be confirmed, to affirm the faith in which he was baptised, must be the child’s, not the parents’. For it is the child, not the parents, who will have to live out the promises made at confirmation.
To summarise: the question of Sunday school attendance provides us with some significant challenges and opportunities: it requires us to evaluate our own faith commitment, and to be willing to reject some of the values and priorities of secular society. It requires parents to consider what is of greatest value to their kids in the long term, rather than being driven by short term pressures. It provides an opportunity for parents to show their children that faith is expressed through choices and action, not only through words. How we as parents respond to these challenges and use these opportunities is likely to be the most important single factor in our children’s spiritual future. By seeing to it that they get a good Christian education, we will give our children a priceless gift: a solid foundation of values and beliefs, which will sustain them through whatever their future holds. May God grant to us and all parents the faith, the will, and the strength to provide such a legacy for our children. Amen.