Part 15 of series: Choosing a Church: Some Recommendations
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Obviously, if you don’t have children, then this recommendation isn’t relevant to you. But many who are in the process of looking for a church do have children. In some cases, they are church shopping precisely because they have children, or one child, at least.
During my tenure as pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, I noted how often parents with a new baby came to check us out. In many cases these parents grew up with some sort of religious background, maybe even with a strong faith in Christ. But somewhere along the way in their college and young adult years they stopped going to church, even though they continued to believe in God and think that God mattered (mostly for later in life). They were too wrapped up in their educations, their careers, or their young marriages to have time for church. But then, all of a sudden, they were blessed with a baby, and their values began to change. They wanted a place for their child to have moral and religious education, as they often put it. Some would even be more specific about wanting their child to know Christ. But most of the new parents who visited our church had only a vague sense that it was important for their child to have a church experience.
I believe that parents are given primary responsibility to help their children know Christ and grow as his disciples. This isn’t something that should be delegate to the Sunday School and youth ministry of a church, even though it often turns out this way. But raising a child as a Christian isn’t something parents are meant to do alone. And in today’s culture which is so hostile to Christian faith and practice, parents desperately need the support and help provided by a strong church.
For many parents, finding a solid children’s program or youth group for their kids is a top priority, trumping many of their own preferences. When friends of mine moved from Irvine to the Chicago area, they hoped to plug in to a Presbyterian church in their community. The church in their town was beautiful, and the worship services were moving to my friends, but the youth ministry was pathetic. They visited Presbyterian churches in neighboring communities, but still couldn’t find a church with a strong, Christ-centered, discipleship-oriented youth ministry. So, after weeks of frustration, they finally visited Willow Creek Community Church, which was a reasonable drive from their home. My friends did not appreciate the Sunday morning worship experience there, which was largely intended for “seekers” rather than mature believers. They liked the preaching, but that was about it. And they did not like the size or the non-denominational ethos of Willow Creek. But their kids loved the youth ministry. My friends checked it out, and soon discovered that it was outstanding both in program and in its discipleship of young believers.
My friends called me for advice. They so much wanted to be in a Presbyterian setting. Yet they wanted what was best for their children. So what should they do? My answer was unequivocal: Join Willow Creek! I explained that if, when their children were grown, they wanted to look for another church, that would be fine. But for many years they needed to be in a place that would help their children know and follow Christ. As it turns out, my friends became deeply involved in the ministry of Willow Creek. Soon they had major leadership positions in the church, and were deeply appreciative of its ministry to them.
What will a church that helps children to be disciples of Christ look like? The forms can vary widely. Some churches will have extensive ministries for children and youth. Others, house churches, will include children in many adult activities, seeing discipleship more as a matter of family participation. At the core, however, a church that offers what children and youth need will be very clear about the priority of introducing them to Christ as Lord and Savior, and helping them grow as his active disciples. (Photo: Vacation Bible School [VBS] at Irvine Presbyterian Church. One sign of a healthy children’s ministry is an active VBS like that at Irvine Pres.)
If you are looking for a church and you have children, I’d encourage you to talk with those who are responsible for ministries with children and youth. In many cases these will be directors or pastors. In other situations you’ll be talking with elders or other non-staff leaders. Ask those in charge about their ministries. Be specific in asking about their core purposes. Do they see themselves mainly as entertainment or babysitting? Or are they in the business of making disciples of young people. Go with the church that has a discipleship emphasis.