Do I Belong? Dragging kids to Church

I asked my fourteen-year-old why he never wants to hang around church anymore. He answered thoughtfully, “Nobody really talks to me. You know, Mom? People don’t introduce themselves to new people or people they don’t know.”

Hoping for a chance to hear more, I responded, “I can see how it feels that way. But remember, you’re a teenager now and we have our own corner of the church, so we don’t always see other people. We’re newish and they don’t all know you yet– plus you don’t go to everything, either. Do you think that messes things up?”

As a teen, his Sunday-morning-persona ranges from somnambulist to tortured p.o.w. and his responses to adult attempts at chatting resemble gorilla’s grunts.

“So there are what, three events a year, and I missed one? And let’s see, 40 people have dinner together on Wednesdays–but only five students come.  This church really doesn’t do “everybody-get-together” stuff. Don’t you remember the chili cook-off and international dinner at our last church?  At our old church all the families did stuff together all the time. Caroling and BBQs, remember? I guess the Chois and the Wengers here are good at inviting people over. So that’s two pluses.”

Fascinating. In two years since we moved, he has rarely mentioned a friend his age whom he misses or talked about anyone in particular from Chicago other than cousins. Yet he misses the feeling of belonging .and being known at church, being cheered for, and being loved by whole families, by all ages, parents included. I was listening. I didn’t try to argue why Church is good for him or why he should go. His feelings matter as much as those Truths (and they can wait. They will still be true later.)

Granted this is from the kid who used to be the self-appointed mayor of our last church. Now he’s no longer the kid of the senior pastor, no longer the darling of the little old ladies. And I must add, no longer very talkative, either. As a teen, his Sunday-morning-persona ranges from somnambulist to tortured p.o.w. and his responses to adult attempts at chatting resemble gorilla’s grunts.

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In other words, my son told me he longs to belong and to be known. I am so glad my son is connected with a mentor this year as he goes through Confirmation. A kind, displaced-midwesterner with a friendly smile and ready laugh, whom our daughter named “the most joy-filled person in the church.”  His healthy interest in our son makes a difference.

As adults, our efforts matter to learn students’ names, to keep track of their activities, to ask how “the big game went” or “what are the dance plans?” Please move past their “I-don’t-care” mask to reach for the heart. One person a week, reaching out in one pew, can make or break a kid’s church experience. It’s not complicated. Open our eyes, open our hearts, open our mouths to welcome, saying without words, “You belong.”

 

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Busted! Again. But for Praying?

DSCN5226I got into big trouble my first night volunteering. Again. I always do. I wanted the kids to engage, interact, so we moved out of the closet assigned to Kids Bible Club and started throwing paper airplanes in the upstairs hall. Prayer-planes! We’d talked through our days and listed all the things we could pray about:
• Not wanting to get out of bed
• Who to sit with on the bus or at lunch
• I have good friends to hang out with—hooray!
• That bully named Dash who is NOT incredible
• What to do when the girl next to me steals someone’s tots at lunch
• When that kid acts out and then blames me when he gets in trouble
• Should I tell on someone or shouldn’t I?
• Getting all my homework done when I have cheerleading AND church
• Sweating over that hard quiz
• Zipping through that easy quiz
• That I have good food to eat at dinner with my church friends
• That it was a thumbs-up day
• That it was a thumbs-down day

I was a guest teacher and I’d just met these third to sixth graders five minutes before. But they wanted to be listened to, to tell me all about their thumbs-up or thumbs-down days. No sign of the too-cool, preteen malaise I hear about on blogs. Sure they talked over one another, and were a little rude and insensitive:
“You worried about that quiz? It was easy. I’m gifted.”
“Well, you’re bragging.”
“Are you gonna give us candy soon, pastor?”
“ Can I go get a drink and take my friends with me?”

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But it all stopped when we wrote our prayers down, folded them into airplanes, and started sailing them through the air to God. Sure, the kids were competitive, but also cheering one another on. They were teaching each other the best folding techniques. They were chanting each other’s names. And learning about sending prayers up to God. Awesome, right?

Yep, you guessed it. That’s when I got into trouble. That church lady (you know the one) came out of the downstairs parlor and shouted up the stairwell, “Hush! We are trying to have class down here! We are trying to learn something!” She huffed, “There’s only six kids? It sounds like one hundred of you out here.”

Why do we think our kids should sit quietly in church? That they learn as well in a cold closet as in a gym space? That they should pencil in the blanks when they learn better by moving around?

I’m so glad it sounded like one hundred of us out in the hall. It turns out we grasped our Bible verses better through paper airplanes than with paper worksheets: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” Philippians 4:4-6