pie piecesA few weeks ago I had the opportunity to talk with a group of parents at our church’s fall Family Camp. I used our time to explore with them a question that is central to this blog: does church still matter in our post-Christendom world? Since these were active church members invested enough to take a weekend out of their busy fall schedules for a church retreat, I assumed that they already believe it does matter. But why?

To view the slides and notes from my talk, download this PDF. But here is the basic gist of what I said:

  • We have many choices to make when it comes to how we will fill our family’s time (hence the “pie” chart). This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately—both in terms of my job as a youth pastor and with respect to my own family and my own personal time.
  • Back in the spring I had a great conversation with someone about our youth ministry. She has one child in high school, one in college, and one   out of college. She had been with some other parents of children who are in college or beyond and they were discussing what their kids got out of their time at church and what they wished had been better about that experience, from the vantage point of hindsight. Throughout the conversation, she repeated an idea that has stuck with me: “you only have 18 years.” While it is true that our influence with our kids will extend beyond their first 18 years, this is our primary window for shaping the kind of people they will grow up to be. It’s a sobering thought. How will we make the best use of this time?
  • If we take our children to church for one hour every week for 18 years, that will represent less than 1% of their waking hours.
  • This suggests two important conclusions. First, faith formation requires much more than a one hour per week commitment. If we want our children to become good disciples of Christ, we need to work with them beyond Sunday. (I suggested that this was a topic for another day.)
  • Second, we need to be very intentional about making sure that the time they do spend in church is worthwhile and transformative.
  • I introduced them to Lillian Daniel and her book, When “Spiritual But Not Religious” Is Not Enough. I read them Chapter 19, “Please Stop Boring Me,” which is based on this blog post that went viral two years ago.
  • I made sure to note, given our location on the shores of Lake Michigan in western Michigan, that I have nothing against finding God in the sunset. Rather, I read this chapter to help us think about what we really value about coming to church. In our post-Christendom context in which there are no longer cultural assumptions or benefits to going to church, why do we make the counter-cultural choice to bring our families to church? Why spend a weekend at Family Camp? We have so many other options on Sunday morning and throughout the weekend. What is it that we value about this time together? What do we want our children to get out of this investment in time and resources?

In small groups of 3-4 parents, great conversations took place. After giving them some time to talk, I asked if there were themes or ideas that they wanted to share with the whole group. Here are some of the things they had to say:

  • Church provides grounding.
  • We want to pass this grounding on to our children.
  • Church is nourishing.
  • Church isn’t always easy. But it’s good to grow by being challenged, even by disagreeing.
  • There is an attitude of, “I don’t know you, but I’ll help you.” You don’t find that in many other places.
  • The reasons people give for not going to church is often just a cover for laziness.
  • Church provides our kids with the opportunity to grow up with an extended “family” that shares similar values.
  • It is important to “give back” and “pay it forward.”
  • Some wondered if we ought to be more vocal about being a Christian.
  • Let’s be honest, some parents appreciate an hour or more of nursery for their babies. But the friendships that their children make motivate parents to stick with it. They realize that their children are blessed by relationship formed at church.
  • Nothing can replace the act of worship in community.
  • In the ebb and flow of life, church brings stability with a core group of people.
  • Church is like “spiritual insurance” for when things go wrong.
  • At church we experience multiple manifestations of God’s presence in music, sermons, and friendships.
  • Churches do a lot of good in the world, which provides a great example for children.

Without making church one more program in the midst of all of the other programs offered for children, adults, and families—like a gym membership or piano lessons—I think it is important for us to have a sense of why this increasingly peculiar endeavor is important and valuable. Why not be “spiritual but not religious” all by yourself or with your family, like an increasingly large number of Americans are in fact doing? What is at stake for us as individuals? What is at stake for the rest of the world?

What do you think of the answers provided by these parents at our Family Camp? How would you answer these questions?

John W. Vest

John is a "church hacker" attempting to overcome the limitations of church as we know it. To connect with him and learn more about his work, please visit johnvest.com.

Reader Interactions


  1. I love that you are wrestling with all this, and even more I love that you are sharing those wrestling matches with us. Thank you for all this.

    I would make one minor critique of your message above. We don’t have 18 years to form a child. We have 14 years, at the most. It is during the years before the urge to separate kicks in that we can influence a child at the deepest, most elemental levels. During the teenage years, the adolescent needs to rebel to identify who she is and what he wants to be. During this period, it is too late to imprint those values that will make it though this necessary rebellion.

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