The religious landscape in this country is changing. It's been changing for decades (and probably before that, too). The so- called "golden age" of American protestantism, when "everybody" went to church, is clearly dead and gone. It is worthwhile to doubt whether it ever truly existed, or if it is just a figment of wishful hindsight. Still, it's true that organized religion in general, and Christianity in particular, is losing its cultural force. More and more people are not participating in a worship community, nor identifying with a religious group.
To be honest, I am not upset about this trend. Although my faith, and my participation in Christian community, has been a powerful and positive experience in my life, it's no offense to me if others feel differently. I certainly recognize and empathize with the disillusion many people feel towards Christianity. As an organization, the Christian church has done some atrocious things (and some merely stupid things). Although I find community with others to be important to my spirituality, I understand that others prefer to practice their spirituality in private.
However, there is one aspect of this trend that does trouble me, and which I feel moved to address. My comments are directed towards parents. What I often hear from parents is this statement, or one like it: "I don't take my kids to church because I want them to make their own decisions." Many of my friends have told me that their parents did not raise them in any kind of religious community; as a result, these friends find the very concept of faith to be a foreign and confusing (even upsetting) subject.
I'm not a parent, but I think I understand whence this attitude comes. Especially for those who grew up with a negative experience of religion, church can seem like the last place to take a growing child. If you had to memorize the catechism and recite it in front of the congregation, if you were indoctrinated, if your questions and exploration were squashed, if your voice was silenced - certainly, you wouldn't want to put your kids through that.
However, when I hear from a twenty-something that he or she really wants to believe in something, anything, but just can't seem to do it, it tugs at my heart. Faith is something I grew up with. That's not to suggest that my faith journey has always been easy or straightforward (it certainly hasn't), but I am convinced that I was greatly aided and equipped by growing up in a religious community.
Parents, you want your kids to be able to make their own decisions. You don't want to force a belief system on them. That is great. More power to you. But let me make an analogy. I assume that most parents also want their kids to decide on a career or profession. You wouldn't force your child to be a doctor or a teacher. But you still make your kids get up in the morning and go to school. Even if they don't want to. You know that, before your children can decide to be doctors or teachers or lawyers or the president of the United States, they have to get an education. They have to learn to read and write, add and subtract, engage in conversation and think critically. As their parents, you require your children to go to school; you give them, whether they want it or not, a groundwork that they will need to be able to make decisions later in life. You wouldn't let your kid sit at home for 18 years and then suddenly expect that they can get into a premed program.
I really believe that the same principles should operate in the area of faith. Your kids should be able to decide what they believe and how they practice that faith. But they won't be equipped to make those decisions unless you, as parents, provide them with a groundwork. That groundwork doesn't even necessarily have to come from a church - maybe you can read to your kids from the Bible, the Quran, and the Tripitaka. But give them something, some resource that they can draw on - or reject - in adulthood. Give them a groundwork on which they can build.
(A note here: I don't want to suggest that people who were not raised in a religious community are incapable of having faith. I don't believe that to be true. However, my conversations with friends have suggested to me that the faith journey may be much harder if you are trying to start from scratch in your twenties. That being said, there are resources out there for spiritual seekers, and I expect those could be very helpful.)
There is a lesson here for churches, too, lest we think that the problem lies outside of ourselves. Churches must be places where parents would want to take their children. That means very practical and important concerns with regard to safety (as the cases of clergy abuse have made all too clear). It also means that churches shouldn't be concerned with indoctrinating children. We should be open to questioning, to doubting, and to disagreement. We should allow children and especially youth to "tinker" with their faith, drawing in resources not only from our own religious tradition, but from other traditions as well. We should embrace and encourage spiritual creativity. We should break down the hierarchies that serve to silence some voices, particularly the voices of question and critique.
In short, my word to parents is this: give your children the education they need to be able to grow into their own, unique faith. And to churches: provide to both parents and children (and all spiritual seekers) resources for exploration and growth. May we all walk together on journeys of faith, wherever they lead.