Several Sundays ago my kids were playing outside when we called them to get in the car for church. They stalled. They whined. They asked, "Why do we always have to go to church?" My responses became less patient and my words sharper, until I slammed my hand against the steering wheel and said through clenched teeth, "Going to church is what we do. Get used to it."
We all arrived at church grumpy—an unfortunately common state on Sunday mornings. The following Sunday, we used the fact that it was Youth Recognition Sunday (often a particularly long, dull service) as an excuse to skip church. Now that it's summer, we, like many families, will probably find more excuses over the next two months to not attend. We'll be away some weekends, the kids have no church school, and we relish breaks from getting everyone up and out the door by a certain time. Judging by the sparsely occupied pews in many churches during this season, we aren't the only family who skips church more often in the summer.
A few years ago, such a lax attitude toward church attendance was unthinkable to me. We were die-hard churchgoers, in the pews every Sunday barring illness or vacation. But being a die-hard means that you are given jobs, and when you do those jobs well, you are given more jobs. Sunday worship ceased to be a time of renewal; it was work. When we joined our current parish two years ago, I was determined to be more deliberate and cautious about volunteering. Being less involved makes Sunday mornings more enjoyable, but it also makes it easier to skip Sunday services altogether because we have fewer responsibilities.
Our kids are thrilled when we take a Sunday off. But our newly relaxed attitude toward church attendance raises important questions: Are we modeling a nebulous spirituality, teaching our kids to pick and choose from among religious practices while rejecting anything that requires real commitment? Is it possible to engage in life-giving, sacrificial commitment without falling into energy-draining, resentment-breeding burnout? Perhaps most important: How do I instill faith in my children, and how important is church attendance in that endeavor?
A living faith requires both communal obligations and private disciplines. We as a family pray before dinner, read Bible stories, and teach the religious meaning of major holidays with traditions such as Advent candles and Lenten mite boxes. When one of my kids is struggling with disappointment or fear, I offer prayer as the best thing to do when you don't know what else to do.
Is all of this enough for their budding faith to withstand occasional Sunday mornings spent digging in the garden or reading a good book instead of at church?
I'm not sure. My own faith journey has been unpredictable. I grew up in the Episcopal Church, the daughter of a talented and supremely likable Episcopal clergyman. I am an Episcopalian again, but only after years of trying other styles of worship—an evangelical college fellowship, an urban coffeehouse church. Although my father has influenced me, my faith journey has been my own, just as my kids' faith journeys must be their own. I can provide a foundation, but I cannot control which people, places, or experiences will most influence their eventual embracing or rejection of faith.
I want to give my children all the things that experts say make children resilient and happy, then sit back knowing that they will be all right. Such assurance is impossible. A few weeks ago, I was immersed in reading Beautiful Boy, David Sheff's haunting memoir about his son's meth addiction, as my children played outside with the neighbors. As I read while listening to the kids' joyful noise, I thought, "It's not enough. None of these benefits—unstructured outdoor play, caring parents, a safe and friendly neighborhood—are certain to protect them from addiction, illness, betrayal, despair, or failure." I want faith, along with family dinners, reliable routines, healthy friendships, and loving parental supervision, to inoculate my children against all that would harm them and all the ways they can harm themselves. But there is no such vaccine.
I can only hope that our faith and practice, including going to church often but also embracing occasional Sundays spent at home, will help our kids reach toward the light, trusting it is there even when they are swallowed up in darkness. And I do strive to hold Sundays up as a different sort of day even when we do not go to church. My personal discipline of honoring the Sabbath means no writing work, refraining from computer usage other than a quick e-mail check now and then, and only doing chores that we can do as a family, such as gardening. We spend most Sundays at home, together.
The other night, my daughter approached me and asked, "Do you have to pray to God out loud, or does God hear your prayers if they are silent?" I assured her that silence was just fine. I don't know what she was praying about, though I have my suspicions. But this—a desire to connect with God—is really what I want for my kids. I want faith to be what we do, a way of living and seeing the world that buttresses our life together, even if we take a summer Sunday off from church now and then.