“I Hate Church”


The other day I was listening to my WLP showcase CD in the car (I promise, this is not as geeky as it sounds; I was trying to decide if our choir could handle one of the pieces for Christmas Eve) when Alex suddenly piped up from the back seat, “Hey, Mommy, this is the song we sang when we walked at church.”

It was Steve Janco’s “Draw Near,” and we did indeed sing it while “walking”—to Communion. I got the teensiest little shiver at this glimpse into my son’s head—a glimpse that reveals that despite the number of times we hear “I hate church!”, something he has experienced there actually made a connection. And that gives me hope.

Hope is something I need. Church is tough for kids—for adults, for that matter—and doubly so because it’s 100% aimed at adults. Our parish offers children’s liturgy, but not every week. The rationale is that we don’t want to create separate communities within the community. If the kids never attend church with the Big People, they will grow up disconnected from the larger community. Besides, the problem is larger than liturgy that goes over children’s heads.

What is the problem? In short, the problem is that familiarity breeds contempt…and virtually everyone, even a liturgy geek, takes for granted what we do every week. Taken for granted, liturgy becomes something we do by rote, with our minds & hearts elsewhere. In place of ritual, we have repetition; in place of prayer, glib recitation that skips off the lips without ever penetrating the ear, much less the heart.

That’s the problem. The solution is twofold: good liturgy and an invested assembly.

Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done. Good liturgy requires a long-term view. You need priests who are committed to the process; you need skilled lay people with a gift for oratory and hospitality and reverence; you need money for trained musicians…and trained musicians frequently have no pastoral skills or sensitivity. (That may sound harsh, but I am a trained musician. Trust me, we’re a self-centered lot.) You need staff members and a music ministry and assembly members who have been catechized to participate, who don’t put the blinders on when we go outside their preferred musical style. You need people who are willing and able to read the documents thoughtfully, without imposing their own biases. The documents leave a lot of latitude, but some people run roughshod over them, as if latitude equals no rules at all. Others ignore what latitude is granted, on the misguided premise that everything about the Church was better a hundred, or two hundred, or a thousand years ago, and everything would revert to Ye Goode Olde Days if we just put things back the way they used to be.

I’m talking about Catholic worship specifically, but remove the documents and substitute pastors for priests, and the rest of it applies across the denominational board. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and with great frustration, because my son “hates” church. I try not to attach too much importance to this, because he’s four. But I’m a liturgist at heart. I dream of having my whole family leading music together. Alex on drums. Christian on piano. Me singing and playing flute. Nicholas and Julianna singing, playing guitar, whatever it is they end up being good at.

So when I hear, “Church is BORING,” it hurts me…because Alex is right. It is boring. And it isn’t supposed to be. How do we bridge the gap between repetition and ritual? Between childhood and mature understanding? How do I keep “I hate church” from becoming a mantra that he rides right out of the Church?

4 thoughts on ““I Hate Church”

  1. Eric M.

    You know, there’s little doubt that children of those who minister surely have it rougher than others may realize. If they’re not breaking their parents’ hearts with “I hate church,” then they’re “offending” some by acting in ways others think unbefitting the minister/leader’s kid. It always seems more is required of the “p.k.” — preacher’s kid, following the parliance of my protestant denomination, unfortunately. And maybe, sometimes, we ministers inadvertantly expect more of the kiddos, too.

    Molly and I are both ordained pastors in the UMC, working in different churches. We’ve been blessed that Josie (age 7) has been able to carve out her own niche in both our churches, where she alternates her attendance. Her increasing joy of church is one of God’s greatest displays of grace — if only because this is a love she has discovered on her own, and not foisted upon her. Of course, she would have not made this discovery had we not equipped her with the opportunity. She only sees Molly and me in “work mode” at church: rare is it — during vacations, mostly — when we can all worship together as a family.

    In my current pastorate, we have a “children’s church” option for families who desire. Children are welcome to fully participate in worship, including a “children’s sermon”, but then afterward depart the sanctuary for their special time in their own space. They listen to the Word read (from an age-appropriate translation), and leaders help engage their responses to it. They sing, listen to music, fellowship, have a snack, share their prayer requests, and pray together. It has become quite popular and helpful: it allows children some time every Sunday in “regular”, “adult” worship, as well as allow for an age-appropriate worship experience. In our case where we partake in the sacrament of Holy Communion only once per month, we suspend children’s worship in order for families to worship together in the sanctuary for the entire service.

    I pray Alex will discover his own joy in his own time, and in his own way. And someday, discover that church was a place where people loved him and God adored him – long before he ever realized.


  2. Linda R

    Hi Kate!

    I have 2 children – one of them is an agnostic and the other teaches theology and is a pastoral musician. I have 2 grandchildren, both of whom are autistic. One of them has loved church ever since he was about 5 years old and still loves the repetition and ritual and has played percussion for me for 5 years!
    The other grandchild cannot abide church – she cries and she gets angry and we can’t figure out what bothers her so much about the experience.
    My question is; how can 2 children, raised by the same parents have such differing reactions to the liturgy and the Catholic faith?
    The only answer that I can come up with is that faith is a gift that we have to be OPEN to receive. We, as parents, can pass it along to our children, but there are other forces at work in our society that make the reception of this gift precarious.

  3. Kelley

    Yes, I think that’s right that kids from the same family, raised in church the same way, can have totally different feelings on church. And no one has the answer, otherwise everyone would know it by now. I think the best thing to do is to pray for your children regularly, trust in God that the seeds you are planting will grow in his time, and know that, right now, four year old hatred can’t be that long lasting.

  4. What thoughtful replies–thank you all. Eric, I love that idea, that “people loved him and God adored him.” How beautiful. Linda, I guess I’ve always known what you said about being open to faith–I had just forgotten. I look around and I see families whose grown children are all faithful, and I so badly want to be them. I’m so afraid of screwing up. Kelley, you’re right, there is no answer, I guess…I just keep tossing the question out periodically, in the hopes that maybe I’ll figure one out.

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