I have been asked this question four times in the past four months. Though there are variations, the basic question is, “Should I make my teenager go to church if he or she doesn’t want to?”
One parent thinks of a 16-year-old son who says, “I am not a Christian and don’t enjoy church; why do I have to go?” Others were thinking of a similar scenario. One added the twist of having a 19 or 20-year-old still living at home and negatively influencing the younger siblings.
The following are some wisdom principles that would lead me to conclude that in 98% of the cases, you should say “Yes, you must go to the church.”
First, we need to have clear theology of the teenage years. It is interesting that the only view we have of Jesus as a child is at twelve years old. In that interaction, Jesus displays independence from his parents. Yet, Scripture records that he went home, was submissive to his parents, and kept growing (Luke 2:42-52). Similarly, it is interesting that the 20-year-olds were held accountable for not going up into Kadesh Barnea, but the 19-year-olds weren’t (Numbers 14:29).
This helps establish some parameters of the 13-20 age as somehow different than a child but not quite an adult. In our house, we identified an individual in this time period as an adult-in-training. We were giving our teen more independence, but he had not yet matured and was not on his own financially.
With this understanding, I come back to answer the original question. As long as your child is under the age of adulthood, then he is still your responsibility. There are plenty of good things that we “make” our young person do because it has benefits that he or she does not understand. We make him go school or the doctor even if he doesn’t want to. The public gathering to hear the word preached certainly fits into that same category.
Second, this independence is also related to financial responsibility, not just age. Paul told the Thessalonians that if they did not work, they should not eat (2 Thes 3:10). In other words, the responsible action of work leads to benefits. The irresponsibility of not working leads to consequences. As long as an individual is enjoying significant financial benefits from me, then I have every right to expect compliance with some expectations.
For example, after college, we had two of our children live with us for a year to help pay down some college debt. During that year, when my wife and I continued to subsidize their life by letting them live rent-free, they had to abide by a few “rules of the house.” One of those was attending an evangelical church of their choosing.
A Few More Foundational Principles
There are a few more underlying truths that I think parents must be convinced of as we face this issue.
There are multiple benefits to public worship attendance. The biggest benefit is hearing the gospel sung and preached. But there is the additional benefit of meeting regularly with a wider network of people. Even if we ignore the vertical component, there are plenty of horizontal benefits to regular church attendance. Meeting together regularly with a community provides examples, counsel, and encouragement in life. Sociological research tells us that regular church attendance brings positive benefits. We are a social people.
In addition, we must be convinced that Christian parents think about the heart and the character. Obviously, in this scenario, our teen’s heart is far from God. We want to ask gentle and probing questions to understand what he is thinking. In fact, communicating with us is also a condition of giving financial provision and living in our home! We may seek to sympathize with their concern. For example, the 19-year-old might be saying, “There is no one my age.” My response might be, “I understand. Let’s find a healthy church for you that does have people that age.” But at the end of the day, our lives are shaped by our action as well as our heart. And though we cannot control their heart, we can have an influence on their actions.
Finally, I want to get ahead of this issue when they are young. I hope we have established such a good relationship with our teen and a commitment to our church that this is not even an issue. The groundwork that tempers this conflict is laid much earlier in the warmth of our family and its commitment to a local church. Having said that, I know that this may not be possible for parents who have come to Christ with older children or where one parent is a believer and the other isn’t. Family life is always messy.
Will there be exceptions? No doubt. But before you decide that your scenario fits into the 2% of exceptions, seek out godly wisdom from older saints.
If you are in this situation, my heart goes out to you. Obviously, you are facing difficult times in your relationship with your teen. Ultimately, I want my teen to know that I love them and I am also responsible to God. I need to do what I think is best for them as long as they are under my roof.
P. S. – To hear how this played out in one person’s life, listen to this podcast. In it, my associate pastor tells of his deliberate teenage rebellion and how his parents “forced” him to go to church. It led to his conversion!