Staying Home From Church: More Than a Sermon
Staying Home From Church is a series of posts challenging Christian understandings of what it means to “go to church.” This series was inspired by an article posted on The Gospel Coalition website called “ 5 Reasons to Keep Going to Church with Baby Brain.” While it was posted back in 2019, it only recently came across my social media feeds and with mixed reviews.
You can check out previous posts from this series at the following links or jump ahead in the series with the links at the end of this post (updated as following posts go live).
Let’s get into the second point of the article: church is about more than a sermon. I have a lot to say in this series as pushback, so let me take a moment to agree a bit before jumping into that.
More Than a Sermon
The author quotes this argument: “I don’t get to hear the sermon anyway, so what’s the point?” In that context, I agree: Sunday services are about more than just a sermon. At least, they should be. The author points out that there are still other aspects of worship services to enjoy, like worshipping with others in song or sharing fellowship with others before and after services. Depending on the expression of Christianity, there may also be communal prayer times, the Lord’s Supper, or chances to drop the kids off with a church daycare or kids’ class.
In the previous post about setting an example, I made the argument that “church” is more than just Sunday worship services. I think a similar expansion should be applied to the services, themselves. When deciding whether to stay home or attend a service, I think it’s better to consider all the different benefits rather than just one.
That said, let’s dig into the scenario a bit more.
Benefit As Engagement
Behind the “not hearing the sermon” argument seems to be the assumption of benefit as engagement. In other words, if we can’t engage in some way, we can’t receive any benefits. If I can’t hear the sermon and engage the words with my mind then I don’t receive any benefit from the sermon. I think this is a fair argument.
My wife and I have talked several times about the struggle of having young children with us during a sermon. Since I’m usually preaching, I don’t have to deal as much with the distraction, but for her, hearing the sermon is sometimes near impossible. This can be true for people around her, as well. Last week, a woman walked out just as my sermon started because my children began throwing things at each other a few rows ahead of her. Some people might have simply ignored it, but not everyone’s mind works that way. For her, it was too much of a distraction.
Similarly, many weeks when my wife has had the kids, she couldn’t even remember what the sermon was about. If she has to actually step outside with one or more of the children, it’s even less likely she’ll hear anything. The sermon, then, doesn’t benefit her directly in any way. In fact, it sometimes adds stress to our lives because the context exacerbates any negative feelings or shame that a parent might have had when they came in. (This last point is especially true if other congregants start making “suggestions” about someone’s parenting.)
This brings back the question I asked about church being like other things: does the service actually benefit us? The argument being made is that things other than the sermon can still benefit us, but do benefits only come through engagement? If so, doesn’t our ability to engage determine whether other aspects of service are worth showing up for?
As a side note, one of the points in the article is about the benefit for others when we show up. I’ll address that in a future post; this post is about personal benefit. If a parent with young children can’t engage various aspects of a worship service, do they still benefit in some way from being there?
Children and Other Parts of Services
Children don’t just get fidgety during a sermon. If my children don’t understand what’s being said, or if there’s a long period of talking rather than visuals (most parts of our own worship services), they get bored and start looking for something else to do. There’s something to be said for not being able to listen to the sermon and the prayers and the Communion meditation and the Bible study, etc.
The author also points out in the intro that separation anxiety made it difficult to leave her kids with the kids’ classes. In those situations, a parent has to have their kids with them throughout the service and in a way that may require more attention than usual.
Our own congregation doesn’t even have a kids’ class, and when our previous congregation had kids’ classes, that created a second issue: the adults overseeing the kids’ classes missed the worship service. We tried to rotate that position, but then we needed enough willing and able adults to actually do that.
My point is that children don’t suddenly stop being a distraction when we get to non-sermon portions of worship. They don’t magically tune in for the singing or the prayers or the Lord’s Supper. They don’t suddenly behave themselves after service ends. There aren’t necessarily other children for them to play with while adults talk. There aren’t necessarily classes or daycares with responsible adults to give parents a break. Moreover, church events aren’t necessarily safe environments for children!
Child safety is a topic that makes a lot of Christians uneasy. People don’t like to believe that anything untoward is happening in their congregations, let alone anything involving the words “child” and “abuse.” Frankly, I’ll be surprised if no one contacts me with rebuttals and “Yeah, but…”s to this section.
Unfortunately, the truth is that child abuse is far more prevalent in the United States than most people want to admit, and with around 70% of Americans identifying as Christians, it’s foolish to think those cases don’t overlap with our congregations. National Center for Victims of Crime claims that “ 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys is a victim of child sexual abuse,” according to studies conducted by David Finkelhor, Director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, and the statistics for both child and adult sexual abuse provided by Not In Our Church might stagger you. These don’t even consider non-sexual forms of abuse and coercion.
I’m not arguing for a fearful worship environment. I’m pointing out that we shouldn’t assume parents can just stop being pre-occupied with their children before and after services or while their children are in Bible study classes or church daycares. That’s not the reality we live in, so, again, if engagement is the metric for whether something is beneficial, we still have to ask ourselves if an exhausted parent of young children can benefit from non-sermon aspects of worship services.
We can also turn the question away from parents and toward congregations. Are we mindful of child safety concerns within our congregations and spaces of worship? What are we doing to ensure that parents of young children can engage safely? What are we doing to put their minds at ease about being in worship spaces with their children? If you’re responding with — or if your congregants or leaders are responding with — dismissive statements, deflection, or attempts to put all the responsibility on the parents, I think it’s likely you’re in a toxic environment and should be extra careful.
If a church environment can’t reassure parents of their child’s safety, we should exercise grace about any decisions to not attend. If parents feel that they can’t be present enough with their children to keep them safe and present enough with the service to receive benefits, it makes sense to me that they wouldn’t show up that week.
So far, I’ve been assuming a benefit/engagement relationship, but what if that’s not the case.
Encouragement from others is a benefit noted by the author, which might not require any significant engagement.
“Singing with a whole congregation of people can be hugely encouraging. It can be uplifting to your soul when your body is so tired. Church will also give you encouragement, through your friends and fellow believers, as you fellowship with them before or after the service.”
Susan Rockwell, “5 Reasons to Keep Going to Church with Baby Brain”
“Singing with” might require engagement, but it might be encouraging to simply be present. Same with fellowship; it might be encouraging to simply be in a shared space with friends and family or even strangers, but this brings up another question: is it encouraging?
This goes along with the “is it beneficial” question. It’s easy to say that worship services should be encouraging, but are they? I’ve spent most of my life in toxic, religious environments, so the assumption that any church service is inherently encouraging is a big red flag, for me. Even as a minister, I struggle with this week over week. Add to that the fact that I’m quite introverted. Worship services are literally the most draining portions of my week, every week, even if the kids aren’t there.
I also want to note that the author is addressing physical tiredness (“…uplifting to your soul when your body is so tired…”). I’m considering mental/emotional/spiritual fatigue, as well. My experience is that physical fatigue is the least common reason why parents don’t show up for Sunday worship.
Everyone is different. I won’t assume that forcing yourself to make it this Sunday is going to help you feel better.
I agree that there’s potential for encouragement through singing, prayer, lessons, and fellowship, but you shouldn’t feel pressured to find those things. Instead, ask yourself if those things are present for you. Would it be helpful? Is it a safe space for you and your kids where you can be encouraged and rejuvenated?
Sometimes, I don’t feel like getting ready and leaving my house, but once I get to the event and get settled in, I’m sometimes glad I went. Do you think that will be your experience if you claw your way out of bed, get yourself and your kids ready, and make your way to “church?” Even as draining as worship is for me, I do sometimes feel better at the end of it. It’s hard to say if it’s the relief that it’s over and I get to “disappear” again or if it’s something to do with the worship itself, but it’s worth considering.
Last time, we asked if it was good for our children. This time, I’m asking if it’s good for you.
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Originally published at http://breakingbreadtheology.com on April 15, 2022.