Staying Home From Church: Setting an Example
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 article’s first point: what we do as parents sends a message to our children. Our choices set an example that, for better or worse, shapes and influences our children’s lives.
You’re Not Going Just for Yourself
“…you no longer go to church for yourself alone. You also go for your children.”
Susan Rockwell, “5 Reasons to Keep Going to Church with Baby Brain”
The author says that staying home teaches our kids “that church is not a priority” and “that God’s people aren’t worth the effort.” (Notice that “church,” there, means “worship service,” which is why I’ve been using it that way in this series.) They say that church is supposed to “encourage us, encourage others, and bring us into the presence of God’s people,” as well as develop “a family culture” of weekly attendance. All of that sends the “simple” message that “God is a priority for this family.”
There’s a lot to unpack, there. Let’s start with the language of “church” as “Sunday morning worship service” (or any weekly worship service, for that matter).
What Is Church?
Every self-proclaimed Christian I’ve ever asked has agreed that “church” is more than just Sunday morning worship services, but the language in a lot of conservative, Christian communities suggests otherwise. Instead, people often talk about it like this author: the term “church” is interchangeable with some form of “Sunday worship.” From the language alone, this message is sent: if you’re not at weekly worship, you’re not at church.
This usage of the word “church” is common outside of Christianity, as well. If you ask, “Do you go to church,” most people in the Western world will understand you to mean: do you regularly attend some form of institutionalized, religious service, usually in the category of “worship service.”
To put it another way, the word “church” is usually used as a combination of a location and an event — “at church,” “go to church,” “in church,” “during church.” These phrases imply the event — worship service, Bible study, etc. Yes, sometimes, the word means the building, only — “that’s a church” — but even then, it usually implies that institutional worship takes place there. Otherwise, why would it be called “a church?”
There’s a second implication in how “church” is used in the article, but the author connects that usage back to the above issue of location/event.
The implication: believers (Christians) are the church. That is, Christians are “God’s people.”
The issue: where do we find God’s people? At Sunday worship services. That’s why being too tired to go to “church” leads to the conclusion “that God’s people aren’t worth the effort.” Even though no one has clarified that “God’s people” is synonymous with “the folks who show up to Sunday worship,” Christians often use it that way. “The church” is all those people who go to “church.” Confused, yet?
Remember that statement I mentioned in the intro to this series, the statement about “the faithful few?” This is the same idea; there’s an assumption that the people who physically attend worship services are the church. Also, just like with the word “church,” every Christian I’ve ever asked has said that “God’s people” isn’t defined by “who shows up at church,” but the language in casual conversation doesn’t match. Conservative language often suggests that “church” is Sunday worship and “God’s people” are the ones who show up to “church.”
This is reinforced when the author writes that church “brings us into the presence of God’s people.” The message sent is that you, tired mother with baby brain, are not in the presence of God’s people at other times. The way to get into that presence is by showing up to Sunday worship, because that’s where God’s people are.
I disagree, and I’ll say more about that in a bit.
Is Church Like Other Things?
The author makes a comparison between worship service attendance and “many other things in life.”
“As with many other things in life when you become a parent, you no longer go to church for yourself alone. You also go for your children.”
Susan Rockwell, “5 Reasons to Keep Going to Church with Baby Brain”
It’s important that we don’t take metaphors too far, but this is a good example of how Christians often make superficial connections between Christianity and “other things” and then treat Christianity completely differently than other things.
There are, indeed, many other things that I do for my children, even when I’m tired. Since having kids, I’m pretty much always tired, so we can just simplify that list to “literally anything that I do for my children.” However, the comparison implies that “going to church” is done for our children in a similar way to other things, which makes me wonder: why do we do other things for our children, even when we’re tired?
For me, the simplest answer is that I believe the thing I’m doing is good for them in some way. I often skip meals while I’m working, because 1) I could stand to consume fewer calories, and 2) I’m often too tired to bother preparing food. With my kids being on Spring Break, I will, of course, stop and feed them breakfast/lunch/dinner/etc., because they’re growing children, don’t live sedentary lifestyles, and need the nourishment. For the same reason, I’ll wake up to feed my three year old, cook dinner instead of going to bed early, or get up on my day off to drive my son to school. Their mother’s the same way. She’ll even take them to parks and events to get them out of the house, encourage exercise, and help them try new things, even after she just worked a 12-hour day. In other words, we do things because it benefits them in some way.
The author is applying that same reasoning to Sunday worship services: that attendance is good for your children in some way. It nurtures “a family culture that will, hopefully, continue for our children as they grow older” and sends the message that “God is a priority for this family.” The implication is that those things are good, but there’s another implication.
When the author writes, “What message am I giving them if I stay home? That church is not a priority,” we see the implication of “God = church” come up again. Don’t go to church: church isn’t a priority. Do go to church: God is a priority. Implication: God is at church; the priority of God in your life directly correlates with the priority of “church” in your life.
I’ve argued before that such dichotomies can’t necessarily be inferred, but the broader context of conservative Christianity and conservative, Christian language suggests to me that this isn’t just a possibility but a likelihood. I already discussed some of the problems with equating “church” and God or “church” and faithfulness. I don’t think we can take even a correlation for granted.
Many Christians seem to live their lives as though “church” is inherently beneficial by virtue of being “church,” but is that really true? What is it about Sunday worship services that actually benefits our children or our families? Is the developed family culture just a weekly habit of going to worship for the sake of going to worship? Are we teaching our children that “church” = God and godliness? Is it a family culture where attendance = faithfulness?
In other words, we have to answer the question of what “church” actually does for our child before we can realistically say that “church” is good for our children, and we should decide if and how Sunday worship services are good for our children before we say that we do it for them the way we do many other things.
You’re Part of the Church, Too
“Going to church does not make me, or my child, a Christian. Going to church does, however, encourage us, encourage others, and bring us into the presence of God’s people. This is priceless.”
Susan Rockwell, “5 Reasons to Keep Going to Church with Baby Brain”
As I’ve said, most Christians will probably tell you, if asked directly, that going to “church” isn’t the be all, end all of being a Christian. The body of Christ is more than just the people who show up on Sundays. Common language, though, suggests otherwise.
The language of “going to church = being in the presence of God’s people” suggests that we’re not part of the group called “God’s people.” We have to go somewhere in order to enter into their presence. The reason for this has already been stated: the faithful few are those who attend. Your status as “in” is fluid; if you don’t show up, you’re not in. You have to be present to be accounted for. It’s a subtle way of pressuring people to attend by using exclusionary language.
This makes me very uneasy. It resonates with other manipulative language and practices I’ve seen in conservative, Christian circles. You are part of the Church. Therefore, you are God’s people. You don’t need to show up someplace to be counted, and you don’t need weekly attendance to be “the faithful few.”
I agree with the author: to be encouraged by, encouraging to, and in the presence of God’s people is priceless. But, a congregation that makes you feel less than that because of your physical absence from a weekly service is failing to do the first part: encourage “us.” You’re us, and Sunday worship should be encouraging to you, too. Coercion is not encouragement.
The Message of Self-Care
In this point of the article, “God is a priority” is presented as the ultimate message. That is, we should teach our children that God is a priority in our lives, but what does it mean for God to be a priority? My experience is that many Christians assume making God a priority means God is more important than absolutely everything else, but Christians often take that to mean “even to my own detriment.”
A self-neglecting theology is often rationalized by the claim that “God knows best,” so we just need to trust “the system.” Christians will bend over backwards to try to meet the traditions and expectations set before them by religious leaders and orthodoxy while suffering the consequences of self-neglect. They reason that any suffering they’re experiencing must somehow be a lack of faithfulness or evidence of selfishness or wrong thinking on their part. To question the system or the status quo is to question God’s plan.
Is that consistent with your view of God and what God reveals through Jesus? For me, the answer is no. I was raised in traditions that engrained those ideas in me, but the irony is that, in Jesus, I find a different revelation of God. I find a message of freedom, love, grace, and compassion. I find a God who is anti-shame and actively desires to set me free from toxic expectations and an oppressive status quo. I find a Spirit who encourages my self-care.
The article claims that choosing to stay home from Sunday worship services when we’re exhausted from caring for our young children sends one message: God isn’t a priority. I believe it can send another: self-care can also honor God. And another message: God is present with us even outside of Sunday services. And another message: God’s love isn’t contingent on our perfect attendance. And another message: staying home as a practice of self-care is at least as good a reason to miss “church” as a leisurely vacation or a business trip. And another message: we should have grace when others aren’t present during a service. And another message: worship services were made for man, not man for worship services.
Setting An Example
I agree with the author that what we choose to do when we’re tired does set an example for our children. It influences them, implicitly teaches them, and forms them. It can help develop or deter the formation of habits, and it teaches them family cultures and values, but don’t get roped into a false dichotomy. “Church” attendance is not a “for or against God” situation. You’re not either in or out, faithful or unfaithful.
Ask yourself: what example do you want to set for your children? Does God care about their personal health? Does God care about their emotional well-being? Does God care about balance or moderation? How much does our understanding of mental health matter? Does mental health matter to God, at all? What is self-compassion, and how does it factor into worship? What is the point and importance of worship services to our lives as Christians? Are weekly services interacting with our everyday lives? If so, how? What is the priority of weekly services in relation to other life events, and why?
These and similar questions can inform our decisions and postures toward Sunday worship services and, indeed, all church services. Gone should be the days when people just assume “going to church” necessarily sets a good example for our children. Mental health matters. Self-care matters. Self-compassion and anti-shame matter. What messages are we sending our children, and are they really the ones we want to send?
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Originally published at http://breakingbreadtheology.com on April 14, 2022.