Keeping Kids in Church

“Keeping Kids in Church”
By Glenn R. Embree

I met a family in the foyer of our church one morning after worship service. They had just moved to our city and had expressed interest in attending our church regularly. The parents were pleasant and eager to introduce me to their son Danny who was about to enter junior high school. Over the next couple of months Danny participated in every youth event that we had to offer: summer camp, fall youth retreat, Friday youth nights, and even our home Bible studies. He seemed to enjoy the youth group and fit in well with his peers. A few months later, I received a phone call from his mother. Danny’s interest in church activities had declined dramatically, and every Sunday brought a major confrontation over his church attendance.

I recall another incident where a young girl was brought into my office by her parents. It was one of the most difficult counseling sessions I can remember. Her interest in church had hit an all-time low, so our conversation was awkward and strained.

Through the years I’ve received phone calls from parents who did not attend our church or, for that matter, any church. They call out of concern for a teenage son or daughter who is running with the wrong crowd, missing curfew, failing at school. A few years ago, a mother called and told me about the difficulty she was having controlling her son. Then she put him on the phone to “talk with the priest.” Needless to say, it was a one-sided conversation.

Situations like these are sadly common among parents of teenagers who are no longer interested in church. Some of the stories are tragic. Others may be less serious, but they still upset the family equilibrium. Although their stories and circumstances may vary, the question they pose is always the same: “How do 1 keep my kids in church?”


When discussing kids and church, some parents quote Proverbs 22:6: “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it,” and take a hands-off approach. Others believe
when children challenge their family’s Christian standards and various aspects of church life, “it’s just a stage that all kids go through,” and suggest parents allow it to run its course. Patience and time may be the answer in some cases, but I’ve seen the “stage” extend beyond high school years into adulthood, and many end up raising their own children outside of church.

The Bible talks about the training of children in relation to their spiritual development. In Hebrew society childhood lasted until adulthood. In contemporary Western culture, we’ve modified the transition from childhood to adulthood by inserting an indeterminate period of time called adolescence. So when can we consider the spiritual training of our children complete?

The training of a child is generally understood to continue until the individual is ready to take on the responsibilities of adult life. During the adolescent or teenage period, parents should not take a hands-off approach to spiritual matters. Nowhere in Scripture are parents encouraged to stand back and observe from a distance. That would only produce disastrous, long-term results. Imagine raising your family on a twenty-six-foot boat. Undoubtedly, you would keep your children right beside you on deck. But, as your children reached their teen years and started pressing for ‘ their own space,” you would probably let them sit in a small dinghy securely attached to the back of the boat. What would you do, however, if, half way across the Pacific, they started nagging you for more freedom? Would you cut them adrift, saying, ‘-It’s okay. They’re heading in the right direction”? Of course not. In the same way, the spiritual line needs to remain attached.


Many churches today have youth groups with youth pastors, junior high pastors, and even a youth bus or two. They provide activities and outings for every age group, so how could a child lose interest in church? It’s hard to understand, but it happens regularly in every denomination and in every size church. So who is responsible for ensuring kids don’t lose interest? During my first few years of youth ministry, I encountered many parents who thought I was responsible. They viewed me as part babysitter, part police officer. They believed a fun and exciting youth program would make their kids want to attend
church, and, if their kids didn’t want to come to youth activities, it meant there was something wrong with my program.

I quickly learned the value of holding a parents’ meeting at least once each year. Parents came with their questions, and together we went through our yearly program. I took time to share the vision I had for the youth group and what I hoped to accomplish in their lives. I always ended the meeting by renewing my commitment to support their ministry in the home and expressing my desire to assist them in any way possible. That way I reminded them where the primary responsibility lay.

The Bible tells us that parents are responsible for the spiritual development of their children. Churches and youth groups, established for corporate worship, training, and teaching, should reinforce and build on what is already happening in the home. Dean Merrill, in his book, The Loving Leader: A Man’s Role at Home, puts it this way:

When we begin to think about our households in the spiritual dimension it’s a different story. There is no one to blame but us. There are no church boards or synods standing in the way of progress. If my home reflects the nature and the love of Christ on ordinary Monday, Tuesday, Saturday, it’s because my wife and I have determined to make it so. If the atmosphere at our household is no different from that of a non-Christian household, I cannot pass the buck to anyone else.

At home we build the foundation for the spiritual lives of our children. It is the place where attitudes toward church, either positive or negative, are formed. Nothing can take the place of parental example for spiritual training in the home.


A few years ago I had lunch with the father of one of our youth group members at his downtown office. His son was extremely busy in school, held a part-time job, and also maintained an active social life, but was starting to make excuses for not going to youth night at church. I expected him to criticize me or my program, but he surprised me. Instead, he said he recognized his son’s spiritual training was his responsibility. He asked if I had any insight into why certain kids become disinterested in spiritual matters. As we talked I shared some of the factors I believe contribute to a child or adolescent not wanting to be involved in the church:

Challenge Authority. One reason kids lose interest in church is because adolescence is a time when many teens challenge the authority of parents, teachers, pastors, and even God. Young people are anxious to grow up and be independent of adult control.

Question Relevancy. Some kids lose interest in church because it no longer seems interesting or relevant. Our children are growing up in a society that competes for their attention through television, movies, and music. As parents and church leaders, we need to offer alternatives, but above all, make them understand their need for Christ and the importance of being part of the body.

Haven’t Personalized their Faith. Many individuals come to Christ either through revival or personal difficulty, whose lives are radically changed. But many children born into the homes of such converts haven’t personally experienced a dramatic conversion and merely follow the ethic of their parents’ faith. Young people who grow up in Christian families have a rich heritage, and there are many opportunities for spiritual training and education in a Christian home. Nevertheless, they may become disinterested in the church if they don’t personalize their faith. It’s been said God has no grandchildren, only daughters and sons. We must teach our kids that they can’t make it to heaven on our relationship with Christ; we must lead them to a relationship of their own.

Double Standard in the Home. A few years ago, while speaking at a summer camp, I talked with a fifteen-year-old girl who had trouble understanding something her mother had done, and it was interfering with her ability to make a decision for Christ. She said she’d been raised according to the Bible, and her mother, a single parent, had faithfully taken her to church. But she cried as she related that while she was at camp, her mother was in Hawaii with her boyfriend. It was difficult to talk to her about the importance of chastity with the lump in my throat.

It’s not enough that we speak the truth to our children; we must live it in front of them. Teens whose parents are not Christians and don’t attend church can successfully serve the Lord; teens whose parents are Christians and who are raised in church have an even greater chance of successfully serving the Lord. But teens whose parents live a double standard will rarely decide to follow Christ.

A friend of mine involved in youth ministry once did an informal study to discover why his youth group was losing so many teenagers. In one year alone they lost thirty percent of the kids. This is what he learned:

Where both parents were faithful and active in church, ninety-one percent of the youth remained in church.

Where only one parent was active and faithful, seventy percent of the youth remained in church.

Where the parents were only reasonably active in church, forty-six percent of the youth remained in church.

Where the parents attended church infrequently, only six percent of the youth remained in church.

That underscores the responsibility we have to our kids.


There is an excellent blueprint for the spiritual development of the family in Deuteronomy 6:4-9:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the door frames of your houses and on your gates.

These verses are known as the Shema and were foundational to the religious education of Hebrew children. They emphasize the importance of obedience, of practicing God’s laws daily. Deuteronomy 6:2 gives the reason God gave these commandments to the people of Israel: “. . . so that you, your children and their children after them may fear the Lord your God as long as you live by keeping all his decrees and commands . . . that you may enjoy life.” By obeying these commands, the Israelites
would live with a constant awareness of God. In fact, these verses established a pattern and direction for the spiritual dimension of Hebrew families that would be passed down from generation to generation.

The instructions were established within the Israelite culture in 1400 B.C., but strong parallels and applications are relevant to the family today. Here are five applications drawn from these verses to help make church life and spiritual matters a positive experience for our children.

Talk about God’s laws when you sit at home. What kind of things do you talk about at home? Football, cars, school work, vacation? There’s nothing wrong with these things, but do you talk about spiritual matters as well? Notice, I didn’t say the church; I said spiritual matters, the things of God. Talk with your children about Jesus Christ, His attributes and characteristics, including His faithfulness. We’re instructed to make spiritual matters a regular part of our family conversation.

Talk about God’s law when you walk along the road. Israelites didn’t have many options when traveling. They could walk or they could ride a donkey. There were no stereos or CD players to entertain them on the journey. Families talked, sang, told stories, and interacted with one another as they traveled. They had time to share the important things of life. In these fast-paced days, we need to make time to talk with our families about things that matter. Riding together in the car can offer quality time. Turn off the stereo and talk.

Talk about God’s laws when you lie down and when you get up. Some say, “It’s how you start and how you finish that’s important. Throughout the day there are many interruptions and distractions that can get us off course. This is also true for young people. At school and when interacting with peers, Christian teens face numerous temptations that challenge their faith, but how they start and finish the day can make a difference. If possible, start the day with family prayer. In the evening, around the dinner table, set aside time for family devotions. Don’t let your family’s spiritual experience consist only of Sunday mornings at church. Make opportunities each day to teach your children about the things of God.

Tie God’s laws as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. The Israelites of Moses’ day wore phylacteries, little boxes that contained portions of Scripture. The idea was to keep the Word of God close to their hearts and minds. One way to make spiritual matters a positive experience for kids is to make sure they have a readable Bible. You can find several Bibles on the market written specifically for young people, which make it readable and understandable. If we demonstrate a love for God’s Word, they will too.

Write God’s law on the door frames of your houses and on your gates. The Bible isn’t telling us to paint our homes with scripture verses. The Israelites attached a mezuzot, a small wooden or metal container that contained the written Word of God on the doorframes of their homes. If you visit Israel today, you’ll still find them in many places. This verse is saying we should have the Word of God around the house, to be conscious of its presence not only in our homes, but also in our lives. When people come into our homes, do they sense something different? Do our neighbors see us I model our faith? Do we witness for Jesus Christ? As we impress the law of God on our children’s hearts, we’ll lay | a strong foundation for church life now and in the future.


We need to make church life a positive experience for our children. Let me offer three practical suggestions to help keep kids in church:

Help your kids be awake and ready for church on Sunday morning. Some parents let their kids stay up late on Saturday night. Then on Sunday morning they struggle to get the kids out of bed. When the family finally gets to church, the children don’t get much out of the experience. (See the story of Eutychus in Acts 20:9.) Is it any wonder why some kids dislike church? Let Friday be stay-up-late-night, with extra television or overnight privileges. Get your kids to bed at a reasonable hour on Saturday so they and, for that matter, you will be rested and alert on Sunday, ready to hear God’s Word. Sundays are too important to be given less than our best. We need families that are awake and refreshed.

Be willing to make sacrifices to keep your kids in church. I’ve heard all sorts of titles given to parents, including taxi driver. I’ve even seen bumper stickers declaring, “Mom’s Taxi.” It calls for sacrifice to keep kids in church, especially if you live any distance from the church. It’s worth the effort to get our kids to church regularly, for service and for youth activities. Patterns are being established that will last a lifetime. Make sure you help set the right ones.

Be faithful to the church and its purpose. While I was growing up, church was always the major focus of our family. I have watched too many kids “visit” our church with their parents and, before I could get to the door to greet them and give them a youth calendar, they were gone. We must center our family on the church and its mission and allow our children to see there is much more to church life than simply attending the Sunday morning worship service.


There are no quick solutions or easy answers to the challenge of keeping kids in church. It takes hard work and time to build a strong, godly foundation in their lives. Home is the primary place for spiritual training, and parents need to take their God-given responsibility seriously. Allow God’s commands to the Israelites to transcend the barriers of time and culture and become part of the
fabric of your family. Love God with all your being, obey His commands, and teach your children to love and obey Him.

A young father who had a drinking problem decided to walk to the local pub instead of having alcohol in the home. One night during a snowstorm he trudged down the street only to hear the sound of crunching footsteps behind him. He turned to see his five-year-old son trying to put his little c boots in the footprints left by his father. Slightly amused, the father asked his son what he was doing. The young boy replied, “I’m trying to follow in your footsteps.” Somberly the father picked up his son and headed for home.

My prayer is that, as Christian parents, we will rise to the challenge and model a consistent, godly life.

The Reverend Glenn R. Embree, A frequent speaker at summer camps and youth retreats, is associate pastor at Broadway Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He worked for twelve years in the youth ministry at Broadway, his home church, after graduating from college. He has been active in Summer A.l.M. outreach programs serving youth in the province of British Columbia. He and his wife Cheryl have two children, Cynthia and Gregg.