I used to run into this question all the time as a youth minister. Put simply, bribing teenagers with pizza only works until they’re old enough to drive and buy their own pizza. Then parents have to “make them go to church.”
This is one of those topics that opens itself up to dozens of tangents, many of which are worth pursuing but I’ll try to chasten my writing and concentrate on a single question: Why, liberal readers, does the very idea of “making” your kids go to church cause so many of you/us to cringe?
By way of diagnosis let’s note a few dissonant realities. First, none of us cringe at making our children eat healthy foods and avoid gulping sugary sodas before bed. We make our kids brush their teeth, we make them go to school, and we make them visit their grandparents. In short, we make them do all kinds of things that are good for them and rarely do we hesitate. So, why do so many Liberal parents pause when it comes time to make their teenagers go to church? One possible answer is that they do not see church as that important, so it isn’t worth the same effort as making their kids do math exercises or eat vegetables. But for the sake of this post, I won’t address this possibility. Another possibility is that as North American culture has become increasingly secularized, more and more events for kids (soccer, hockey, birthday parties) are scheduled on Sunday mornings, meaning that kids and teenagers have better and better reasons for pressuring mom and dad to skip church. This is not a non-issue, but I also won’t address it here. (Ever wonder why so few Jews play football? Just consider the title…“Friday Night Lights.”)
I think it is more likely that most Liberal parents hesitate to “make” their older kids go to church because there is a fundamental tension at work between three concepts that I’ll symbolize with three words: Liberal, Religion, and “Make.”
It is not the case—at least I’m not addressing these types of cases—that LiberalEvangelical parents do not value religious education and church. Rather, Liberals, by definition, believe in personal choice and are deeply hesitant to force anyone to do or be anything without good reason. (The book that launched this website, Lost in the Middle?, does and excellent job of digging into the history of the term “Liberal” and its earliest roots in Evangelical movements.) But yet, as we’ve already noted, Liberal parents force their kids to do all kinds of things that their kids don’t want to do. So why, for so many Liberals, does religious education not rise to the level of linguistic or scientific or mathematical or physical education? Why will we force our kids to brush their teeth before bed, but never consider having them read their Bibles before turning out the lights? (Believe me, I’m not on my high horse here. I’m describing my own actions as a parent.)