Help! My children don’t want to do church anymore!

It’s a common problem facing many families and it can come to a head at Christmas. Katharine Hill cautions against making it a battle

It’s the time of year when carols will be piping out across shopping malls and supermarkets, wishing the bustling crowds a season of peace and goodwill. The magazine racks will be stacked high with glossy publications giving detailed instructions on how to prepare for the perfect Christmas. Pull out charts leave Microsoft project management systems in the shade, as they guide hostesses through the tasks necessary to deliver the perfect Christmas Day, including hand made gifts and decorations, and perfectly cooked sprouts to accompany the equally perfectly cooked turkey or vegan alternative.

Minute by minute instructions for Christmas Eve, if followed to the letter, guarantee that by 8pm you can put your feet up, and wake on Christmas morning to delighted faces opening presents and walking happily together through snow-covered fields to church . . .

The only thing missing from this idyllic scene is the down to earth reality of family life. However much preparation and planning we put into Christmas day, there is no escaping the fact that family life is generally not as straightforward as the magazines would suggest. Children squabble and are sick, there can be tensions with the wider family, turkeys can get dry and overcooked, sprouts go grey and soggy . . .

And at the heart of all this activity we are seeking not to forget what, or rather who, the celebrations are about. Going to church together on Christmas Day is a good way to give Jesus at least a look in.

I have many happy memories of Christmases when our children were young – but I have to admit that those memories generally do not include the church service. Despite having been up opening stockings since the early hours, we would still struggle to get to church on time.

As we squeezed in at the back, we would find ourselves behind a row of children sitting perfectly still, with neatly brushed hair, Christmas dresses, clean white socks and colouring books that quietly occupied them during the service.  This was in stark contrast to the activities in our row. We generally survived the first carol and Christmas quiz, but by the time we came to the shepherds coming to the manger, paper aeroplanes had been made from the notice sheets and wrestling matches were taking place under the pew.

I remember one occasion when Mrs J from the row in front  looked round at the splaying arms and legs, and parental threats being made through gritted teeth, and said encouragingly (and as if we hadn’t noticed), “You’ve got your hands full!” I smiled back, but secretly wondered where we had gone wrong? Why could our children not sit still on Christmas Day of all days and give us the feel good factor of having worshipped together in peace and harmony? Isn’t that what keeping Jesus at the centre of Christmas Day is all about?

Fast forward now to the teenage years. Our role as parents has moved from controller to that of consultant. We may plan the running order of the day, but find that our teenagers have other ideas. There are friends to see on Christmas Eve, and a lie in on Christmas morning sounds more appealing to them than joining the rest of the family for church.

There are moments for most parents when our children’s behaviour challenges the state of our own hearts. I can think of several uncomfortable occasions when my reaction to an issue has served to hold a mirror up to my own life. The challenge to attendance at family worship at 9.30 am Christmas morning was one such moment.

In his thought provoking book The Prodigal God, Timothy Keller takes an extended look at the soul of the elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son. He reminds us that Jesus’ teaching consistently attracted the irreligious, whilst offending the Bible-believing, church-attending, religious people of the day.

In the story, the elder brother has fulfilled all the traditional responsibilities, and yet shockingly was still alienated from the father. There is not just one lost son in the parable, there are two.

The father has to go out and invite each of them into the feast of his love.

As a parent, my deepest desire is to pass on our values and our faith to our children. I want them to have a faith of their own, that will be more often caught than taught, and has at its heart not just a list of rules and responsibilities, important as those can be, but the beautiful message of grace hope and salvation.

Whilst I pray that daily, I also know that there are no guarantees.

I hope that our teenagers will want to worship with us on Christmas day this year but, if they don’t want to, I want to guard against having the soul of the elder brother. I want to be able to take a step back and ask whether this is a battle worth fighting. If not, I will want to see if we can negotiate together and agree a way forward and explore alternatives, perhaps a midnight service or carol service instead.

I hope I will make time to listen to their point of view and to understand their perspective. I hope too that they will do the same for me. I also hope I will remember the wise advice that it’s sometimes worth losing a battle in order to win the war.

A family day, where our faith inspires our actions, where teenagers get up late, where relationships are worked at and only vital battles fought may be nearer to the Father’s feast than we think.

Happy Christmas!

(The Prodigal God, by Timothy Keller is published by Hodder Faith £7.99)

Meet our advisor
Katharine Hill is Director of Policy, Research and Development at national family charity Care for the Family. She  is married with four children and has co-authored, with her husband, Rules of Engagement -  How to Plan a Successful Wedding and How to Build a Marriage That Lasts,  published by Lion Hudson.