Perhaps a Little Clue Into Lower Church Attendance

The beginning of this post will seem not at all about church life, but bear with me. I’ll get there.

My fifteen-year-old son goes to summer camp for seven weeks, and has done so for the last four or five years. When I tell friends and acquaintances, at the gym or around town, that my son is away at camp, and for such a long time, I very often hear the comment, “Well, I like having my kids home for the summer.”

As if I don’t?

I don’t send my son to camp to get him out of my hair. I send my son to camp because that’s what he wants.

We are a very fortunate family; we spend our summers on a lovely lake in Central Maine. When my son was very young, unbeknownst to me, John became enamored of camp life, by paying attention to the boys camp not far from our lake house. During the day, the boys from the camp can be seen sailing, canoeing and kayaking. At night, we can hear them chanting, joining together in one loud voice across the waters of Great Pond.

One day when my son was quite young, he raised his arm and pointed at the boys’ camp and asked, “When will I go there?” My first instinct was to say, “Never.” We lived on a Maine lake, why would I send him away to camp? But, John kept asking. When he turned nine, I sent him for a week at church camp and for a week at a 4-H camp. It wasn’t enough; not nearly enough.

When he was ten, I remember picking him up from a week of camp and in my conversation with him about his camp experience, I had a revelation. I was limiting his camp experience because of my needs. I wasn’t paying any attention to his needs.

I started investigating camps, and finally chose to send him to a wonderful camp in the western part of the state, Birch Rock Camp (the camp near our lake house seemed just too close). It’s now hard to imagine John’s life, or our family’s life, without Birch Rock. It has become an essential element in our lives, a place where John is not only kept busy in the summer, but where he’s also learning a lot about himself, in a supportive community of boys and men.

Sure, I’d love to have John home in the summer, but I’ve learned to put aside my own needs and to focus on his needs.

So, this has got me thinking. As I listen to my friends and acquaintances, especially in their responses to John being away for so long, I can’t help but notice how completely focused they are on their own needs, instead of the needs of their children.

I’m thinking about a variety of situations, and though my “sample” is small (this is not a well-populated part of the world), I cannot help but notice the needs of parents coming before needs of children. And, I wonder if this has something to do with what’s happening with church, and the reduced attendance and association with church community. It’s not about what the kids need. It’s about what the parents need and want.

And church just doesn’t fit. Church doesn’t fit in terms of timing and scheduling. But, perhaps even more important, church doesn’t fit in terms of what parents are hoping for and looking for—especially well-educated, intact, ambitious families. These good, conscientious parents are seeking certain experiences, for themselves as well as their children. It’s not just that the children like to be involved in sports, for instance, it’s also that parents like the glory that their children experience, as well as enjoying a sort of status and the sense of community on the sidelines.

When I mention that John goes to camp for so long, I hardly ever hear a comment about concerns about the expense, or possible homesickness. It’s almost always about what the parents want and need. And, I think that’s a little clue regarding the reduced association of these families with church, at least in this part of the world. Until the church becomes a place of glory and status—and that goes against everything we stand for—it may be that those good families will continue to stay away.

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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