Giving Up on Church for my Children
David R. Weiss – March 8, 2023
Perhaps every decision has multiple forces, tiny and large, stretched out behind it. This one surely does. But the integrating force, the summoning surge of decision and voice … is my children. Whatever else I add in future posts, this is where I begin. I am giving up on church for my children.
The words are overfull. They hold sorrow and love, uncertainty and resolve, surrender and faith. They are layered as well. Let me tell you the first layer. I count six children in the blended family Margaret and I share—all of them busy adulting for themselves these days. But two I have been father to since their birth. This first layer is about them.
I grew up attending church. I chose to continue doing so while away at college. After that I went on to seminary and later graduate school in theology. Alongside my academic studies, eventually alongside my teaching of theology and up to the present, I’ve maintained an active if often complicated relationship with the church. So, it was a forgone conclusion that I would raise my children in the church. Indeed, “forgone conclusion” is too passive, though; it was my chosen joy.
When Ben was three and four years old, we played church at home (in addition to attending it weekly). I have a videotape of him in church on Palm Sunday morning, perhaps age five. The pastor invites the congregation to shout, “Hosanna!” You can hear crickets, except for Ben who shouts “HOSANNA!” as though he’s been waiting for this cue all his life. Meanwhile, in graduate school, when I’d attend the American Academy of Religion annual meeting, I perused the book tables as fervently for quality children’s books for Ben as for the latest intriguing academic titles for me.
Once, when he was six or seven, we raised snails in a glass jar. One day, out of the seeming blue, Ben said, “You know, Dad, snails are kind of like God.” Unsure of his meaning, I asked, “Do you mean because they carry their home wherever they go?” “No, Dad, because they have both boy and girl parts!” Sure enough, a few days earlier, after discovering a cache of snail eggs through the glass, we’d read in a library book that snails are hermaphrodites: each snail has a set of both male and female parts. I’d also no doubt shared with him my conviction that God was neither simply male nor female, but somehow included both. An early eco-theologian, that one!
A few months shy of his fourteenth birthday Ben proudly joined me and thirty-plus Luther College students in driving two-and-a-half hours to be in solidarity with the church that was installing Anita Hill as their pastor. They were being picketed by Fred Phelps and his “God hates fags” troupe of protesters. Ben carried the large poster one of the students had made into church that day, a teenage apostle bearing gritty good news to others.
Susanna was born almost nine years after Ben. She also was in church weekly from her birth, at one point sparking a reflection on “Liturgy and Little Ones,” a reverent, insightful, and appreciative lament about having an active curious child in church. Her exuberance in saying our table prayer (at just twenty-one months) prompted an Advent reflection, “Table Grace at the Manger.” On regular long car rides we frequently improvised “angel stories,” in which we played angels helping God create various aspects of the world. One ride, it was fruits; another, holidays; another, seasons; and so forth. Participatory cosmology. My children’s book, When God was a Little Girl, was inspired by those years of telling tales together in the car.
By the time Susanna was school age, she lived most of the time with her mother, whose connection to church was much less than mine. I volunteered to teach Sunday School over Susanna’s 3rd grade to 6th grade years so I could maximize my otherwise minimal chances to foster her spiritual growth—and just as much to facilitate her making some friendships while with me. At my church, she was excited to acolyte, appear in the Christmas pageant, and participate in the puppet ministry (she was especially pleased with her puppet, which only incidentally was in a wheelchair—but wore glasses, on account of which Susanna said, “she looks like me!”). Representation matters.
Several summers she even looked forward to participating in Vacation Bible School and a summer musical at another local church. And when Susanna was twelve, she was an eager tag-along with St. Kate’s college students to volunteer packing up home-delivered meals at Open Arms: in her own way, a pre-teen apostle bearing good news to others.
As I said, it was my … chosen joy … to raise my children in the church. After all, my life actually aligned with my faith. No claim to perfection, just the honest testament that church involvement and religious conviction was never a Sunday-only “armchair” affair for me. My faith, however imperfectly, has always and passionately bled over from church pew to daily life. If anyone might’ve hoped church would pass from one generation to the next, I might’ve hoped for this. But it was not to be.
Ben’s defiance appeared several years before high school. No mere teenage antipathy to sitting through a “dull” service, he voiced principled disbelief, a precocious attraction to a scientific worldview that had no use for a traditionally imagined supernatural deity. Never mind that I had no use for that deity either. Ben didn’t so much reject the core convictions of my faith as he stalwartly rejected the supernatural, non-scientific beliefs of mainstream Christianity, which he assumed was the whole of it. (He might have credited me as an exception to the rule, but his teenage mind hadn’t yet much need for that level of nuance.)
In truth, every week in church I played mental games of dodgeball and whack-a-mole with a liturgy fraught with beliefs and assumptions I no longer held. My own interior “counter-liturgy” played out alongside the public worship going on around me. That worked for me … although some Sundays it exhausted or even angered me. But Ben saw no reason at all to join me in that game. It was a waste of energy he preferred to invest elsewhere. Sometime before he started high school (and on the far side of multiple Sunday morning arguments) his church attendance was reserved for special occasions, usually family events.
I suspect there was another source of Ben’s disenchantment with church. For six or seven years before he openly rejected church, he was an innocent witness in an increasingly dysfunctional and eventually violent marriage (between me and his stepmother). In an irony likely driven by the simple rhythm of our week, the most volatile arguments almost always occurred on weekends, often on Sunday afternoons. As a child who was relentlessly observant and logical, it wouldn’t be difficult for Ben to decide that if church couldn’t keep Dad safe, it didn’t offer anything of value to him either.
In any case, at thirty-six now, he’s spent more than half his life outside the church. Initially he was an evangelical atheist (he delighted in poking holes in his classmates’ more traditional beliefs), and for a while in college he was a casual Buddhist. Today I’d describe him as a semi-principled humanist. Not that he’s partially unprincipled! I mean he lives by choice outside of any religious tradition (hence “humanist”), but he moves through life with a set of deeply held core principles: honesty, integrity, respect, fairness, justice, compassion (hence “principled”).
My sense is that these principles that define his character are largely drawn from the values he absorbed in childhood, now divorced from any supernatural or religious linkage, but embraced as part of his personal identity. I only add “semi-” because, absent any larger tradition, I don’t think Ben has explicitly mapped out an entire moral philosophy of his own (let’s be honest, very few of us have!). But he is more than a fine young man.
Susanna’s path away from church was less by defiance than by drift. She was quite invested in church for years after her older brother had vocally rejected it. I remember her telling me once, “Dad, Ben says he doesn’t believe in God.” I replied, “That’s fine, because God believes in Ben, and that’s what really matters.” And that satisfied her. For a while anyways.
I think several factors contributed to Susanna’s drift. Her mom sort of drifted away from church at some point, which meant that Susanna was only going to church on the handful of weekends she was with me. As she reached adolescence it became both more important (developmentally) and much more difficult (in reality) to sustain friendships with girls at my church because she was there so seldom. From 7th grade through high school, Susanna willingly made cameo appearances in church when she was with us, but her involvement was limited to sitting through the service and greeting people afterwards.
During high school she became enamored with science, ultimately settling on chemistry as her field of choice—she’s now nearing the completion of a Ph.D. in chemistry. I’ve always loved science myself—albeit at a level many notches below her understanding. So, I can hardly blame her for coming to choose science as the primary worldview in her life. She’s fashioned a character in which curiosity and wonder, patience and discipline, observation and insight—all scientific virtues—sit comfortably alongside kindness, justice, and compassion.
While she hasn’t explicitly rejected the notion of God, the science lab—and her fellow researchers, both those she knows personally and those who comprise “the academy”—have become the arena of her meaning-making. What semblance of God is left to her is not much more than a wisp of possibility. At twenty-seven, Susanna is barely a decade gone from church. And life is long, and things change. But I find no reason to think she will ever call church home again.
For both of my children, then, it’s time for me to give up on church being a part of their lives. Thus far, the first layer.
But there is a second layer, too.
It’s equally clear that the church isn’t chasing after my children. It would, of course, welcome them back if they came. But by and large the church has not figured out how to hold onto kids who prize science and diversity-inclusion, and who won’t indulge a tradition that spends as much energy side-stepping as facing head-on a host of this-worldly challenges. It’s probably more accurate to say that the church hasn’t (yet?) mustered the resolve to fully embrace and thoughtfully address the things that would make it a compelling community for kids like mine.
I’m not saying there are no churches that do this. But as a whole, churches have come late to this work. And there remain wide (and loud) swaths of Christianity that continue to avoid or even dismiss these challenges. And between the tardiness of the first and the right-wing betrayal of the gospel by the second, my kids belong to a generation of bright, thoughtful, critically minded, and justice-oriented young adults for whom the church never quite managed to be the church.
As a teaching theologian I wanted for it to be otherwise. From essays and hymns, college classes and chancel dramas, sermons and lectures, I worked hard to help fashion a church that would welcome everyone … not least my own children. And yet, despite having done some very good work—both me, personally, and progressive churches, institutionally—over against the individual circumstances of my children’s lives, it has been too little and too late for them.
Thus, on this count, too, it is time for me to give up on church for my children. The church is not going to catch them as they walk away.
I have written all the words above with some real measure of sorrow—but with no fear for my children’s salvation. Even as I have found church a (mostly) life-giving community for me, I set aside any notion of hell years before Ben was born. Thus, amid my genuine “familial” sadness that many generations of faithful church-going will stop with them, I have never once worried about the fate of their souls after they die. It’s what’s coming their way before they die that scares me.
Which, finally, brings me to the third layer. This one is the hardest of all for me to voice. Would you believe I have a blank Word document on my laptop … with this same title, “Giving Up on Church for my Children,” dating from September 10, 2015?! (I also found some scribbles on notebook paper, dated 9/7/15 that begin to outline the first two thirds of this essay, though never typed up. But mostly that Word document is blank because the words that come next have been caught in my throat for seven-and-a-half years now. Today the words will come.
I am giving up on church … for my children. With sorrow and love, uncertainty and resolve, surrender and faith. I’m not simply giving up the hope that my children will choose church. I’m not simply giving up the hope that church will somehow go after my children. No, more than this—
I. Am. Leaving. Church. To. Go. After. My. Children. Myself.
I am giving up on church … for the sake of my children.
Over the next twenty to thirty years, likely the remaining years of my life, this world … my world … our world … their world will come apart at the seams. I have spent the better part of the past decade attempting to awaken the church to the socio-ecological tumult that is coming our way. Attempting to prompt a faith community response that is equal to the threat we face. Leveraging all the language and metaphor, doctrine and practice of my Christian tradition to sound an alarm and inspire action.
Not only has that language failed to appreciatively move the church, it is, of course, language that fails, by my very choice of fidelity to the church, to reach my children. So, this is how alarmed I am by the still mostly unseen unraveling that is already happening moment by moment in our midst: I will forsake my faith home to go find language that can reach my children.
I still “love” Jesus. (I put the word in quotes only because my relationship to this man whose life continues to haunt and hallow mine is far more complicated than any so loaded word can say.) I still believe faith communities WILL play a crucial role in shaping the sufficiency—or the insufficiency—of our response to the web of inter-related crises for which the climate crisis is merely shorthand. There IS really important work to be done in faith communities.
But it is no longer mine to do. Regardless of whether faith communities rise to this challenge, my children aren’t there. And it is time—past time, if you ask me (hell, I’ve been perched on this precipice at least since 2015!)—for me to find the language that can help prepare, ground, and safeguard their humanity in the years ahead.
I have frequently said that Christianity has no monopoly on insight into how to foster our best humanity or how to respond to the crises we face. Whenever I do so, I always explain that I choose to work in the Christian tradition because it is the language in which I am most conversant. All true. But if the language I know best does not reach those I love most dearly, how can I not set off in search of other words?
Altogether, of the six children I count in our family (I became father to the other four when they were already in their teens), five live outside the church. Of the nine grandchildren that Margaret and I share, eight are growing up with no active connection to the church. I suspect all of my children, as well as the older of my grandchildren, live with the gnawing worry that tomorrow holds far more foreboding than the future they imagined in their earlier years.
As for me, I expect the future—not some distant future, but their future—that is, in the lifetime of my children and grandchildren—to be tumultuous, even apocalyptic in the unraveling of our planet’s foundational life systems and the consequent unraveling of the socio-political structures of our human lives. Nothing I do at this point can prevent that. (There are surely things I—most especially WE, as communities and governments—can do to mitigate catastrophe. But not to prevent it. I’ve written that post before and will write it again. But not today.)
Then what can I do? I can search, within and beyond myself, for the words and images outside the Christian tradition that can perhaps not only awaken my own children, but might also strengthen them so that their very humanity has a fighting chance to endure … in an era when that may well leave what we quaintly call “civilization” in ruins.
Concretely, it means pulling back from placing my primary creative energy in—or seeking my primary faith sustenance from—a Christian congregation. It means giving up church. As noted at the very start, no choice like this is isolated from other influences, and I’ll address some of the other “tipping points” behind this choice in the future, but the seeking the welfare of my children is paramount.
Because I continue to believe that some form of chosen community, bound together by shared moral convictions, will be essential in a fraying world, I will choose to sojourn with the Unitarian Universalist tradition. Whether my kids ever choose to affiliate with this tradition is up to them, of course—but they could, without needing to embrace any of the Christian mythology or theology that failed to hold their hearts or minds. Unitarian Universalist fellowships include explicit atheists, avowed agnostics, and a range of theists. What binds them together is a worldview that prizes science and the intellect alongside an ethic grounded in humility, justice, and care.
By continuing my work to fashion a deeply moral, deeply human response to socio-ecological crises we face in the context of such a community, I make three fundamental choices. I remain in community myself. I hone my choice of (nonChristian) language and metaphor such that it can (hopefully!) speak to my children. And I choose a community of conviction that might at some point appeal to them.
I can’t guarantee that, of course. But I can pretty much guarantee that the only hope for preserving human decency in the years ahead will be found among those who choose to join themselves to communities of common cause centered on an ecological and humanist ethic of humility, justice, and care. Such communities might come in a variety of religious faiths, including Christian faith. However, I am choosing now, from this day forward, to join myself to a nonChristian community that makes it more possible for me to forge a common language with my children. All of them.
While writing this essay, Walter Wangerin’s luminous short story Branta and the Golden Stone came suddenly to mind. Among the holiest tales I’ve known, I’ll not divulge the plot, in case you’re able to read it for yourself, but the quote at the close of this essay comes from that tale.
I have spent all my life as a Christian, all my adult years as a Christian theologian. I have held this faith dearly. The words of my confirmation verse (Romans 1:16)—“For I am not ashamed of the gospel: it is the power of God for healing and wholeness to everyone who has faith”—have fairly reverberated in my life. But today I am making a different choice.
Today I am giving up on church … for my children. I am setting aside the word Christian (and all the words in its theological orbit) to find new words that can speak to those I love outside the church. No longer setting Christian at the core of my identity, I am choosing, perhaps more fully than ever before, to be simply “loving father” for my children. In the urgency of this moment, it is not possible for me to be both.
“And this was the truth of the Golden Stone, the length of love and the fullness of sacrifice: that whatever a person chose to become, they would stay that way forever.”
Now we discover what comes next.
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David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community SupportedTheology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.
I wish you well on your journey. More and more I am seeing that being faithful to the gospel means living outside the church.
Thank you for your thoughts.
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David, I read this and the follow up to this writing. The part that I do get is your stepping away from the Christian Church. The part I don’t see is your Christian faith which to me are separate items. I understand a person not having a Church experience that is acceptable to them for a variety of reasons, but Christian faith to me is much deeper than my relationship to any particular church. My Christian faith is my personal relationship with Jesus Christ and acceptance of Him as Lord and Savior. Stepping away from a/the church is a much different thing than stepping away from my faith. As such I am no different of a person apart from a Church. I am a completely different person apart from my faith.