I am choosing religion for my children – they don’t get a say yet

Whether or not to raise your children with religion is a pretty controversial topic. Just google “choosing religion for your children” and you will find a host of articles explaining why choosing religion for children is a bad idea.

In spite of the prevailing opinion out there, I am going to make a bold claim:

The idea that you can defer choosing a religion for your children until they are old enough to choose for themselves is wrong.

As parents we are choosing for our children either way, whether we choose religion or not, we are making the choice for them. We are not putting off that choice, we are choosing something or we are choosing nothing for them. It is like saying I am not going to choose literacy for my children, they can decide to be readers on their own when they are older, if they want to. You aren’t delaying the choice, you are depriving them of a real opportunity to read.

And while, I get that every family and every child is unique, and that applying a universal rule is impossible… I am convinced that choosing religion for your children can be and is a very good thing.

Strangers in a Foreign Land

I do a lot of baptisms for families with babies or young children. And most of the baptisms I do are for families who have only the most nominal or tenuous connection to the church. Grandma has said that the new baby in the family needs to be baptized to protect him or her from hell.

And what usually results is that some sheepish and tentative new mother or father phones or emails the church, wondering about baptism for their new beloved child.

“I was baptized and confirmed at this church,” they say. “We are thinking of coming back.”

(I don’t know about you, but the idea of introducing a significant lifestyle change, like regular church attendance, shortly after having a baby is crazy-talk in my books).

So I set up a meeting to talk about what baptism means and we plan to have the baptism on a Sunday morning. I try to go into good depth about the meanings and symbols of baptism; and about what the church believes that it means and what we believe that God is doing in baptism. But no amount of casual, yet informative, conversation can prepare a family for standing in front of a congregation of regular church attenders with this weird guy in a dress praying prayers, asking questions and pouring water on the baby’s head.

I almost always feel bad for families that come for baptism, and the obvious awkward self-conciousness that they are experiencing while standing in front of a group of mostly strangers.

It takes years to live into and feel comfortable with the liturgy and ritual of the church. So for those for whom church is not really a part of their daily lives, parachuting in for a baptism can be a strange and alien experience. I imagine it to be something like if I were to be parachuted in as a contestant in a Miss Universe pageant. I only know the vaguest things about the pageant world from the movie Miss Congeniality… it is an understatement to say it would be super awkward!

I don’t question the motivations of those who come for baptism and I will baptize anyone who asks, but I do wonder why people subject themselves to a ritual and experience they have no connection to and little desire to pursue in any meaningful way.

Choosing Religion vs. Choosing Faith

My parents chose religion for me. Sunday morning worship was a weekly event, in addition to playing music, youth group, confirmation, bible studies, fellowship events throughout the week. Church was a big part of the life of our family, and it was clear that as children we didn’t have a choice about participating.

Sure there were some annoying parts, like missing all the medal games of weekend sports tournaments because they would be scheduled during Sunday morning worship. Or knowing that Saturday night was essentially like a school night because I had somewhere to be in the morning.

But looking back, there was nothing else in my world that gave me the experiences that church did. There was no other intergenerational community full of adults (not related to me) who knew my name, asked about my life, and just cared about me. There was no other place where the deep questions of meaning – life and death – could be talked about without hushed, anxious voices. There was no other place where I was exposed to the rituals, symbols, metaphors, music and history that comprise so much of our western world.

As I grew up going to church, what became clear to me is the more religion I was exposed to, the less my parents were making the choice for me. Faith was my choice and my experience at church allowed me to be informed about what I was getting into.

  • A caveat: I am aware that not every church or faith community is a safe and healthy place. In fact many are centred around fear, judgement and shame. Many do not encourage questions and conversation, nor are places that allow members to search for deeper meaning. Sometimes churches can be places of abuse. These churches are not religious experiences that I would advocate for, and I am sorry for those for whom this is their experience of religion.

Liturgy and ritual in our DNA

Recently, our 3-month-old daughter was baptized. Standing on the other side of the font, so to speak, as a parent rather than the pastor, I was struck by the experience. I have presided at more baptisms than I can remember, but only been a parent for two.

fullsizeoutput_434eWhile the Bishop (presiding at the baptism), godparents, my wife and I stood around the font, our two-year-old son stepped up and placed his water cup and container of goldfish on the font. He must have thought it was a natural spot to stash his stuff. And then he proceeded to do laps around the font as the Bishop led us through the liturgy for baptism. None of us were worried or anxious, all 5 of the adults standing there were seminary trained (who else do pastors ask to be godparents but friends from seminary!). We even laughed when our son started dipping his hands in the font in order to bring some water to his own head (re-baptizing himself?).

I was struck at how comfortable my son was in the moment. He wasn’t in a strange place. The font and altar rail and nearby pews were not foreign pieces of furniture. Being in worship with us and in front of the congregation was not unusual.

My son was at home.

I wasn’t just struck by his comfort, I was moved by it. I could see that even at the age of 2, he was beginning to be shaped and formed by the experience of worship, by the experience of religion and community. Liturgy and ritual is being imprinted on his DNA, his daily life is connected to the practice of re-telling the story of Jesus.

When it comes time for him to chose faith for himself, I know that he will know intimately what he is choosing. He will know what practicing religion feels like, he will know what it means to be a loved member of a community. He will have a sense of what it might feel like and be like to practice other religions.

My wife and I are choosing religion for our children, because we are choosing to give them an experience that will allow them to choose faith later on in life. We are choosing religion, because there are few, if any, other places in our lives where we can be a part of diverse, intergenerational communities that help us make sense of and bring meaning to our lives. And choosing “not to choose religion” for our children, would actually be almost certainly be choosing “nothing” for them.


Are you choosing religion for your kids? If so, why? If not, why not?Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

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22 thoughts on “I am choosing religion for my children – they don’t get a say yet”

  1. An excellent piece. My niece’s two kids were never baptized and have never been in a church even though she is the daughter of a Lutheran pastor and a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of St. Olaf College, a Lutheran institution. Her husband declares himself to be “secular.” Our family think they have missed out on something that is vitally important, a relationship with Jesus Christ and the Church. Will they choose faith later in life? I am skeptical.

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  2. My children attend worship, sing in the choir, play handbells, tambourine and djembe. They know the names and stories of those in our faith communities, and those people know my children’s stories. Together, in the name of Christ, they all make differences in the world. I know of no better community in which to raise children than a community centered in faith. Amen, Erik!

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  3. As you were describing parents with no active church participation requesting baptism for their child, I was thinking about my own experience with similar families. Would it be worthwhile/possible/beneficial to invite them to attend services for a few weeks or months to “get comfortable” and to see what they’re getting their kid into? Of course there’s the danger of making it a requirement before you’re allowed to be baptized, and in reality it won’t make a difference for most families, but is it possible some families are looking for an opportunity to connect to God and his Church, and they’re testing the waters with baptism (pun totally intended).

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      1. I totally can empathize (thanks for the honesty). It seems funny/disturbing to me that the grandparents are more concerned about crossing the proverbial t’s and dotting the i’s than possibly developing a meaningful relationship with God in the context of a vibrant church community for their kids and grandkids.

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        1. I suspect that pushing for baptism is a way thy many parents try to broach the church and faith question, they just don’t end up doing it very well. It is not their fault, the church probably needs to equip our active members better in how to bring their own families into greater engagement with church.

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          1. Here, here. Great perspective. I know there’s a need for it in my congregation. I really respect how easily you spoke so well of your people and always put the best construction on them. I don’t think I was aiming to be that charitable. Luther’s Explanation to the Eighth Commandant is ringing in my ears. I needed that. Thanks.

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  4. I truly do thank my Mom for giving me Jesus. She gave me what was given to her from her parents. And I have made the decision that Christ is right for our children. They will both be grown men one day who step out into the world in the knowledge and love of Christ. Will they keep it when they are able to make decisions apart from mom and dad, that is my prayer, but it will be their choice. I’ve given them Someone no one can take away. Not even by choice.

    Great read, thought engaging. Have a great day.

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  5. Thanks for this Erik (I have re-blogged through my own site) – I wish I had written it! I’m with you; neither I nor my sessions are in the habit of refusing Baptism – even when the candidates seem to have no idea what they’re getting into – and it is my habit to suggest that they come and see “if this is the place that they wish to make these outrageous promises” – because the promises we make in our liturgy are outrageous…if we mean to keep them in isolation. When these promises are made as an extension of the habit of curiosity in/about/around faith, they make more sense to everyone. Keep up the good work, sir.

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  6. Love this, and love the distinction between faith and religion you draw here. I’m still working out my theology of baptism (Is it confessional by the believer or a commitment by the family? Both? What is the infusion of Grace? Anyways) but this piece gives me some practical language to push back on “coercing” children or, worse, “brainwashing” them to believe or think a certain way.

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  7. Thanks Eric. Well said.

    One thought which came to mind as I read. It strikes me that most of the folks with whom I’ve had the “I’ll let my kids make their own choice later” conversation, are actually being very deliberate in their choice/actions. They know very well and very clearly that they are “choosing nothing” for their children, precisely because that his the choice they want their children to make. They have “chosen nothing” for themselves, and quite frankly do not want their vacuum challenged.

    My main challenge here is that I still haven’t figured out a way to say this to them in a caring, non-dismissive way. Any leads there would be greatly appreciated!

    Peace….

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    1. I hear you on that. I have come across a few families who are basically being polite by saying the door is open later for their child to choose.

      My habit has been to encourage honesty and integrity. If you are choosing nothing do it purposefully. But then don’t say that your kids will have an openness to religion later, they are bring enculturated in nothing and will be adherents to nothing.

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