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What Harvard Discovered About Kids and Church

What Harvard Discovered About Kids and Church

Getting kids to church can be a challenge — at any age. When they are infants it’s because it just takes so much work to pack them up. Kids at that age require so much gear! Later as toddlers, separation anxiety can make dropping them off at the Children’s Ministries area challenging to say the least. With elementary-age kids, sports and other activities can easily compete with and crowd out opportunities for kids to participate in church events. Then as pre-teens and teens, a normal and healthy burgeoning sense of autonomy can be challenging to parental suggestions or expectations for church involvement. 

So as a parent — at any stage — the question on any given weekend can understandably be Is it worth the effort and energy to help get my kids to church this week? 

Now I am a pastor so I know you’re probably not going to be shocked if I say, Yes! It’s worth it. (It feels a little like asking a personal trainer if working out is worth it. Of course they are going to say yes.) So I’m going to let someone else answer the question. 

Recently, Christianity Today magazine published a summary of findings about children’s health from researchers at Harvard’s (yes, that Harvard) T. H. Chan School of Public Health (i.e. not pastors). 

The researchers led by Tyler VanderWeele “…examined a large swath of data, collected over more than a decade, which tracked the development of 12,000 nurses’ children into their young adulthood. The longitudinal study surveyed social, physical, and mental health trends across the group—like substance abuse, anxiety/depression, community engagement, and sexual activity.”

The team was curious about how schooling choices and religious service attendance correlated to health outcomes. Here’s what they found:

In comparing key health indicators, the researchers found little difference between the long-term well-being of adolescents who attended public school and those who went to private school. (All of the kids who participated were between the ages of 9-14 when the study began.)  

So parents you can breathe a little sigh of relief there. But what about religious service attendance? How much does that matter? 

“What we found was that religious service attendance makes a bigger difference than religious schooling,” [VanderWeele] said. “Religious service attendance has beneficial effects across the different school types and has stronger effects than religious schooling.”

 

In other words, the kids who grew up attending church regularly rated far higher in overall well-being as young adults than those who went to a religious school but did not go to religious services during their formative years.

Did you catch that? If you take two kids — one who attends church once a week regularly and another who goes to a religious school five days a week but attends church only sporadically — it is the regular church attendee who fares better. The researchers concluded that “…religious service attendance in youth was clearly the more dominant force in shaping health and well-being, at least as this pertains to the data and experiences 20 years ago.” 

Here’s the bottom line from the Christianity Today summary: 

Furthermore, “regular service attendance helps shield children from the ‘big three’ dangers of adolescence: depression, substance abuse, and premature sexual activity,” VanderWeele writes in his latest article for Christianity Today. “People who attended church as children are also more likely to grow up happy, to be forgiving, to have a sense of mission and purpose, and to volunteer.”

 

“So regardless of school type,” VanderWeele says, “it’s beneficial to go to religious services, both as an adolescent and as an adult.”

These findings highlight the beauty and wisdom of God’s design for the local church. When parents dedicate their children at Christ Community, one of the questions they are asked is: Do you promise, before God and this congregation, that you will be faithful in worship, both in the home and in the church?

Those two spaces —the home and church — are vital to human health and flourishing. This is why Christ Community’s Children’s Ministries and Student Ministries staff and volunteers put so much effort into equipping parents. Parents play an outsized role in their children’s faith development. However, what the Harvard analysis shows  is clear. It isn’t enough to simply be faithful in worship at home if we want our children to truly flourish. It also requires being faithful in a worshiping community; a local church.

Don’t Ask Your Kids About Their Day

Don’t Ask Your Kids About Their Day

If you really don’t want to know how your kid’s day went, ask them how their day went. I mean really, has that ever worked on any consistent basis? 

The over-used “How was your day?” question rarely engenders any useful or meaningful dialogue, yet we continue to use it to gain insight into the lives of our children. There has to be a better way to engage our kids in conversation about their Monday lives!

This is where I find such great wisdom in the person of Jesus. He was masterful in the way He drew things out of people in the questions He asked and the stories He told. Can you imagine Jesus simply asking His disciples how their day was? No way. He would have some compelling question, perplexing parable, or intriguing inquiry that would lead to something deep, rich, and meaningful. How can we do the same with our families?

Let me offer five simple and fun alternative ways to ask your kids about their day, without asking your kids about their day. These are all practices we have used in various ways and at different times in our own family. And I should make it clear that parents are expected to be participants and not just facilitators in these practices. You can’t expect your kids to share about their days if you don’t model it for them.

True or False

Everyone at the table has to go around and share two things that happened that day. The trick is that one of those things must be totally false. Then the rest of the family has to vote to decide which one was true and which one was false. Once the truth is revealed then you can begin to ask more questions around that specific story. Clearly that story was significant in some way if they chose for it to be the true thing that happened that day. You now have an inroad to their day through this story. 

Fill in the Blank

This is my favorite question to ask my kids at the dinner table because of how it both provides insight into their day and helps them process their feelings. Here is how it works. You choose someone at the table and then you choose a feeling. Once those are selected, you phrase the fill in the blank statement in this way. “Something that made Pearl frustrated was ________” The person then thinks back on their day through the lens of that feeling. It is always good to mix up the feelings you choose to help your children process a wide range of emotions. Not only do you learn more about their day, but this practice gives you the chance to help your kids process how and why they feel certain things.

High and Low

This is probably the most classic tactic, but it still works so well. You simply share the high and low points of your day. Similar to the fill in the blank question, this helps develop healthy categories of joy and sorrow in life. It is vital that our children know they have the freedom and permission to share the pains and heartaches of their life. We all know that life isn’t perfect, and this is a good way to provide a safe space to process the realities of our fallen world.

Story Time

This one requires a little more creativity, but it is the one that produces the most laughter and smiles around our table. Have everyone choose something about their day that they want to share in story form. So rather than just reporting the facts of what happened, everyone recounts a particular event as if it were a fairy tale, sci-fi, mystery, or any kind of story. After the story-telling, ask them to translate it. For example, the dragon that they slayed in their story might be a metaphor for the spelling test that they got a perfect score on. The fun part is seeing the creativity of your kids and how they describe the ordinary things of their day in extraordinary ways.

Opposite Day

Each person selects a story to share from their day, but they have to retell it in the most opposite way. Then everyone else has to try and interpret what really happened by flipping the story upside down. The fine part of this tactic is that it gets everyone at the table talking together and focusing on one story. It is also quite hilarious at times to see what your kids consider to be the opposite of things in their day.

These suggestions are by no means the silver bullets that will make your dinner table discussions or car ride conversations deep and rich with your kids. But these small practices can build a culture and tradition of more transparent sharing in your family. 

What practices and traditions have you found to be helpful in creating spaces for conversation with your family?

 

Thank You: Everyone, Everywhere, Every Day

Thank You: Everyone, Everywhere, Every Day

“Thank you so much.”

Was that my 12-year-old son who just said that? Without being told? Did he really just spontaneously say thank you to some random person who only indirectly served our family? “Thank you so much.” I’ve since caught him doing that just about everywhere. Weird, right?

Now, like most parents, I can’t tell you how many times we’ve worked with our kids over the years to say their “please and thank yous.” Sure, that matters, keep doing that. But that is less about gratitude, and more about following socially acceptable manners. Again, that can be a good thing, and there’s overlap, but it’s slightly different.

This wasn’t about manners. It wasn’t about what was expected of him. My son was genuinely thanking someone he had no social obligation to thank. He was just grateful and he wanted to express it.

How did that happen? In a culture that pushes extreme individualism, even to the point of entitlement, where did my son learn gratitude? Well, from his perfect parents, of course! Especially his dad, right? No! I struggle with entitlement and self-interest just as much as the next person, and possibly more. My default is a thankless heart. So how?

The Other Side of “Work Matters”

A couple years ago our church preached a series on how our work is the primary way we love our neighbors. We don’t just love our neighbors by bringing them soup when they’re sick, we also love them by serving them in our vocation. You love your neighbors on Monday by designing or manufacturing helpful products or offering valuable services. You love your little neighbors by serving them at home. My work loves my neighbor. That makes sense to me.

As I reflected, I remember marveling over the other side of this reality. This means someone loved me today enough to toast my bagel at Panera (and to bake it, grow and deliver all the ingredients, and even design and build the structure I sat in). People at the power company loved me enough today to keep my electricity running. The people at the car shop loved me enough to change my oil and rotate my tires, not to mention the people who built the roads to get there. Just start listing it out—all of it. That’s a lot of love!

Sure, I’m paying for those things, but that doesn’t take away the genuine benefit I receive from so many. A truly countless number of people tirelessly work every day to make my life better. 

Everyone, Everywhere, Every Day

So I decided then to add a new discipline to my life, or at least to try it out. To the best of my ability, I’m going to try to thank everyone, everywhere, every day—anyone I see serving me. 

Seriously. Why not? It costs me nothing. It takes literally zero time because I’m there anyway. It requires nothing of me but eyes to see it, a heart to appreciate it, and a mouth willing to express it. And if they’re wearing a name tag, I’m going to try to do it by name and look them in the eyes.  “So-and-so, thank you so much for serving me.”

Sounds great, right, but so much harder than I thought! Once I started trying, not only did I begin to realize how many people love me every day, but I also had to constantly fight the entitlement and pride that lives within me. Thoughts like: Well, it’s their job to serve me. Besides, I’m paying for thisI thank them with my money. Or even just being blind to it or taking for granted the innumerable amount of people serving. This can be especially true of those who work in positions our culture has little respect for.

But once you start… I remember thanking the man cleaning the men’s restroom at a Royals game. Yuck. “Thank you, so-and-so, for serving.” He stopped, returned eye contact, and with delighted surprise in his voice said, “Thanks for noticing.” It cost me nothing. It made his day. When is the last time someone thanked him? 

Once you see the difference it makes, the way it brightens someone’s day to be seen and appreciated, the way it gives dignity to their work no matter what they do, and the way it increases your own sense of gratitude and joy, it’s pretty hard now not to do it.

Besides, the Bible not only commands gratitude, the gospel motivates us, and the Holy Spirit enables us to have truly thankful hearts. Look at 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” In ALL circumstances. For this is God’s will for ME. For YOU.

So I thank the person holding the door, the person sweeping the floor, the TSA agent violating my personal space (yes, even there). I thank the restaurant server, UPS driver, mechanic, and truly just about everyone I can. I wave to construction workers, garbage truck drivers, post office carriers, and police officers.

Now, please don’t miss this. I am not patting myself on the back. I still struggle with being an ungrateful, entitled, self-centered piece of work. Even years after I started doing this, I still forget or get lazy, lose my nerve, or just don’t notice. I’m a mess, people. I don’t do this nearly as much as I wish I did.

See How Much You Are Served

Yet we talk a lot about gratitude, don’t we? We know it’s good for us. We know it makes our lives better. We know it breaks the cycle of entitlement and selfishness. We all want more of it, don’t we? In so many ways, it begins by simply seeing the many people who serve you, and therefore love you, every day. Do you see them?

There are the obvious ones—grocery clerks, baristas, teachers—start there, with the people you inevitably interact with. Then begin to look wider. Who keeps this place clean, safe, efficient—janitors, door greeters, security guards, store managers. If you see them, thank them. 

And although it’s much harder to thank the ones you don’t see, even just acknowledging them makes me more grateful. For example, I just made myself a life-saving cup of coffee. It was amazing. Farmers grew those beans for me in Costa Rica. For me. Someone harvested them, someone roasted them, someone packaged them, and someone thought to import them. For me. They put them on a boat, then a train, then a semi (and someone built the boats, trains, semis, and roads, by the way). For me.

They ended up in a store that required engineers, architects, and construction workers just to build it (not to mention where all the materials came from), executives and managers to run it, and clerks, shelf-stockers, and janitors to maintain it. Then, of course, there are the people who keep our water clean and make sure it gets to my home, who give me power to heat it up, and who designed the coffee pot. Somebody even made me a nice mug to drink out of. For me.

How many people served me so that I could have that cup of coffee? That’s a lot of love! Do you have eyes to see it?

Say Thank You All the Time

So thank them. At least the ones you can, whenever you can, as often as you can, for your sake and theirs. Not because you have to in order to obey social norms, but because you are truly grateful for the love you receive from so many. Say thank you.

Imagine if we all made this simple goal—to thank everyone you see serving you (directly or indirectly) every time you see them serving you. By name, if at all possible. It’s such a small thing, but imagine what that would do, the dignity it would give, the hearts inside us that would grow, and the joy that would be shared.

It won’t cost you a dime. It requires nothing but eyes to see it, a heart to appreciate it, and a mouth willing to express it. Try it for a week and just see what happens.

I can tell you for me, this discipline of saying thank you is changing my life. Sure, I’ve got a long way to go, but it’s actually made me more grateful, more aware, and more sensitive to the world around me. I see people differently. I empathize more with those who work jobs society has little respect for. In return, I receive greater joy and purpose, and even greater delight in my own work (the way I love and serve my neighbors), even in the thankless parts. I feel their love, and I delight to give love in return.

Apparently my kids have noticed. I never meant to teach this to them. It was just a habit I wanted to try for a while, and for their sake and mine, I’m so grateful I did.

Colossians 3:15–17 says: 

“And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly…with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

Right vs. Easy

Right vs. Easy

A wise character once said, “We must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy.” The Old Testament reveals to today’s families the truth of God’s character as a loving father and a faithful provider. From the Old Testament to the present, families have had to make, and continue to struggle to make, the choices that are right to grow in God’s character as His image bearers.

THE CHOICE
Adam and Eve’s choice was obviously wrong, but they picked it (see what I did there?) in the hope that knowing good and evil would make their life easy. Sadly, they were not satisfied with the good, loving, and caring environment God placed them in. Thus, they believed Satan’s temptation would unlock wisdom. Instead, it brought insecurity, confusion, anxiety, and fear.

Today’s parents face the challenge to guide the descendants of Adam not only towards a relationship with God but also through the minefield of temptations culture presents.

THE FRUSTRATION
Daily, parents can relate to the heartache, frustration, hurt, and defeat around their children’s choices. These choices often reflect taking the easy path over the right path. Inexplicably, a preschooler will begin lying not to disappoint, an elementary student allows an idol to shape their language and behavior, a middle-school-aged student will bully out of pride, and a high schooler will turn to drugs, alcohol, or self-harming as a release to fit in or mask their differences from others.

God’s story reflects the treacherous path of His children to replace what is right, and perhaps possibly challenging to do, with the facade of easy. This facade leads towards a path of self-reliance, destruction, loneliness, and ends in isolation. Being made for community, isolation is the perfect ending for temptation. At the core of evil, we are isolated and cut off from the truth and the hope that God can rescue us and love us again.

FORGETFULNESS
We are a forgetful people, born into a long lineage of forgetful people. Even the Israelite descendants who passed down unbelievable stories of rescue from Egypt, the Red Sea, and the wilderness were doomed to become amnesiac again, reverting to their old ways and emotions.

The covenants and laws reminded God’s children He is the faithful provider, even when they rebelled or became lost in their forgetfulness. Each covenant beautifully builds upon the last from one man, to one family, to one nation, and ending in all people. This narrative, when told from the beginning in Eden to the incredible ending of a new heaven and new earth, represents the faithfulness of God to provide a way.

NOT ALONE
Parents, you are not alone. You have a perfect parent, God, who knows the cost of raising generations of children who have walked away from a loving environment due to forgetfulness. Our children are daily reminders that we are still growing in doing what is right, even when it is hard. As champions of our children’s spiritual faith, we stand on the front lines constantly repositioning our children to be on a path toward God.

We do not want to be weary parents. We must be strong and courageous, daily strengthened in Christ—looking to Scripture for words of wisdom, humbling ourselves in intercession and prayer, and above all, seeking the will and provision of the Father. God has demonstrated throughout the Old Testament His love as a father and faithfulness as a provider who is always right on time.

Prayer for the Bereaved Mother

In honor of International Bereaved Mother’s Day, we share this prayer to acknowledge the mother whose child cannot be seen—who lives in her heart and not in her arms and reigns in eternity with Jesus Christ.

We must remember, when a baby is conceived, a mother is born. With this prayer, we lift up the women who have children who no longer live among us on this earth. We long for a place with no more death, no more pain, no more tears, and no more suffering. That’s what Jesus promises, and that is why we put all our hope in Him. May our Lord plant visions of what heaven will be like in all of our minds.

May this day be for bereaved mothers to speak honestly, remember, celebrate, and heal.

Prayer for the Bereaved Mother

Lord our Creator, You are relentless with your love and unending grace. No one understands our pain better than You, God. You willingly chose to give Your son, Jesus Christ, away. Thank You.

Thank You for entrusting Your children with us. Even in death, You are so good. You never turn Your back on us. Even when we feel abandoned, we are not. Jesus paid the price of abandonment on the cross when He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Lord, You turn our tears into laughter—this is Your promise. We long for Your return. As we wait, our hearts overflow with gratitude:

for the beauty of conception . . .
for Your creation of family. . .
for Your love of all of Your children . . .
for the children You have entrusted and loaned to us to parent . . .
for science, medicine, and physicians . . .
for funeral directors . . .
for counselors, pastors, and support groups . . .
for refinement, growth, peace, and healing . . .

for all these reasons and so much more, we give You praise.

Thank You, good and gracious Man of Sorrows, for teaching us how to love, suffer well, mourn, and rejoice. As we honor the bereaved mother, we yearn for Jesus’ return, for the day in which there will be no more sorrow, pain, infertility, life-changing diagnoses, pregnancy termination, or death.

Today we remember in prayer:

the bereaved mother . . .
those who have terminated a pregnancy. . .
those who are longing for a child . . .
those who have experienced adoption loss . .
those who struggle with fertility . . .
those who have experienced pregnancy loss . . . including miscarriage and stillbirth . . .
those who have had a child die in infancy. . .
those who have had a child die in childhood. . .
those who have had a child die in adulthood. . .

We offer these prayers in the name Jesus Christ, our source of hope. Amen.

Amy Balentine is a daughter of the King, wife to Adam and mother to five children. Three children are in her care while two reign in Glory. Amy had two sons die in 2014: Simon who lived one breathing week and Thomas who lived until 13 weeks gestation. The Lord gave her a ministry called You Made Me Mom, which is a Kansas City-based support group that serves mothers who have lost babies during pregnancy or infancy through one year of breathing life. The support group gathers once a month in Amy’s home where she shares the message that God is good even when a baby dies.

Entrusting Our Children to God

My daughter just turned nine a few weeks ago, and it’s really been weighing on me in a hard way. I can’t stop thinking about the fact that in nine more years, she very well could be moving out of our home and into the next stage of her life.

I too often feel the pressure to produce character in her. Adam and I have desires for our kids and we want them to grow up becoming the kind of people we imagined they’d be…respectful, loving, thankful, kind, honest adults. We find ourselves modeling, implementing incentives, reading and following lots of advice. Can you relate?

Too often I make their character, faith, hope for the future all about me…not them. But, we are not in control. The Bible states in Philippians 1:6, 9–11:

And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ… And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.

As is stated clearly, God is the one who begins the good work within our kids. Not us. Also, God will continue to work in their lives, and no matter what, He will not give up on them but continue to see His work uncovered until the day Christ returns.

God wants our hope secured in HIM, not in ourselves. He wants us to trust Him with the kids He has given to us. Allowing these words to resonate in my life brings me great hope and puts my anxiety, fear, and worry away.

But I’m also reminded that this doesn’t mean my efforts are unimportant. I will continue modeling the things I’m saying to them. I’m sure we’ve all learned what you do carries far more influence that what you say. Adam and I will continue strengthening and doing all we can to keep our family healthy. I’m also continually needing to step back and ensure I’m not controlling the situation. Control never creates healthy relationships, but rather compliance or rebellion.

Picturing our daughter’s journey, we want to teach her to embrace her story and to acknowledge God’s presence woven throughout it. We want to pray for her to trust and believe that all circumstances, all joys, and all pains are part of The Big God Story, as well as the story our big God has mapped out for her. God makes no mistakes or missed steps; He sees everything, equips us, guides us, and builds us for the story He has prepared just for us.

When we embrace the truth that God is in control, we relinquish the heart of our child into the hands of our all-loving and powerful God. When we remember His sovereignty, we stop wanting to compose our child’s story, and we become grateful God never gave us the pen.