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Teens and Mandatory Church Attendance

Should we force our adolescent son to attend church with us? He used to enjoy it, but now has no interest in going at all. We want to respect his independence and give him the freedom to make age-appropriate decisions for himself, but it also worries us to think that he may be drifting away from his faith. What should we do?

A great deal depends upon the precise age of your teen. As you probably know, the challenges facing parents of middle schoolers are very different from those confronting moms and dads of high school students. In fact, the distance between 7th and 12th grade can sometimes seem astronomical. Since you didn’t provide details, we’ll consider both possibilities.

If your child is a middle schooler, it should be fairly easy to put your foot down and say, “You will attend church with us because that’s what we do in this family.” But this may not be the wisest course of action. It’s usually far more effective to spend some time identifying the reasons for the child’s feelings. Instead of laying down the law, try to draw him out with a few pointed questions. Sit down with him and ask, “What is it that you don’t like about church or Sunday school? What do you think the leaders should do to make it better? Can you imagine a situation in which you would get excited about going to church on Sundays?” If you can get at the root of the problem, you’ll be in a much better position to address it.

At this age it’s unlikely that your child is grappling with serious intellectual questions about the validity of the Christian faith. Most junior highers tend to focus on peer group issues. They want to have friends, to be liked and accepted, to fit in with the crowd. If your church doesn’t have a strong and vibrant youth program, or if your teen has been unable for some reason to penetrate the group’s “inner core,” you may want to go someplace else. Find a church where conditions are more conducive to his involvement. Good youth programs sponsor lots of fun social gatherings, weekend outings, home Bible studies, summer camps, service projects, and other events that draw teens in and motivate them to stay around.

This doesn’t have to mean breaking all ties with your home church. If nothing else works, think about dropping your teen off at another location on your way to Sunday morning worship. But be sure to get personally acquainted with the new group. Talk to the leadership and investigate the church’s denominational affiliation. Get some basic information about its doctrinal orientation and the quality of the teaching it offers.

If your teen is older – say 16, 17, or 18 – the case is somewhat different. Scary as it can be for parents, it is sometimes a good, normal, healthy, and desirable thing for adolescents on the verge of young adulthood to re-evaluate their church experience. Kids this age need to question their childhood beliefs. For some, it’s even important to wrestle with doubts about the meaning of life and the existence of God. This is all part of the process of maturation and individuation. Each and every one of us has to go through it if we’re to reach the place where Christ becomes real to us in a personal way and where our faith is genuinely our own.

If something like this is going on in your teenager’s mind, an iron-fisted approach could turn him off to Christianity for good. This is a delicate situation and it requires an artist’s touch. Here again we’d suggest that you initiate a dialogue. This time it should be on a much deeper level. See if you can figure out what your teen is thinking and why. Is he in spiritual crisis, or is he merely bored? If it’s a case of simple disinterest, what can be done to turn things around? On the other hand, if he’s grappling with serious doubts, spend some time hashing out his questions with him. If you don’t have the answers he needs, direct him to someone who does. Suggest that he talk with a pastor, a youth leader, or another strong Christian adult. Where spiritual matters are concerned, it’s a good idea for older teens to have adult friends and mentors besides mom and dad with whom they can discuss their deepest feelings.

If you have additional questions or need help applying these suggestions, call us. Our staff counselors would consider it a privilege to speak with you over the phone.


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