Our Children Might Return to the Church, but Our Grandchildren Most Likely Won't

It is no surprise that the children of the Church are growing up and growing out of Church. What is surprising is that they are not returning. Worse still, they are not bringing their children. A priest once told me that he was not worried about kids going to college and starting their careers out of the Church, because eventually they too would have kids and that that is when they would return.

That way of thinking about Church attendance and growth just won’t do anymore. The problem is not just that the Church is hemorrhaging in attendance[1]; rather, the underlying problem, the reason why church association is hemorrhaging is that the American church has consistently communicated to the younger generations that their formation, membership, and involvement is worth less than that of their parents, who by the way have the money.

I am routinely surprised by how often we suppose that children are too uneducated, too unsophisticated to understand the depth of faith. Having grown up in a fairly anti-intellectual tradition, I came to the Anglican tradition and then Catholic theology for their embrace of the intellect and their sensitivity to formation. And yet, High Church Christians routinely act as if our children will not be interested in what the faith has to offer. Worse still, we think they do not need rich faith formation and liturgical experiences as much as adults do. Hence, that strange malaise wherein leaders in the Church make excuses for children leaving, supposing that they’ll be back someday when they have kids, when they’re a bit more intelligent, experienced . . . or desperate. After all, children are our future, thereby giving us a perennial excuse for deferring the “problem” of children indefinitely.

But if we hedge children’s formation because we think that they do not really understand, care about, or need the faith, then we must ask ourselves why would they someday return to the Church, much less bring their children with them? If the faith was not an important part of their own childhood, what good reason can we have for expecting them to believe it will be important for their children’s? And if it is not important for their children’s formation, why on earth would we expect them to be in Church, much less bring their children? This is a question that I often ponder.

I submit that in our present day and age, Christians must reclaim the importance of children. Children are not the future, they are the present. And that being the case, we have every reason to judge the quality of the Church’s culture by the way it treats its children, forms them, cares for them, and attunes its resources to their needs.

Augustine reflections on his own childhood and education are instructive here. In his Confessions, he relates his resentment for his teachers’ hypocritical attitude toward play. They would punish the children for playing instead of studying; yet, they as adults whiled their time away with work. Even as children, Augustine and his peers understood that the difference between their play and the adults’ work was merely nominal: “. . . we were punished by adults who nonetheless did the same themselves. But whereas the frivolous pursuits of grown-up people are called ‘business,’ children are punished for behaving in the same fashion . . .”

Notice that Augustine considers both his (child’s) play and the adult’s “business” as “frivolous.” I’m not convinced of this. Leaving aside the adult’s business for now—I think that Augustine underestimates the value of child’s play, potentially with grave consequences for our theology of children.

The Italian, Roman Catholic educator, Maria Montessori, once said, “Play is the work of the child.”[2] By work, Montessori does not mean the self-important business of Augustine’s adults. Rather, the child’s work is vital; it nourishes human growth and fosters flourishing. It is, in short, vocational. And the child’s vocation is to play, to practice and follow her curiosity to its end, to engage in the wonder of the world, to discover the world and herself as its inhabitant, and above all to discover and enter into the joy of the God who has made and redeemed her. For Montessori, play is the cornerstone for all of this.

In play, children engage in activities that synthesize fantasy and reality. Such activities nurture wonder, expand the imagination, call the mind to alertness, empower agency and independence, and strengthen attention. In play, children simultaneously focus and roam. The child at play learns how to attend to detail, but not, for instance, in the anxious way that high-stakes work demands. Instead, new aspects of reality present themselves to the mind, and often in surprising ways.

And play includes rules; it encourages children to grow into and through natural limitations, to thrive within them, much in the same way that artistic media are limitations in which creativity is not hampered but rather explodes. Play is, therefore, not anarchic, despite the typical adult worry that left to themselves, children begin to enact The Lord of the Flies. Far from it; children love to devise society. They even love to play with rules. There is a childlike confidence in the imagination that makes an undiscovered country out of rules and order.

Children, therefore, are pioneers. They gravitate to the strange, the unmapped, the esoteric, and even the abstract. My oldest son, Henry, used to love the Calder mobiles at the National Gallery of Art. There’s something essential, something universal in art like this that speaks to the imagination. The uncanny balance, the sense of being suspended, of being vulnerable, bright, and airborne, that Calder achieved in his gallery-sized contraptions fascinated Henry’s imagination. Henry’s drawings and home-spun contraptions, many of which still hang in trees in our backyard, still manifest the preternatural urge that Calder tapped into.

This, then, is what I mean by play; it is something that to adults seems so mysterious and untouchable, but that to children is like breathing, or better yet, snacking. In the child’s experience, there’s a world to be consumed, to be remade, reshaped, and drawn; there are trees to climb, walls to draw on, curios to hoard.

We adults don’t get this, because we’ve forgotten it. These child-likenesses frustrate us because they represent messes to clean, appointments to keep, missed days of work, sleepless nights. We often feel like we need to contain our kids’ messes, to keep the walls clean, bones unbroken, tidied up. We have becomes Mrs. Darling from Peter Pan who had the nerve to think that she could tidy her children’s minds in the same way that she organized their room while they slept. We suppose that the mores, norms, and expectations of polite society should dictate the manner in which children reflect, dream, imagine, and above all navigate the world. No matter that we often have trouble navigating that polite society ourselves.

According to Montessori and her disciples, when we withhold play from the educational process, we make formation dreary and lifeless. We struggle to understand why children treat education like it’s a chore. And yet, don’t we as adults do the same? Teachers, parents, and administrators spend hours trying to acclimate children to school as a work-a-day environment. Similarly, Christian educators attempt to reconstruct this dreary environment in the ecclesial context, supposing it to be ideal educational setting. But how many of us value this aspect of adult “business”?

Not only is such a setting less than ideal. It is, in fact, inhumane. To educate in such a way is to subject children to an environment that is corrosive to the learning process. Moreover, such an environment is poison to their sense of wonder, that part of their humanity that they need to sustain a lifetime of learning. When we remove play from education, we make education inhumane.[3] Is it any wonder that children resist such a poison?

As a parent myself, I understand first-hand the domestic struggle that goes hand-in-hand with trying to bring kids into Church life. Yes, kids can find Church boring, although I suspect that there’s more to it than that. And there are the difficulties with just getting out the door. And you can forget being presentable, much less prompt! A once-a-week commitment does not offer nearly enough stability to establish a routine, especially when for most families the routines of daily school, sports activities, homework, and clubs have monopolized the quotidian. Once you de-prioritize church and churchly education in favor of curricular and extra-curricular activities, it’s a short walk to thinking that kids don’t really need Church at all, at least not for theological reasons. It is almost certain that the average child will struggle to understand why Church the way we do it today is important for him or her. Sure, church is important for socialization. But the care of souls has been less important than the care of diplomas or sports involvement for a long time. And that shows in the way we treat Church with respect to the rest of our lives. After all, it just gets one day a week from most of us.

That same malaise that infects the way we think about children and their spiritual formation infects the way we think about adult formation: core teachings are reduced to truisms; devotional practices are reduced to optional activities; matters of the heart, once central and essential to ascetic and spiritual formation, are reduced to that nebulous realm of the “subjective,” as if faith is “like just your opinion, man.”

What’s missing here is a sense of why religious education is crucial to our growth and healing, but also a recognition that what’s passed for education for a long time has been inadequate and inhumane, and probably harmful. And any education that is inhumane is also opposed to the kingdom of God. As we discern and adopt the mind of Christ, we must remember that we are called to do so as little children, for it is only those that become like children who will enter the Kingdom. This is a task for everyone, whether spiritual directors, clergy, or lay people. An essential part of this work is to rethink not only the way that we form children but also the way that we form humans of all ages. And in order to form humans, we need an education that is humane, that cares for the human imagination, and that ultimately promotes human flourishing and healing.

The way I see it, this is all relatively simple. Jesus got it. He understood the importance of children for the vitality of his movement:

“Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them (Mat 10:14–16).

It is not simply that children are vulnerable, and so require extra care and protection. Our culture has enough of that attitude towards kids now. Nor is Jesus’s theme of children an exhortation to radical humility by placing others, especially those that are beneath us, above ourselves.

Rather, Jesus identifies something in the child that is “exigent,” that is central and fundamental to our faith.[4] “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me” (Mat 18:3–5).

My guess is that the child exhibits a wonder and openness to the world, to its fellow human beings, and to Jesus that we as adults tend to lose, or to consider “childish.” Jesus saw the heart of that childlike disposition, just like he saw that heart of adult vice. His commendation to become “like children” cannot be reduced to some saccharine nostalgia like the Precious Moments Chapel.[5] Rather, it must be taken up as a mantra in our movement. If children will inherit the kingdom, then we adults are amongst kings and queens.

Editorial Note: This month Church Life Journal will tackle healing within the Church. The Church is a hospital for sinners. Even if recent media coverage of Catholicism has rightly converged upon the diseases within our communities, it all too frequently overlooks the healing that is simultaneously going on. A hospital is not just a collection of sick individuals, but also the community of doctors and staff around them devoted to helping the sick return to health. Therefore, throughout February Church Life Journal will concentrate upon healing within the Tradition (Bible, liturgy, popular piety, devotions, after scandals, within the home church, and miraculous cures). Please click on the following link to follow us in our exploration of the healing imagination.

[1] Although the hemorrhaging is true (8 million fewer Mainline Protestants and Catholics from 2007-2014), according to the 2015 Pew US Religious Landscape Survey, http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/, the drop in identification and attendance is attributed to primarily to a rapid attendance decline in the Millennial generation: “[F]ewer than six-in-ten Millennials identify with any branch of Christianity, compared with seven-in-ten or more among older generations, including Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers. Just 16% of Millennials are Catholic, and only 11% identify with mainline Protestantism. Roughly one-in-five are evangelical Protestants.”

[2] Words frequently attributed to Montessori by practitioners of her method. It does not appear that she put them into print.

[3] “Play is a truly universal trait of childhood. The one thing that children can appropriate for themselves, without the sanction of culture or explicit blessing of parents, is play. It is ubiquitous” (David F. Lancy, The Anthropology of Childhood [Cambridge, UK: CUP, 2015], 19).

[4] Sophia Cavaletti, The Religious Potential of the Child (Mt. Ranier, MD: the Association of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, 1992), 25–26, 44–45.

[5] Widely described as “America’s Sistine Chapel.” See: Official Website: https://preciousmomentschapel.org/

Featured Image: Vincent van Gogh, The Schoolboy with Uniform Cap [detail], c. 1890; Source: Wikimedia, PD-Old-100.


Daniel McClain

Dan McClain holds a PhD in Historical and Systematic Theology from the Catholic University of America, and previously taught theology at the General Theological Seminary (NYC) and Loyola University Maryland. Dan's current areas of expertise and interest include children and children's literature, theological education and formation, and the relationship between church practice and doctrine.

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