How to Talk to Your Kids When Church Life Gets Ugly
Y’all know what is so annoying?
How churches are filled with sinners.
I mean, I’m going there to try to learn more about God and be progressively more like Jesus and the place is crawling with people who don’t have their lives together and continue to make mistakes at church.
Okay so obviously I’m joking, but I have seriously had some of these thoughts.
Am I alone here??
I heard a song for the first time today (it may be twelve years old. I am not really into music.) and it had this line:
“[Church is] not a trophy for the winners, it’s a shelter for the sinners
And it’s right where I belong.” – Church (Take Me Back) by Cochren & Co.
And it’s so true.
The church is a shelter for sinners, but sometimes when you bring that many sinners together they hurt each other. And if you’ve never been hurt by someone in the church, you are in the minority.
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Even twenty years ago, when I was in the youth group at my church, kids were mean and hurtful because they’re people.
Our fallen nature doesn’t change when we walk into the church building.
People still gossip and lie.
People still have cliques and exclude people.
People still covet.
People still judge.
But what about when your kids get hurt by people at church?
Or when you’re hurting from church drama and your kids pick up on it?
How does that conversation go?
Side note: This post is not going to address abuse, sexual or otherwise. The pain we are referring to is from people being hurtful but not abusive. Abuse does occur in churches, but we are not advising parents on how to deal with it in this post.
Here are six tips to talk to your kids about when church life gets messy.
This should always be step one when we are confronted with a problem, but sometimes we want to jump right into action.
And praying is talking to God, and talking doesn’t feel like action.
Do it anyways.
Pray as soon as you realize there is a situation to deal with.
Pray with your child at the beginning of your talk.
Pray with your child at the end of your talk.
Pray daily and without ceasing until the situation is resolved.
2. Don’t Lie
Don’t lie to your kids.
Which I know, you’d never lie to your kids!
Except when it was necessary to protect them.
Or add a sense of wonder to their childhood.
Yeah, I’m looking at you Santa Claus, Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, Elf mover.
And dealing with hurt from church members definitely falls under the “lies to protect my child” category.
When your child asks you, “Why doesn’t my Sunday school teacher like me?”
Your first response is going to be: “What?! Of course, your Sunday school teacher likes you!”
Kids are perceptive.
They often read adults better than adults read adults.
I don’t know if it’s because of their lower eye levels or just a skill they’re born with like finding candy no matter where you hide it.
But they’re good.
If they think their teacher doesn’t like them, there’s a pretty good chance there’s something going on to make them think that.
So don’t lie.
That will just put a wall between you and them so that they won’t come to you with problems.
They’ll assume you will lie again to them or worse that they cannot trust their own gut feelings.
Don’t do that to them.
They already know something is going on.
When your child asks you hard questions, you may want to run and hide, refer them to their dad, or put them off until two minutes before bedtime so that you’re only having a 120-second conversation.
Instead, just listen.
They ask, “Why doesn’t my Sunday school teacher like me?”
You swallow the lie, steady your feet, and say, “Wow! That’s a really big question. Let me finish XYZ so that we can sit down and talk about it.”
Use that time to finish loading the dishwasher and fervently pray that God will give you wisdom in what you say. Do some deep breathing and prepare a good answer that is the truth.
Then sit down with your kid and listen.
Ask them why they think whatever they asked.
“What makes you think your Sunday school teacher doesn’t like you?”
You will discover information.
Do not let “I don’t know,” stand.
They asked you this huge question for a reason, so keep digging and listen.
Silence makes everyone squirmy so use it.
Own the silence and listen until they talk.
With our kids, it takes about twenty seconds of silence before they break down and the floodgates open.
Then they talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk……….
Every time we’ve been in this situation (which has been often because #pastorlife #4kids) we’ve discovered new information that we’ve used to alleviate fears.
Often these hard questions lead to some deep concerns the kid doesn’t even know they have.
4. Evaluate Risk
After listening to your child’s reasons, ask some probing questions about their safety in the situation.
Typically a third person line of questioning gets better results.
For example: “Do you think your teacher would ever hurt a student?”
And then listen. Actively. No phones. Just you listening and reading your child’s face because you can read it like a book.
This is a lesson learned from experience.
Our son once told us a teacher didn’t like him, and we were a bit dismissive.
The next week when he went to class, the teacher’s child said really mean things to our son that a child would never think to say on their own.
“Your dad is a terrible preacher, and he needs to leave before he destroys this church.”
The teacher’s son (who was older than our son) wouldn’t let him play the game with the other boys.
While our son was sitting out, the teacher’s son walked over and kicked him repeatedly and told him everyone hated him and wished he would just disappear.
This all happened under the teacher’s supervision, but he “didn’t see it.”
When I got there to pick him up, several older boys were sitting with my son which was not the norm. They told me what happened and said they were staying with my son to keep him safe.
Now obviously, there’s no way that we could have predicted that would happen when our son said his teacher didn’t like him.
But that knowledge did not alleviate my mom guilt at all.
In retrospect, we should have dug into his concerns.
What makes you say your teacher doesn’t like you?
Is it something in his face?
Is it something in his words?
Is it an action he has taken?
Has something happened in class to make you think this?
If we’d done this, we would have found out that his teacher had gotten up and moved tables to not sit by our son at our church-wide dinner.
We’d have found out that his teacher had told the boys they didn’t have to play with our son.
We’d have learned that his son had been punching our son’s leg under the table during class.
We would have seen the faces that the teacher was making at our son.
And we would have taken action before it escalated.
5. Speak Truth
Just because you are committed to speaking the truth doesn’t mean you have to speak ALL the truth.
You can tell your child the truth without telling them the whole messy truth.
For example: “You said earlier that you knew your Sunday school teacher didn’t like you because she uses a very harsh tone with you and she doesn’t let you talk. Those are both pretty good reasons to think someone doesn’t like you. And while you may not be their favorite student, that’s kind of okay. Are they your favorite teacher?”
If that’s not enough, you can give some specifics.
For example: “Your teacher is mad at me because I had to tell him a really hard truth, and he did not want to hear it. It has nothing to do with anything you have done or said. He is mad at me. And while that’s not fair for him to be mean to you, it’s okay. Sometimes people are mean. We can pray that God will change his heart toward you. As for me, I am okay with people being mad at me for doing what I feel is right.”
I would be very careful not to reveal the details of the situation. Even if those details would completely exonerate you in your child’s eyes, avoid them. Those details might be shared by your child and add further fuel to the flames.
The details are true, but the big truths are what your child needs. Big truths like, sometimes rebuking someone for sin does not reconcile you to them, but we do it anyway, or in this world, following Jesus may bring us trouble, but we are responsible to obey Him in spite of the consequences. Use conflict as a chance to teach the truth that we pray for people who persecute us.
6. Make a Plan Together
It is going to be very tempting to thank your child for being open and honest with you, give them an ice cream cone, and send them away to play hopscotch while mommy digs out some pointed scriptures to blast that woman on Facebook.
Don’t rob them of the chance to be their own hero. Treat your child like a person who is responsible enough to come to you with hard things and work toward a biblical solution.
Don’t sit and dream about blazing into Sunday school and calling that teacher out for their unfair treatment of your child.
And while you can probably justify that action with platitudes about how it’s your JOB to PROTECT them from all the things!!
Try to chill for a minute.
Talk to your child about what they want.
I have been amazed at the incredibly mature and insightful things my elementary age kids have come up with when I wanted to go all She Bear on people.
“Mom, it’s a bad idea for you to go and talk to my Sunday school teacher because I think it will make things worse. So I’m going to pray about it, and the next time Ms. —- uses a harsh tone I’m going to tell her that it hurts my feelings when she uses a harsh tone.”
That’s an incredibly mature and rational approach to this situation and much more polite than what I was going to say to her.
So let your kid lead in the planning if they are showing signs of maturity.
If their plan isn’t one that models Christlike behavior (Let’s buy a whoopie cushion!) guide them in a better direction with “What if we tried this…” sort of questions.
And always pray.
Remind them that the church is a place for sinners.
This is great news because we all need God’s grace daily.
And especially me.
And while it hurts when a fellow believer sins against us, it’s not abnormal.
Because they’re sinners living in a broken world just like you.
Have your kids ever been hurt at church? How did you talk to them about the messy aspect of church life? Tell us in the comments!