Parents regularly say to me, with a somewhat guilty air, “I really should take my kids to church.” It’s possible they’re just throwing that statement out there, rather haphazardly, as a courtesy let’s say, since they know I work at a church. It’s sort of analogous to my saying “I really should exercise more,” when I’m around someone who is obviously toned and fit. When it comes to parents and church, I’ve learned that there’s often some sort of underlying struggle there, even if I don’t always know exactly what it is, so I understand that “going to church” easily falls to the bottom of the family “to-do” list.
One of the problems that arises when kids never step foot in a church is neither moral nor theological, in my opinion. It’s cultural. Like it or not, we are a Christian nation. Our kids’ winter breaks at school are completely in line with Christmas. Their spring breaks often coincide with Easter. Couples frequently choose to marry in churches. And following the death of a loved one, many families seek out a church for memorial services/celebrations of life. When we argue about the separation of church and state, we argue about whether or not it’s appropriate to pray publicly to God before city council meetings and football games – not about whether groups can publicly meditate in their search for enlightenment. Years ago, my parents took us (my sister, my brother, and me) out to eat at a fancy restaurant. They said we needed to learn what to expect and how to act in that environment. I guess I feel the same way about church.
In this column, I offer a few suggestions for taking your kids to church without actually taking them to a Christian service on a Sunday morning. All of them will give your kids an opportunity to experience the energy and tone present in a house of worship. They will see the features that exist in most Christian churches – like altars, candles, crosses, choir lofts, pews, and hymnals – but they will also begin to see that churches have distinctive features, as well. Some differences are denominational. Catholic and Episcopal churches tend to be more ornate; Methodist and Baptist churches tend to be more austere. Catholic churches are more likely to display a crucifix – a cross with a representation of Jesus’ body hanging on it. Protestant churches are more likely to display “empty” crosses. When it comes down to it, every single church is unique. I just attended a celebration of life at a small, neighborhood Methodist church. The choir loft was in the front of the church, and the organ was off to the left behind the pulpit. The church was shaped like a simple rectangle, and the arches reaching up toward the central beam were reminiscent of a ship’s hull. There were also several large-screen, high-definition TVs lining the outer walls. I’ve seen big screens in many places of worship, but nothing quite like this, and never juxtaposed with the ship’s hull effect.
So here are my suggestions for going to church without going to church. Most of them are free or relatively inexpensive. Once inside the church, take a deep breath and look around. You’ll immediately notice features that are worth pointing out to your kids. Eventually, they’ll begin to recognize them on their own.
One of the easiest ways to get inside a church is to attend a concert. Many choirs, gospel groups, handbell groups, and organists perform a concert at least once a year. Churches also host traveling musicians. I recently attended a solo opera recital by a soprano vocalist. The concert happened to be in an Episcopal church (St. Matthias in Asheville, NC) that originally served African-Americans who were free from slavery but not allowed to attend “White” churches. I had heard of the church, but I had never been inside, and I was completely unfamiliar with their story. The concert was an easy way for me to experience this historic church only a few blocks away from where I work. This particular church actually offers at least two concerts every month. Some are classical; some are not. The concerts are “donation requested” and all the money is used to restore and maintain the church. All in all, it’s a pretty sweet deal.
We do have a “Religion Notes” section in our local paper that frequently lists church-related concerts, but I have to be honest, I usually find out about these concerts by perusing the bulletin boards in our local supermarkets. If there are churches you are particularly interested in seeing, visit their web sites because most churches also post upcoming concerts on the internet.
Another way to visit churches is to take a tour. Many historical churches offer their own tours. At the Basilica of St. Lawrence here in Asheville, you can schedule a guided tour, take a self-guided tour, or watch a virtual tour on your computer. If you’re not sure what churches you want to tour, try conducting an internet search. Several churches in Asheville (including the Basilica of St. Lawrence) are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Your home town/city probably has a similar list. Or, contact the local Chamber of Commerce. They can usually make suggestions about this sort of thing.
I recently took a tour at St. James Episcopal in Hendersonville, NC. They have a spectacular bell tower, and we were able to see the ringers while they were practicing. Their tower contains eight bells that comprise a full A-major scale. Change ringers, as they are called, pull on the bell ropes in a pre-determined, mathematical fashion to produce melodies. The lightest bell weighs 325 pounds; the heaviest one is over 1,000 pounds. The tour was fascinating and also included information about the church’s stained glass windows.
If your home town/city is not at all interesting in the church category, look for churches you might visit while on vacation. Visit the Old North Church in Boston, the National Cathedral in Washington D.C., or Holy Trinity church near Central Park West in New York City. Churches are living museums. They contain beautiful art, showcase remarkable architecture, and preserve the stories of the many people who have passed through.
If your kids are young or they simply get bored during tours, then just walk in! Many churches are open to the public during business hours when staff are working in the offices. Most churches list their “open to the public” hours on their web sites, but you can always call first to be sure you can get in to the sanctuary.
Churches also host other events. This year, on Martin Luther King, Jr. day, the Asheville peace march/rally started at a local AME (African Methodist Episcopal) church. That evening, there was a candlelight service at another local church. Both events were free.
I recently had an interesting experience at a local church that was hosting a bell-ringing to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary school. The mayor of our town, who is Jewish, spoke at the event and brought her children. Since it was close to Christmas, there was a huge Christmas tree in the sanctuary near the pulpit. While this is not unusual for churches, it was an uncommon sight for the mayor’s children, which served as a nice reminder that you don’t need to identify as a Christian to visit churches.
My final suggestion is to consider attending a holiday performance. Holiday plays and performances are often geared toward children, they often include kids in the cast, and they are often staged outside of Sunday morning services. I would suggest a Christmas play as churches tend to relate the story of Jesus’ birth in a straight-forward, age-appropriate manner. The Biblical Christmas story is also a beautiful tale of hope and love – even if you don’t take it literally – and some churches even use real animals. Plays/Events associated with Halloween or the Passion can be a bit trickier. Halloween performances often focus on the “evils” of our society, and you may or may not agree with their portrayals. Similarly, passion plays, by their very nature, focus on Jesus’ crucifixion, and you may not want your kids to see what some churches choose to show. I would not say these events are off-limits, but you might want to check in with someone who can give you more details about the specific performance that interests you.
There are lots of legitimate reasons why kids never step foot inside a church. Some families simply like to relax on Sunday mornings. Everyone has to be up and out the door early during the weekdays; on Saturday, there are errands to run, friends to meet, and various extra-curricular activities to attend; and no one wants to rush around on Sunday morning, too. Others struggle to find a church that works for everyone in the family. Adult family members may have been raised Christian but no longer find meaning in the theology or liturgy of mainstream church services. Family members not raised in a religious tradition at all may be unsure about where to begin since it all seems so complicated and controversial. Many times, parents come from different religious traditions, making it hard to choose one faith community over another. Despite all that, I think my parents were right. “It’s good to know what to expect and how to act.”
The bottom line is that there are lots of ways to get inside a church. They do not have to be expensive. They will not challenge you theologically. And you can even do it while you’re on vacation, away from the hustle and bustle of daily life. As parents, you just have to make it happen.
A few of the many beautiful churches in the Asheville area:
To help you plan your next family vacation…
I don’t like the use of the word “ugly” here, since beauty is in the eye of the beholder and in the hearts of the parishioners, but these two web sites feature a lot of…shall we say…interesting churches.