Saturday, December 01, 2012

Parenting Unrehearsed: How to keep your kids from spending too much time at church

— adj

(of a play, speech, etc) not having been practiced in advance

I might also add off-the-cuff, in no particular order, results may vary.  For six(ish) weeks I'll share here  -- off the top of my head -- a few practices we may have learned in our twenty-one years of parenting four children. 

Chapter 1:  Your Kids Were Supposed to Have Perfect Parents.

How to keep your kids from spending too much time at church.

(or, There's No Such Thing As Secular But There Is Counter-Cultural)

Perhaps my delay in writing this particular topic for the series relates to a deep, exhausting fear of being misunderstood.  I've invested too many days of my life perpetrating a false identity as an easy-going, un-opinionated, comme ci comme ça kinda girl.  If you'd thought to ask them, my kids could have told you different. (For example, see my son's tell-all essay: Why We've Saved for Therapy Instead of College.).

Kindhearted friends use terms such as  sass, passion, spunk; one boss described me as "provoking", once a coach more plainly: "Tam, sometimes you are such a pill." 

By the comic grace of God, His Spirit energizes me away from cynicism and toward hope-filled encouragement.  I am most alive during the act of encouragement: inspiring, empathizing, championing.  I'd like to think the same holy alive-ness is what prompted me to write these parenting posts in the first place.

Still, the subject at hand weighs heavy, this temptation to raise our kids in a manufactured subculture -- sheltered from the culture of our particular place and time.  The topic, in my experience, provokes disagreement, separates relationships.

In short: I've dragged my heels almost two months to write this post because I am afraid.  I'm afraid my words will dis-courage rather than en-courage. I'm afraid you won't like me anymore.

By the skin of my chattering teeth, I hope to say what I believe to be true on the subject.  And trust God's Spirit to sort it all out with you in your family. 

What's your family's cultural footprint?


Quick -- jot down three feeling words that rose up in your gut in response to the word culture.  No need for any fancy magazine-quiz calculations, those three words will tell you everything you need to know about the message you're giving your kids.

Still, let's add a few more categories to our cultural footprint inventory.

  • List all the places your family has interacted with others this week.  School, church, sports leagues, recreational events.  For example, my family (some together and some individually) went to church, youth group, high school, community college, university, seminary, writer's groups, Young Life group, four different workplaces, small group, babysitting jobs, swim practice, high school football game, CD release party, comedy clubs and a freshman class camping trip in the Texas countryside.
  • In another column, make a list of media, arts and entertainment you've engaged:  books, film and television, sporting events, recreational games, music, concerts, theater, exhibits, etcetera.  Add a separate category for news and information:  news programs, blogs, journals, papers, and other publications informing you on current world events.
  • In the next column, list the establishments you gave financial patronage this week (beyond basic expenses of shelter).  Include everything from the drive-through coffee, thrift store sweater, box store bulk items, cable and internet consumption, independent artist transactions, retail chain purchases -- both brick and mortar as well as online.
  • Now make a list of goods your family has created or cultivated this week -- anything that you mixed individual raw ingredients to make a new entity as well as the ongoing maintenance of that creation.  Meals, stories, crafts, spreadsheets, music, gardens, scarves, wood piles, stand-up routines, poems, presentations, paintings -- you get the idea.
  • Last make a list of the people (individuals or groups, specific or general) your family influenced, served or connected with face to face in any meaningful way.  For example, I'd include Samsung repair customers in Austin I spoke with over the phone for my day job as well as the women I prayed for in my Living Waters small group.  I might even include the woman who asked my opinion about apples in the produce aisle at Central Market.

Please note: I'm the first person to champion virtual meaningful connections -- including the oft-villianized Facebook comment.  To keep this simple, though, I'm leaving virtual connections out of the conversation.  In itself, that omission from your inventory will be telling.

What's the point of all this list making?

Our weekly decisions, the ways we spend our precious resources of time, energy and money, will tell us much more about our posture toward culture than our words ever will.  The lists hold a mirror up to our family's cultural stance and tell us what beliefs we actually embody.  In other words, do we walk what we talk? 

It matters; the belief about culture my family embodies through our calendar, our clubs, our shopping, our learning, doing, being, making matters. Take your list and do a quick tally.  In broad, generalized categories where are you spending most of your time, what types of people form your community -- in real life -- most of the time?  Where are you spending your family's precious resources -- time, money and energy?  What people groups do your resources bless most often?

Now we are ready to take an honest look at what our cultural footprint says about our family. Fortunately we have the help of cultural analysts, authors and Christians far smarter than me to help us assess. Gather your lists, say a quick prayer for a healthy dose of humble, gospel-oriented self-awareness.  Also, it can't hurt to add to your petition a prayer for a grace-filled sense of humor. 

Don't worry -- it's candy.

Cultural rubrics for Christians 

I plan to write a recommended reading list as a separate post in the Parenting Unrehearsed series. For the purpose of this topic I'll mention only a few specific influences: 
Also, Pastor and author Tim Keller, among his many excellent writings on the subject, coined the term "counterculture for the common good" as a helpful motto for living out the Gospel as restorative salt and light in a decaying world.  (you can hear Tim Keller's brief overview in this interview clip with Gabe Lyons: Tim Keller on Counterculture for the Common Good)

Brian and I have been most helped by synthesizing the words of Christian thinkers ancient and current.  That would be hard to do in the confines of one blog post.  I chose to share, instead, an excerpt from Gabe Lyons' article written for his online magazine Q: Ideas for the Common Good: 
via Q's article What Does Being Countercultural Look Like by Gabe Lyons:
Separatism. In the past, some Christians fell into the separatist trap. They responded to culture with condemnation and retreat... But Christians who remove themselves from the world in hopes of self-preservation fail to realize that true cultural separation is impossible. More importantly, separation ignores the task we've been given to carry the love of God forward to those who might need it most.
Antagonism. Some Christians see little in the current culture worth redeeming and have decided to fight against almost everything culture promotes. ...they are known for being great at pointing out the problems of society, but they rarely offer good... alternatives that promote a better way of life. ...
Relevance. Others have gone to the opposite extreme by falling into the "relevance trap." ... In an effort to appeal to outsiders, some Christians simply copy culture. They become a Xerox of what they perceive as hip in hopes that people ... give them a chance. Unfortunately, this pursuit of pop-culture removes the church from its historically prophetic position in society....
Countercultural. The next generation of Christians aren't separatists, antagonists, or striving to be "relevant." Instead, they are countercultural as they advance the common good in society....They understand that by being restorers they fight against the cultural norms and often flow counter to the cultural tide. But they feel that, as Christians, they've been called to partner with God in restoring and renewing everything they see falling apart.
NYC at Christmas

Cultural Liturgies via James K. A. Smith

In his book Desiring the Kingdom, James K. A. Smith crafts the term "cultural liturgies" to describe the practices, routines and rituals that have the most profound, formative effects on our identities as individuals -- I'd add families -- in our culture.  In other words,  those people, places and things we added to our cultural footprint lists above, when repeated often enough, serve as material, embodied routines that become part of the "very fiber of our character, wired into our second nature". (Smith) 

If you read nothing else of his work, do not miss Smith's description of the shopping mall as our modern-day cathedral of worship.  The author holds up the routines, images and habits of modern-day retail consumerism as an example of a powerful cultural liturgy.  His premise is that these routines of consumerism serve as calls and acts of "worship" forming us into cultural beings assimilated to a certain belief system with the power to infuse all the rest of our habits and attitudes.

From this vantage point, I'd add the category "Conformism" to Lyons list above: so much in the world, so assimilated to its rituals and belief systems we've lost our Gospel-formed counter offer of restoration and renewal.

Cultural Gestures and Postures via Andy Crouch

In the book Culture Making, Andy Crouch outlines the same spectrum of cultural engagement for Christians over the last couple of centuries:  Condemning, Copying, Consuming, Critiquing, Cultivating and Creating culture.  I am indebted to Crouch's description of our various patterns of engagement as cultural gestures.  These cultural gesturesmade habitually, form our attitudes and habits into cultural postures.

In this conversation on our family's cultural footprint the difference between gestures and postures make a world of difference. On any given day, I'm faced with a choice for myself and my children that may require a gesture of separation, critique, disapproval.  But none of those gestures describe what I wish for my general posture in our culture.  This means that most often I must practice habits of creating and cultivating culture in order to stand up straight in a life-giving, loving God and neighbor, counter cultural for the common good sort of posture.

full disclosure

As of this moment our four children are ages 21, 19, 16 and 15.  In some ways, we're just beginning to see the fruit of our parenting decisions over the years.  Depending on the week, I might tell you we've wrecked our kids, that once or twice a week church is not nearly enough and we recommend you put your kids in a six-hour-a-day Bible class lest they turn out like our four little heathens.

You think I'm kidding?

Not even a little bit.

It's entirely possible we've made more wrong decisions than right in stewarding our family's cultural footprint.  In the past week I've had to remind myself the truth like a mantra:  Jesus stretches out time, redeems time to save me and my kids. For good measure I add the ancient Jesus prayer:  Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

And I remember: our kids are not fragile, they were supposed to get perfect parents, and I do, indeed, need our village.  Lord, have mercy.

For us this means putting our kids in the highly-imperfect public school system, living within walking distance of the school and most of the businesses we patronize.  It means we look at art -- in all its mediums -- together, reflect together, enjoy together. It means following an intentional liturgical calendar in our corporate and private times of worship. 

For your family the boundaries may be drawn in different places.  My best suggestions for you as you reflect:  Be thoughtful.  Take risks. Choose humility.  And for the love of God and neighbor, don't try to do this alone.

How do we learn to be the sort of restorative culture-making, culture-blessing Christians?  How can we become better seers?  Trained enough to look deeply into the noisy, turbulent cultural tide washing over us each day. Wise enough to find those people and structures for us to attach ourselves.  Strong enough to push back the tide of cultural norms while swimming deeply in the wake?

I know no better practice to train our eyes for this sort of seeing work than the daily practice of a sacramental life.

practice a sacramental life
"Now, you may find yourself a bit skittish about the word sacramental and what you associate with sacramentalism. If so, I would ask that you try to suspend judgment...a sacramental understanding of the world is simply a shorthand way of describing the psalmist's claim that "The earth is the LORD"s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it" (Ps. 24:1) ...
Implicit in the materiality of Christian worship is this sense that God meets us in materiality, and that the natural world is always more than just nature... the whole world, as Hopkins lyricized, is charged with the grandeur of God; for the Christian social imaginary, the world is always more than it seems, without being less than it seems."  (James K. A. Smith, Discovering the Kingdom)

I think what makes me most sad is that, often in the name of being separate from culture we embody, instead, the very same values our culture most need us to counter.

We make cultural decisions motivated by individual lifestyle preferences rather than about stewarding the Kingdom of Jesus.  We think culture is a choice we can pick like our favorite radio station rather than a calling to live like Jesus in the specific place and time -- culture -- in which He's placed us.
Repeating an important disclaimer:

Relax. You've got time, it's going to take time

I know, I know - old ladies have stopped you in the store five trillion times to warn you that the time flies by faster than you can imagine and that you need to make the most of every single moment with your cherubs.  And that's sort of true.  

Most true, though, is that Jesus is a redeemer of time. He moves outside of time and space, He returns time and stretches it out in just the right ways so He can save you and your kids.  When you read any practical suggestions I have to offer please take your time, consider, pray, laugh, relax.

Put another way, maybe the very, very best advice I have to offer parents is this:

Reject hyper-vigilance, embrace spacious grace.
With that in mind, let me share with you some of what I've learned about the practice of a sacramental life: 
Go to Church:  Yes, I know the title of the post might lead you to believe -- incorrectly -- I intended to minimize the value of regular, intentional gatherings with a local body of Christ-followers.  By no means.

While we are called to worship Father, Son and Spirit in all places in culture, there is an intensity -- a deeper level of sacramentality -- to the weekly gathering of believers who meet to do the work of worship at Word and Table.  The habits of worship we practice together each week forms us for worship in all other times and places. The disciplines we practice with our local church community strengthen us to serve the common good of our cities, neighborhoods, schools, workplaces and beyond.

We collectively make up the Body of Christ -- and we need each other for this beautiful work.

Go Home: (your family and neighborhood) 

What simpler protest against the cultural frenetic norms than the act of staying home?  

Go back to the cultural footprint exercise we completed together a few paragraphs ago.  List the numbers of days your family was home together for a meal.  For unscheduled, "hanging out" time? For standing in your yard chatting with the neighbors time?

 For all the profundity of Jesus' birth into the ordinary life of family and home, there is also the reminder that God made all things good.  For the rest of His life, He blesses the domestic mundane, and saints ever since have done the same.  This must be one of the easiest ways to follow Christ -- if only we'd develop the reserves of contentment required to rest in our homes.

On a larger scale, may I commend our strategy of living close to where we work, go to school, do our shopping and go to church?  Of course, the practical benefits for this lifestyle mean more time, money and energy to use in other ways.  The benefits multiply beyond dollars and minutes in a greater sense of place within our culture.  Rather than belonging to stretches of highway miles and carpool lanes each week, we are rooted in one neighborhood day in and day out.

Go Local: (your city, state and country)

A sacramental life flourishes in the particular materials of place and time.  As Jesus entered the world in Bethlehem during the census, you have entered your city at this time.  You interact daily with the people, institutions and infrastructure of your city; those daily routines -- empowered by the spirit of the Incarnate Christ -- become means of grace for you and all you encounter.  

  • In what ways are you creating and cultivating culture in and for your city? 
  • What are you making as an offering for your city?
  • What public places are you helping to flourish?
  • With what broken, decaying parts of your community are you on a first-name basis?
  • When was the last time you enjoyed a public place for no other reason than enjoyment?
  • How often do you enjoy -- and purchase -- work from your hometown artists? 
  • What problems in your city are you helping to solve?
  • What locally-owned businesses would miss your family if you moved away?

Go Global: (the nations of the world)

For all His particularity, Jesus shattered any provincial ideologies with His insistence that we are empowered to go into all the world.  By His life and His teaching He embodied God's ancient covenant with Abraham that all peoples on earth would be blessed through his family.  By His death and resurrection -- indeed in the very breaking of body and shedding of blood -- Jesus gave us a new covenant.  In the same way, our very bodies become a sacrament for Christ to extend His work into the world through us and in us.

  • When's the last time you had a conversation with someone from a different ethnic background?
  • What kids do your kids know that look, sound, think differently than your family?
  • What part(s) of the world --outside of the United States -- are you serving with time, energy and money on a regular basis?
  • When is the last time you enjoyed -- and purchased -- work from artists from another nation?  
  • Have you dared to ask God which members of your family He may want to send out to peoples of other nations who have not yet heard the Gospel of Christ?
The list of questions has no end.  In the asking and pondering, we discover our calling as culture makers, cultural beings serving the common good.  The process of discovering -- and fulfilling -- our calling can not happen inside the walls of our churches, our homes, our small groups or our mini-vans.

The beauty of the Gospel is this:  by the Spirit of the Living Christ we blaze pathways through the desert of our culture, the cultural footprint we tamp down between Church, home, our cities and our world makes a highway fit for our God.  We follow the Word made flesh, preparing a way for the restorative work of His Kingdom.  That all may see the glory of the Lord revealed.

And of his Kingdom -- of His peace -- there will be no end.

 Make All Things New, Jim Janknegt



Next time on Parenting Unrehearsed: 

I love to hear from you!  For example, what are some ways you've both learned and taught healthy practices of sacramental living?  Also, please feel free to share the sorts of questions you've been asking about parenting.


P.S. If you'd like to receive This Sacramental Life in your inbox, enter your email address here

*Thank you to the lovely Lindsey from Lindsey Davern Photography for capturing the hilarious -- and unrehearsed -- family photo I'm using for this series.*

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