A huge burden could be lifted from our children if they had a place to go each week that offered them grace and refuge from anxiety.
It seems like every time I turn around, an editor assigns me a story related to the mental health crises of our children. Most of the health experts I speak to correlate Covid lockdowns and our children’s fragile state. Closing schools played a major role in this phenomenon, but what if other crucial factors are being overlooked?
Another story, seemingly unrelated to the mental health crisis, is making the rounds in the corporate press. Church attendance is on a rapid decline. The “nones,” survey respondents who say they have no religious affiliation, are the fastest-growing group in the United States every year. We now have a generation of adults that grew up not attending worship services weekly, and they are raising their children in a similar fashion.
The “nones” seem to prefer a parenting style that says: “We’re fine without church and worship and religious instruction and institutions, thank you very much.” But they are not fine. Their children are not coping and managing the day-to-day stresses and inconveniences thrown at them. They are fragile and increasingly so.
The “nones” will tell you it is because we need to better embrace children’s differences and preferences (like their pronouns) while empowering them with positive affirmations and encouraging personal acceptance through self-esteem workshops. We clutter their calendars with sports, theater, STEM clubs, and dance classes. If none of that pans out, we allow our kids to self-medicate with hours spent on social media.
Parents will do all of this, but won’t take their families to church. Yet research shows that children who attend weekly worship services have higher GPAs, score higher on standardized tests, and are less likely to be held back a grade. They also are more likely to achieve a bachelor’s degree in college.
So why aren’t parents taking their children to weekly worship?
When surveyed, parents often respond that their children and teens do not want to attend worship. This democratic approach to family decision-making only seems to apply to church attendance, however. For other important decisions like wearing a seatbelt or vaccinations, parents balk at giving their children voting privileges. A child’s vote carries more weight when it aligns with a parent’s desire to stay home in pajamas on a Sunday morning.
Why should church attendance be considered a powerful tool for parents to boost their children’s mental health? We can look to the research for the answer.
In a 2018 study, Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health found some surprising benefits to children and adolescents who attend weekly worship. It turns out that children and teens who attend church grow up to be young adults with higher rates of reported happiness and life satisfaction. They were less likely to suffer from anxiety and depression, less likely to use illicit drugs, and less likely to engage in early sex and contract sexually transmitted infections.
With all of these positive outcomes for children who attend weekly worship, should we be surprised that children who do not have a similar structure in their lives experience an inverse phenomenon?
In addition, these same young adults were more likely to embrace volunteering and reported feeling a sense of mission and purpose than their non-church-attending counterparts.
With all of these positive outcomes for children who attend weekly worship, should we be surprised that children who do not have a similar structure in their lives experience an inverse phenomenon? Is it any wonder that anxiety and depression among children and teens are on the rise when every day, their still-forming brains are bombarded with information about doom and destruction while they drown in a sea of gender confusion and racial animus?
We think we can combat all the negativity by telling children: “You are perfect! You are awesome! You keep being you!” We put these pithy platitudes on T-shirts and backpacks and stickers with unicorns and rainbows. At the end of a bad day, our kids know that this is no substitute for the real deal.
Each of us knows these sentiments are superficial. We are poor, miserable sinners in need of forgiveness. Where do we go with all our baggage when the church is not an option? We go to therapists and pharmacists, but trends show that the last place parents want to go is the place actually offering a solution.
What could families find at church that they won’t find anywhere else? Hopefully, something that is woefully lacking in the world around them: the truth.
Newsflash, kids! You are not perfect! You know that mean thing you did to your classmate in the cafeteria? That was a sin. And that nasty thought you had about that person? That was a sin. And the snide comment you made to your mom when you were hangry? Yep. Are you starting to see a pattern here?
Good news: you’ve come to the right place! Jesus came for sinners. As a matter of fact, the church is filled with them. Each week, they come to hear the message that even though we are sinful human beings, Jesus died for those sins. When we confess those nasty thoughts and horrible things we did, we can receive forgiveness — a clean slate!
Will we mess up again on Monday? Of course. But that’s why we can look forward to church. Can we try harder to be better people? Kinder people? Yes, we can. Does our forgiveness depend upon what we do and how we perform each week? Nope. You are forgiven because God loves you that much, so much that he sent his son to take the punishment that should have been yours and mine.
Imagine what a burden could be lifted from our children if they had a place to go each week that offered them that grace. How much better could they cope with a bad day, knowing that each moment offers a fresh start? How much more resilient could our children become?
Parents, we put our children at a disadvantage when we do not give them the very thing they need for their mental and spiritual health. It is time to put a new priority on the family calendar every Sunday. If we won’t do it for ourselves (and we should), let’s do it for our children. The next generation depends on it.
Mary Rose Kulczak
Mary Rose Kulczak is a writer for various parent and child publications. She is a wife and mother of three sons, and currently resides in Saline, Michigan.