Outsourcing the Children

May 16, 2011

Well, it’s Monday again, and…what’s this?  Another video featuring me?

A couple of weeks ago, I participated in a video panel discussion with Tim O’Donnell, who you may remember I featured a couple of months ago with his book, A View From the Back Pew.  We talked about the cultural phenomenon of people calling themselves “Spiritual but not Religious,” among other topics.  Tim was the “Spiritual but not Religious” voice.  I represented the “Religious but Outside the Mainstream Church” voice as a house church pastor.  We were joined by a pastor from Michigan, Bob Cornwall, who represented “institutional” Christianity.  And Evita Ochel, who writes Evolving Beings moderated for us.

The video is, needless to say, awesome, but pretty long at an hour, and you can watch it if you like.  Fast forward to about the 13 minute mark and watch for a couple of minutes to see my comments on the spiritual but not religious phenomenon.

If you don’t want to watch, you don’t have to miss out.  Let me tell you why I think so many people are calling themselves “Spiritual but not Religious.”

Can’t the Church Do That?

When I was a youth pastor, I had dozens of teenagers come to youth group who had been invited by our church’s kids.  Many became regular attendees, and I hoped their families would eventually begin attending our church.  However, much to my dismay, I rarely, if ever met these unchurched teens’ parents.  They didn’t know who I was.  They didn’t know what on earth I was telling their kids.  They were just happy to let another adult drive their kids to youth group for an hour a week to get some “morals.”

Most of these teens, without parental support, fell away from youth group after a few months.  But I made a huge tactical error when I decided my teenagers needed to be pushed to make spirituality a bigger part of their lives.  I announced that attending church just once a month, at any church would be required to attend our youth group.  I figured the kids liked youth group enough that their parents would take them to church twelve measly times a year.  I was wrong.  I never saw a dozen of those teenagers again.  I’m sure it’s because their parents could not be inconvenienced to take them to church.  Pathetic.

Outsourcing Spirituality

That’s what I call “Outsourcing Spirituality.”  It’s when parents are unable, or unwilling to apply what is said at church or youth group to what happens at home.  It’s making someone else responsible for our children’s spiritual development, and it never works.

But it’s not just un-religious parents.  It’s Christian parents too.  Children don’t naturally imitate pastors or youth leaders.  They imitate their parents first.  And when vast numbers of parents just go to church as “fire insurance,” don’t know what the Bible says, can’t explain what they believe, and outsource their kids’ spirituality to the church, while spirituality doesn’t factor into daily life, you get 75% of people my age claiming to be “spiritual but not religious.”  They can’t deny their spiritual longings, but their first role models never demonstrated how life committed to Jesus meets our spiritual needs.

My generation’s spirituality is, at least partly, a damning illustration of how anemic our parents’ spirituality has been.

Outsourcing Everything Else

But it’s not just a problem in the church.  I think we have a major cultural crisis.  Every part of our children’s’ lives is being outsourced.  We’ve outsourced our children’s education to schools for decades.  Fine, but what happens to kids whose parents place no value on learning, the kids whose parents never show to parent-teacher conferences?  They suck at school, and once they graduate, they stop learning forever.  I know as a teacher, it’s very hard to overcome what happens at home.

I’ve noticed that there are very few children playing in their yards or in the park in my neighborhood.  Where are they?  Playtime has been outsourced to constant activities, little league, or video games.  The result?  Kids don’t know how to have leisure outside the structure of a sport or a simulated game world.

Half our kids are obese.  You can guess why I think that is.  Parents outsource their kids’ eating habits to McDonald’s and Coca-Cola.

The result is always the same when a kid’s life is “outsourced.”  He learns in school, but he doesn’t become learned.  He plays a sport, but he doesn’t have leisure.  He eats, but he isn’t healthy.  And he’s spiritual, but not religious.

You can tell I think this is a huge problem, with no easy answers.  But it also takes some of the pressure off the church…but only because it’s not just the church, but our whole culture that’s a sinking ship.  What other ways do we “outsource” our kids?  How do we change paths?

And of course, there are lots of other reasons people become “spiritual but not religious,” so if you are someone, or you know someone, speak up!

27 responses to Outsourcing the Children

  1. I think a big part of the spiritual but not religious trend is that “spiritual” is so vague that you can do anything, be anything or believe anything (or any combination of things) and still be classed as spiritual. No matter how bizzare your combination of beliefs/actions that make up being spiritual, no-one really has anything to critique you against. Once you identify as belonging to a religion there is external standards of belief and behavior that you can be evaluated against and outside which you are no longer a member of that religion. That you can’t just adopt whatever random combination from everything seems like a good idea at the time doesn’t sit well with some people.

  2. The problem of parents not being involved in their children’s religious development is rampant in the Catholic Church also. All Catholic children go through what we call Catechism classes, which teaches them what they need to know about the Bible, the Church, etc., but the people who teach these classes are always lamenting the fact that the parents come to them and say, “why aren’t you teaching them ….?” So now they answer, “because the primary place of faith formation is the home!”

    Needless to say that does not make parents happy. People do outsource their kids and it’s not just in schools and sports and church, why else would children on Facebook be going out to meet adults with whom they’ve never met! It seems that all of childhood has been outsourced.

    Great entry yet again, Matt.

    • What made me think of “outsourcing” was the part in Tim’s book where he said his family wasn’t particularly religious, but his spiritual indoctrination was left up to the nuns. I read that and said, “That’s it!” That’s a huge reason he struggled so much with religion. He never saw it applied powerfully in the home. He can’t deny that he is a person with a spirit, but his experience with church and religion is poisoned.

  3. I think we’ve also lost the subtle art of moderation. I think of the other extreme, where parents pull their kids out of school not trusting its bias and home school. Bible teaching and devotional times are usually scheduled and regimented, too. Some do this well (like my sister and her family) and I’m not criticizing it as a whole,but it’s the only alternative I see. Either total laziness or total burnout; is there no middle ground?

  4. Great thoughts, Matt. I will watch the video once the morning noise ban passes in my house!

    The idea that we are spiritual and not religious is sort of a 12-step left over. So many addicts needed to find a path to God that was not the empty and unsatisfying religion of their youth. That is where the term originated. I used to be one of them. My church upbringing was dead, and had no useful purpose until in my new found sobriety until I met Jesus – then it was a few Bible verses at best.

    Now the term seems to say, “I believe in God, but reject formal religious practice.” It fits universalism, and theory that “all roads lead to god” very well.

    Even your little home church has a format that is like the larger mega versions. Though it is out of the mainstream, and probably informal in many ways, it is still organized like a church. I am pretty sure a mainstreamer would find many recognizable aspects of your worship service. Is that religion? Probably.

    I personally recoil from the term religion because it has meant “practice” in lieu of a personal and dynamic relationship with a Creator that wants us to know him – to call him daddy and speak with him.

    Now onto you main topic, what about the kids? One of the most important things to me, is that the church reach people, not just meet their needs. The requires realtionship, and those can get messy. We have basically created a consumer culture in church. We get Walmart greetings on the way in, and on the way out. Christians have their own language, and in some cases our own attire depending on the denomination. For the most part, we give lip-service to the Gospel, but deny the power. We debate, argue, and pontificate. Few have answered prayers on a weekly basis, or expect to hear from God, yet they claim to have a personal relationship with Him. Why would kids want all that? Heck, most adults are rejecting it!

    In our culture many of us don’t know our neighbors, and are hard pressed to participate in meaningful activities with our families. I know, I am gone 55 hours a week with work and commuting.

    My wife and made a difficult decision, she is not working any hours that our daughter is in school. She has creative time every day, and time to runaround. It’s too bad most of her schoolmates, don’t. The cost is a sacrifice of our future for hers. My first grader goes to the Y and the Boys and Girls Club for a few hours a week because there are no kids in the neighborhood.

    There are many places where we can dump kids, even for the long term: Boarding schools, summer camps and foster care. The worst is probably in from of the TV.

    Here is my take on how we mis it at church, an the affects our familes and kids.

    http://fireandgrace.blogspot.com/2008/12/lesson-in-christian-ese.html
    David recently posted..5 1-2 Barriers to Truth

    • First, David, you are right, our house church is structured like a church. It would be recognizable to anyone who has ever been in church, and that is purposeful on our part. If someone wants to go to a haphazard prayer meeting with no structure or preaching, they can go to another house church…or International House of Prayer.

      But like you, I also recoil at the term “religion.” It’s just too loaded a word, and I’d actually prefer to think of myself as a “spiritual” person. Spiritual is how we are created. Religion is something man creates.

      And great point about not just meeting peoples’ needs. Most of the time, people don’t know what they really need. They act on impulse to satisfy some craving, but they can’t distinguish those from real needs.

  5. I was a youth leader and parents expected us to do all the work. We’d have them for only 2 hours a week. I’d poor my heart out and give it everything for those kids but the parents weren’t appreciative at all since to them we were just a babysitting service. People need to take responsibility for their own salvation and test what is being preached behind the pulpits.
    Mike recently posted..Avoid This Christian Cliché-Ridden Post Like The Plague

  6. I get you Matt. I teach 13-17 year olds once a month…i remember my pastor telling me…that you have to get them interested enough to want to come…but don’t be suprised…half of them their parents Force and make them come so they don’t want to be there….and the other parents just send them cause they don’t want them getting in trouble any where else….so out of 50 kids….you’re really only teaching about 5-10 of them….OUCH! i thought….do i really want to invest my time for this?….but i do it…I’ve changed by way of teaching by being a “storyteller” and it worked….i see them more engaged…

    I hear parants all the time say…i want to start going to chruch….”mostly for my kids”….what does that mean?…..just because you made that statement…i think you need church more than your kids lady! lol…

    Good post matt…

    • Agh! I hate when I hear that. Yet another example of “it’s all for the children.” Except it turns out to be a weak, half-assed attempt that does nothing, or even backfires.

      • My son when he was a teenager felt when I spoke God’s word to him that he could not relate–that it was not a “real” communication style. He wanted me to just talk with him. Although I know God’s word is powerful and does not go out void, I understood that if I didn’t use a fresh approach it was going to fall on deaf ears. I’ve read the Bible now 8 times plus all the teachings, study groups and church since I got saved and was ravenously hungry 14 years ago (having been through cults and every other eastern religion looking to know God from age 15). I’ve now begun a small group in my home for teens and early 20’s (my son is 21 and comes almost every time)and I’ve found a method that had worked for my son. I get a revelation from my time with the Lord and put it into words from my own mind that do line up with what I’ve read, and they respond very well. They are sharing very immediately and openly! Yay God.

  7. “My generation’s spirituality is, at least partly, a damning illustration of how anemic our parents’ spirituality has been.”

    Burn. But I think you are on to something there.

  8. It’s not just with the children. How many people told me I should put my mom in a nursing home because the “experts” could handle her better? I was believing it, too, but my mom wanted to come home so badly it was making her sick, and my husband encouraged me that we would do whatever it took to make it work out at home. And it did. Mom didn’t need an “expert”. She needed to be involved in our lives.
    We have been trained to believe we need experts to care for our children, and experts to care for our elderly, and experts for every area of our lives including decorating our homes and grooming ourselves.
    Helen recently posted..Lewiss Trilemma – I Choose to Believe Jesus is God

  9. I’m getting a little uncomfortable with a couple of comments and I at least need to represent an opposing view for the sake of argument here.

    Assuming that people want to be part of an organized church that does things because that’s the way their grandparents did them is getting increasingly far from the truth. But when they want something else we criticize them for being “spiritual but not religious”? That seems harsh. The way we normally “do church” is neither prescribed nor proscribed in the Bible, so if people are searching and seeking and finding God in a way other than we did, maybe that’s because God is doing something else with them. Maybe they’re heretics or heathens. But just not going to chuch the way others do isn’t an indication of that.

    I really chaffed at the assumption that anyone who doesn’t take their kids to church is pathetic – I know a lot of single moms who have to work on Sundays because that’s when all of the Christians are going out to breakfast and lunch before and after Church. I don’t think that teens searching and responding to the call of a relationship independent of their parents is necessarily the same as the parents “outsourcing” that responsibility. If the parents aren’t going to church, they may not value it. The kids often do. That’s seeking, not reacting to parental pathetic behavior.

    I didn’t outsource my kids, their recreation or their spiritual lives. And my kids have made plenty of mistakes. I was raised in an unbelieving home, and I sought. There is simply not one way to do this thing.

    • Jeanne, thanks for you input. I’m going to try to respond fairly.

      First, I’m not criticizing people for wanting something different from church. As a house church pastor, I’d be the last person to criticize “reinventing” church. What I find disheartening and worthy of concern is that 75% of the people I went to youth group with abandoned Christianity altogether. That’s different from just wanting a different model of church.

      I didn’t intend to assume that all parents who don’t take their kids to church are pathetic. However, I did feel that the parents who never bothered to meet me, and stopped their children’s church involvement the minute they had to lift a finger was pathetic. True, I didn’t know some of their home situations (since they never bothered to meet me.) But I never got a call from a parent concerned over how they would get to church.

      Besides that, with increasing numbers of churches having multiple services all weekend, it’s getting harder for that to be an excuse.

      I loved the fact that teenagers were interested in spirituality, outside of what their parents felt. The kids didn’t know they were being outsourced. True, there is no one way to do things. But if parents want their children to stand a better likelihood of being spiritually engaged adults, they have to learn to lead by example.

      Again, great thoughts. There is always an exception to what I say. Outsourcing is but one of many causes to the problem.

      • The churches having multiple services all weekend are the kinds of churches (in my experience) that I don’t want to attend – they’re usually really big and really impersonal. I really do understand your point, but I have heard so much of this directed at me as a mom (you should homeschool, because sending your child away to school is just outsourcing; you should cook everything from scratch because to buy processed foods is to shirk your responsibility; you should never allow anyone else to care for your children; never work outside the home; even one “teacher” say that disposable diapers or waterproof pants over cloth diapers were just ways for moms to be lazy and not change their children….etc). For the record, shirking is bad (we agree) but the line between irresponsibility and just parenting differently than someone watching that parenting would do it is difficult to draw. Saying people shouldn’t outsource their kids is like saying we should like apple pie and weekends. Figuring out what it looks like is trickier. That was my whole point, not that we disagree about the primary issue of not being a good steward of the responsibilities and gifts God has given us.

        • Amen. And I don’t mean to imply that parents have to do everything. Obviously, most people aren’t going to homeschool their kids. But most children aren’t going to be successful in school without parental interest and involvement in their education. Same with spirituality, and most anything else. There is hardly any program that is going to make kids successful in life on a consistent basis without the parents.

  10. I understand what you’re saying: that people are passing off responsibility to others for raising their children & shaping their children’s beliefs, particularly in the area of church. You’re frustrated that they claim to be spiritual without making an obvious active effort to seek Jesus or lead their kids to do the same, is that correct?

    If that’s what you are saying, I would like to bring up another perspective just for the sake of conversation. What about all those people who seem to be making an effort to be religious, but do not come across as spiritual people?

    I’ve been through a lot with my local church. Honestly I’ve been more loyal to this particular body of believers than I really wanted to.

    I’m completely over those who are religious but not spiritual.

    Those people who show up on Sunday and attend enough church extracurriculars to look like a good religious Christian, but at the same time refuse to listen to, care for, give to, or love other people both inside and outside the church. My most recent interactions with people in a church setting have been of this nature, so why would I want to be religious, or teach my kids to be religious, if that’s the way it works?

    With that being said, I am personally of the opinion that one needs to be involved with a group of fellow Christians so you can all seek and worship together. But, if my only interaction with religious people had been of this nature, what would make me think religion is valuable either to me, or my children?

    My opinion is that the best way to bring Jesus to people is to build a relationship with them. If you’re living your life to honor Christ, they’ll see that in you, regardless of whether or not you’re spiritual, religious, or just a simple follower of The Way. If you’re working with youth, then you need to build a relationship with the youth. Be an adult they can trust, look up to, and come to with those spiritual questions their parents don’t/can’t/won’t answer.

    If you’re concerned about the parents of the youth not making an effort to come to church, are you making an effort to take Jesus to them? Even with a simple introduction face to face: “Hi, your son/daughter is in my small group at church and I just wanted to introduce myself to you and let you know that you can call/email me if you need anything.”

    I’ve said a lot here, so I’ll go, but I did want to mention one last thing. I read through your post the first time and honestly I was offended at something I couldn’t put my finger on. I read it through again to try and find out, but still had no idea. I left it alone all day, and am now coming back to it. I think you’re mostly just venting, but your tone came across as angry and judgmental. There were several blanket statements that bothered me, and no solutions suggested to remedy the situations. I know you’re a smart guy, up for a good conversation, so I hope you don’t take my comments personally. I just wanted to add another perspective to the mix.

    Thanks for being willing to initiate conversation.
    Jen C recently posted..Silly Socks

  11. Are you freakin kidding me! This is the first time I have been ticked off at you Matt! Let me just say you are treading on really shaky ground here buddy.
    I am an involved parent. I’m a teacher by profession, but have given that up to be a full time mom. I find teachable moments every day with my boys. I have been a confidant for most of their lives. I read to them out of the Bible every night, taught them Bible stories, read devotionals with them, and incorporated God into every aspect of our daily lives.
    Enter, the world. Enter, the serpent. Enter, the apple. Enter teenage hormones.
    Enter the youth group who doesn’t allow parent participation so that the kids don’t feel “stifled”. Enter the youth pastors who want to be cool and entertain instead of teach. Enter the kid who is seeking out an accepting group and can’t find it in the church, so he finds it in the world.
    And you blame the parents? Really, Matt?

    • Hey Jillian, it’s okay to be ticked at me. :) I write from my experience. My experience (as a teacher, youth pastor, and minister who does his dead level best to reach children every day) says that you are not part of the the problem. But I have witnessed many, many parents in school, youth group, and church who simply make poor decisions for their children. Like I said, it can’t be all the parents’ fault. I think it’s a complex problem. But I do think it’s there.

      • And now that I think about it a little bit more, your objections to “youth groups that don’t allow parent participation, youth pastors who entertain instead of teach, etc.” actually prove my point to some degree. More and more, public schools, churches, and other youth organizations don’t deserve to be trusted with our kids’ education, spirituality, etc. It’s still up to parents to be their children’s first and primary role model for success, education and spirituality.

        Hope that makes sense.

        • Heh Matt, sorry for coming at you with both barrels yesterday. I was in a really bad mood and this post put me over the edge. Not because of the post, but because of my years of experience with youth groups, and the reason that I’m in a bad mood.
          Your post does make sense, and when I re-read it, I realised that it wasn’t directed at me as an involved parent, but the non-involved parent.
          My frustration with youth group has been REALLY high. While I realise that it is MY responsibility to ‘train a child in the way that he should go’; there has been a point in both of my son’s lives where they want to know that there are other kids out there who believe the same thing. They come to a place where they have to own their faith, so they look for people outside of the family to help them make sense of it.
          Enter the youth group.

          Our first experience with a youth pastor: Jeff.
          Jeff had been a Christian for 3 years. He had been a satan worshipper before that. He would talk about that in youth group. One day, while talking about how God had delivered him, he went into a 30 minute detailed description on what life was like as a satan worshipper. He described ‘his very own demon’ that would appear to him, poems that he wrote to that demon, etc., etc., etc,.
          See any problem with that? My 13 year old did! Gave him nightmares when he slept, couldn’t stay at home alone because he would hear things, really freaked him out. When I talked to Jeff about it, his response was “maybe your kid’s not mature enough to be in youth group”. Yep. Go to the senior pastor, you say? It was his brother-in-law.
          We left that church.
          Next youth group leader pretty much walked on water (thank you LORD for redeeming my faith).
          Then we moved to another state.
          Youth group leader was a homeschooling mom of girls who ran the youth program the same way. blech for boys.
          Left that slumber party to go to another one, where if my kid was the only one who showed up (which happened more and more often) group was cancelled.
          My son has not denounced his faith, but has not found anyplace to help him grow in it. Looks pretty boring to him.
          I know it is deep in his Spirit, by the choices he makes and the way he lives. I just don’t know if it’s alive and active.
          Wow, kinda dumped. You touched a nerve w/ this post.

          • Dang! You have been burned out on youth group. I admit, I was never the best youth leader, but at least I had my head on straight and loved kids.

            Sounds like you’ve made some tough calls for the sake of not outsourcing your kids’ spirituality. You weren’t content to just let someone else take care of it, especially when the youth leaders were lacking. I have no doubts you’ve been a great mom to your kids.

          • AWWWW! Thanks Matt! (to your reply below)
            I don’t know how I could get 3 bad experiences with one kid!?! I do believe that his faith has taken a hit; but I also believe God is bigger that those crazy experiences.
            I’m not burnt out on youth group, my younger son currently attends one; but believe you me I’m protective!
            It has always mistified me that some youth pastors don’t feel an obligation to be accountable to parents.
            I might be calling on you to ‘youth pastor’ my son in the following year…

  12. Hit the nail on the head with this one (sorry for the cliche).

    We’ve been wrestling with this problem in our very mainstream Lutheran church. Parents knock themselves out to get their kids into confirmation(two years, weekly meetings, homework, etc) for sixth and seventh graders. We never saw these kids (or their parents) when they were toddlers and elementary students. And, no surprise, we don’t see most of the kids (and most of their parents) after the confirmation is done or after eighth grade.

    Many of these parents insist that they are coming to church now for their kids. To me, it seems like a booster shot–let’s get the kids’ moral immune systems beefed up before puberty sets in for real. They want the church to do it all for them.

    My kids have been exposed to church life since they were in the womb. I am active in my church and in my community. I have been advocating for a number of social justice issues as long as my kids can remember.

    But don’t think I’ve got little spiritual gurus in my house. My son attends willingly when he’s home from college and volunteers for VBS (he would have made a wonderful camp counselor)but doesn’t darken the door of a church while at college.

    My own 17 year old daughter hated confirmation and has balked at attending services, and refuses to join our tiny youth group. My daughter (much to her dismay)is stuck with me while I’m plowing through Bonhoeffer’s latest biography or discussing why it saddens me when people chortle gleefully about the death of Bin Laden. My husband claims I think too much. But I’m in the camp of preferring to ask questions rather than have all the answers. I’m doing my best to keep my daughter’s spiritual growth on track so that when she’s ready to find a church home she’ll have the spiritual chops (hopefully) to chose well.
    Cathi Bruhn recently posted..Our Typical Situation