Dear Parents: You're Already Choosing Your Child's Religion

Being a father or mother is a lot like being a priest. It doesn’t matter if you’re Jewish, Christian, or one of the “religious nones.” Whatever faith—or the lack thereof—parents affirm, they spend about 18 years conducting a profoundly influential worship service in the lives of their children.

@@Parenting is basically the Liturgy of Child Rearing.@@

What I mean is this: through tens of thousands of ordinary, daily interactions, moms and dads orient young hearts toward a vision of what James K. A. Smith calls “the good life.”* Parents show their children what to love, what to desire, what matters most. This usually happens unconsciously. By example, practice, habit, and speech, parents are saying to their children, “This is the good life. The fulfilling life. The life worth living.”

In other words, parents teach their children what or who to love, to trust in, to rely upon to find fulfillment in life. That “who” or “what” is their G/god.

The question is not: should you choose your child's religion?
Rather, it’s this: which religion are you choosing for your child?

It may be one of the traditional faiths. Or it may be plastic religions such as The Next Big Thing or iFaith.

The Religions of the Next Big Thing and iFaith

In the religion of the Next Big Thing, the sacraments are degrees, promotions, acquisitions, whatever moves one along toward (what has been determined to be) the good life. If I get into this university, I’ll finally be happy. If I make this much money, I’ll matter. If I marry this person, I’ll find contentment. If I buy this house, I'll be important. If the Next Big Thing in my life happens, I’ll able to justify my existence. I’ll be resurrected from a life of boredom, and discontent. I’ll mean something. I’ll be somebody. That’s what I love so that’s what I pursue with my whole heart. This is the stuff of religion. It just goes by a different name.

Perhaps it’s the religion of iFaith. In this faith, what matters is saying something new, believing something new, breaking religious barriers, rewriting creeds, moving beyond the dead doctrines of dead people expressed in their dead rituals. In iFaith, the versions are constantly being updated so you have to constantly be adapting. Whatever was cutting edge yesterday is dull today. Whatever is new is better. If something is said in a way no one has said it before, it’s probably true. The good life is found in being different, special, unique from others.

Whatever faith—or cocktails of faiths—parents embrace, we’re teaching our children to trust that they will be fulfilled, find purpose and meaning, in something or someone. We are directing the compass of their hearts toward certain loves. We, like parental priests, are conducting the Liturgy of Child Rearing.

The Good Life of Christianity

So, first of all, let’s stop pretending that we’ll wait for our children to grow up so they can choose their religion. Parents always choose their children’s religion. Without exception. It’s just that, in most cases, this religion operates under a different name. It’s the vision of the good life, the object of our loves, that Thing that will justify our existence.

Secondly, to speak directly to Christian parents, let’s cultivate an awareness of how we, as parental priests, are conducting the daily, heart-shaping, love-directing liturgy in our homes. If we take our kids to church on Sunday, then spend the other 6 ½ days around the altar of Materialism and memorizing the chief parts of the catechism of iFaith, you don’t have to be a prophet to foretell what their vision of the good life will be. “Take up your cross and follow Me” will be replaced in your children’s lives by “Take up your desires and pursue them.”

I realize we’re going to fail often at this. I certainly have. But even in our failures there is the opportunity for liturgical awareness. Children learn about confession and absolution most vividly when their parents admit they’ve messed up, they need forgiveness, that they too live by grace alone. They see in our home liturgy that forgiveness defines the good life, not punishment or revenge or self-justification. In many cases, the child becomes the priest, forgiving moms and dads, as my own son and daughter have forgiven me.

@@My main point is that every act of parenting is a religious act.@@ Every decision we make forms a tiny part of liturgy we are conducing in the 18-year-long shaping of our children’s loves, trusts, and vision of the good life. As important as 10:45-12:00 on Sunday morning is, the life-shaping liturgy doesn’t end when we walk out the church doors.

It is only getting started.

*James K. A. Smith has written several books around the theme of the "good life." If you’re not familiar with his work, I recommend starting with You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit.