I am what my siblings and I have called a “PK and ¾,” which basically means I grew up a church kid. The term “PK” means “preacher’s kid,” but between the two of them, my parents have a Master of Divinity, a Doctorate of Ministry and a Christian Education Certification and have held jobs as presbytery staff, director of Christian education and pastor in several Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) churches. My life has been defined, as any church kid’s has, by bulletin stuffing, leftover communion bread eating and pageant participating, even during my Christmases home from college. But all church kids reach a point in their lives when they begin to choose their own paths. The three children raised in my family turned into two grown-up church kids and one self-proclaimed atheist.
As the oldest, I have been the first to venture into the world of being a grown-up church kid and I have learned a lot in the process. This summer, as a recent college graduate awaiting the start of graduate school, I lived and worked in Greenville, South Carolina. On the first Sunday of the summer, I Googled a list of Presbyterian churches in my area looking for a place to worship. But over the course of the summer, what started as a simple internet search turned into something much bigger: a summer church adventure. Each week, I chose a different church and embraced every experience like my mother always challenged us as children when we visited new churches: “Look for what’s the same and what’s different from what you know.”
Though all Presbyterian – my blood is PC(USA) through and through – the churches I attended ranged from ornate sanctuaries with 600 members to tiny sanctuaries with 20 people no younger than 50. My biggest realization through this summer saga has been that being a church kid makes being a church adult eye-opening. I recognize what color the hymnals are and can guess something about the church based on it. I notice when silver communion goblets aren’t polished, become a little distraught when pastors’ stoles are uneven and have thoughts about churches whose signs read “He is Risen” on Good Friday.
The image of the church is constantly poked and prodded in modern society, but I believe the best way to guide the church into the next generation is to use what we know about the world around us and apply it to the church. So, after 22 years of lots and lots of church, here are four confessions of a grown-up church kid.
1. I wholeheartedly believe that children are not the future of the church. Children are the church.
Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me.” What he didn’t say was, “Let the little children come to me when they are 10 years older and understand the order of worship.” I have seen churches’ reactions to children range from dismissing them altogether to letting them roam free throughout the sanctuary, from children’s sermons with over-their-heads vocabulary to programming that teaches quiet meditation and church preparation. There is no perfect way to engage our churches’ children, but there are definitely some wrong ways. Don’t wait until children are old enough to sit for the whole service before you start to guide them on why they are there. Churches should be educating parents on how to teach their children the order of worship and how to hold the hymnal low enough so the children can follow along. We also must ensure that those leading children’s sermons and Sunday school know what is developmentally appropriate for children. If you don’t know what that is, there are plenty of resources out there (I’m channeling my DCE mother here.) But most importantly, we must not be afraid to let children be children. I spent years lying on the pew during the sermon with my head in my mother’s lap because I couldn’t sit still for that long. When we embrace children’s curiosity and fascination, we are reminded of why we straight-laced, rule-following adults should be emulating them in the first place.
2. I have found that when church is confusing, you spend the whole service trying to figure it out and you forget the whole reason you’re there in the first place.
One Sunday this summer, I got out of my car and stared at the church in front of me. Though I wanted to be mentally preparing for worship, the only thing I could think was, “Where the heck am I supposed to go in?” There were no signs, no people outside and several doors that all looked similar. Luckily, I picked the right one and soon found the sanctuary. Church should never be confusing. Newcomers should not have to fumble through five different books to find the correct hymnal or wander around the church trying to find the bathroom. When we become comfortable in a church community, we forget what it is like to look at the church with fresh eyes. Where should there be signs but there aren’t? How could the bulletin be a little clearer? When we ask these questions and actually care about the answers, we open the doors to our churches up just a little bit wider.
3. I believe that people should take the time to visit new churches because it’s the best reminder of why community is the cornerstone of the church.
I am proud to say that out of the churches I visited this summer, I only left one without being spoken to by at least one person in the congregation. Some churches truly embody the sense of community that the church is meant to foster and those places are a reminder that “where two or more are gathered, there I am also.” After four years at Second Presbyterian Church in Spartanburg while in college, I cried as church members embraced me in a laying-on-of-hands ceremony on the last Sunday before my graduation. Second Pres was the first church I had been a part of where I was not the preacher’s kid and yet, I knew I was part of a community. Through building innovative programming and extending worthwhile outreach, churches can embrace the members of the community and develop ties where there were none.
However, there is one caution in this endeavor: Sometimes we are so focused on the existing community that we forget to look outside our circle to those on the fringe. I admit that I myself have ignored visitors to our church as a teenager because I was so comfortable in my own community that I didn’t worry about someone else who probably wouldn’t be there the next week. But then, I spent a Sunday where I walked into a service, worshipped and walked out without a single person at the church reaching out to me. If you have never experienced that, it is a lonely realization. Others were in community, but I was not invited to be a part of it.
4. I have learned that people are spiritually nourished in different ways. We may not agree with them, but we should never, ever judge them.
While church is based in community, the act of being a part of a church is a very personal thing. Across the world, these differences have caused an unthinkable amount of strife. Beliefs differ, but so do styles of worship, music choices, regularity of church attendance and many other factors. As a result of these differences, it is easy to feel that the decisions you have chosen are superior, better or more right than others’. However, it doesn’t take a studied theologian to know that this mentality is the exact opposite of Scripture’s intent.
I once got into an argument with a friend because I called him a “Chreaster,” the term used by some to describe people who only attend church on Christmas and Easter. I believed I had made better decisions than he had because I was a regular church-goer. I am still pained today by my words.
Attending different churches this summer has given me a better idea of what I prefer in a church, but it has also reminded me of why it is important to respect the spiritual decisions that others have made. As I’ve visited churches, I learned that the biggest piece of advice I have is to find what gives you nourishment and do a lot of it. But just as importantly, we cannot be concerned when what gives us nourishment is not what provides nourishment for our friends or siblings or co-workers. We are made to be in community, but we are also made for the lives that God designed us to live. So to do that, we must strive to be our best selves, embrace what gives us life and encourage others to do the same.
Rebecca McGregor is currently pursuing an advanced degree in educational psychology and is interested in innovative classroom approaches for students with different learning needs. She is the oldest daughter of Sam McGregor Jr., pastor at Allison Creek Presbyterian in York, South Carolina, and Kathryn McGregor, DCE at Unity Presbyterian in Fort Mill, South Carolina.