Some years ago I was speaking with a dear friend about his marriage and his future family. We talked about the couple and their plans for children. Being a priest, I also asked about their worship. My friend, raised in a Southern Baptist Church when it was still a bastion of freedom of thought, said, “Well, I’m sure we will join the church when we have children. I certainly want them to learn to live ethically.”
Now, I had and continue to have two problems with this statement. The second, as you will imagine, was the thought that the only point of the Church was to teach good morals. However, I was also struck by the first: the thought that participation in Church was determined by the needs and interests of children.
I’ve seen that attitude lived out often enough. We’ve observed it for years in families that fell away as soon as the youngest child finished the Sunday School curriculum, or left to go away to college. The most egregious case I recall was the parents who timed their Sunday morning tennis to coincide with Sunday School. Two children were dropped off at the back door of the parish, clean and polished and well dressed. Their parents, in their tennis whites and court shoes, smiled, waved them on, and drove off to the club. They were, though, quite observant and punctual: they had finished their play and were waiting again in the car when the children came out an hour or so later.
I was not raised that way. As soon as my parents thought I could stay home alone without burning the house down (at a young age that would be thought scandalous today), I was responsible for my own church attendance. After all, the church we attended was just under a block away. I could walk there easily and safely. If I wanted to stay home, I could. However, if I stayed home, I stayed home alone. My parents went to church with or without me, because it was important to them. Church wasn’t dependent on the needs or the interests of the children. Church was for adults.
This has long seemed to me a principal we might explore. What would it mean if we understood that Church was for adults? I mean, how far could we take that? It convinced me at an early age that Church was worth my time and effort; for as a child what did I want to be but an adult? I have speculated before about not allowing children to attend worship until they were sixteen. However, that was reflecting on the supposed power of exclusion, a power I did not and do not think the Episcopal Church would embrace. Rather, what would a Church for adults look like?
Certainly, it would engage in adult Christian Education. That might seem obvious, and yet as a supply priest I have seen many congregations that offered little if any. Many times I have heard concerns about having a Sunday School program for children, as much to attract their parents as to teach the children. Too often I have heard little about educating adults in Christian living. I am one who thinks many of our current difficulties have come because too many of our lay people have had too little education about the faith as this Episcopal Church has received it. As a corollary, I think too few have had the opportunity to be engaged, to share their own questions and thoughts as part of the educational process.
I think such adult education would be made available to high school and perhaps even junior high students. I’m not thinking here of intergenerational events, as valuable as they might be in themselves. Rather, I’m thinking of that those adolescents who are so close to adulthood, and from whom we are expecting more and more mature behavior, should see it modeled in the adults with whom they worship. They need to see that in this Church adults are seeking to grow in faith. They also need to see adults raising questions about the faith, and discussing those questions with one another, as acceptable within the context of our life together. In Church and out we need them to see how Christian adults live out their faith; and we need them to see it from all the congregation, not just the youth work “experts.”
What else might be characteristic of a Church for adults? Well, adults should be able to address difficult issues, both of life and faith (an artificial distinction, to be sure). It would encourage independence of thought. There are those who understand “receiving the Kingdom like a child” as mandating avoidance of hard issues, and repetition of core articles of faith. However, in my experience children aren’t that trusting and credulous, at least initially. Adults aren’t usually, either; except when faith communities try to circumscribe the explorations of members. A Church for adults would face, and not shy away from, difficult issues.
And in facing those issues a Church for adults would manage discussions that were civil, intelligent, and mutually respectful. We tend to think that adults are able to be thoughtful, and to discuss and disagree; or at least we tend to think that behavior is adult (because not all people of age behave that way). So our debates and discussions should be serious, and also engaging; passionate, and also enlightening. (I’ll admit that I think that at our best we Episcopalians can do thoughtful discussion quite well; but I don’t think we’re alone in that.)
These are just some initial thoughts. What would you think would be the characteristics, values, and value of a Church for adults?