Children, Culture, and the Church

With each passing year spent on this earth – and there haven’t been many years for me yet, which makes the matter even more disturbing – I realize more and more just how extensively the culture around us has influenced the American church. One of the biggest reasons why this influence has been undisturbed for the most part is the fact that contemporary Christians have convinced themselves of their good moral standing on a surface level: They go to the pro-life marches. They regularly share sermon or Scripture highlights on social media. They say their pre-meal prayers of blessing with routine fervency.

But when it comes to living out the biblical principles of self-denial and otherworldliness that are supposed to mark our lives as being distinctly Christian (the word “Christian” literally meaning “little Christ” – as in, the Christ who spent His whole earthly life serving and suffering) many perceived problems tend to arise. This is especially true when it comes to the subject of the nuclear family. It’s especially true when it comes to the subject of children.

Steve and Candice Waters write very poignantly,

There are a thousand reasons not to have a baby. But in deciding against children, or even in just deciding to wait a little longer, you risk missing out on a miracle – a larger-than-life, inexpressible joy. . . [Yet] for all our relative wealth, we can’t afford babies. For all our learning, we don’t understand the limits of fertility. For all our advances as women, motherhood seems unreachable. . . Our tendency, thank in large part to our cultural upbringing, is to put off the intrusion of a baby as long as possible, or to avoid it altogether. But the interruption of a new life can push and challenge us to rethink our careers and earning potential and, if we let it, move us toward a life of deeper relationships and of greater awareness of God’s plan for our lives.

Start Your Family, Moody Publishers, 2009.

Unfortunately, this philosophy is in the minority in the 21st century Church. And one of the worst things about the Western church’s unbiblical perspective toward childrearing is that its compromise is taken for granted. Many Christians have never honestly questioned the true origins of their attitudes toward pregnancy, birth control methods, or motherhood and fatherhood. My argument here is that if they did, it is very likely they’d find that the hesitancy or degradation with which they approach childrearing may be condemned by Scripture and church history, even though it may be celebrated as normal, healthy, or even wise through the lens of time and culture.

When Christianity entered the scene in the first century with its mentality of concern, responsibility, and gratefulness regarding children, it certainly stood out. Many of the pagan religions that were practiced at the time (in both the folk religions of Eastern tribes and the mythology of the booming Western civilizations) involved ritual child sacrifice, and children were enslaved in sex trafficking and hard labor on a scale we can’t imagine today, especially from a first-world perspective. And these things were considered normal in civilized society.

Recall the extent to which Jesus shocked those around him when he rebuked the disciples, who were trying to prevent the children from coming to Him (see Mark 10; Matthew 19). This wasn’t a little spat . . . it caused a scene. It was incredibly countercultural, both in the Old and New Testament worlds, to see children as human beings – let alone humans who should be valued, discipled, and learned from.

This tension between orthodox Christianity and the secular world regarding the value of children has continued throughout the past two millennia. And while we undoubtedly treat children better than the ancient Greeks and Romans, seeing that we don’t literally throw children into the fire to appease the gods, our culture does still sacrifice them to the idols of wealth and wanderlust.

And this charge – the willingness to see children as obstacles to “the good life” – includes the contemporary church.

I think the biggest reason for our unwillingness to call out the church for its compromise is due to its surface-level activism in the abortion debate. Of course, much of modern “Christianity” affirms or tolerates abortion (even unknowingly, in the use of hormonal contraceptives, but that’s a whole other post). But we seem to think that as long as we wield the posters that label us pro-life, it’s fine to make family planning decisions that preserve our sense of control, or that keep us from having to trust that God’s vision for our life might be different – and better – than what we had mapped out on our Pinterest ‘c a r e e r’ and ‘t r a v e l’ boards. Christians, do we really believe that Scripture means it when it calls children a crown and a blessing (Ps. 127:3-5) and has an entire book devoted to the emptiness of comfort, achievement, and financial security?

I don’t think many of those in the contemporary church believe this. I truly don’t. The manner in which many Christians speak of children, treat expectant mothers, and counsel couples who desire to start their family betrays the real extent of our compromise. We could probably make a book with stories and remarks like these, which have been experienced either by myself or others coming from other Christians:

  • “You’re pregnant again? You do know what causes that, right?”
  • “I think your desire for children might be an indication that you’re idolizing motherhood.”
  • [at a baby shower] “Should have enjoyed your life while it lasted. You won’t sleep for another 18 years.”
  • [shortly before a couple’s wedding] “You better not call me in three months and tell me you’re pregnant.”
  • [to a mother of 5, following a miscarriage] “Wow, you dodged a bullet on that one.”

The root of all this is that Church has mingled with culture and borrowed its idols, much like the ancient Israelites did in the wilderness. It’s easy to read the accounts of this in the Bible and balk at their sin, forgetting the ease with which all of us have, in some way, tried to fill our arms with equal measures of what Christ and the world have to offer. So believe me when I say that this is not a call of shame upon those who fear the weight of responsibility that comes with caring for another life; those who are finding it near-impossible in the current season just to afford food for themselves and their spouse; or those who have tried to conceive but cannot.

First, it’s a call to question our idealistic, Westernized view of what our material and financial “needs” really are, or even what the needs of children are. We don’t need the latest-and-greatest gear. We don’t need a separate room for each child. You don’t need to have enough for daily Starbucks or a weekly salon trip. Kids don’t need to play expensive sports or attend private universities.

Second, it’s a call to reject the lie that the preservation of comfort, space, and “me time” are biblically legitimate reasons for any kind of decision making in light of the true Gospel.

Third, it’s a call to repentance for churches who refuse to share resources or support their members who are struggling financially but desire to raise godly children.

We in the 21st century Church must choose to doubt our doubts, so to speak, and submit to Scripture’s commands, attitudes, and examples as faithfully as we are able. Even when it costs us. And it will cost us. Yet we face this in faith, knowing that our ultimate privilege and responsibility in the Christian life is to model the sacrifice of Christ, trusting that He has far greater things to offer us than the world’s empty ideals and cheap accomplishments.

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