Questions Our Church Friends Ask Us

Q: How do I navigate tricky church/faith issues while raising kids?

Danny: I’d talk to them honestly about the concept of idolatry.  

We were recently listening to an On Being podcast where Dr. Louis Newman was being interviewed on the practice of repentance. He had this very concise and insightful comment that really stuck with me for a time: “Idolatry is pretending that something is divine and worthy of our devotion when in fact it is not. Repentance is all about choosing truth over deception.”

I’d explain to my children that it is human nature to want to look to things/circumstances for safety; whether it is family, money, health, popularity, education….and yes, even your church institution and its leaders. We pretend things are a Rock, when in reality they are just ever shifting sand.
I’d attempt to normalize that by saying, “I’m going to do that, and you’re going to do that, and everyone around you is going to do that. It’s part of life, it’s part of the human struggle…we are all prone to look for safety from the ‘outside-in’. BUT, one thing this family is going to try to focus on,  the only place this family is going to try to look to for safety or worth, is from the ‘inside-out’ and from above.”

Because “outside-in” mentality isn’t healthy in the long run, and will result in a lot of disappointment. Every one of those things is subject to change, to imperfection, to inherent instability. The security you may get in one ideal moment could just as easily be lost in the next, and that is where the rollercoaster ride of despair comes from, and possible faith crisis.

In this sense, whether the object of our trust appears to be religious or not, we all engage in a kind of Idolatry. And it is destructive – to our relationships, to our faith, to our happiness, to our ability to Love. We look for security where it can’t be found.
You owe it to your children to teach them this whether in or out of a church. It isn’t just your church that is suggesting that people get their worth from a certain checklist of observances, from a certain way of life or creed or belief system, from a list of circumstances or ideal behaviors or relationships…the entire world is telling them this: “Value and worth and happiness is found from the outside-in.” 

You won’t escape the duty to teach them to avoid this mentality simply because you decide to no longer attend church, or because you jump into church community with both feet. 
This mentality will surround your children especially in their teenage years when they are trying to fit in, when they seek to join a “tribe” that accepts them, or when they have their first explorations (and disappointments) with social media.
This outside-in mentality will follow them into college, and will define much of their 20s, and will likely influence how they choose their boyfriends or girlfriends, or possibly their spouse. I don’t think most people begin to escape this need for outside-in fulfillment until they get a little older (perhaps much older), and become secure enough in their own decisions to stand against the crowd when needed, or to stand for principles they believe in. They finally see their worth from the inside-out.

You, in your duty as a parent, and in your own development as a human being, MUST learn this for yourself, and you must teach it to them, whether you do it in our out of a church. 
So get busy. 
If you decide to remain in a church community, then use that community as the vehicle for teaching that real happiness, real worth and security, will only be found from the inside-out and from the topside-down.
This is one of the MOST IMPORTANT LESSONS you’ll ever teach them. Most likely, your church won’t do it for you. Don’t expect them to. This is what great parenting is all about, and is something you can’t afford to outsource to church, school, friends, or life.
Weightlifting or exercise requires resistance in order to build strength and muscle memory and proficiency. So make your church (and its checklists, and observances, and the false securities it might offer) your place to practice. Or do it outside of church, that’s up to you.

Whether in or out, you still have to practice if you hope to develop your own healthy spirituality and to encourage the same in your children.

What about you? How do you navigate attending church with children if you don’t always agree with what is being taught? Let’s discuss…see you in the comments!

P.S. We were interviewed in a podcast a few months ago and explored some of these concepts in much greater detail. See here for a listen. It is one thing to read, and another to listen to someone speak. A lot can be lost in translation.  

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  1. Anonymous April 12, 2016 at 1:16 pm - Reply

    This is such an interesting post! Because I think even adults have a really hard time doing this. I have friends who have been following an Indian Guru who is a wonderful and enlightened person. All is well, until they discover that the institution around him has many problems, some people have stolen money, others have abused their power, etc. Institutions are made with often well-intentioned and yet flawed people who may fall for different temptations. I am not justifying it. I am not saying it's ok. All I am saying is that this tends to happen in all human institutions (religious or not). We are more disappointed in religious institutions because they are supposed to be an ethical and moral model for us. Yet, institutions are composed by humans. So these friends of mine are so disappointed on the institution, that they've been thinking of abandoning it all: the Guru, the message, the daily practices… And I (who happen to be from another faith) am telling them to not do that. For the message, the ethical they've been living by is still beautiful and good and important, even if people messed up in the institution (which was not the Guru). So, I think that's also an important thing that people don't always dissociate: the message (and the ethics proposed) and the institution and the institution holders. I totally agree that parents should learn to do that first themselves and teach it to their children.
    I am a Buddhist and devotion is something very important in tibetan Buddhism. But there are many levels of devotion…
    The first one, is when you meet your Master and you are completely amazed by him or her. Many followers have almost a groupie phase, you know? Everything they do is great, it's beautiful and you are always cherishing every moment. That's not considered true devotion. It's a first baby step… but they even joke about it and call it de-motion… because we can be so emotional about it. And being attached to the ups and downs of our emotions and egoic perceptions it's not a way to develop true devotion.
    Then there is another phase in which, the follower finds a new respectful distance towards the Master… you are less attached to your emotions and experiences, you are practicing more steadily and less focused in your interaction and feelings about the Master.
    AFterwards, there is a moment in which you realize that the Master is there mostly as a guide and instrument to help you understand a message and work on your own difficulties. She/He is very important and you have a deep devotion, but as realizing the quality of her/his mind and following the steps…But what is important is not her/his presence, but the message and how it stays and transforms your life if you integrate it.
    Finally, you have this deep devotion and gratitude towards your Master, but you don't have to be with her/or him as much as possible. You don't have to have personal interviews too often because you have deepened your practice, you've understood more of the message (the dharma) and you can also find the answers you are seeking in the teachings you have already received or even during meditations (when some responses come to you with much clarity). But it can take many, many years to get there.
    Anyway, I like the idea that as you progress more and more, you are more into the message and the ethics than the form, the "leaders" and the institution. Which doesn't mean you don't respect all that, but you deal with it in a more mature way.
    I am not sure these adds to your post, but I really thought about it while reading it.

    • danny April 12, 2016 at 1:21 pm - Reply

      Sarah, I think this is beautiful, and it reminds me much of some of the things I most admired about the nightly lectures during our 10-Day Vipassana meditation retreat.

      I completely agree with you! Your observations are also similar to "Fowler's Stages of Faith", which if you look up, provide a basic level of progress in how you interpret a faith message and grow until you embody for yourself, independent of others, the message.

      Absolutely love what you said. Thank you so much for highlighting how applicable this is in another context and faith. Love love love!

  2. danny April 13, 2016 at 1:17 am - Reply

    All the more reason to LIVE this inside-out idea for yourself, so you can help teach it to all of your children.

    Sounds like there has been (and likely will continue to be) family that disagrees with the decision that you've made. Your children will have some pressure to conform to those family members, they'll also have pressure to conform to you and your beliefs, even if you don't intend for them to. And they're going to have pressure to conform to things that you might disagree with at church from their community.

    With all that outside-in pressure, these kids are going to have to learn how to choose what is right FOR THEM, and to feel confident in making that choice, including if it turns out to be an error 5 years down the road.

    The beauty is, this inside-out mentality is something you can share as a family, even if you choose a different way to practice that faith…you'll still be practicing and bonding over the same principles.

    I've creating a few documents I use when I teach these principles in a more religious context. If you're interested in seeing some of those so you can open a dialogue of communication along those lines using stories and scriptures they will identify with, email me and I'd be happy to send them to you. Oh, and if you haven't listened to the interview we did with Bill Reel that I linked to at the end of the post, give it a listen.

    By the way, if you haven't already done so, you might enjoy looking into Stoic philosophy…there is a book called "The Obstacle Is The Way", a phrase which defines in many ways Stoic thought. Given you're last paragraph, I think you'd enjoy it.

    Thanks for your comment. I admire you for wanting to raise your children absent some of those pressures and expectations, and for respecting and encouraging their unique faith journey, even if it feels different than yours. That's a beautiful thing.

  3. danny April 13, 2016 at 1:18 am - Reply

    Oh, just saw you removed your comment. All the same, I thank you for putting it up there in the first place.

    Much love to you!

  4. Loraine April 13, 2016 at 3:09 am - Reply

    I really love this post. As someone just figuring this stuff out, I struggle to let my kids find their path. I wish I could have been more deliberate in teaching this when they were younger, but you cannot teach what you don't know yourself. So I can only hope that the message starts to sink in and they make good decisions moving forward.
    Religion for me, provides a community of friends, a place to worship, and structure, but I know that there are many flaws in it. There are people in varying stages of faith, who will not always say or do the right thing. I can align with the principles of love when I see people being marginalized or when those "human" traits show through. My reaction is more important than the misdeed.
    I will be sharing this post with several friends. Thanks for posting.

    • danny April 13, 2016 at 9:54 pm - Reply

      Glad it helped contextualize a few things for you Loraine. And it is the whole "inside-out" worth things that allows you to move to that place of love when someone is marginalized…both for the person that is being marginalized, and the one doing the marginalization.

      They both need it in some way, so that we can be a more effective part of these flawed but important communities.

  5. Anonymous April 13, 2016 at 10:23 am - Reply

    Super interesting post. When my Mormon Faith Transition/Crisis/etc. began, well, the first day I stared at the world with wide, wide eyes, as if seeing it again for the first time. Even colors looked different. The only experience I can compare this to is watching Truman discover his reality on the Truman Show. He walks around in wonder as he takes in his place in this world with a new set of eyes, and the music plays, and it's powerful. It was nothing short of dramatic.

    That lasted for 24 hours (or so). Suddenly I was hit with a huge amount of self-doubt. Who was I? Did I have worth because I knew I was a daughter of God? I didn't know I was anymore, not in the same sense. I felt like I was thrust back into my teenaged years, where I had found self-worth as being a daughter of God, and more specifically, being a daughter of God, as taught by the Mormon church. Fortunately, I was able to rise out of this phase after maybe a few weeks or months. But it was a real thing. I had found meaning through my church. Even though it felt like it was coming from the inside out (I was a daughter of God), it was still through an institution. I guess like a filter. I do think it was helpful to have that filter. As a teen it was useful to have someone telling me I was of worth, and why, so that I could believe them. Nevertheless, I have worth because I am a human being, whether or not I was created by a loving God. And especially whether or not a church gets it right about my origins.

    Truthfully, embracing love, taking responsibility for my choices, my feelings, my reactions, is still something I am practicing, but am not very good at. To tell you the truth, Mara, when I first began reading your blog I felt very jealous. I had put in hour after hour, year after year trying to embrace love. The message you teach, I was seeking it, and couldn't seem to apply it for any long-term amount of time. I read that you were able to quickly…within 4 months or so I think you said. Why was I so slow to change? I could change for a while, but then I would revert back, as if the change had never occurred. But I have come to the point where I am no longer jealous of you at all. I appreciate you for your wisdom, and for your encouragement. I know I can do this. Your blog is a reminder to me to keep my chin up and keep practicing, that real change is possible. And I am on my own path, and my path is my own, and valuable. But I am not sure I am equipped to teach this to my kids. I can teach them principles, but they won't see it in example like they should. But one thing that has been so freeing is that no matte their life circumstance, they will learn in life. No matter if they don't have a perfect mom to model things as I should for them, I trust their life story to teach them what they need. Yes, I hope I can get this sooner than later, that I can be part of their life story that can teach them self-worth and choosing happiness. But if I don't get it in time, I am not worried like I used to be, about their future. That's one thing I felt in the Mormon church. Although my kids are young, I worried, even before they were born, that they wouldn't choose the "right" path. You have written about having faith in other people's paths, that even if they appear to be "messing up" that in the end, it will be what they needed to learn. I really believe that. It was an unexpected byproduct of this faith transition. I still try really hard as a mom. But I am not worried if I am not doing it exactly right, that it will be too late for my kids to learn later. It's never too late.

    • danny April 13, 2016 at 9:50 pm - Reply

      Great comment Anon, thanks for sharing. I think you describe well the unsettling feelings people have when they notice instability in what they thought were steady and sure foundations.

      I think that's why my focus is on learning to come to that place of true self-awareness and inherent value FIRST, then if you choose apply that to your religious endeavors or not (whichever is the direction for you).

      It's made me really rethink some scriptures. "Seek ye FIRST the Kingdom of God" used to mean something about joining and being with the right group. I know now that it is more about this inside-out transformation, and it is totally separate from religion.

      I've discovered that in many cases, I still believe or see value in many of the same things I did before, but my perspective on those things has totally shifted.

      Sounds like you're doing the same. Good luck!

  6. Kendra Meyers April 13, 2016 at 7:21 pm - Reply

    What an amazing, thought-provoking and true post. Thank you, Danny.

  7. Anonymous April 14, 2016 at 3:45 pm - Reply

    Thanks for writing this. Im afraid im not in a place to add much to the conversation at the moment…my crisis of faith isnt about GOD or our Savior, but the context and imperfection of my religion. I still go, have a calling, teach, serve, show up, and do so with my husband and children, but we have felt a shift, and awareness around what has been "truth" maybe not be exactly that…and as such where the lines are drawn to what I really know ( Gods teaching) and what may just be from man….historical or tradition/culture. Working through this and continue on the journey. Perhaps its a lifelong adventure i dont know, but all i do know today…is Im in a state of transition. Thanks for everyones contribution and space to share thoughts- great discussion.

    • danny April 14, 2016 at 6:27 pm - Reply

      For me, that focus on God is part of the "inside-out" and "topside-down" model that leads to spiritual health and wellness.

      I do think it is a journey, and in part it is lifelong…but it is the journey that is supposed to be walked.

      Looking to our specific religious group, as well as whatever leaders and teachings may be a part of that, is an unavoidable part of the journey…because it almost always starts right there. But shifting away from that, over time, and in wisdom, to something that is less focused on the external — on what our co-religionists do or don't do, and what they will or won't think about us if we do or don't do likewise — is a huge part of the journey towards a deeply felt and authentic spirituality that is "inside-out" and focuses entirely on connecting what is above to what is below.

      Thanks for your comment 🙂

  8. Megan April 17, 2016 at 3:44 pm - Reply

    Hoping you guys are ok please update.

    • Anonymous April 17, 2016 at 5:05 pm - Reply

      I second this – heard about the earthquake and hope you're okay!

  9. Anonymous April 17, 2016 at 5:42 pm - Reply

    Same here, came to check if you guys are safe.

  10. mara April 17, 2016 at 6:39 pm - Reply

    Oh, thank you so much!!! You are all so, so kind. We have been wanting to write in. And we also just shared a post with an update. We feel so very lucky to say we are SAFE. We were in Cuenca at the time and felt the earthquake, but it didn't cause any damage there. We are now in Otavalo, about 2 hours north of Quito, as our retreat begins today. Hoping this is the end of the earthquakes here. Though it seems all over the world there are things shifting. Praying for everyone and trying to cultivate peace and compassion for all of those suffering.

  11. Theresa Williams April 17, 2016 at 10:20 pm - Reply

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  12. Unknown May 3, 2016 at 12:02 am - Reply

    The struggle is so real and painful. My husband and I have been married 24 years. He had his crisis of faith about 10 years ago and we have been navigating murky water ever since trying to figure out how to live in a way to respect both our belief systems- but when there are children involved it is so difficult. What we are finding is that the church can pull the children away from the non believing parent. In a sense my husband feels like our children's involvement in the church pulls them away and erodes the relationship because they view him as flawed or faithless. This is wrong! I am having a difficult time with wanting to stay true to my beliefs but be protective of our family relationships. It is a very painful process/decision.

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