Sunday School was cool, youth taught you the truth, but now you have a new set of difficulties to face. Here are 10 challenges I faced growing up in church.
If there was one group of people who cop a lot in life, it would be the children of people who grow up in ministry. Whether it be being a pastors’ kid (PK), a missionary kid (MK), an officer’s kid (OK) or just a regular Christian kid (CK I guess), there’s a certain expectation that comes with the territory. Where other kids are expected to be kids and to have their moments of disobedience or messing things up, as one of the “good kids”, you were held to a higher standard. Yeah, you are 11, and a lot of the other 11 year olds are still throwing basketballs at buildings and running around crazy, but you know better. You’re not a “normal” kid. You should behave.
Ah, the challenges of growing up in church.
I grew up in church. From the time I was born pretty much, my family was in church every week. As I grew older, I started going to Sunday School, and I used to be that kid who answered all the Sunday School questions and got all the Minties (not much has changed). When I was too old for kids church, I went to youth group and most of the Scripture Union camps here in Queensland of my own decision. And here we are today, where I still love to be involved in church life.
But it’s not without its challenges.
I wanted to write about 10 challenges I faced growing up in church, incorporating perhaps the challenges I face today as a product of children’s and youth ministry, because I know there are a lot of people who are out there like me. Perhaps you went to Sunday School, or maybe you went to youth group. And now you are in your adult years, staring at the world, wondering how to navigate life given your background.
Cause sometimes being that Good Little Church Boy or that Ms Nice Christian Girl isn’t always as easy as it seems.
And maybe you’re reading this and you don’t think you fit into this category. Maybe you could read this with a lens to understand the different upbringing that different people have had.
So here we go. This will both be from personal experience and observation of people who grew up in church.
#1: Having a life experience that is perceived as limited
Perhaps one of the biggest criticisms I have received, especially in my high school and uni years, is that I have lived a sheltered life. A lot of the people I have known who have grown up in church have faced similar criticism. After all, you grew up in a positive, uplifting environment, where you live with fairies and unicorns and rainbows and you don’t understand what the world is really like.
And having said background, you couldn’t possibly understand the complexities of the decisions and mistakes people have made. Because, church people don’t make mistakes. You had a perfect little childhood. Of course your untainted life couldn’t possibly begin to comprehend the choices that others make.
I think the truth is very far from this perception.
All people, men and women, from all sorts of cultures, face similar sorts of challenges. We often have the same temptations and pressures. We have the same decisions to make in life – who to date or not to date, who to marry or not to marry, how to spend our time, what we do or don’t eat or drink.
And sometimes perhaps decisions that have been approached with a Christian upbringing are perceived to be either weak or idealistic, when in fact, they usually are the decisions a lot of people look back later in life on and wish they had done differently. There should be no shame in that.
#2: Learning to be relatable
In relation to the previous point, because you may not have made the same decisions others have made in life, it can be quite a challenge to learn how to relate to people from other types of upbringings. I can remember especially during high school encountering people of various faith backgrounds, meeting atheists, having people question the foundation of my faith, people who would prefer to remain agnostic, others who would consider themselves non-practicing, and so on.
Moreover, it isn’t just faith decisions that are sometimes different – decisions around relationships, decisions around drinking, decisions around clubbing, around sex, around appearance, around how to fit in – a church upbringing can often lead you to appear very simple in a very diverse world.
A challenge I have faced and continue to face is to seek to understand the people I meet. So many of us are desiring to be understood. Perhaps it is even more powerful to first desire to understand others. I find the easiest way to do this is by asking questions and listening without comment.
After all, all of us have made the same mistakes in God’s eyes, and we have been deeply understood as we are. As one who has grown up with this reality, why not be one who continues this reality in your adult years?
#3: Dealing with the expectations of others
Oh boy. If you ever have an off day, say something you shouldn’t have, do something you probably shouldn’t have, it’s a field day. Everyone can be making the most dodgy jokes ever, but as soon as you make one reference that could even be slightly perceived as euphemism, the whole room erupts and goes “OMIGOSH MATT MADE A JOKE!” (insert your own name there). The same is true of so many other things in life.
If you are perceived as the guy or girl who grew up in church, you hold yourself to a standard you think is right by your faith. There is also a similar perception of you held by others.
I guess the main way to deal with this one is to be a man or a woman of grace. If you are understanding of others, if you’re not the first one to jump down someone’s throat for a questionable decision, if you aren’t Bible bashing people into submission, then people realize that you are a person too, and will be accommodating of your off days as well.
As an additional point, children who grow up with this pressure are often not allowed the room to have the fun that they are allowed to have. If you know some pastors kids or you know some teenagers in youth, don’t be so destructive in your criticism of the decisions they make. Yes, give good counsel. Yes, provide discipline when it is needed. But also yes, provide the same grace you would like pointed in your direction.
#4: Dealing with the expectation of yourself
Now we’re getting into it. Forget everyone else’s pressure – if you grew up in church, you tend to be super hard on yourself with regards to your decisions on life.
So if you make a slightly small mistake, or even a big mistake, it turns into a bout of depression. Cause you know better!! You’re a Christian, you grew up in Sunday School and memorized the Golden Rule, and now Baby Jesus is crying at your mistakes.
I definitely know what this pressure is like.
But then I remember something simple that I profess to believe.
That there is now no condemnation for those who didn’t grow up in church and who don’t know better.
Wait, that’s not it…
Ah yes. There is now no condemnation for those in Christ. That includes you, Mr Sunday School, Ms Nice Christian Girl. All of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. And news flash – you aren’t expected to be perfect, you’re asked to believe and to follow. And God’s grace is always waiting every time you fall.
#5: Making your faith your own
There comes a point in your life where you can no longer rely on the faith of your parents or leaders for your relationship with God. The decision to believe in God at one point eventually comes down to you. You become too old to just go along for the ride – you have to choose for yourself.
There’s not much more I’ll say on this point at the moment, just that this is a choice that all of us who still profess faith had to make at one point or another.
#6: Forgetting you have handled the temptation to fall away
You know, we can be pretty judgmental of ourselves sometimes. But I would like to point something out to encourage you if you fall into this “grew up in church” category.
It’s that if you still profess your faith, you have successfully handled the temptation to fall away.
And sometimes you are made to feel bad for holding on to your faith. But you shouldn’t.
And sometimes you are judged for still being naive or holding on to a childish whim or whatever. But you shouldn’t.
Because where others faced the same pressure and turned away, you are still here. “And though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory…”.
#7: When you have fallen away
Go back and re-read #4 above. Because grace is there to catch us all when we fall.
And it’s not too late to set things right. If you know somewhere in your heart that with God is where you belong, then you can make things right, right now. God is only ever a prayer away.
#8: When you question your faith
That’s normal. And I think it’s also helpful. I have learnt the most about the reliability of the Bible, the accuracy of Scripture, and the faithfulness of God, when I have asked questions. Because as Jesus said, “Those who hunger and seek for righteousness will be filled”. So go ahead and search for the truth.
I would also encourage anyone not of faith to do the same if you are interested in finding out more. You should be able to do so without obligation. Do your own research and come to your own conclusions.
#9: When you don’t feel like God loves you anymore
Any relationship in which two people communicate love comes to a point where one or both parties is not sure of the affections of the other at one point in time. Be this dating, marriage, or even friendship.
It’s the same with God.
Growing up in church, you have had several years of opportunity to see this challenge in your life. And perhaps even now you have been feeling this way.
Maybe you should do what people who successfully get through this stage in their marriage do – tell the other person how you feel. Pray to God the simple prayer of “hey God, I know in my head that you love me, but I’m having a hard time feeling it right now, could you please show me again?”.
And He will.
Also give Does God Really Care? a read if you fall in this boat at the moment.
#10: Not thinking your testimony matters
So many times growing up I would share my testimony like many people who grew up in church. You would hear powerful stories of people who came out of sexual or drug addiction, wandered super far from God and came back, or had a miracle bring them to their senses. And then when your time to share came, it would be something like:
“Oh you know… I grew up in church. Kind of a boring story”.
My high school chaplain challenged me on this one day, and he said “Matt, what was Jesus’ testimony? He was a Sunday School boy too, and He was the most influential man to ever live”.
So don’t sell your story short.
Anyway, just thought I would share some encouragement with a group of people I feel don’t always get the support they need when facing some of these challenges. What is your experience? Do any of this ring true with you?