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Trying to control the vertical and the horizontal

atkchurch“What did your parents do to keep you guys in church?” was once asked of my wife Rachel and me by a priest who was disappointed to see his children who were about our age not show any interest in maintaining a regular church life. We didn’t really know how to respond. While we were certainly “churched” our particular church life was very different from what we grew up in and how we got here seems as much a matter of grace and chance than anything we can directly point to our parents having done although certainly they had some influence. Now that we have a little one of our own, a similar question is starting to brew in our own heads. What can we do to keep her in church?

There’s an absolutely spectacular and difficult book I have been reading off and on since Rachel was pregnant called “Far From the Tree” by Andrew Solomon. It’s a look at identity and parenthood and how parents respond to children who are markedly different from them. The book focuses on extremes like children with disabilities or who are powerfully gifted or who go on to commit terrible crimes but the central question is still one of reconciling what it calls Vertical and Horizontal identities. The idea is that we have qualities that we inherit from our parents or develop on our own that we wish to pass on to our children (race, culture, language, and religion) and then there are identities that our children take on their own through either choice or chance (sexuality, talent, social groups, interests, etc.) Religion can be the trickiest of these because it sits squarely at that intersection between the Vertical and the Horizontal. (That this creates the image of a cross is a lucky accident that I and the members of Vertical Horizon took note of.) In religion, we see that conflict between what we are taught and raised in and what we feel and experience and oftentimes it is in religion that children show the most profound rebellion. Perhaps the most powerful and poignant line from the book that touches on this comes in its second paragraph. “Though many of us take pride in how different we are from our parents, we are endlessly sad at how different our children are from us.”

Religions do often pass down through families. My parents were missionaries, my grandfather was a pastor and given my European heritage, presumably the generations going back centuries identified as Christians. However we are constantly reminded that Christianity is a personal faith, an intimate relationship between man and God so it can’t simply be a cultural expression. It must also be a personal devotion. Growing up Baptist, this juxtaposition created a good deal of angst. There was this perceived expectation to both conform to the faith around you but also to have this private Road to Damascus conversion experience. I often wondered whether my strength of conviction would be just as strong towards Islam or Hinduism or Judaism if I had been raised in those households. How did I know that Christianity was more than just a cultural soup in which I swam, thanks to being born into that particular environment?

The mission field only amplified this confusion. Not only are you surrounded by believers but you are surrounded by very proactive believers whose main purpose is to spread the faith to an unbelieving world. In thinking about this question of what can parents do to keep their kids in church, I’m going to look at how my two brothers and I came out of our mission experiences. Now, I cannot speak to the heart of my brothers or what they do or do not believe but I can attest roughly to their physical locations and so throughout this I will limit myself to discussing that.

My oldest brother is not a church-goer. He’s about a dozen years older than me and his experience both with my parents and with the mission field are very different from mine. Whereas I was born in Nigeria, he remembered leaving America for it. While I was ten when we left for good, he had most of his adolescence there. The last I remember of him regularly going to church was in college and then it seems to have not become a priority for him.

My middle brother who’s only eleven years my senior is a Baptist pastor in California. His experience of the mission field was much closer to our oldest brother than to my own and yet he had a very different response. After college, he spent two straight years as a journeyman doing missions in Kyrgyzstan. When he came back to America, he joined my father in the church choir and then was deeply involved in university church groups throughout grad school before attending seminary. He has been involved with church fairly consistently his whole life and now it is his vocation and profession.

Then there’s the baby: me. I attended church at my parents’ insistence and when I got to college, found myself attending with a nice young girl I met the first week who would eventually marry me. While my mother invented this fictional story about how my wife and I met when Rachel came sweeping into the student union (which we didn’t have) on a Sunday morning, asking aloud who would go to church with her and I boldly proclaimed that I would go, it’s very fair to say that had I not met her before that first Sunday I was away from home, I don’t know if I necessarily would have dragged myself out of bed to go a-church huntin’. When I studied abroad and again when I was in grad school, my church attendance was sporadic at best. I needed that goad to get me into the pew. Now that we’re married and she’s a priest and all, it would seem at best gauche if I weren’t to attend.

So there we have three children of the same set of parents with three different responses to getting ourselves to church. It should be apparent why I wasn’t sure how to answer that troubled priest. I distinctly remember my mother once equating church attendance with brushing one’s teeth: a good habit to get into with long term positive benefits. Not a particularly romantic notion but an imminently practical one. My father’s greatest encouragement to attend church was the passion he showed for music and the silent way he took notes throughout a service. There was something in his intense absorption of church that always struck me. Regardless, they both were regular church attendees on and off the mission field and maintained varying but consistent degrees of participation.

Thinking about my daughter, I’m unsure just what steps to take to keep her interested in being physically in a church on a Sunday morning when she’d rather be playing or sleeping or reading a book. Part of it will have to be setting the example of going myself and of being actively engaged with it but there’s a lot more to it than that. I don’t want her to experience the same level of angst I had over whether church is something she does because it’s expected of her versus it being something she does because she has a real desire for it however I fear that is an inevitable situation. Church needs to be a choice she makes not one I make for her; I adamantly believe that. She shouldn’t be a hostage to my beliefs simply because they are mine. At the same time, I think it’s important that she learn about why the Cross matters, why we pray to a God whose strength lies in weakness and defeat, why we read scriptures that both comfort and disturb.

Growing up Baptist, I rankled a bit at the notion of infant baptism. It was ingrained in me that this was a decision that had to be personal and private even though you were surrounded by the faith almost constantly. Having spent the better part of the last fifteen years around Anglicans, the value of the practice is slowly dawning on me. There’s something to that presumed ability to opt-out rather than having to opt-in which takes off a bit of that pressure to have the Road to Damascus moment so soon. Rachel once debated with a pastor about infant baptism and he asked, “How can a child understand all the complexities and nuances of salvation?” and she responded, “How can an adult?”

As Amanda slowly forms her own identity and eventually makes her own decision about where to spend Sunday mornings, I’m heartened by the notion that my own faith and my own spiritual journey will also be on-going and evolving. Perhaps that’s the great takeaway from my parents who never seemed to be satisfied with just staying still in their faith but worked at it in their own unique ways. Wherever she winds up, I look forward to being there with her.

Leeman Kessler

About Leeman Kessler

Leeman Kessler is a Missionary Kid from Nigeria who now lives in Canada where he acts and takes care of his daughter, Amanda. His wife Rachel is a priest in the Anglican Diocese of Toronto. You can find him online at and and on twitter @lemurbouy
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    • Leeman Kessler