4 reasons my family goes to church – an open, inclusive and progressive one (yes, they do exist!).

4 reasons my family goes to church – an open, inclusive and progressive one (yes, they do exist!).

I want to just start by saying, if you and your family don’t go to church, this is not meant to feel like a “should” in any way. We all have enough “shoulds” in our lives, right?

I have a lot of friends who haven’t made religion a part of their lives. And I understand why – these days churches don’t have such a great reputation.

Mostly seen as judgmental, exclusive, mind-numbing, too often churches can also feel like “shoulding” hot spots – too quick to give you all the answers and tell you how you should live, who you should love and who you should be afraid of and have contempt for.

Of course, ALL churches are not like that, but ones that are open-minded, that talk about God’s love for all of us and how to be a compassionate, loving, honest just and generous person in the world today – they aren’t on every corner.

So, if you’ve given up on the whole church thing because of that, I get it, I really do.

Even if you think church might be a good thing for you and your family, it’s also just really hard to work into the schedule. As parents we’re pulled in so many directions these days. And you may be like, “I don’t need to drag my kids to church on top of everything else that’s expected of them.”

Believe me, I get that too.

My husband Dan and I have 4 kids – they’re 17, 15, 13, and 11. So, Sunday mornings at our house are often not pretty. (Swearing is sometimes involved, I’m not going to lie.) For one thing, teens really value their sleep. I can’t even describe how much sleep means to them.

Also, there’s the fact that our kids have so many other things they could be doing – practice time at the ice rink, games with any of the teams they’re on, homework (which they always seem to forget about until Sunday). Yes, I do sometimes hear, “But Mom, nobody else I know is going to church!” (In that voice… you know the one.)

And it’s true. Going to church absolutely puts our family in the minority. A study from 2019 found for example that more than half of millennial parents are raising their kids without religion.

So, making the decision that church was going to be something we made a priority in our lives has been not something Dan and I did lightly. Partly we’ve been able to commit to it because from the moment we walked into Winnetka Congregational Church, now more than 17 years ago, we found a community that shared our core values, was a great environment for our kids, and that both encouraged us and challenged us.

We’ve also done it because we’ve found that church can provide some things our family really needs that we don’t get anywhere else in our lives.

Here are my top 4.

1. Being part of an intergenerational community.

We don’t have any extended family in the area, so if my kids didn’t go to church they wouldn’t have any older adults as friends, people who ask them things like “How’s the football team doing this year?” “What classes are you liking right now?” They’re like grandparents or cool aunts – they just adore them. My kids also wouldn’t hang around with any babies and toddlers and they wouldn’t get to be a part of these little people’s lives as they grow up. Like you know, my daughter will see Gus at church and say “Oh, remember when Gus was baby Jesus in the pageant?” Now Gus is riding horses and stuff. And they are a part of her life. This is not something they get from school or their sports teams where everything is so age-segregated.

2. Being told you’re enough and loved as you are.

It seems like everywhere else they go my kids hear things like you can always do better on that test or you can always be faster at that sport or you can always work harder, be more popular, more cool, more kind…more something. They get the message they aren’t enough. Maybe unintentionally, sometimes even from me and their dad.

But our church has been a place where they regularly hear from their teachers and youth leaders and from the pulpit “You are beloved, you are a child of God, you belong here.” (And not necessarily always in such churchy language.) They also hear “God made you just the way you’re supposed to be.” Which also reminds me, as an adult, that I’m enough and I am loved…which, I’ve got to admit, I can easily start to doubt too.

3. Time and space to think about what really matters. And ask questions.

My kids were babies when Dan and I started coming to Winnetka Congregational and honestly, I can’t tell you how grateful I was that I had a place where once a week I could put the kids in the nursery and have one hour to sit quietly and use my brain and actually think. It probably helped keep me sane. As the kids got older, they started sitting with us in the pew too and they learned the value of being still (or at least “still-er…”) and thinking about your life, asking questions of yourself about your values and your choices. I believe we all really need this. These days, they face a lot of what you might call performative “rightness” – they’re told at school you can’t say that word or sing that song or do that thing because it’s racist or misogynist or not inclusive – but no one is taking the time, or has the time, maybe, to talk about why. To give them space to wrestle with their questions and assumptions and feelings about all of that.

Winnetka Congregational is a church that’s committed to following Jesus and because of that we’ve committed ourselves to inclusivity, anti-racism, environmental justice and multi-faith solidarity, but the leaders and members here recognize to be those things at our core, not just on the surface, we have to do the work. We have some hard questions to ask of ourselves and each other, some deep feelings to confess…in a safe space. And we are doing that. Not perfectly, for sure. But we’re one of the rare places in my life or my kids’ lives where that even feels possible. I’ve heard a few people I know who don’t go to church say something like: “I wouldn’t go to church because I like to think independently.” I know that may be the experience they’ve had, but that certainly hasn’t been my experience here. This is a place where questions are embraced. ALL the questions. And no easy answers dispensed.

4. A place that helps you remember to pay attention and say thanks.

I heard someone say once that the essence of being a spiritual person is about remembering to pay attention and say thanks. But the thing is, as a mom, multi-tasking is my life, and just breathing and paying attention tend to get pushed pretty far down the list of to-do’s. So, finding a community where I am reminded to pay attention and notice the small holy moments that happen every day – that’s been so important for me. And we all have those moments…like when you share a long, loud laugh with a friend or a spouse. Or smell good coffee in the morning. Or get an unexpected hug or compliment from one of your kids. Or when you’re just marveling at those little humans you’re working so hard to raise. Moments that fill you up. Fill you with gratitude. Maybe fill you with tears. This church has, for me, been a place to acknowledge those miracles. It’s been a place to remember there’s more to life than just what we do for work, how much money we’ve got, the houses we live in or the friends we make. And church has been a place for me to listen for another voice other than my own, or the ones I hear all around me in my life. A place to remember there’s “more here than meets the eye.” To see the world and the stuff that makes up my days, as Anne Lamott has said, “through a different pair of glasses.”

And to remember to be thankful. I need that in my life. I suspect there are probably a lot of people who need that in their lives too, whether they realize it or not. I definitely think our kids need it too.

So yeah, that’s the short list of why my family and I go to church. This church.

But we visited quite a few churches before landing here. So, I know that going to a church for the first time is…hard…weird. That’s why on September 12, here at Winnetka Congregational, they’re hosting an Open House, a day especially designed for church-shoppers, whether you’re seriously looking or only mildly curious, to come check everything out, look around, try out the furniture, ask all the questions. And yes, there will also be lots of fun things for the whole family like a Bouncy House, a Kona ice truck, sidewalk chalk drawing, lunch and cookies.

It would be great to see you on September 12. Or some other Sunday morning. No shoulds of course.

Christy Shellenbarger has been a member of Winnetka Congregational Church for over 17 years and is currently serving as the Chair of the Congregation. When she’s not trying to keep track of her 4 kids, along with their shoes, sports equipment and “lost” homework or get them where they need to be on time, she is enjoying a glass of wine with her husband Dan. She volunteers with Glenview Jr. Titans Football and loves to travel and knit. She also cries every year at the church Christmas Pageant.