Future-minded Children’s Ministry

Matthew 18:1-5 is a foundational passage for children’s ministry.  Jesus calls a little child and has them stand in the midst of his adult disciples.  He then presents the child as a model for entry into the kingdom of heaven – “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” – and establishes “child welcoming” as a locus for his presence – “whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.”

These words of Jesus are astounding and revolutionary; they were so for the hearers of his time, and they are for us today.  They invite us to reflect deeply on what it means for us to relate to children and what they offer to us as participants within the body of Christ.  In our times they have also inspired a great deal of conversation and contemplation within the Child Theology Movement.  What does it mean for Jesus to place a “child in our midst”?  In what ways does that affect our understandings of God, ourselves and our life in the world as God’s people?

One of the realities of ministering to children as adults is that we are ministering to those who, God-willing, will one day also be adults.  Our ministries to them and with them become part of their life journeys.  They are inevitably changed, to some extent or another, through our interactions with them.  In touching the life of a child in the present we are touching the future.  Moreover, through our stewardship (positively and negatively) of God’s gifts in the present we are perhaps opening up or closing down aspects of the future for them.  I think particularly of our treatment of the environment. Through our individual and collective decisions about energy use and carbon emissions, for instance, we are generating consequences that our children and grandchildren will have to bear. What is our response as God’s people, who hear and receive his call to take care of his “garden” (Genesis 2:15)? It is one thing to live with an adult, present-focused perspective (“if it’s not affecting me now, I won’t worry about it”).  It is another thing to open our eyes and our hearts to the child whom Jesus places in our midst and to lovingly tend the future they will inherit.

A Block for Michael

One of my concrete goals as a Pastor in a cross-generational community of faith is to create space and opportunity for people of different generations to be visibly present in roles of service and leadership. I am particularly conscious of the need to “make space” for children and youth to contribute. Worship, the primary gathering of the people of God, is an obvious arena for this. I want to see children and young people regularly delivering Bible readings, leading prayers and distributing Holy Communion, as well as contributing in other ways from time to time. My experience is that these roles will be simply assumed by adults unless key leaders function as advocates or “space makers” on their behalf.

Why do so? For one thing, involving children and youth in meaningful and significant ways increases their sense of belonging and purpose within the people of God. It also encourages other children and youth to see and know that they matter in the body of believers. And it gives people of other generations a sense of hope and “aliveness”.

This morning, Michael, aged 8, was rostered on to deliver our Bible readings. Michael still has some physical growing to do, so before the worship service began his mother asked me to put out a block for Michael to stand on at the lectern. We have one nearby for that very purpose.  Later, when the time came for the readings, Michael wasn’t paying attention. His mother quickly prodded him into action and up he came. He read beautifully. Fittingly, the Gospel reading (Matthew 10:40-42) spoke of receiving Jesus through welcoming others and serving the “little ones”. In welcoming Michael and giving him opportunity to share his gifts, we were truly blessed by our Lord this morning.

Actively involving children and youth in worship does mean “putting out blocks” – making sure they are resourced and supported to give of their best. And sometimes they will need to be prompted or specially reminded. But the blessings through so doing are no small thing!  So let’s “make space” for our children and youth. Let’s put out whatever blocks we need to in order for them to stand tall. And let’s cultivate cultures of grace that continually affirm them as co-members of the body of Christ, both when they “shine” as did Michael, and on those occasions when the words do not flow as smoothly.

Little Family Liturgies

This post has been written by my dear friend, Marilyn Sharpe of Marilyn Sharpe Ministries.  It is reproduced here by permission.

 

Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. – ELW, Baptismal Service

From these words spoken over the newly baptized, we understand that this water mark shapes our identity. How can we as the family of God, both in the congregation and at home, reflect this identity? Here are some very easy, daily, practical ways to infuse all of life with little family liturgies, naming the presence of God.

Wait, wait, wait … but, isn’t liturgy the formal, repeated elements of our worship service? Yes, it is the familiar patterns of worship, helping us connect with the God who is always present, with our faith family that worships together, with our beliefs and confessions and stories that hold us together.

Yes, and liturgy can describe the repeated elements of family life, everyday life together.  Like what?  Let me share some of the things we do in my family:

 

BEDTIME ROUTINE

From the moment a child arrives in a family, we create rhythms in our lives together, leading to the final “good night.” In addition to the necessary tasks and favorite activities, this is a perfect time for a story, a song, and a prayer, all naming God’s presence in life together.

 

GREETING ONE ANOTHER

Of course, we say “hi” and “good morning” and “welcome home” to one another. It was our oldest grandson at age 2 1/2, who started a personal liturgy with me. His family had given me a mother-of-pearl cross necklace that Christmas. When he arrived for Sunday family dinner, he’d jump up in my arms and hold onto the cross, asking, “What is this, Nana?”  “What is it, Hayden?” I’d reply. “A cross, Nana,” he’d say.  “Why do you wear it?” he’d inquire. “Because it reminds us all that we love Jesus!” “Okay, Nana. Now, put me down. It’s time to play.”

Sometimes the greeting is a word or a smile or a wave or a touch.  All announce, “I love you and I’m so glad to see you.”

 

SAYING GOODBYE

It was my young adult children who pointed out to me that, as a family, we always add “Love you” to our goodbyes, in person, on the phone, by text, or in email.

They linked it to my conversation with my mother, the night before she died unexpectedly at age 56. Although I was in a rush to get out of the house when she called, I put down what I was carrying and really leaned into the conversation, which ended with each of us telling the other how much we loved being family.  My mother lived in town. I was planning to see her the next morning. Forty-one years later, I am still so grateful for the way we said our final goodbye.

 

CELEBRATING

Birthdays are important in my family. We begin the night before the birthday, retelling the story of the day the birthday child was born. This storytelling has continued into adulthood for our kids. It is a way of saying that their addition to our family and to God’s family is important and worthy of celebrating.

Forty-two years ago, a friend gave us a Red Plate, inscribed with “You are special today!” We use it to celebrate every birthday, anniversary, graduation, new job, and new home, as well as a myriad of accomplishments.

Cake candles are a favorite tradition, thanks to the inspiration of my friend Lyle Griner.  Everyone at the table, except for the birthday person, is given a birthday candle. When the cake is passed, each person adds their candle and a declaration of one thing they thank God for about the birthday person.  (Warning: you may need kleenex and some who attend may ask to celebrate their birthday at your table! Both have happened at our home.)

 

CREATING CONNECTIONS

Family dinner or a bedtime snack can be a wonderful opportunity to step out of the rush of daily life and to be fully present with one another and with God, who is always with us.

We eat by candlelight, which has nothing to do with the quality of the food on the table.  It is a reminder that we gather around the presence of the One who declared, “I am the light of the world.” Candlelight gentles the conversation and invites all to lean in and listen to one another.

At our son’s table, the youngest boy leans toward his father and inquires, “Dad, tell us about your day.” So begins their daily litany of what the day has held for each person. It is a touching way to be truly connected to what otherwise might have passed unremarked.

Sharing “high’s and low’s” or “blessings and bruises” are other ways of sharing our lives.

Aunt Kathryn takes her nephews and nieces for a “God walk” when we are on vacation together. They head out together, until one stops, pointing out something God created that gives them special joy. What a great way to name God sightings.

 

BLESSINGS

How odd that in contemporary life, we squander the rich gift of blessings. Too often, it is reserved as a response to a sneeze!

Let’s reclaim blessings as a way of connecting with one another and naming God’s presence in our shared lives. When we are blessed to tuck our grandchildren, who now range in age from five to thirteen, into bed, we use the words of the baptismal blessing, We make the sign of the cross on each forehead, naming each with their first and middle name, “child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” Amen!

Playing with the Children

As a pastor ministering in a congregation co-located with a school, I have the privilege of being surrounded by children each day.  For me, there are many moments of pleasure in seeing them at play with one another, and sometimes I am invited into that play.  Being brought into the play of children is, in my experience, a reminder of the very essence of life – to enjoy, to interact, to live in the present and appreciate the immediacy of God’s gifts.  Play is often viewed by adults as a distraction from the more important business of work, or as a form of escape from it.  But perhaps play itself is the greater work of life.  Affirming the value and significance of play for people of all ages, Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw said: “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”

Given that Jesus was the perfect expression of “life in all its fullness” (John 10:10), it is no surprise to me that he, as an adult, was conscious of the play of children (and I like to think that he also took time to play with them).  We know so from Matthew 11:16-19, the parable of the children in the marketplace (the passage is part of the assigned Revised Common Lectionary reading for Sunday, 9 July 2017 … hence my focus on it at this time).  The NKJV translates the passage in this way:

“But to what shall I liken this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their companions, and saying:  ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we mourned to you, and you did not lament.’” For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ But wisdom is justified by her children.”

Interpretation of this parable has generally gone in two different directions.

  1. The first interpretive direction understands the children crying out to others as either rightly responding to Jesus and John, or representative of them, and their uncooperative “companionsas the people of “this generation”. In Craig Keener’s words, “On this reading, Jesus and John approached the generation from two angles, but the other children would not play either game.”  John called people to repentance (mourning) but “this generation” would not heed him.  And when Jesus invited people to dance to the tune of God’s grace, he too was ignored. Relating verses 16-17 to verses 18-19, “this generation” didn’t like John pointing out their sins so they accused him of being demon-possessed. They failed to see their need of God’s grace in salvation so they accused Jesus of being a glutton and a drunkard.
  1. The second interpretive direction understands the children crying out as representative of “this generation”. Keener writes, “they are like “spoiled children … who are dissatisfied no matter what. They piped to John and he would not dance; they wailed to Jesus, but he refused to mourn” (Keener).  Or, in F.D. Bruner’s words, they are “pouting children” who “will not play John’s and Jesus’ game because John and Jesus will not play theirs.”

In my reading, the logic of the whole passage favours the first interpretive direction.  The children of marketplace crying out to their companions (or to “others”, as the NIV translates) are responding rightly to the revelation of God through John the Baptist and (more fully) through Christ.  The generation of Jesus’ time and each successive generation is invited to “play along” with them.  Understanding the children of the marketplace as revelatory also connects the parable well with Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:25-26:  “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned, and revealed them to little children.  Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure.”

The NKJV translation of Matthew 11:16-19 concludes with Jesus saying, “wisdom is justified by her children”.  There is an alternative translation which is reflected in the NIV – “wisdom is proved right by her actions”.  There is manuscript evidence in both directions, and it is a matter of weighing up the sources (for argumentation supporting the NKJV translation see the online writings of Herman Grobler and James Snapp).  If the NKJV translation is accepted, the revelatory role of the marketplace children is reinforced.  The marketplace children crying out to others are the “children of wisdom” who will be ultimately shown to be “playing” the game of truth and life.  Those who choose to play with them will also be known as sons and daughters of wisdom.  But any who are so enamoured with worldly wisdom and learning (cf. Matthew 11:25) that they despise the “play” of the marketplace children will be exposed as foolish and subject to judgement (cf. Matthew 11:24).

So back to my beginning words about the play of children …  I wonder if Jesus’ words in Matthew 11 contains (amongst other things) an invitation and a call for this generation, like any other, to “play” with our “little ones” … to respect and affirm and celebrate them as revelatory of God’s truth and God’s wisdom, and allow them to lead us in responding to God’s work in the world.  In my experience, adults can learn a great deal from the directness and trusting simplicity that is often evident in the faith expressions of our children.  Children often process matters of life and faith in uncomplicated and refreshingly honest ways.  Sometimes they call us to “mourn” about injustices and inequalities in our communities and in the wider world, and ask us to join them in acting in God’s name.  Other times they show a delightful exuberance and unbounded joy about the presence and gracious work of God in their lives and ours.

I wonder … are our eyes, ears and hearts open to seeing the play of children and joining them in responding to the revelation of God in our communities of faith and the wider world?  Will we play with them?  Will we expect God to reveal himself and speak to us in them and through them?

If nothing else, play has a way of helping us delight in God’s gift of the present.  For that reason alone, I suggest we invest more time in playing with our children.

What I Saw and Learnt on “Serving Sunday”

Serving_Sunday

Yesterday my congregation did something new. Perhaps for the first time in the 138 year history of the church we chose to cancel morning Worship Services for reasons other than the weather or for seasonal considerations. Instead of coming along for gathered worship at the usual times we invited attenders to give some time in the morning and afternoon to serve the wider community with one another.  There were a variety of serving options available … yard work, visiting an aged care home, picking up litter, writing encouragement letters to overseas missionaries, hospital visiting and hosting a barbeque for isolated and needy persons from our local area.  Then we all came together in the late afternoon for a time of worship, where stories were shared and we experienced again the gracious service of God through Word and Sacrament.

So what did I see and what did I learn?

  • I saw people of different generations joining together in giving to others.  Seniors came alongside children and youth to give beyond themselves.  Connections were built, relationships were deepened, and common memories were created.
  • I saw whole families serving together.  I saw fathers and mothers leading by example and modelling to their children what it means to give without condition and without expectation of reward.
  • I saw people of our congregation enjoying themselves with one another and with those they served.
  • I saw people recognising that sometimes little things can make a very big difference in the lives of others.
  • I learnt that not everybody will choose to be involved, and that is OK.  Our worship service attendance was about half of that on a “normal” Sunday but what we might have “lost” in attendance we more than gained in spiritual blessings for those who were involved.  For one Sunday out of 52, it was more than worth it!

As I reflected on the day I wondered if we had been brought closer to what church should really be … people coming together in the name of Jesus to connect with each other and the wider community in real ways, and to reflect on the intersections between their life experiences and vocations and the call and workings of God through us and around us.  I wondered what might happen if “Serving Sunday” became more than an once-a-year happening.  I wondered if less focus needs to be given to the pastor’s message and more to the message that our people are proclaiming to one another and the wider community through works of collective discipleship.  Yes, I wonder …

Will There Be Faith? … Some Thoughts on Deuteronomy 6

This week I began reading Thomas Groome’s book, Will There Be Faith?  Early in the book, he says that up until about 200 years ago the Western world had “sociocultural conditions that favoured religious belief, even required it. … Faith in God and belief in a spiritual realm pervaded daily life.” But now, he argues, we live in very secular age in which sociocultural conditions actively discourage faith. Postmodern society promotes a view of life and a way of life that has no place and no room for God. It encourages self-sufficiency and self-expression as the purpose and goal of human life. So while we may live in the very same physical locations as did our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, we are really living in an altogether new land.

As I reflected on Groome’s words, my thoughts went back to Deuteronomy 6. After more than 40 years of wilderness wanderings the people of Israel were finally to enter the Promised Land. This was a big moment for them. So much was about to change. They would be no longer pilgrims but settlers. In the wilderness they were a very separate nation, but now they would be among peoples of different religions and life practices. There would be temptations aplenty to abandon the God of Abraham. And God would not be as visibly present with them as he was in the wilderness, leading them by a cloud and a pillar of fire. A big question that loomed before them was, “How would their faith in God be passed on in the new land?  How would it survive?”

At that critical point, God gave the Israelites deep, precious and timeless words of instruction and guidance. Deuteronomy 6 is God’s response to the question of how faith will survive in the “new land.” The passage gives crucial principles and guidance for passing on the faith from generation to generation, from parents to children, and grandparents to grandchildren. It’s a section of Scripture that the church and its households need to go back to again and again, generation after generation, and especially in sociocultural contexts the likes of which we are in today.

A first big piece of wisdom we receive from Deuteronomy 6 is that passing on the faith is a matter of the heartVerses 4-6 say this:  Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.  These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts.” For faith to be passed on from adults to youth and to children, it first of all needs to be vibrant and real in the lives of the adults. The truth is that when it comes to passing on faith and values to others, we tend to reproduce who and what we are.  In other words, churches can put together all sorts of programs and activities for children and young people, but if the adults in their churches and in their homes aren’t following Christ from the heart, then those programs and activities probably won’t have a lasting impact.

It has been said that “faith is more caught than taught”. For it to be caught by children and young people, adults who are infected with the love of Jesus are first needed. The most important thing that a parent or a grandparent can do to make a spiritual impact on their families is to focus on growing in their own faith: on being people of the Word and prayer, on worshipping regularly, on living out their faith in giving to and serving others, on forgiving others and confessing their own sins before God and others. And as much as age-specific ministry to children and youth is important and valuable, a focus on adult spirituality by pastors and congregational leaders is equally vital for faith transmission. Forming the kids in faith requires that we form the adults in faith, and cultivate contexts and create experiences where the adults and the kids can share and “do” faith together.

A second piece of wisdom from Deuteronomy 6 is that passing on the faith involves making an impression by practicing the faith over timeVerse 7 says,  Impress [God’s teachings] on your children.” The Hebrew word translated here as “impress” implies repeated action. The picture that comes to mind for me is of water dripping on a large stone, year after year, decade after decade. Eventually the water will wear away the stone, leaving an impression. If the same amount of water flowed over the stone in a day, there wouldn’t be the same result. Faith is passed on in our homes and in our communities of faith as Christians practice the way of Jesus together from day to day and from year to year … as they tell and listen to the God story over and over again … as they interweave that faith with their lives and one another’s lives.

Deuteronomy 6 points to specific ways of making a faith impression, particularly in our home or family settings.  It says, “Talk about [God’s teachings] when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.  Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.  Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.”  (Deuteronomy 6:7b-9). There are three significant things we should note here.

  1. We make a faith impression by talking about our faith as part of our daily lives – at the dinner table, while cooking or doing the dishes or gardening or cleaning, while travelling in the car, while on outings and holidays. If faith is a “whole of life” thing, then “God-talk” can and will happen anywhere and anytime.
  2. We make a faith impression by establishing regular patterns and habits of faith practice. The words “when you lie down and when you get up” suggests setting aside time in the morning and time in the evening to focus on God in the home. Other regular patterns or habits might include saying “grace” at every meal, coming to worship every week, setting aside a particular night every week for a family faith time. The point is that when we shape our lives around regular patterns and habits of faith practice, those patterns and habits begin to shape us. We are inviting and allowing the Holy Spirit to act and speak into our home lives on a regular basis.
  3. We make a faith impression by establishing faith-based rituals and traditions in our homes. Rituals and traditions help us to act out or express our faith in visible ways.  Church seasons and festivals like Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter and Pentecost are great opportunities to bring Christian rituals and traditions into our homes. The more we can express our faith with one another by using the five senses – touch, taste, sight, sound and smell – the more of an impression it makes.

A third piece of wisdom from Deuteronomy 6 is that passing on the faith means telling OUR stories of rescueVerses 20-21 say, In the future, when your son asks you, “What is the meaning of the stipulations, decrees and laws the Lord our God has commanded you?” tell him: “We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.” When God spoke these words, none of the adults who had crossed the Red Sea over forty years earlier was still alive, except Caleb and Joshua. And yet God told them to say, “the Lord brought US out of Egypt.”  God was instructing the Israelites throughout the ages to tell their sons and daughters not about how someone else had been rescued but how they had been rescued. He wanted them to tell the divine rescue story as their very own story.

As people who have been saved through the cross of Jesus Christ, Christians of all ages and generations have their own “rescue story” to tell. We are invited and call to give a personal account of our faith to the children and young people in our midst. Think on it:  how and when and where has the grace of God broken through into your life? How has the cross of Jesus been hoisted up over and into your life? What does your great rescue in Jesus mean to you, personally? If you have children and young people in your life – be they children or grandchildren or nephews or nieces or family friends – resolve to share your story with them. Write or speak of what Jesus has done for you and what difference it has made for you. You might be amazed at the impact your own personal story has on them.

Deuteronomy 6 can easily be read as a matter of law – as another list of “have to’s”.  I don’t believe that is how God intends for us to receive or understand these words. They are not a demand or a burden but a gracious invitation for us to be part of God’s life changing work in the lives of others – and especially in the lives of our children and young people. Passing on the faith is something we do not because we have to, but because we know what a great thing is to be rescued by Jesus and want the same for others.  It is not a matter of “got to” but “get to”. And as we strive to make a Godly impression for Jesus’ sake, we do well to remember that the same God who parted the Red Sea is right there with us. He can and does do wonderful things as we make ourselves available for his good purposes!  By his power and grace at work in us and through us there will be faith in the new land!

So That the Children Ask …

This coming Sunday I am preaching on Exodus 12, the account of the first Passover and the deliverance of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt.  It is one of the most important stories in the Old Testament, one which shaped and defined the Old Testament people of God. Again and again in the Old Testament we see references back to this story.  It showed the people of Israel who they were and whose they were.  God had chosen the Hebrews, the descendants of Abraham, to be God’s own.  God had his eye on them and would rescue them.  As they worshiped and obeyed, God would fight for them and act for their good.  That was something they could hang onto when threats and troubles came.

As I looked at Exodus 12 it struck me that God went to great lengths to make the rescue of the Israelites very much a “community thing”.  God’s instructions for the first Passover meal were for the whole community of Israel, Exodus 12:3 says.  They all did the same thing at the same time.   They prepared for the meal together and then ate the same foods in their households.  Where necessary, there was sharing between households.  And God told the Israelites to not just eat this meal together once, but to eat it again at a set time every year to remember and commemorate what God had done.  God told them, “This is a day to remember.  Each year, from generation to generation, you must celebrate it as a special festival to the Lord.  This is a law for all time.” (Exodus 12:14)  So each year the Old Testament people of Israel would come together in Jerusalem for the week-long “Feast of Unleavened Bread”.  They would feast and remember.  They would reconnect with God and each other.  They would gather as households to eat and drink, to tell stories and practice rituals, to worship and to pray.  The first Passover meal was about much more than saving the firstborn sons of the Hebrews from the angel of death – it was something God gave and God used to form and to shape the people of covenant promise over and over again, from generation to generation.

At the very centre of Exodus chapter 12, this very important chapter, God speaks of children:  When your children ask you, ‘Why are we doing these things?’ you will say, ‘This is the Passover sacrifice to honor the Lord. When we were in Egypt, the Lord passed over the houses of Israel. The Lord killed the Egyptians, but he saved our homes.’” (Exodus 12:26-27)  The symbols and smells and rituals of Passover were intended to make children curious, to spark their interest and their imagination.   The Passover was a means of telling a shared story and prompting the questions of the children.  It was designed by God to give adults an opportunity to tell their stories of faith, so that the faith would be passed on.

We live in a society which has become very much about the individual.   It’s more about “me, I and mine” than “we, us and ours”.  There’s some good in that, but I wonder if it has gone way too far.  And when “me, I and mine” thinking begins to dominate how we think and act as Christians, I wonder if we have missed the point.  While we are saved through the blood of Jesus as individuals we are never saved alone.  Like the Hebrews of long ago, we are rescued to be a people who journey together and feast together and tell stories together and worship together.  We are called to do life together in ways that matter – to share in a common faith life that is full of sights, sounds, smells, rituals and celebrations that cause the children to ask “What is going on here?  What is this all about?”  And if the children aren’t interested, perhaps that is much more a reflection on the quality and nature of our life together in Christian community than it is on the children.

Sharing the great story of our rescue in Jesus Christ is not the responsibility of Pastors or children’s ministry leaders.  God’s great rescue story is our story and it’s our story to tell – congregation and households together as one community in the Gospel.  That story will be told to greatest effect not through children’s talks or classroom lessons.  It will be told above all through the many ways faith comes to life in home and congregation through the ways we interact and serve and celebrate and practice that story as our own community story.

In that way Exodus 12 is more than just a record of something that happened long ago to someone else.  It’s a call for us to think deeply for what it means to be a community.  It’s a call for us to reflect on how our life together speaks to and engages the children who are with us and around us.  It’s a call for us to show and tell the children what our rescue through Jesus means to us, so that they too are caught up in the wonder and drama of that great story.

Dad Matters! … The Spiritual Influence of Fathers

This Sunday will be observed by many in North America as “Father’s Day” (in my home country we wait until September). My experience is that the observance of Father’s Day in churches is more subdued than that of Mother’s Day. One obvious reason is that, on any given Sunday, there are typically fewer fathers than mothers in our churches. The “spiritually absent” father is increasingly commonplace, and the impact on church life is apparent. The impact on home faith life and faith transmission is even more concerning. In many households, fathers are passive or inactive in expressing their faith to and with their children. Studies and surveys reveal that in families where both parents are people of faith, it is mothers who tend to be most active in processes of child faith formation.

Based on research, it is axiomatic to say that in most families the mother is the primary figure in children’s religiosity. … Why do mothers have such an influential role, and what mechanisms are at work? Women are more religious than men and attend worship services more often, and adults recall seeing their mothers pray more often than their fathers did. In general, mothers speak with their children more than fathers do and in conversations about religion mothers are much more involved than fathers are. In one study testing a diary method, mothers participated in all diary conversations in almost 90% of families, whereas fathers did not appear in any diary entries in almost half of the families. In a [USA] national study, 3000 mainline Protestant youth reported they had regular dialogue about faith issues with their mothers almost 2.5 times more often than with their fathers. (From Boyzatis, Dollahite & Marks “The Family as a Context for Religious and Spiritual Development in Children and Youth” – published in The Handbook of Spiritual Development in Childhood and Adolescence).

The reduced involvement of fathers in the practice of faith in the home not only places a greater burden upon mothers to embody and demonstrate the Christian faith, it also robs families of the unique contributions that fathers seem to make. Put simply, various research studies suggest that when it comes to faith transmission, fathers and mothers are not altogether interchangeable. A mother brings something “to the mix” that a father does not and vice-versa. A first study of interest, carried out in Switzerland in 1994, examined the respective impact of fathers and mothers on post-childhood church attendance. This research was reported in an article by Werner Haug and Phillipe Warner in the book The Demographic Characteristics of National Minorities in Certain European State (published by the Council of Europe Directorate General III, Social Cohesion, Strasbourg, January 2000). Robbie Low reports the findings as follows:

If both father and mother attend regularly, 33 percent of their children will end up as regular churchgoers, and 41 percent will end up attending irregularly. Only a quarter of their children will end up not practicing at all. If the father is irregular and mother regular, only 3 percent of the children will subsequently become regulars themselves, while a further 59 percent will become irregulars. Thirty-eight percent will be lost. If the father is non-practicing and mother regular, only 2 percent of children will become regular worshipers, and 37 percent will attend irregularly. Over 60 percent of their children will be lost completely to the church.  Let us look at the figures the other way round. What happens if the father is regular but the mother irregular or non-practicing? Extraordinarily, the percentage of children becoming regular goes up from 33 percent to 38 percent with the irregular mother and to 44 percent with the non-practicing, as if loyalty to father’s commitment grows in proportion to mother’s laxity, indifference, or hostility. Even when the father is an irregular attender there are some extraordinary effects. An irregular father and a non-practicing mother will yield 25 percent of their children as regular attenders in their future life and a further 23 percent as irregulars. This is twelve times the yield where the roles are reversed.  Where neither parent practices, to nobody’s very great surprise, only 4 percent of children will become regular attenders and 15 percent irregulars. Eighty percent will be lost to the faith. Before mothers despair, there is some consolation for faithful moms. Where the mother is less regular than the father but attends occasionally, her presence ensures that only a quarter of her children will never attend at all. While Mother’s regularity, on its own, has scarcely any long-term effect on children’s regularity (except in some circumstances outlined above, a marginally negative one), it does have a positive effect on preventing children from drifting away entirely. Faithful mothers produce irregular attenders rather than regular. Their absence transfers the irregulars into the non-attending sector. But even the beneficial influence really works only in complimentarity to the practice of the father.

In interpreting these results, Low (a former Anglican Vicar and now a Catholic Priest in the UK) continues:

A mother’s role will always remain primary in terms of intimacy, care, and nurture. (The toughest man may well sport a tattoo dedicated to the love of his mother, without the slightest embarrassment or sentimentality). No father can replace that relationship. But it is equally true that when a child begins to move into that period of differentiation from home and engagement with the world “out there,” he (and she) looks increasingly to the father for his role model. Where the father is indifferent, inadequate, or just plain absent, that task of differentiation and engagement is much harder. When children see that church is a “women and children” thing, they will respond accordingly—by not going to church, or going much less. Curiously, both adult women as well as men will conclude subconsciously that Dad’s absence indicates that going to church is not really a “grown-up” activity. In terms of commitment, a mother’s role may be to encourage and confirm, but it is not primary to her adult offspring’s decision. Mothers’ choices have dramatically less effect upon children than their fathers’, and without him she has little effect on the primary lifestyle choices her offspring make in their religious observances. Her major influence is not on regular attendance at all but on keeping her irregular children from lapsing altogether. This is, needless to say, a vital work but, even then, without the input of the father (regular or irregular) the proportion of the regulars to lapsed goes from 60/40 to 40/60.

A second study that speaks to the role of fathers in the faith life and spiritual development of children was conducted by Jeremy Uecker and Christopher Ellison (unpublished) and reported in the Institute for American Values report, Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith? (2013). Uecker and Ellison suggest that fathers may matter more than mothers for religious development from adolescence to young adulthood:  ‘As young adults develop a religious identity apart from their parents, or as their religious identity changes, their father’s religious characteristics become more important than their mother’s – with whom their childhood religious identity most closely aligns.’

A third study of interest was conducted by Desrosiers, Kelly and Miller in 2011 and is cited in the Handbook of Child Psychology and Developmental Science, Socioemotional Processes, Volume 3 (7th edition, 2015). The study found that ‘mothers and fathers have distinct roles in promoting their adolescent’s spirituality. … Adolescents’ spirituality was predicted by mothers’ spiritual support and dialogue (but not general care and concern), whereas adolescents’ spirituality was predicted by fathers’ general care and concern (but not spiritual support and dialogue).  … Having an emotionally close relationship with fathers may provide a broad, secure foundation that is more important that specific interactions around religious topics’. A fourth and more recent study by Leonard, Cook, Boyzatis, Kimball and Flanagan (Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 2013, Vol. 5/1) also highlights the significance of paternal attachment in faith transmission. This study of graduates from religiously-affiliated colleges in the USA found that ‘higher father attachment and greater perceived similarity to father’s religious beliefs, in combination, predicted greater intrinsic religiosity. … Emerging adults tend to match the level of religiosity of their fathers particularly if they are attached to their fathers.’

A fifth piece of research that is relevant is Vern Bengtson’s longitudinal multigenerational study of faith transmission, as reported in the book Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down Across Generations (2013). The study found (a) that contrary to expectations, there was no significant difference between mother-child and father-child religious similarity; and (b) that ‘for religious transmission, having a close bond with one’s father matters even more than a close relationship with the mother.‘ Fervent faith, Bengtson declares, cannot compensate for a distant dad. In the words of a Catholic Priest who is quoted in the book, “Dad can bring Junior to Mass every Sunday, but if Dad doesn’t show Junior his love every other day of the week, he’s not going to take Dad’s church into his heart.”

My purpose in highlighting these different findings is not to “play off” the importance of mothers against that of fathers. The passing on of faith from generation to generation is most powerful and effective when and where mothers and fathers partner together in living out and sharing the Christian faith with their children. In this both genders play a vital and important role, thought somewhat differently and distinctly it seems. My purpose is, rather, to indicate the disjuncture in faith formation that arises where dads are either not persons of faith themselves or are reluctant to live into the calling that God places upon them as Christian fathers.

Given the above, what are some possible ways forward for congregations?

  1. Celebrate and affirm the fathers who participate in your community of faith. Encourage them in their vocation as parents and affirm their importance in the spiritual lives of their children.
  2. Focus on providing events that promote father-child attachment and upon giving fathers practical tools and guidance for developing closer relationships with their sons and daughters.
  3. Communicate to male future-parents-to-be the importance and significance of spiritual fathering.
  4. Consider ways in which your congregational life and practices can be made more welcoming for men and better account for male interests and perspectives (as a beginning point, study David Murrow’s book, Why Men Hate Going to Church).

Your thoughts and comments are welcome! …

Millenials, Church Decline and the Family Factor

Generational Replacement and the Rise of the Unaffiliated

The recently released Pew Research survey data on the religious affiliations of the so-called “Millenial” generation in the USA – those born between 1981 and 1996 (or those aged between 19 and 34 in 2015) has been widely reported in Christian circles. According to the research, 35% of adult Millennials in the USA are religiously unaffiliated, and the older Milennials have becoming increasingly so since the last survey (in 2007). The “unaffiliated” share of the Millenial cohort is double the share of unaffiliated Baby Boomers (17%) and more than three times the share of the members of the Silent Generation (11%). This indicates a growing “secularisation” of American society, in line with the long term trends already strongly evident in other so-called “Western” countries. For instance, Roy Morgan research results released in April 2014 reported that in just two years (2011-2013) the percentage of Australians reporting no religious affiliation increased from 29.2% to 37.6%, with just over half of the population (52.6%) now identifying themselves as Christian.

So, what is up with the Millenials, both in the USA and in other so-called “Western” countries? Most of the discussion these past weeks has focused on the generation itself and what the church can, might or should do in response to their drift away from faith and the life of the church. Little focus has been given to the broader milieu of relationships, values, practices and experiences which has shaped this generation, its beliefs and its connections with institutional church. A bigger, deeper question is, “What has caused this generation to be religiously different from those which preceded it? Many factors are clearly involved, but one which warrants attention is the manner in which changes in the lives of families and in family structures have disrupted processes of generation-to-generation faith transmission. In his recently released book, Reimagining Faith Formation for the 21st Century, John Roberto provides some important observations and reflections on this wider picture:

‘Family religious transmission and socialization are the foundation for the development of faith and faith practices in children and for participation in church life and worship. As Christian Smith observes, “teenagers with seriously religious parents are more likely than those without such parents to have been trained in their lives to think, feel, believe, and act as serious religious believers, and that that training ‘sticks’ with them even when they leave home and enter emerging adulthood. Emerging adults who grew up with seriously religious parents are through socialization more likely (1) to have internalized their parents religious worldview, (2) to possess the practical religious know-how needed to live more highly religious lives, and (3) to embody the identity orientations and behavioral tendencies towards continuing to practice what they have been taught religiously.” Significant indicators, such as religious identification as a Christian, worship attendance, marriages and baptisms in the church, and changing generational patterns, point to a decline in family religious socialization across all denominations, but especially among Catholic and mainline traditions. Religious practice among the next generation of parents (young adults in their twenties and thirties) is especially influenced by marrying, settling down, having children, and raising them. Since individuals who marry are more likely to attend religious services than are those who delay marriage, the postponement of marriage and childbearing has contributed to the decline in church attendance. Complicating this picture is the fact that an ever growing percentage of Christians (at least 30 percent) are not getting married in a religious ceremony. The less contact that young adults have with the Christian tradition through participation in a local church, the less family religious socialization that is likely to take place when they marry and have children. We also see a decline in religious traditions and practices at home. There are a variety of reasons for this, such as the complexity and busyness of everyday life, but one of the major reasons is the religious literacy and religious experience of today’s parents. Many parents did not grow up in families where they experienced religious traditions and practices. Many were away from a church for ten or more years before returning with their children for baptism or the start of Sunday school or first communion. They simply do not have the fluency with the Christian faith tradition or the confidence to share it with their children.’

Roberto highlights two important contributors to Millenial faith decline. The first is the spirituality of their parents. When and where parents become less engaged with the practice of faith, their offspring typically follow suit (and often become even further disengaged). It is highly likely that, in many cases, the seeds of Millenial religious practice or non-practice were sown in their child and teenage years through the interplay between faith and family life. A recent analysis of data from the Monitoring the Future and American Freshman  surveys bears this out: ‘In just the 13 years between 2000 and 2013, 87% more college students chose no religious affiliation (15% vs. 28%). Compared to the early 1970s, four times as many reported that their mother had no religious affiliation, and more than twice as many reported that their father had no religious affiliation. The gap between student’s affiliation and parent’s affiliation has grown; this suggests both that more students grew up without religion and that more are abandoning their parent’s religion by college entry.’

Secondly, Roberto nominates some wider societal trends which are disrupting family religious transmission and therefore child, youth and young adult spirituality. These trends include divorce in religiously-affiliated families, and spiritually “mixed” marriages or defacto partnerships. These trends are certainly a product of secularisation, but have also become its producers through their effect on faith formation and transmission in the home.  My personal anecdotal observation is that the latter aforementioned trend has become particularly problematic for the church in Australia. Increasingly, young men and women of faith are partnering with persons with little or no faith background. Very often this results in a decline in their church participation, and faith transmission to the next generation is significantly affected. The “mixed messages” which are communicated to children and young people in such situations make it less likely that they themselves will grow up to “own” and practice the Christian faith.

My reflections on the relationship between secularisation and family life across time have also been stimulated by Mary Eberstadt’s book, How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization. Eberstadt is a senior fellow at the Washington DC-based Ethics and Public Policy Center. The central thesis of her book is that ‘family decline is not merely a consequence of religious decline, as conventional thinking has understood that relationship. … The causal relationship between family and religion—specifically, the religion of Christianity—is not just a one-way, but actually a two-way street. … Family formation is not merely an outcome of religious belief, as secular sociology has regarded it. Rather, family formation can also be, and has been, a causal agent in its own right—one that also potentially affects any given human being’s religious belief and practice. The process of secularization … has not been properly understood because it has neglected to take into account this “Family Factor”—meaning the active effect that participation in the family itself appears to have on religious belief and practice. … The ongoing deterioration of the natural family itself has both accompanied and accelerated the deterioration in the West of Christian belief.’  Eberstadt uses the image of the double helix to describe the relationship between family and faith in society.

Faith and family are ‘two spirals that when linked to one another can effectively reproduce, but whose strength and momentum depend on one another.’ Family and faith operate in lockstep. ‘One spiral in the double helix is only as strong as the other.’

Eberstadt traces the decline of the family in the West back to the Industrial Revolution. Workers left behind strongly family-centred rural communities to seek work in the cities. This movement from country to city split people off from their extended families and created new pressures on family formation. For example, patterns and rhythms of urban life affected the quality and quantity of parent-child interactions (a factor which gave famously gave rise to the Sunday School movement in the 1780s). Eberstadt contends that moving to cities made people ‘less likely to have and live in strong natural families—and that intermediate, unseen step may have been what really started them down the road toward losing their religion, at least some of the time.’ The ‘destructive effect‘ the Industrial Revolution had on the family ‘somehow made it harder for people to believe and practice their Christian faith.’  Eberstadt suggests that the sexual revolution that exploded in the 1960s has been similarly disruptive and destructive. Various outcomes such as the postponement of marriage and childbearing, marriage breakdown, and a decline in the birthrate have together impacted on the spiritual formation of persons within families and extended families, and religious decline has come as a result.

‘People are social beings. They learn religion the way they learn language: in communities, beginning with the community of the family. And when family structure becomes disrupted and attenuated and fractured, as it is for many Western people today, many families can no longer function as a transmission belt for religious belief. In addition, many people become insulated from the natural course of birth, death, and other momentous family events that are part of why people turn to religion in the first place.’ (from an interview posted on www.gospelcoalition.org)

Interestingly, Eberstadt suggests that there are some aspects of family life that serve to cultivate a greater receptivity of the transcendent, or play a functional role in leading people towards engagement with communities of faith. Experience of childbirth, for instance, can evoke in people a deeper spiritual awareness. ‘Consider what the experience of childbirth itself does to almost every mother and father. … The sequence of events culminating in birth is nearly universally interpreted as a moment of communion with something larger than oneself, larger even than oneself and the infant. It is an experience that many people describe as religious or sacred—or as close to those states as one can get.’ More generally, Eberstadt proposes that sacrificial commitment which undergirds the intimate sharing of life together in a family through the ups and downs of existence from cradle to grave ‘has the transcendental effect of raising one’s focus beyond the immediate individual horizon.’ We sense, learn and experience something of the divine and the divine presence in family life that is not accessible in other life settings. ‘Family love gives individuals an extra incentive to contemplate eternity. Just as there are no atheists in a foxhole, so too are there fewer inside the nursery as opposed to out of it—and the same for the critical care unit.’ On the other hand, Eberstadt wonders if a poorer experience of family life across time dulls spiritual awareness and receptivity. ‘Might it be possible that detachment from those people most closely related to oneself—those most evocative of one’s personal creation—might somehow make it harder to see the Creator?’

At a more “practical” level, Eberstadt submits that ‘children drive parents to church in various ways’. With children in tow, adults may have more reasons ‘to find church‘ e.g. for purposes of religious instruction, to connect them a wholesome peer group, or to affiliate with a like-minded moral community. It follows that where society is characterised by “looser” family structures and smaller families the drive to engage with church will be weaker.

So, returning to where I started, I believe that analysis of the Millenial “retreat” from Christianity can and must consider the “family factor”. Religious decline and family decline are bound together, as are religious flourishing and family flourishing. To understand the faith lives (or otherwise) of Millenials – or any other generation for that matter – we must look beyond them, to the dynamics of family life that shaped who and what they are. Each generation is “generated” by that which preceded it, and it cannot be understood apart from them.

Lest I be charged with being so theoretical in this post so as to be of no practical help, I want to humbly suggest some ways forward for congregations:

  • Focus on the Millenials who are actively associated with your church. Give them a strong sense of “family” by drawing them into the centre of your faith community. Be for them a bigger, second family or perhaps the family they have never really had.
  • Focus on tooling parents in your faith community with understandings, skills and resources for passing on faith. Do not assume that their own upbringings have provided them with personal experiences to draw upon in raising their own children in faith.
  • Focus on ensuring that the children and youth in your congregation have a rich web of intergenerational relational connections to supplement their family and extended family relationships.
  • Focus on building genuine, caring and helpful connections with new parents and parents with infants.  Be attentive to the spiritual awakenings and reawakenings which may be evoked in parents through the birth of a child.
  • Focus on helping married couples in your congregation maintain positive, healthy relationships and to work through their conflicts.
  • Focus on ways in which your congregation can act in the wider community to bring families together in good and healthy ways, and to support them to live together healthily.

As always, your comments are very welcome!  …

Reflections on Mark 3:20-35 … Jesus, Family and the Will of God

In the three year Lectionary cycle there are a number of Bible passages which provide an excellent opportunity for preachers to speak directly of intergenerational and household ministry. This Sunday’s (7 June 2015, Second Sunday after Pentecost) Gospel reading – Mark 3:20-35 – is one such text.  Mark 3:20 tells us that Jesus entered a house and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat.  We are not told the location of  the house, but it is presumably in the vicinity of the home of Jesus’ extended family, for they receive word of what is taking place.  When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.”  It is possible that their concern was not merely for Jesus, but for family honor! Jesus had become a social embarrassment, a source of shame, and needed to be restrained. Or perhaps they felt that Jesus was not fulfilling his social responsibilities, as the eldest son, to care for his now widowed mother (the omission of Joseph in 3:31 and 6:3 suggests that he has already died). Whatever the case, the reference to Jesus’ state of mind provides a neat segue into next verse, in which the teachers of the law declare Jesus to be demon-possessed. And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons. The linkage of these two verses suggests that both Jesus’ family and the teachers of the law are in spiritual opposition to Jesus and his ministry (see also John 7:5). Francis Moloney writes, ‘The members of [Jesus’] blood family are unable to understand the urgency that drives Jesus in his task of proclaiming the kingdom, and the powerful attraction which this exercises upon those who are sick, and in need of the physician (see 2:17). They are “outside” the kingdom preached by Jesus.’ (The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary, p. 82).

Verse 23 tells us that Jesus called the teachers of the law over to himself (his family members were not on the scene as yet, see verse 31) and began to speak to them in parables.  In reference to his expulsion of evil spirits (e.g. Mark 1:21-28), Jesus asks, “How can Satan drive out Satan?”  He further declares, “If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand” (verse 25). I am somewhat intrigued by this statement of Jesus. It is a rephrasing of verse 24 and adds little to the thought development within the passage. Jesus, of course, had no desire for the “house of Satan” to remain standing. I wonder if the the use of the word “house” (oikos) here – the word that in the Greek New Testament that best approximates to the English word “family” – invites the reader/hearer to make wider associations. In the Gospel of Mark, oikos is used elsewhere to refer to homes or household dwellings and to the temple. In the light of 3:24 and 3:31-32, perhaps Jesus is making a point about the effect of spiritual disunity within both familial households and the wider household of God. A household that is spiritually divided will struggle to stand in the face of temptation and attack.

Jesus then goes on to speak of a “strong man’s house” (verses 27-28).  Once a “strong man” is tied up, his house can be plundered.  Jesus is the one who is stronger than Satan. He has come to tie up the strong man through his ministry, so that the house of Satan can then be plundered.

In verses 31-35 the focus on the passage switches back to Jesus’ family:

Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.” “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked. Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”

In the first place, these words of Jesus uphold the primacy of the will of God in family life. Jesus is not denigrating the family or diminishing the value and significance of family. Rather, he is teaching us that family loyalty is secondary to loyalty and obedience to the word of God. Family life, as wonderful as it can sometimes be, is not to be “worshiped” or served in place of God. In Diana Garland’s words, ‘Jesus is not doing away with family loyalty but transforming its meaning and putting it in its rightful place.’ (Family Ministry: A Comprehensive Guide, p. 317).

Secondly, Jesus’ words radically widen the concept of “family” for Christian believers. The loyalty, love and service that is properly given to one another in family life is also due to one another in the wider “family” of believers. In Christian community our relationships are reconfigured in and through Christ. In and through him we are brothers, sisters, mothers and children to and for one another. Jesus’ words evoke a vision of intergenerational life in which people of all ages and family backgrounds care for one another physically and spiritually. Spiritual parenting and child-rearing is broadly shared in the doing of the will of God.  Preaching on this passage, William Willimon said,

Your human family, for any of its virtues, is just too small, too closely circumscribed. … Thus, when someone steps up and answers Jesus’ call to follow him, the church washes that person in water – baptism – which says, among other things, that the person has been reborn, started over, and has been adopted into a new God-formed family. It is as if the person gets a new name, “Christian,” that takes precedence over that person’s family name. It is as if the person has already died to old attachments and former relationships and has already been raised to new life. And the church is that fresh, new family that is composed of those who have heard Jesus’ “Follow me” and have stepped forward and said “Yes.” … Thus, when parents bring a child forward for baptism, Christian initiation, the pastor takes the child from them and says, in effect, “You are two wonderful people, but you are not knowledgeable enough, not skilled enough on your own, to raise a Christian. Therefore, we’ll adopt your child, we’ll take responsibility for this baby, we will help you raise a Christian.” In a world of grandparents without grandchildren close by, and single-parent families, and grandchildren growing up without grandparents, and marriages under stress, you need a bigger family than the one you were born into. You must be born again into a new, far flung family, a family as large as the love of God in Jesus Christ.

As a parent, I am acutely aware that I need the “wider circle” of the household of believers to support me in sharing Christ with my daughters. I need them to have spiritual brothers, sisters, mothers and children within the Christian community in order for God’s will to be done in their lives. One of the most significant things I can do as a Christian parent is to see that the spiritual lives of my daughters transcends their family life. A rich, vibrant intergenerational Christian community is a wonderful gift to children, youth and their families, drawing them more deeply and fully into the will of God. Moreover, a family that is caught up in the web of the wider household of God is more likely to be characterised by a unity of spirit and able to stand strong in the things of God.

So, in proclaiming this text, here are some potential applications to intergenerational and household ministry:

  • In the kingdom of God, family life is intended to be an instrument of God’s will and secondary to it.
  • Spiritual unity in families is vital for resisting temptation and the attacks of the evil One. A house that is divided is susceptible to falling away.
  • In Christ, God creates a new “family” which transcends blood ties. In Christian community the children are everyone’s children. We are called to share together in the privilege and blessing of caring for one another beyond the circle of immediate family life.