Millenials, Church Decline and the Family Factor

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.

Grandparents and the Faith Formation “Tent”

How do you see the grandparents and great-grandparents in your congregation? As onlookers to ministry with children or youth or as ministers on the frontlines of passing on faith? As symbolic of a bygone era or agents of God for the shaping of a new generation of disciples? Of late, I have had three different prompts to think about the role and potential significance of grandparents and great-grandparents in faith formation.

Firstly, I had a conversation with a grandparent of faith who invests a considerable part of their week providing low cost childcare for their young grandchildren, while the children’s parents are both out working. This grandparent expressed their frustration with the challenges this presented for them at a stage in life when they expected to be past looking after young children. They wanted to be supportive of their own children, but doing so came at a personal cost. While empathising with the grandparent, I also wondered with them about the “gift” they had been given of living out their Christian faith with their grandchildren in a domestic place and space from day to day. The hours they have with their young grandchildren, even as though they are sometimes wearing and frustrating, are also a precious opportunity to tell Bible stories, guide them in prayer, practice rhythms and rituals of faith and embody the love of Christ! Within the stress and messiness of “grandpa and grandma childcare” there is the potential to make an indelible imprint on young lives in the name of Jesus and to transform extended families.

My second prompt came in reading the chapter by Phyllis Tickle in Faith Forward Volume 2: Re-imagining Children’s and Youth Ministry. Tickle writes that “the Abrahamic faiths … have always been transmitted domestically.” In ancient times the tent was the place where the faith was carried forward through shared conversations, routines, rituals and rhythms. The pattern was the “the tent and then the synagogue and then the temple“. Tickle points out that in the modern age the “transmitting function of the tent” has become eroded. The home has become a place of individual retreat from the world instead of a community that ‘informs’ and ‘forms’ across generations through shared play, enterprise, and conversation. A result of this erosion is that a generation of Christian adults have not themselves been informed and formed in the way of the tent in order to inform and form others.

“Christian parents of today’s young children do not themselves – by and large and truth be told – know the stories of their biblical or their ecclesial history. That is, they too were reared after the 20th century’s interruptions [to the way of the tent].  They too did not have the tent, and they attest to this with great poignancy and great longing, if and when the rest of us are willing to listen.”

In other words, many parents of today who may have grown up attending church with their parents do not know what it is to practice the Christian faith in their own homes because they did not experience the way of the tent for themselves. They do not have the rich childhood memories and experiences of faith conversations, home devotions, rituals and traditions and service to draw upon in tending the faith lives of their own children. One has to to back at least one further generation to find those who can speak of the tent and school others in its patterns, rhythms and routines. And going back to these earlier generations, Tickle suggests, is precisely what can and must be done to mend the tent. Grandparents and great-grandparents are precious treasures in the life of the church, for they are the repository of stories, customs and practices that today’s children, youth and parents need to hear, hear about and experience.

“Those among us who are over 65, by and large, have those stories and formative customs deep within us.  We – or they, as the case may be – still have them. I would to my soul that every congregation … might begin to contrive ways to match their seniors with either their own grandchildren or with other children in the congregation, or in the neighborhood. Match them up so that the tent’s narrative flow of faith – both read and enacted – begins to happen again. If we can get our seniors deliberately and purposefully connected, either with their own grandchildren, which is an easy fix, or with other children, youth and young Christians in the making; if we can get them connected there is some kind of ongoing, sustained, responsibility, then the tent can be restored in a new way.”

My third prompt has been Vern Bengtson’s book, Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down Across GenerationsBengtson studied the transmission of faith across four generations and 35 years, encompassing over 3000 persons and over 300 multigenerational families. He found “strong evidence of transmission [of religious orientations] from grandparents to grandchildren.” In some cases, grandparents functioned as spiritual “replacement figures” for the children’s parents. In others, grandparents significantly reinforced the faith teachings and practices of their grandchildren’s parents. And, in still other cases, grandparents served as countering influence to the non-Christian attitudes and perspectives of their grandchildren’s parents. Indeed, Bengtson proposes that, because of demographic, technological and societal developments the spiritual influence and impact of grandparents is potentially stronger than previously.

“Because of the increase in life expectancy over the twentieth century, grandparents have longer lives than ever before, and grandchildren can enjoy many years with living grandparents. This has increased the chances for grandparents to play a significant role in the lives of grandchildren. … Moreover, grandparents and grandchildren today have more time to interact, share, and lend support. They have more time to learn from each other and more opportunities for mutual socialization. Though there is sometimes greater geographic distance between generations now than in the past, grandparents and grandchildren have more ways to communicate as well, with the pervasive use of technologies such as cell phones, Skype, and Facebook – often with grandchildren teaching their parents how to use them – an instance of “reverse socialization” between generations. … Grandparents can provide a stabilizing influence in their grandchildren’s lives in situations of parental divorce, incapacity, addiction or emotional distancing. In these contexts grandparents’ influence may be highly salient for the development of children’s religious values and beliefs. In other situations, grandparents may play a larger role in influencing children’s religious orientation simply because they have more time to do so, or religious instruction is not a priority for parents, or parents are religiously indifferent. … For many children, grandparents are the de facto moral and religious models and teachers in lieu of parents who are too exhausted or too busy on weekend to go to church.”

I suspect that, for the most part, too little focus has been given to the existing and potential ministry impact our seniors have on children and youth through their relationships with them, particularly in extended families. Instead of overlooking, marginalising or devaluing the seniors in our communities of faith we need to celebrate them as God’s gift in the enterprise of faith formation across generations. So here are some questions …

  • In what ways can we affirm grandparents, great-grandparents and other seniors in their vocation as spiritual influences and role models?
  • In what ways can we better equip and resource our seniors for sharing their faith lives and their faith stories with the young?
  • In what ways can we facilitate and enable relationships between seniors in our congregations and our children and youth, whether they are familially-related or not?

One of my favourite passages of Scripture is Psalm 71:17-18. Here the Psalmist asks God to sustain him into old age so that he can proclaim the faithfulness and saving might of the Lord to future generations.

17 Since my youth, God, you have taught me,
    and to this day I declare your marvelous deeds.
18 Even when I am old and gray,
    do not forsake me, my God,
till I declare your power to the next generation,
    your mighty acts to all who are to come.

Now, that’s what I’m talking about! God bless our grandpas and grandmas!

Changing Your Church (Maybe and Sometimes) – Part Two

In a recent post I reflected on the possibilities and challenges of effecting change in a church “from below”, from outside of a congregation’s leadership circle. I wrote about the potential of tactics and suggested that any one of us can do something towards prompting change that makes our faith communities more welcoming, supportive and inclusive for children, young people and families. In this post I want to share some more practical tips. I give credit to the amazing work of Dave Andrews for generating some of my thoughts.

  1. Ask for divine preparation of your heart and spirit: Begin on your knees. Take your concerns, hopes and dreams to the Lord. Ask him to give you the right motivation and attitude in working toward change, and to grant you wisdom and guidance.  Ask the Lord to first change and renew you.  Ask God to fill you with his love for his church (Ephesians 5:25).
  2. Begin from a position of goodwill: In working towards change, be conscious of not coming across as a critic but as a concerned supporter of good mission and ministry. Presume the best of others and their intentions. Don’t assume that because something is happening or being conducted in a certain way that those in leadership oppose change. There may be a variety of reasons why things are the way they are, some quite innocuous. Respectfully ask why.  Invite others to “wonder why” and to “wonder if”.  Seek to understand the current situation and to communicate at all times in all ways that you are a supporter of the ministry of your church and have its best interests at heart.
  3. Seek a sponsor: Identify someone in the leadership of your congregation who has a passion for ministry to children, youth and their families. This may be someone who is of “grandparent age” who has a heart for the younger generations coming to and growing in faith. Be intentional about developing a relationship with them (you may want to focus on this first before raising any issues). At an appropriate time, share your heart with them, your concerns, and your ideas for possible change.  Invite them to share theirs with you too. Seek their advice for bringing about change and ask them whether they would be willing to support you and mentor you from a leadership perspective.
  4. Find some supporters: Look for at least two other people who share your concerns and vision, and who are willing to invest time and effort to help you work towards change. Dave Andrews writes, “One person can make a point, two persons can draw a line. But it takes at least three persons to create a culture, which can demonstrate an alternative.”
  5. Develop tactics that will be both acceptable in the short-term and transformative in the long-term: Work together with your sponsor and supporters to clarify the “big picture” and the “end point” towards which you are working.  Accept that it is unlikely that you will see the change you desire in the short-term.  Consider innovations that are likely to be acceptable to your faith community in the short-term and discuss what steps can be taken to achieve them.  You may determine that your “big picture” vision is too overwhelming or threatening to share with others at this point and choose to keep it to yourselves, even as work on building the foundations for that preferred future.
  6. Develop a plan, then communicate and consult: Good ideas frequently fail to gain traction because those who champion fail to match them with planning and resources.  Don’t just “flag” an idea to your pastor or church leaders.  Put time and effort into the questions of “why”, “what”, “how”, “when”, “where” and “who”.  If you can demonstrate how sustainable change can be achieved without further burdening and stressing your church staff and leaders, it is likely to be much better received by them.
  7. Add lots of prayer to steps 2-6:  Remember Proverbs 19:21 – “Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.”  Seek God’s will and God’s purposes in all you do.  Remember that the church is finally his church, not yours or mine.  Trust in his goodness, his provision and his timing.

I hope that some of this may be helpful … if you have any comments or insights to share they are most welcome!

Youth and Faith: Starting Points, Contradictions and Sacred Wonderings

students_walking

Earlier this afternoon I happened to be walking behind two young people on their way home from a religious school. Close enough to hear their conversation, I heard them lamenting their involvement in “Christian studies” classes, a compulsory curriculum component. One complained that “all they talk about is God” and that “God” is the answer to every question posed. The other discounted the Bible and the Christian faith on the basis of apparent contradictions. He pointed out that God says not to kill, yet he permitted or even contrived the deaths of 42 youth in 2 Kings 2 when they mocked Elisha for his baldness (I was actually impressed that he knew that story!).

As I reflected on this conversation, I came to wonder about two issues of Christian “pedagogy” with young people. I wondered about whether the better starting point for engaging many of our young people with “God stuff” (and especially those with little faith background) is their own life issues, questions and struggles, not Christian doctrine and belief systems. Instead of “downloading Christian information” perhaps it would be better to first “place share” with them – to carefully and prayerfully listen to their experiences and issues, inviting them to consider how the resources of the Christian tradition and the narrative of the big God-story relates to them and the world around them. This involves trusting that the Holy Spirit is present in the space between they and us, and resisting the temptation to resort to cut-and-dried responses.

Sometimes it is appropriate to begin where Peter begins in Acts 2, with the Bible and its teachings. But sometimes it is better to follow the way of Paul in Acts 17 … to walk around and observe carefully the life experiences and situations of young people, to draw attention to the unknown, to wonder with them what God’s revelation of himself in Jesus might mean for them and the world at large.

I also wondered about what it might mean to openly name the apparent contradictions within the Scriptures and to help our young people wrestle with them, instead of pretending these don’t exist, or seeking to “harmonise” at every point.  In his chapter in Faith Forward – Volume 2, Brian McLaren writes about “conversational storytelling” – putting two seemingly contrasting Bible stories alongside each other and inviting young people into a process of sacred wondering about the nature, purposes and workings of God. The God of 2 Kings 2 is also the God of Exodus 14, preserving the Israelites from Pharoah’s army. The God in whose name David goes out to slay Goliath is the same God who refuses to allow David to build the temple because he is a man of bloodshed.  The same God who asks Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac embraces the pain and suffering of the cross for the sake of the world.  “Conversational storytelling” invites young people to think and reflect theologically … to authentically struggle with the tensions of faith and doubt in a caring environment … to encounter God as both divine mystery beyond us and the One who comes close to us in the messiness and ambiguities of human experience.

I will pray for those two young people.  I will pray that they hear “God” not simply as a textbook answer but as a fellow-traveller on their personal “roads to Emmaus”.  I will pray that they will see and experience God as true beyond their doubts and gracious beyond their imaginings.

 

Changing your Church (Maybe and Sometimes) – Part One

No church is perfect of course, but there are some churches that take ministering to children, young people and their families very seriously. These churches work hard to support and resource families to liqve out and share faith together in their homes. These churches strive to create contexts for worship which are welcoming of children and young people and engaging for them and their families. These churches promote intergenerational connections so that children and young people have multiple mentors of faith. These churches provide age-specific faith formation activities for children and young people that are well planned and well resourced. And then there are other churches which do not. So, what can a parent do if they are in the second type of church, and feel strongly that the spiritual needs of their children are not being valued and addressed? There are, it seems, three basic options: (1) grin and bear it; (2) look for a different church to attend; (3) work towards change.  Of these three options, the third option seems particularly challenging for the average church attender. In many churches, patterns and practices seem to be deeply entrenched, perhaps even beyond question. The average attender may feel that the “power” to effect change is well beyond their reach. My purpose in writing this post is to provide some hope and encouragement to parents and families in “type two” churches.  I do believe that it is, in many circumstances, possible to work towards change “from below”.  I say “many” rather than “all” out of realism – if change is opposed on theological grounds or if church leaders simply won’t listen to any alternative ideas, then it is nigh impossible to alter much.  But many churches and church leaders are not opposed to change in principle.  It is often the case that they have become “comfortable” in doing things a certain way, and have either not thought beyond that or have not been motivated to do something differently.  Like other institutions, churches default towards “homeostasis” – without an ongoing impulse towards change and revitalisation they act in ways that promote internal stability and sub-consciously resist whatever might “rock the boat”.  They may not even realise this to be the case, and the extent to which this default impulse is undermining their spiritual vitality and mission in Christ. So, what can one do to make a difference in a potentially-changeable, homestatic “type two” church, at least maybe and sometimes?  In her brilliant book Welcoming Children, Joyce Mercer, drawing on work of Michel de Certeau, writes of strategies and tactics. In brief, strategies are longer-term plans, made by those who have the luxury of time for analysis and contemplation of the “big picture”. Strategies are used by those who are relatively-well positioned in a conflict or struggle, who have the time to reflect and make the connections between the situation as it stands and the changes and outcomes desired. Tactics, on the other hand, are the activities of people from the underside of a struggle.  They have neither the luxury of time nor perhaps the benefit of a thoroughgoing look at the situation as a whole. Nevertheless, they must choose some course of action and attempt to affect the situation, often on the turf and in the “discourse” of the other rather than on their own terms. Tactics are necessarily shorter-term actions, but they can have considerable impact, Mercer then goes on to relate the use of tactics to ministry to children.  She writes, “sometimes tactical maneuvers are necessary to garner momentum or “problematize” the conditions under which children’s education in faith takes place in congregations, particularly when those in positions to effect strategy do not grasp the meaning of education or the importance of welcoming and nurturing children.”  I find the notion of tactics very helpful.  It suggests that most of us can do something to prompt or stimulate change, or cultivate a climate for change, even if we have little actual control over the “big picture” strategic level decisions and choices.  Say, for example, a family is worshiping in a church that gives little focus to children.  A very simple “tactic” might involve a family or families with children choosing to sit at the very front of the worship space each weekend, to make children more visible to the pastor and other worship leaders.  Parents with children could intentionally include them in the conduct of various worship roles e.g. ushering or welcoming or reading lessons, so as to highlight their presence and capacities to contribute.  Tactics such as this can be usually be utilised without “permission” and have the effect of prompting wider thought and discussion. And the more such thinking and discussion takes place, the greater the impulse towards recalibration of an overall system of congregational life and practice. Congregational communities are, after all, living systems.  As much as they involve structures and hierarchies and policies and procedures, they are organic.  They are made up of interlinking and interdependent relationships between individuals, groups and households. The nature of a system is that if one part is altered in some way, that alteration affects other parts, prompting them to either accommodate, revise or stymie the alteration.  And the more “micro” changes there are in one or more parts of the system, the greater the cumulative impact on the whole system. Imagine that you are faced with the task of shifting a huge boulder in your front garden without access to heavy machinery. Your aim is to create a flat, level space. There are two ways to achieve your goal.  You can try to move the boulder by pushing and shoving … good luck with that!  Or you can dig out the earth around the boulder so that over time a big enough hole is created into which the boulder can gradually slip. What I am trying to say is this: (a) everyone can do something towards change; (b) the best place to start is by working on and through those things you can directly influence, knowing that they have the potential to indirectly influence other things; and (c) the more little changes or innovations you can make in your area of influence, the greater the likelihood that there will be a wider reaction or adjustment. More on this in a future post

Fostering Faith – Part 5

This is the fifth part of a series of reflections inspired by Charles R. Foster’s book From Generation to Generation: The Adaptive Challenge of Mainline Protestant Education in Forming Faith (2012, Cascade Books).

View other parts of this blog series:   Part One   Part Two   Part Three   Part Four


Echoes

Some of my teenage and young adult memories are of hiking in Australian National Parks with groups of friends.  With people walking at different speeds we would become separated from one another on the walking tracks.  A way of connecting with each other would be to yell out “Cooooeeee”.   The sound of our voices would echo across the countryside, bouncing off nearby mountains and other terrain.  Shortly afterwards a responding “Cooooeeee” could be heard, once again in a series of echos.

Charles Foster relates the passing on of faith from generation to generation to reverberations of an echo.  The Gospel is proclaimed from one generation to the next with family and congregational practices of faith functioning as an “echo chamber” to repeat and reinforce what it means to know and follow Christ as Lord.  These practices are like walls or mountain faces which repeatedly “bounce back” to children and young people the “sounds and shapes, feelings, thoughts, and behaviours” that are part of life in Christ.  Foster highlights hospitality, celebration and conversation as being of particular significance for the “echoing” of faith.  He writes that the “lively interdependence” of these three congregational practices establishes “important contextual conditions in the catechetical culture of congregations in forming the knowledge and conduct of faith of their members across the generations.”

  • Through the practice of hospitality, children and young people are included into a congregation’s life and mission and blessed with relationships and encounters across generational boundaries.
  • Through the practice of celebration, children and young people become part of the shared and common life of the congregation patterned around the life and mission of Christ.  Foster proposes that a congregation’s “celebrative events” can serve as the essential “curricular structure” for the formation of faith across ages.
  • Through the practice of conversation the “relationships that constitute our communities  … are nurtured and sustained.”

Foster gives particular focus to discussing the practice of conversation in congregational life.  Conversation, he writes, “involves more than the exchange of words. … Conversation draws us into the company of others. … It establishes patterns of reciprocity that draws us into the possibilities of intimacy.” Through conversational exchanges “we participate in the mutuality of influencing and being influenced, of shaping and being shaped, of forming and being formed.”  Through the “relational interactivity of conversation we may become something other than what we once were.”  Conversation is, of course, relational and largely informal.  It is not the “bread and butter” of traditional, didactic approaches to Christian education.  And yet Foster contends that a “congregation’s conversation is a basic feature in its curricular “infrastructure”.”  It is the “interactive communication patterns in families, groups, and organizations that form and sustain its deepest values, perspectives, and practices. … We are who we are because we communicate.

I find Foster’s emphasis on conversation to be very insightful and challenging.  My experience is that in many faith communities the voices of the “professional few” – pastors and other ministry staff – still dominate the “airwaves”.  Relatively few adults, let alone children and young people, are encouraged and enabled to converse around matters of faith, and to voice to and with one another the questions, doubts and learnings associated with their spiritual journeys.  If Foster is correct – and I suspect he is – perhaps one of the most significant steps we can take to reinvigorate our congregations and promote the transmission of faith across generations is to get Christians of different ages talking to one another about matters of faith in their homes, small groups and gathered congregational settings.  In my own congregation we have promoted the FAITH5 as a model for bringing faith conversation to life in our households, small groups and ministry gatherings.  It has been a blessing to see congregational attenders of all ages growing together through conversing, listening and sharing.  The locus of theology – “talk about God’ – has begun to shift from the pulpit and the classroom podium to the mealtable, the fellowship hall and the living room.

To “open up the airwaves” for faith conversation it is necessary for pastors and ministry staff to say less and trust the Holy Spirit to come alive in the hearts, minds and voices of our people.  It is also important to shift the emphasis from “sage on the stage” approaches to Christian education towards contexts which invite and promote sharing of thoughts, questions and experiences.  As Foster expresses, “there is little or no conversation when the words we speak are simply directed at another person or group.” Moreover, it is vital that we work proactively to ensure that the younger ones in our midst are given spaces and places at the heart of congregational life to speak and to be heard.  They are fellow brothers and sisters in Christ in whom God’s Spirit is as much present as in older folks! The practice of conversation calls for persons of all ages and generations to give voice and ear to one another, so that Christ the Word who indwells each of us may become the Word between us and beyond us, echoing from generation to generation.

Kids: Not MINE but GOD’S and OURS

A ministry colleague recently made me aware of how some child and youth ministry leaders and teachers refer to the children/youth in their care as “my” kids or “my” students. Since then, I have come across a number of examples of this sort of language in postings on various blogsites. So, you might ask, what is the problem?  On the surface of things, there might seem to be none at all.  When Christian child/youth leaders and teachers speak or write this way I believe they do so out of a sense of genuine affection and care for the children and young people they serve.  But words matter!  They often carry implicit assumptions and can convey messages and signals that are not altogether helpful or healthy.

The word “my” suggests ownership or possession. Strictly speaking, no human can speak of another person as “mine” – we all ultimately belong to God and are his gifts to one another.  Even as a parent, my children are only secondarily “mine”. They are given to me to care for and tend on God’s behalf and in God’s name. My role ultimately is not to draw attention to myself but to point them to God as their heavenly parent. I wonder if the use of “my” by child/youth leaders and teachers sometimes indicates an overextended relationship dynamic. Child/youth leaders and teachers can fall into the trap of focusing more on developing relationships with the children and youth in their groups or classes than helping them know and receive Jesus as their divine friend (John 15:15) and Savior. Our role is to nurture them as children of God, not to gather them around ourselves as our own “disciples”. In the words of John the Baptist, “it is necessary for him to increase and for me to decrease.

I also wonder if an unthinking use of the word “my” dilutes and diminishes the role and importance of parents and the wider faith community in nurturing children and youth as followers of Jesus.  In the household of God the little ones are OUR children to tend together. The most effective faith formation takes place where child and youth ministry leaders, parents and other adults of faith have a shared sense of partnership in passing on the faith.  If, as a ministry leader or teacher, I am speaking of a child or young person as “mine”, I am probably not actively working to enable others to come alongside me in the name of Jesus.  The best child/youth ministry leaders and teachers are those who are mature and secure enough in their identity as children of God to get out of the road themselves and facilitate a web of intergenerational relationships in the lives of the children/youth of their congregations.

What do you think?

Get in Close!

Yesterday afternoon I attended my daughter’s weekly outdoor netball game. When the game began the weather conditions were favourable, but in the second quarter of the game the wind began to blow strongly. Her team, which had started very well, began to flounder. Their usual game style began to break down in the face of a strong wind which made throwing and catching the ball that much harder. At half-time the coach urged them to adjust their style to come in closer to one another and throw shorter, lower passes. Higher, longer passes were drifting away or holding up in the wind, making it much easier for their opponents to intercept. When they did adjust their style to “getting in close” and “playing shorter” they began to take control of the game again and ran out winners.

As I reflected on the game, it struck me that in the arena of faith formation the “winds have changed” for those ministering to children, youth and their families. In western societies like Australia, the UK and the USA the sweep of popular culture is increasingly against Christian faith and values. There is no longer a shared consensus around faith and values in the way there was (at least to some extent) in past centuries. The church no longer has the status and voice in our communities that it once had. That means that we cannot rely on the wider culture to impart faith and values to our children and youth by default, or to even reinforce our faith and values. The messages that come to us through the media and the views and perspectives of the secular culture around us are often in stark contradiction to a Biblical perspective and worldview. And the “game style” that used to dominate church practice, and still persists in many congregations is no longer working! Ministry that relies on gathering young people together in large groups and in Sunday age-based classroom settings is no longer hitting the mark. Children and young people are not attending these groups and classes in the numbers they once were, and many that do drift away from the life of the church in their late teen and young adult years. The “ball” of discipleship is being swept off course, away from the hearts and minds of our children and young people.

How should we respond? Like my daughter’s netball team, we need to adjust our “game style”! Instead of focusing on big program delivery and age-specific group settings we need to “get in close” to our children, young people and their families. We need to build relationships with them – not just child and youth ministry leaders but adults of ALL ages in our communities of faith. We need to know them by name and include them in person. We need to take an interest in their lives, in their joys and hurts and hopes and struggles. Our children and young people need faith mentors more than they need ministry curriculum. We also need to “get in close” to their families. We need to be intentional and purposeful about providing households with ideas, resources and skills for practicing faith at home in ways that sustainable and manageable for them. We need to welcome and include and whole families in our patterns of church life, instead of segregating them through our ministries.

Here some practical directions to pursue:

  • Work to provide children and young people in your congregation with older mentors or “buddies”, and put in place a support and encouragement system for these mentors.
  • Focus on making your church life more intentionally intergenerational, and on introducing intergenerational elements into existing age-specific programs.
  • Put time, effort and energy into nurturing and support parents and caregivers, and into providing them with help and resources for living out faith at home with their children and youth.
  • Seek to give every child and young people in your faith community a concrete ministry role, reflecting their individual gifts and talents.

One feature of my daughter’s netball game is that it was low scoring. The wind conditions made it much harder to set up and shoot goals. “Getting in close” to children, young people and their families is more resource and people-intensive than “big group” ministry approaches. We should also expect that some families will simply not want to “play ball” with us, preferring the old model of “handing their kids off” to the church for the “faith stuff”. But the measure of effective faith formation is not how many children and youth are involved now – it is how many will be involved through young adulthood and beyond. “Getting in close” may mean lower numbers in the present and immediate future, but I am convinced it will also mean more disciples over the longer term.

What do you think?

“That Home” (Newsboys)

There was a home in town
Where broken kids, the lost & found
Would come from miles around
Just to see, what love was all about
‘Cause Momma had a way of makin’ things okay

She’d cook us our favorite meal
Sit and listen to how we feel
Oh, how the pain was real
How many families what the devil steal?
Momma had a way of makin’ things okay

In that home
We knew we were safe
To be young enough to dream
Find the faith to believe
And in that home
Love, it had no end
It’s where we learned to forgive
In that home

Momma always had the music on
Sometimes loud, sometimes soft
When I asked her ’bout her favorite song
She opened the bible to the book of Psalms
She always found a way to talk about grace

In that home
We knew we were safe
To be young enough to dream
Find the faith to believe
And in that home
Love, it had no end
That’s where we learned to forgive
In that home

And on that day I got the news
That Momma’s stay here was almost through
I stayed all night by her side
Held her hand, looked in her eyes
And said, Momma

When you’re home
I know you’ll be safe
Strong enough to see
The faith that you believed
And in that home
Life will have no end
I know I’ll see you again

In that home

–  NEWSBOYS (2013)