They Told Their Stories

Last night I was involved in leading a parent-student event as part of my congregation’s Confirmation ministry.  We have moved away from a “class” model of Confirmation to a model that resources and supports parents to be the primary Confirmation “teachers” (for want of a better word … the emphasis is more on walking alongside and journeying together with youth, not standing over them).  In our two year program we have five “focus” events each year where parents and youth learn and share together around key topics, and then provide at-home materials so that they can unpack the topics together in the context of their daily lives.  There are also other elements designed to integrate our youth into the life of our wider faith community, but I’ll leave that for another post. The focus at last night’s event was upon the First Article of the Apostles’ Creed.  In one activity we asked the parents and young people to think about arguments for and against the existence of God and to respond to those arguments.  And then perhaps the most poignant (and unscripted) moments of the evening took place.  Parents, on their own accord, shared their personal experiences of God at work in their lives … their own “evidence” of the life and presence of God.  One parent shared about experiencing the presence of God in the midst of a tragic loss of life in her extended family.  Another parent spoke about being overwhelmed by the wonders of God’s creation while camping out in nature.  And the youth listened … intently.  The content we had examined with them came alive as it was grounded in the stories of their parents.  They probably won’t remember our finely laid-out Biblical and theological points in and of themselves, but they will remember their parent’s stories, and from them draw meaning and truth. I am convinced of this:  the best way for children, youth and family ministry leaders to nurture our children and young people in faith is nurture their parents/caregivers in faith together with them.  That means bringing parents and youth/children into the same places and spaces to hear and reflect together on God’s Word.  That means inviting them to speak out their stories of faith with one another.  That means trusting the Holy Spirit to be at work in and through whatever unscripted moments emerge along the way.

Charlotte’s Amens

Sometimes we lead our children in worship of God, and sometimes they lead us.

Charlotte is a two-year old girl who attends Sunday Worship with her parents and her older brother.  We have a children’s area up the front of our worship space, with a mat for younger children to sit on and age-appropriate and faith-related materials they can engage with during the Service.  Yesterday, like other Sundays, Charlotte was there with other children.  At one point in the Service I (the presiding Minister) shared a multi-sentence prayer on behalf of the congregation.  After each sentence, Charlotte spoke out a loud “Amen”, until finally her “Amen” was joined to that of the rest of the congregation.

Where and how did little Charlotte become an “Amen-er”?  She has been “Amen-ed” into the life of God’s people by experiencing and sharing in regular prayer times in her home and, by extension, in the weekly gatherings of her church family.  Over time the practice of prayer has become natural for her, so that she knows what it is to say “Amen”.  The message is simple.  Children learn to pray by praying.  Children learn to worship by worshiping.  In doing so they find their voice, and those who hear are blessed.

Charlotte’s “Amens” also remind me that while to adults it may seem they are not taking in the sounds and smells and movements of worship, young children are absorbing much more than we realise.  The Spirit of God is at work in them as the Spirit is at work in adults.  Even when playing in our midst they are participating.  We need not be anxious about children “being children” in worship settings.  They do not have to become “adult-like” to hear and receive and engage and respond.

The Message paraphrases Psalm 8:2 as follows:  “Nursing infants gurgle choruses about you; toddlers shout the songs that drown out enemy talk, and silence atheist babble.”  Charlotte’s enthusiastic expressions of faith reminded all who were gathered that we too should say “So be it, Lord” over and over again in our lives and in our world. Her voice invites us and calls us to make use of ours.  Yes, Charlotte led us in our worship of God yesterday, and we were all better for it!

The FAITH5 – Praying and Blessing

This is the third of three Sunday Messages on the FAITH5, a faith@home spiritual practice promoted by Dr. Rich Melheim and Faith Inkubators.  My preaching text was John 15:9-17.  This Message drew upon Dr. Melheim’s book Holding Your Family Together and was designed to be interactive and practical in nature.  Click to read the first and second parts of this blog series.

Today we’re concluding our three-part Message Series, “5 Habits to Hold Your Home Together”.  Over these three weeks we’re learning about practicing at home a spiritual tool called the FAITH5.  It’s a simple set of faith habits we can use in our homes to take in God’s word and care for each other in Jesus’ name.

The past two Sundays we’ve looked at the first three steps of the FAITH5 – SHARING “Highs” and “Lows”,  READING a Bible passage or a a Bible story, and TALKING about how what we’ve heard applies to our “Highs” and our “Lows”.  Would anyone like to share about their experiences of doing that in their homes? … (time for sharing)

Today I want to look with you at the last two steps in the FAITH5 – PRAYING and BLESSING.  In these steps we bring together what we have shared and talked about in the first three steps and call God into our midst.  In praying we take our joys and hurts to God.  In blessing each other we apply God’s name, God’s grace, God’s peace, God’s power and God’s hope into one another’s life situations.

In our Bible reading for today from John 15:9-17, we hear these words of Jesus: “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love” (John 15:9) Praying and blessing are two big ways of remaining or resting or abiding in the love of Jesus in our daily lives.  In praying daily, we turn to God because we know he loves us, and express our trust in him to help us in loving ways in everyday life.  When we bless others daily, we name God’s love for them that day in a very personal way.  Jesus then goes on to say, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” (John 15:12)  Two of the most significant ways we can show love to each other is by praying for them and blessing them.  I can love someone else through all sorts of words and actions without bringing God into it. But when I connect that person’s life to the life of God in prayer and blessing, then my love for them taps into God’s full and perfect and eternal love!  It’s perhaps the most loving thing of all that I can do for them!

Let’s take a little bit of time to focus on those steps one at a time.  Prayer is really just talking to God about what is happening in our homes, our lives, our world.  As an earthly parent, I want to hear what is going in on in the lives of my daughters.   How much more is God concerned and interested with the details of our lives (and he is a much better listener than I am!). If something is on our hearts, then God is ready and available to hear from us.

When we bring each other’s “Highs” and “Lows” before God in prayer, we remind them that they are not alone – that the God of the universe is watching over them, and that we are there for them in his name.  Prayer brings comfort and hope.  Rich Melheim says this:  “Prayer makes God real and tangible.  It makes God’s will real to you and through you.  It gives direction to life.  It brings you closer to the people you pray with and pray for and to the God to whom you pray.  Prayer teaches you how to let go and let God into the situation.  It is love in action.”  Now, God doesn’t always answer our prayers in the ways we might initially want, but he does always answer them.  And when we do take the “highs” and “lows” of our lives to him, we become more conscious of him at work.  Earlier this week  I was part of a group in which we shared “highs” and “lows” and prayed for each other.  Later that week one of the group shared how they had experienced God turning up for them.  Our prayers made him more aware that God can and does provide, and God was pleased to do just that.

A few tips on prayer.  If you are not used to praying aloud in your home or small group, you can ask people to first write down a prayer and then read it aloud.  You might want to discuss prayer points and divide them between your family or small group members beforehand.   You might have people share just a sentence or a phrase at a time.  Prayer doesn’t have to be long or complicated.  It is taking the time to turn to God that’s important. God already knows what’s on our hearts and our minds long before we speak out our prayers to him.

Blessing one another is the last step in the FAITH5.  The Bible is full of examples of people blessing one another.  It is one of the most special gifts a parent can give to a child, a child can give to a parent, a sibling can give to a sibling, that one Christian can give to another.  A personal blessing is made up of three elements:

  1. God’s name,
  2. words spoken in God’s name,
  3. and touch.

As an example, here’s the blessing that is printed on the front of this week’s Bulletin:

May God surround you with his love, and fill your heart with love for others.  Amen.

When we use God’s name we are saying that he is present with us to give and to heal and to help.

The words of a blessing then communicate something we know God wants to bring them or do for them, and we want for them too.  Because blessings draw on God’s Word they are more than just wishful thinking.  Rich Melheim puts it this way: “Words have the power to change realities and usher in new realities. When a blessing from God is spoken in faith and received in faith, it has the power to transform lives and invent a future of hope, power and joy.”   When words from God are spoken, things happen!  His words are power-filled and creative: they “do” what they say.

Touch is the third element of a blessing.  Touch can be a hand on an arm or a shoulder. It can be making the sign of a cross on someone’s palm or their forehead.  Touch makes a blessing very personal and concrete.  It brings God’s name and God’s words right down to earth for someone else in way they can feel and experience.

Let’s recap on the five steps of the FAITH5.

  •  Step 1: Share your highs and lows (high points and low points) of the day with each other.
  • Step 2: Read a Bible verse or a Bible story together.
  • Step 3: Talk about how your Bible verse or Bible reading might apply to your highs and lows.
  • Step 4: Pray for one another’s highs and lows.
  • Step 5: Bless one another.

To help you use the FAITH5 in your homes and friendship circles and small groups, there is going to be a FAITH5 insert in the Bulletin each Sunday.  On the insert there will be printed out the words of a single Bible verse for each day of the week.  I encourage you to try it, and try it again.  If you’re using it in your household, aim to do so every day for a whole month.  Don’t beat yourself up if you miss a day now and then – just start over.  If you try it for a whole month and it doesn’t bless your home, let me know … but I’m absolutely sure it will!

To conclude this message, let’s bless each other!  Let’s put this into action.  Find someone else and repeat to them the words I will say.  If each of you is comfortable, place a hand on one another’s arm or shoulder as you say these words after me.  …

May God surround you with his love, and fill your heart with love for others.  Amen.

Mothers, Mothering and the Household of God

When my daughters were young, one of the many books my wife and I read to them at bedtime was P.D. Eastman’s Are You My Mother?  The book tells the story of a hatchling bird.

His mother, thinking her egg will stay in her nest where she left it, leaves her egg alone and flies off to find food. The baby bird hatches. He does not understand where his mother is so he goes to look for her. As he cannot fly, he walks, and in his search, he asks a kitten, a hen, a dog, and a cow if they are his mother. They each say “No”. Refusing to give up, he sees an old car, which cannot be his mother for sure. In desperation, the hatchling calls out to a boat and a plane (they both do not respond), and at last, convinced he has found his mother, he climbs onto the teeth of an enormous power shovel. A loud “SNORT” belches from its exhaust stack, prompting the bird to utter the immortal line, “You are not my mother! You are a SNORT!” But as it shudders and grinds into motion he cannot escape. “I want my mother!” he shouts.  But at this climactic moment, his fate is suddenly reversed. The power shovel drops him back in his nest and then his mother returns. The two are united, much to their delight, and the baby bird tells his mother about the adventure he had looking for her.

The hatchling, of course, has only one biological mother.  In the story, however, his “mothering” includes the power shovel.  It is the power shovel that kindly scoops up the hatchling from the precarious below and returns him to the nest.

This Sunday is, of course, celebrated in western society as “Mother’s Day”.  In many churches there will be a public recognition of mothers through prayers, blessings and the presentation of gifts.  In my own congregation, I was planning to invite the children present to bless their mothers.  Upon further reflection, and having received some excellent counsel from others, I have decided to take another direction.  I want to not only affirm those who are biological and adoptive mothers.  I want us, as the people of God, to affirm all women for the part they play in “mothering” our children in the name of Christ.

The Bible clearly calls us to respect and appreciate our mothers – for instance, see Exodus 20:12, Leviticus 19:3, Ephesians 6:2, Proverbs 31:25-30, Proverbs 6:20, Proverbs 23:22-25.  But it also calls all adults in the household of faith, male and female alike, to share together in providing care and nurture to the young.  The Law and the Prophets call God’s people to adopt widows and orphans so that none of lacks a mother a sister or a child.  Jesus relativised family in light of the kingdom of God, giving all believers to one another as brothers and sisters and mothers (Matthew 12:48-50).  In the words of Beth Barnett, “One of the gifts of discipleship community is that all of our children are all of our children, and all of our grown-ups are all of our elders.”  In the household of God, every Christian adult is a Christian parent, and every child and youth is gifted to every adult for mutual blessing.  All women are God’s blessed instruments for the physical, emotional, social, mental and spiritual care of the young ones in our communities … not only biological and adoptive mothers of the children amongst us, but also women without children, and those who do not have children in their homes.  They (akin to the power shovel in P.D. Eastman’s book), share in the restorative and uplifting “mothering” which God works through his gathered and sent people.

So, this Sunday, I will be inviting the children to bless their mothers … but not only their mothers.  With these words, I wish to affirm all women who are present as gifts, blessings and instruments of God in the lives of the young.

Woman of God,

May the Lord bless you and watch over you.

As you love God’s little ones, may you know God’s love for you.

When you are tired, may God be your strength.

When you are confused, may God be your wisdom.

When you are sad or worried, may God give you peace.

As you care for God’s little ones, may you always remember that you yourself are a child of God, very precious to him. 


The Journey of Christian Parenting

Parenting is not what it used to be.

Two hundred years ago the responsibility of teaching and nurturing children rested heavily upon parents and the extended family.  Children spent most of their waking hours at or around home or participating in activities with other family members. Limited transport options meant options for community involvement were relatively few.  Schooling was not compulsory and generally available only to those with the ability to pay.

Today the picture is vastly different.  Contemporary parents have many, many external activities and resources they can draw upon in raising their children.  Early childhood programs, kindergartens and schools provide children with educational opportunities outside the home.  Then after school there are many extra-curricular activities in which children can be involved – from sport to dance group to athletics to Girl Guides and so on.   When children are back home, parents can point them in the direction of the TV, computer or games console to occupy their time, or towards toys unimaginable centuries ago.  Parenting in many homes has become synonymous with “time and activity management”.  Parents ensure that the basic needs of their children are met (clothing, food, shelter, health) and then out-source the rest of their children’s schedules to other institutions, groups or entertainment sources.

There are many benefits for families and children that come from parental out-sourcing. Children have access to learning opportunities and growth experiences that parents cannot otherwise provide.  But there is one vital area of child-rearing that cannot be so simply out-sourced – the passing-on of Christian faith and values.  It is God’s design and intention that fathers and mothers serve as the primary mentors, educators and guides for their children in matters of faith.  Child and youth ministry programs, denominational schools and Confirmation courses exist to aid and support parents in this calling but can never be full substitutes for active and intentional Christian parenting.

In Scripture, God specifically places the primary responsibility for nurturing a child’s spiritual development on parents – not the church!  Deuteronomy 6 declares God’s will for the home to function as the primary context for teaching children the ways of God:  “Recite [God’s words] to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.  Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (vv. 7-9).  In the home faith is nurtured in the ebbs and flows of daily life like nowhere else.  Parents have the awesome privilege of being “God’s love with skin on” for their children.  The way parents love and relate to their children, day in and day out, in good times and bad, is the most powerful influence on their spiritual formation.

For a Christian parent, the calling to pass on faith may initially seem very daunting.  Parents may say “I don’t know enough” or “I don’t have the skills”.   The truth is that no parent is every fully equipped or prepared in and of themselves.  At the heart of Christian parenting are not our skills, knowledge or abilities but the power and presence of our living and loving God.  Christian parenting involves living in daily dependence on God’s power and grace … faithfully doing what we can and leaving the rest to him.  Here are some practical suggestions to get you started.

Be yourself.   God does not require you to have a theological degree to talk to your kids about him.  Nor does he ask that you “have it all together all of the time”.  He simply asks that you journey with him and share your journey with your children in your own words and ways.  Be authentic and real.  Share your understanding of who God is with your children and why God matters to you – in a way that reflects the true you.

Don’t limit your conversations on spiritual matters to Sundays!   Faith is for every day, not just for Sundays … and we communicate this best to our children when we live it ourselves each and every day.  Weave “God talk” into your daily interactions with your kids.  Share with them how you experienced God’s blessing and care during the day or how you were reminded of him through what took place.   Share your thoughts and questions on Spiritual issues and ask for your children’s ideas.  Tell them what you’re praying about and ask about their prayers.  Let your kids know that spiritual issues are important in your life all of the time!

Let your children catch you in the act of doing something spiritual.   Do you have a regular devotional time – where you read the Bible and pray – that you spend with God?  Are you regularly involved in some act of service that is an expression of your faith?  Do your kids know about it? How about letting your kids “see” you being involved in your own spiritual disciplines? Don’t forget that your actions will teach your kids a lot about your faith – probably even more than your words!  (Even the presence of an open Bible in the home can speak volumes!)

Look for natural opportunities to raise spiritual issues.   The most poignant “God moments” in home life are usually arise spontaneously, at unexpected times and in unexpected ways.  Wise Christian parents are on the constant lookout for opportunities “along the road” of life to point to Christ’s love and his caring presence or to share or discuss Biblical truths.  Even your own mistakes or failings can be used as opportunities to talk about sin, forgiveness and starting again in grace.

Use existing home rituals and traditions to create a regular rhythm for faith life in the home.   Transform the regular events that are part of your home life into faith-filled moments.   Say a table grace before meals.   Make meal times a “media free zone” where family members can share about their day and where they saw God at work.  Make bedtimes an opportunity for prayer with and for your children, and to read Bible stories to them.  When your children leave for Kindy or school, give them a short blessing (e.g. “The Lord Jesus bless you and watch over you today”).  When travelling with your children in the car, put on Christian CDs.  In other words, think about what you already do as a family and “tweak” these by adding a spiritual element.  You can then go on to add new rituals or traditions, built around the Church year (e.g. for Christmas, Lent, Easter and Pentecost) or family milestones (e.g. birthdays, anniversaries).

Have a plan for family devotional times each week.   Work to carve out short blocks of time (e.g. 10-15 minutes) at least once or twice a week where you can gather as a family around God’s Word and pray together.  Use a Bible storybook that is applicable to the ages of your children and pray about the happenings that are part of your lives.   Once you have agreed on a time and an approach, stick to it.  With consistency over time you will build a precious habit of faith with the potential to permanently deepen and enrich your family life.

Build on the ministry your church provides.  Make and take opportunities to connect the ministry of your church community to your home practice of faith.  Develop a weekly habit of discussing your pastor’s sermon or sharing your insights from Sunday worship.  Take an interest in what is being shared in children’s ministry or Confirmation class and ask for related resources you can use in the home.  Invite your congregation to actively support and partner with you.

Find ways to serve together as a family. The call to follow Christ is a call to service.  Parents communicate a lot about their faith in Christ by their willingness to serve, and by serving with their children they show them how faith intersects with worldly needs and concerns.  Think about ways you can work together as a family to do something to help others or support a cause beyond the home.

Pay attention to your own spiritual growth.   Perhaps the most important thing a Christian parent can do to pass on the Christian faith to their children is to take seriously their own walk of faith.  Passing on the faith is not so much a matter of doing but of being and becoming in Christ, allowing him to work through us.  Maintain a commitment to a regular worship and devotional life.  Read Christian literature and take opportunities for fellowship and learning with other Christians.  As you grow in your own faith, your children will in turn be spiritually influenced.

Have fun with your kids!  Unfortunately, too many children are given the impression from their parents and other adults at church that Christianity means being grumpy, bored or straight-laced.   Perhaps one of the most helpful things you can do for your kids’ spiritual growth is to model for them that the Christian life is one of love, peace and joy!  God’s desire is that we enjoy the gift of life and make the most of it.  So intentionally plan fun times for your family.  Show your children that the Christian life can be fun!

On Youth Groups, Religious Schools and the Making of Spiritual Orphans

In 1994, Mark DeVries book Family-Based Youth Ministry was first published.  One of the hallmarks of a good book is that it contains insights and perspectives that have meaning and significance over time.  That is certainly the case with this book … much of what is said rings as true today as it did 21 years ago.

I remember first reading the book (in about 1996) and being struck by DeVries’ description of schools and youth groups as “orphaning structures”:

Apart from the family, the church may be the only lifelong nurturing structure left. Only the church and the family can provide Christian nurture from birth to old age and even death. All other communities (except, on very rare occasions, neighborhoods) are essential orphaning structures (for example, parachurch groups, schools, scouts and youth groups). Orphaning structures provide support and connection for people only so long as they fit into the age group of that particular organization. Many orphaning structures provide teenagers with a high degree of support and involvement. But, in the end, without the support of a lifelong nurturing structure, a young adult’s life becomes fragmented and rootless. Each time a person leaves an orphaning structure, he or she may feel confused and lost, looking for a new matrix of reality, a new place to belong.

DeVries’ focus is upon the orphaning effect of many youth groups – where youth ministry does not engage children and young people deeply in the life of the wider church, they become effectively “orphaned” in faith when they graduate from or outgrow youth programs.

This week I am particularly interested in how his comments also apply to religious schools. Twice this week I have come across parents and grandparents who have communicated the view that by sending their offspring to religious schools they have catered for their spiritual needs.  One parent expressed the view that the involvement of their teenagers in school worship and in Christian learning at school was equivalent to participation in congregational worship and congregational faith formation activities.  For a number of reasons, I beg to differ …

  • Schools do not serve children and youth spiritually beyond their involvement in the school.  Schools are not designed to generate spiritual connections with children and youth that extend beyond their enrolment at the school.  If children and youth do not have a connection to a faith community beyond the school, it is probable that they will not continue in the practice of public worship after graduation.
  • Schools are peer-based.  They are not cross-generational communities.  Schools do not help children and young people to develop relationships with adults of faith that go beyond the “professional” setting of the classroom.
  • Many religious schools in my own country (Australia) are increasingly secular in their demographic (with respect to both teachers and students).  The dynamic of Christian education in these schools and their practice of “worship” (some would argue that term is not even appropriate) is quite different from that in congregations.  Faith is more caught than taught!  What is communicated to our kids in religious schools, consciously and sub-consciously, often falls short of what can be called an authentic Christian experience.  (Please note: In saying this, I am not discounting the presence and commitment of many wonderful Christian teachers in religious schools … I praise God for them … but often they are swimming against a strong tide).

In short, religious schools, like isolated youth group experiences, cannot substitute for what God intends to be built into the lives of children and young people through HOME+CONGREGATION.  They can make for a great supplement, but are typically a poor substitute! I am reminded of Jesus’ words in John 10:12 – “The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away.”  Expecting religious schools to form faith in our kids – instead of the rich ecosystem of home+congregation – is equivalent to relying on the “hired hand” to care for and nurture the sheep.

Giving Kids Roots for Lasting Faith

“Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him. They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.” – Jeremiah 17:7-8

As I sat today with the above words from the prophet Jeremiah I was led to wonder about how they might apply to the faith formation of our children and youth.  In particular, the mention of “roots” stood out to me.  It is sometimes said that the role of parents is to give children and youth “roots and wings” – a foundation to build their lives upon, and the strength, courage and confidence to make their own way out of the family nest into the big, wide world.  It struck me that the role of parents, children’s and youth ministry leaders, pastors and other caring adults of faith is to give our kids “roots” in the rich soil of faith life that will sustain them not only through adolescence but also through young adulthood and beyond.  The source of faith is God himself.  He is the stream.  The flow of God’s love, grace and wisdom never runs dry!  The call and the challenge we as church (= home and congregations together) have is to help our children and youth grow and direct roots towards the stream.  They need to be mentored in faith practices such as prayer and Bible reading that will help them feed on God’s Word when the “heat is on”.  They need to be rehearsed into rituals and habits of worship and confession which will “hold” them they are struggling to hold on in life.  They need to be grounded in a range of deep, close caring relationships in Christian community so that the “living waters” of Christ can flow to them through others in the “dry spells” of their lives.

I admit to being a very ordinary gardener.  My wife designs and plants in the garden. My job is to pull the weeds. I am good with weeds! One thing I do know about a weed is that the more numerous and deeper its roots, the harder it is to remove.  Satan sees our children and youth as weeds he wants to remove from the garden of faith.  The greater the number of active connections to Christ we can graft into their lives, and the more deeply they can be embedded into our faith communities, the greater the likelihood they will be kept secure in knowing and following Jesus.

I referred earlier to the church as homes + congregation together. In the garden ecology of faith formation, they are interrelated and interdependent. As a parent there are only so many “faith roots” I can give my daughters through the life of my home … only so many relationships, only so many experiences, only so many lived illustrations of God at work. I need my congregation to provide for them another layer of live connections into the rich soil of God’s life and presence. On the other hand, without faith life in the home there is often no plant at all! Christian parents of young children in particular are the embodiment to them of God’s love, grace, protection and provision. Young children receive (or don’t receive) their first “God impressions” from mother and father. The congregation cannot substitute for that. As children and young people grow, however, an intertwining of the faith life of the home and of the congregation becomes more and more crucial for their feeding and sustenance in faith. They need to experience our worship spaces as grace places. They need opportunities and guidance to show their talents and grow their gifts. They need to have their God-ordained value and worth “imaged” to them by adults of all ages. They need to learn from other generations what it means to drink from the stream of divine grace and love through all the seasons of life.

So, what “faith roots” is your congregation helping families to lay down in the lives of their children and young people? And in what ways is your congregation giving them yet another system of roots to sustain them above and beyond the home? There is no shortage of lifegiving water in God’s good stream. Let’s do all we can to help our kids drink from it!

The FAITH5 – Reading and Talking

This is the second of three Sunday Messages on the FAITH5, a faith@home spiritual practice promoted by Dr. Rich Melheim and Faith Inkubators.  My preaching text was John 15:1-8.  This Message drew upon Dr. Melheim’s book Holding Your Family Together and was designed to be interactive and practical in nature. The first Message in the series is available here.

We’re continuing this morning with a three part Message Series titled “5 Habits to Hold Your Home Together”. Over these three weeks we’re learning about practicing at home a spiritual tool called the FAITH5. It’s a simple set of faith habits we can use in our homes to take in God’s word and care for each other in Jesus’ name. Last Sunday we looked at the first step in the FAITH5 – sharing “Highs” and “Lows” from our lives, usually near the end of the day. A “high” is a positive memory from the day. A “low” is a not-so-good memory or a challenge from the day. Sharing “highs” and “lows” as a daily habit is a great way of staying connected with what is going on in each other’s lives as brothers and sisters in Christ. If we’re not sharing our joys and our pains then we’re probably not really caring for each other either. Before we explore the second and third steps of the FAITH5 this morning, I am wondering if anyone would like to share what it was like for them to share “Highs” and “Lows” with others this week … (time for sharing). The different parts of the FAITH5 build on each other. I want to give you a sense of how the first three steps fit together by actually practicing them in worship this morning. So the first thing I want you to do is to think of a “High” and a “Low” from your past day or past week. If you’re next to someone, share that with them. Otherwise, write them down on a piece of paper… (time for reflecting on “Highs” and “Lows” and either sharing them or writing them down). We’re going to come back to your “Highs” and “Lows” a little later. The second step of the FAITH5 is to read and listen together to a Bible verse or a Bible story. In the first step we talk to each other and listen to each other. In the second step we allow God to talk to us and we make time to listen. In our human relationships we know how important it is to keep on communicating. When people stop talking to each other and listening to each other, they become distant and remote, even if they’re living under the same roof. It’s like that with God too. If we allow him to speak to us each day in our households, we will experience him as close to us, as present and active in our lives. James 4:8 says, “draw near to God and he will draw near to you.” But when listening to God isn’t a regular habit in our households, we can lose touch with him and what he wants for us. We can end up listening a lot more to other “voices” from day to day that simply can’t give what God alone can give. True love, true peace, true hope, true strength, true purpose, true and unending grace. Let’s practice the second step of the FAITH5 by looking at a single verse from our Gospel reading for today. Please join me in reading it aloud a couple of times: Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5) Now just sit quietly with those words for a while. What stands out to you? What strike you as key words or key phrases? …. (time for reflection). The third step in the FAITH5 is to talk together about the Bible verse or Bible story you have read or listened to. Here are some questions to help with that:

  • What is this Bible verse saying?
  • What is the Bible verse saying to me about my life?
  • What is the Bible verse calling me to do or to change?

Take some time now to think about those questions for yourself. Let’s reflect on ways in which Jesus’ words about the vine and the branches apply to us, here and now. You might want to write down your thoughts. … (Time for reflection, after which people are invited to share their responses to the questions) In the FAITH5 this third step of talking is a good point to revisit the “Highs” and “Lows” that were shared.   Talk about how the Bible verse relates to the blessings and the challenges of one another’s lives. When we do that we’re putting the context of our daily lives together with the text of the Bible. We’re recognising and affirming that God is very much in the midst of our joys and pains, successes and struggles. And as we put the stories of our lives alongside the big “God story” of the Bible, we see and understand differently. God’s Word gives us new insights or perspective on what is happening to us and around us. Think about your “Highs” and “Lows” and the Bible verse we have already looked at this morning. Does anyone see any connections, any ways in which God’s Word and the circumstances of our lives speak to each other? … (time for sharing Jesus says, “If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit.” To “remain” means “to continue to be present”. Gathering around God’s Word in our households from day to day is a way we continue to be present with Jesus, and he with us. Christ journeys with us each and every day through our sharing, reading and talking as people of faith. Jesus’ promise is that as we do remain in him, our lives won’t be barren and dry but fruitful. God will produce good things in our homes and through our homes! Rich Melheim writes this: “When we attach ourselves to God’s Word, it attaches to us and won’t let us go until it blesses us. It does not change, but it will always change us.” Again this week, I encourage you to practice the FAITH5 steps we have looked at so far in your homes, or with your Christian friends, or with your small group. On the yellow insert in the bulletin today a single Bible verse is printed out for each day. Share your “Highs” and “Lows”, read the Bible verse for the day and then talk about how it speaks into your lives. In that way be present with Jesus and allow him to be present in you and with you.

Where Are They? … Responding to Changing Family Attendance Patterns

Where are they?” That’s one of the questions that pastors and child/youth ministry leaders are commonly asking (often silently) each and every weekend. The experience in many, many congregations is that families – and by extension children and young people – are attending weekend worship services and ministry programs less frequently. The notion of “regular attendance” has shifted. For many who once attended weekly the new regular is fortnightly. For those who attended fortnightly the new regular is monthly. For those who attended monthly the new regular is two-, three-, four- or perhaps six-monthly.

What is behind this shift? There are multiple reasons but a key one seems to be the sheer busyness of life for many households. In many contemporary households in western society both parents are working. Children and youth are involved in a variety of activities each week in different times and places. Increasingly, as the societal influence of Christianity has waned, these external commitments have encroached on the traditional times churches have used for gathered events. Sunday mornings, for instance, are now utilized by a range of sporting and community organisations, so families have been forced to choose between church attendance and other involvements.

The busyness of life has also led many families to designate what remains of each weekend, beyond their work responsibilities and their children’s extracurricular commitments, as their retreat time … a time to relax and “do their own thing”. Sadly, these families have not typically considered church attendance a favoured retreat option (something that should give church leaders and ministry staff cause for thought … in what ways does this reflect on what the weekend church experience has become for many?). Increased levels of income have also increased the range of alternative “retreat” options for families. Many contemporary families can afford to get away for the weekend, something their own parents were not able to realistically afford.

For church communities and ministry leaders and pastors, these trends pose many questions and challenges?

  • What does it mean to build and sustain cross-generational community in the face of irregularity?
  • What does it mean to impart Christian teachings and engage families with the Scriptures in the face of irregularity?
  • What does it mean to nurture faith practices in the face of irregularity?

Traditional ministry forms and structures generally assume regular attendance. The growing irregularity of family attendance seems to be undermining their effectiveness and even threatening their viability. Hence the increasing sense of dismay, confusion and even crisis in many faith communities.

So what can be done? What might it mean to respond in healthy and helpful ways? Here are some of my initial thoughts.

  1. Avoid making assumptions and rushing to judgment! Seek to understand the pressures impacting and shaping the families associated with your church. Criticism and negativity is unlikely to be helpful for drawing them into patterns of increased attendance.
  2. Evaluate your congregation’s ministry offerings for families. Are they in fact adding further pressure to the lives of your families or are they perceived by them as enriching and strengthening?
  3. Aim to develop avenues of positive communication with families so that they do not feel “out of the loop” about the life of your faith community and its ministry offerings.
  4. Use non-gathered, flexible ways of relating in person to families and family members. This might include family visitations, mentoring and phone catch-ups.
  5. Provide at-home faith resources for families to use. Aim to make it as easy as possible for households to practice faith together in their daily lives.
  6. Offer faith formation resources online for households to access at times and in places that are convenient for them. Contact families to gain feedback on their use of these resources and to encourage them to access and utilize what is available.
  7. Use social media tools to develop digital faith communities in which families of faith can provide mutual support to each other.
  8. Emphasise and promote small groups as flexible environments for families to connect with others who belong to their faith community.
  9. Highlight to families any “big events” on your ministry calendar well in advance and personally invite them to attend.
  10. When families of irregular attendance do come, be careful not to use language which draws attention to their absences. Celebrate their presence.

At the same time, I do believe that the church has a prophetic responsibility to gently confront families about their life priorities. I do not believe that we should “sanctify” the busyness of modern life by passively accommodating ourselves as church to the lifestyle choices of modern households. Jesus’ call to “take up your cross and follow” challenges households to consider what it means to live in the way of Christ in a time of multiple lifestyle options and opportunities. There is a time and a place for inviting families to review their spiritual wellbeing and the factors shaping their patterns and habits of faith practice. However, in so doing the aim should never be to “get them to church”. It is to see families living in God’s grace and growing in the new life which Jesus brings. My experience is that families respond best to a challenge towards greater church involvement when they are helped to see the blessings which can flow into their home lives through immersion in the body of Christ. “Guilting” people into church attendance is not a helpful or fruitful approach.

I hope this post can become part of a wider and ongoing conversation. What are your thoughts and ideas?

Memo to Church Leaders: Children’s Ministry Matters!

This week I have been attending a major, ecumenical children’s ministry leadership conference. Participants have come from every state in my country, as well as from New Zealand. I have been blessed to meet and interact with many gifted leaders who share a passion for children, youth, families and the wellbeing of the church. But one thing has surprised me and saddened me … of all the attendees, I am the only senior pastor! I can’t help but wonder if this reflects a view that children’s ministry is something of a sideline activity in congregational life, adjunct to the “real business” of church ministry. [Along these lines, one of the conference presenters commented that, in effect, the senior pastor in most churches is really the “adult pastor”.  Ministry to children is seen as the domain of other pastors, staff or lay people, not an area of primary focus for key congregational leaders.]

So why have I come? Contrary to the above, I am of the view that ministry to children should and must matter to church leaders!  … that it warrants and deserves much more attention from those in primary leadership positions in our churches.  Here are some big reasons why:

Jesus’ Teachings about Children

Jesus’ words about children call and invite us to welcome, include and esteem them as a primary practice of communal faith life.  Christ says to his disciples, “Anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf is welcoming me.” (Matthew 18:5).  He also declares, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matthew 19:14) The implications of these words are truly astounding, and present many challenges for adult-oriented and adult-focussed forms of church life and practice.

  •  In extending hospitality and honour to children, we receive Christ himself into our communities of faith.
  • According to Jesus, children in our circles of faith are not Christians-under-construction but citizens of heaven just as they are.
  • Adults are called to ensure that nothing in our circles of faith hinders children from receiving and encountering Christ.

Moreover, Jesus declares that adults can and should uphold children as models of faith for imitation. “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3)   Here children are placed into the position of teacher and adults in the position of learner.

What would it mean for the church to take Jesus’ words seriously … to place children into their midst as did Jesus? Perhaps we would experience the presence of Jesus more keenly … perhaps we would learn more about what it means to accept and embrace and serve … perhaps we would rediscover a profound simplicity of faith in valuing and learning from our children. Perhaps we would experience new life and growth by being drawn more deeply into God’s love for all his children! I strongly suspect we would!

The Gifts Our Children Bring

Children offer to our communities of faith a spirit of wonder, creativity and enthusiasm that is often absent in adult-oriented environments. The faith and presence of children enlivens and blesses people of all ages. In my own ministry context, I have observed that children lack many of the inhibitions of their parents and other adults. They often volunteer, participate and contribute more willingly and enthusiastically.  In valuing the presence and giftedness of children, congregations are led to discover and explore new expressions of faith which enrich all.

The Hope of Renewal and Revival

In every age the church is confronted with the need to adapt in the face of new trends and challenges.   Very often those at the cutting edge of this adaptation are constructively and thoughtfully involved in ministering to children and young people (for example, Thomas Bergler has chronicled the impact of innovations in youth ministry in the last century in shaping contemporary expressions of church). Church leaders do well to pay attention to emerging trends in ministry to children and youth, and to the conversations and reflections of child and youth ministry practitioners.

It is often said that children are the “future of the church” (… of course, they are also very much the “present” of the church”).   Can I suggest that the seeds of the “church of the future” are already being planted in today’s efforts to minister to children?

In my view then, the development and practice of children’s ministry is simply too important for key church leaders to ignore or devalue!

What do you think?