The Holy Spirit and Parent-Student Faith Formation

Over the past few years I have been conducting a live experiment in Confirmation ministry. After years of frustration in teaching young people in peer-age sessions (most of them were nowhere to be seen after Confirmation Sunday), I resolved to put parents and the home at the centre of my approach. I no longer meet with young people by themselves, or together with just one or two other leaders. Instead, I offer a series of parent-student and mentor-student learning events. I also provide at-home materials to support parents and young people to share life and faith together around the topics we are exploring in Confirmation. Put simply, I believe that forming the young person in faith means forming their household in faith.

Which brings me to last Sunday night … The learning topic was the Holy Spirit. Because the Holy Spirit is best understood and encountered through experience, not cognitive rumination, I set up a series of Reflection Stations exploring different aspects of the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives (I found a variety of resources on the internet that proved very helpful). The parents and young people were invited to explore the Reflection Stations one at a time, in any order they wished. It was wonderful to then observe parents and their teenagers talking together, acting together and praying together. Not only were they reflecting on the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit was clearly alive at work in them and between them. They were being grown together in faith as they journeyed together. Yes, I could have given a 10 point lecture on the Holy Spirit. I could have given them worksheets to fill in. However, I don’t believe they would have retained and remembered very much if I did. I am much more confident that through talking and listening, sharing and discussing, doing and practicing, both parents and young people experienced the faith-forming power of the Spirit, individually and together.

Note:  You can download my Station Instruction Sheets here – feel free to use them as you wish.

Household Ministry or Family Ministry?

Last year my congregation established a new ministry staff position, that of “Child, Youth & Household Ministry (CYHM) Coordinator“.  Why use the term “household ministry” instead of “family ministry”?   Let me explain.


All Households of Faith are Called to Minister to our Children/Youth:  The word “family” conjures up for many a picture of dad and/or mum and children and/or youth. While children, youth and their families are the key focus of our CYHM, ministering to them is the responsibility and privilege of all who are part of our community of faith. That includes those who live alone, unrelated adults sharing a house, and couples without children.  It includes single young adults and single seniors.  All “households” are part of the picture, whether or not they include children and/or youth.


The Term “Household” Reaches Beyond Birth and Adoptive Ties:   When people think of “family”, they usually think of those to whom they are legally related, either through birth or adoption.  In our congregational ministry to families, our aim is to grow family members in living out and sharing faith with one another.  But we also desire for each family to become a relational unit of mission and ministry to others … neighbours, friends, work colleagues.  We want our homes to become more than isolated havens for family members.  We want them to be places of care and hospitality and affirmation for those who are not legally family, but are welcomed as if they were.


The Term “Household” Better Reflects the Language of Scripture:  As is explained by Diana Garland in the quote below (Family Ministry: A Comprehensive Guide), the word “family” as we largely understand it today is not mirrored in the Scriptures.  Bible characters certainly had immediate families, but the key relational unit was not the immediate family but the wider household or clan.


Stephen Finlan (The Family Metaphor in Jesus’ Teaching) further explains:

Families in Jesus’ time were not the nuclear family of the modern West, with the mother and father being the only two adults in the home and the children moving out when they become adults. In the Hellenistic world, including Judea, most households centered around the father of an extended family, with his unmarried children and his married sons and their families living in the same household, along with some of the father’s unmarried brothers and sisters. The biblical phrase “the father’s house” refers to this extended family, often situated in several houses around a common courtyard. Married daughters would have moved out to live in the households of their husbands’ fathers. Slaves, if there were any, were a part of the household, but did not figure in matters of lineage and inheritance. Nor was the home a thoroughly private place to which the members could go to escape from the workaday world. The home was a much more public place than that; it was “the place where much work was done, even among aristocrats,” who also had to “entertain important people and conduct public business” there.

The “household” of Biblical times was more open, fluid and public in nature than the modern Western family. While I am certainly not suggesting that this social configuration was ideal or worthy of recovery (e.g. the ancient household was strongly patriarchal), I wonder if we might recover the notion of the home as a place of connectivity with the wider community and a context for offering care to the socially perilous.  Perhaps the word “household” might be better suited for that purpose than the word “family”.


The Term “Household” Applies to the Whole Community of Faith:   In undertaking child, youth and household ministry, our vision is to incorporate and embrace children and young people within the wider body of Christ – people of all ages worshipping and serving together as brothers and sisters in Jesus, one household of faith (cf. 1 Timothy 3:15) where all belong irrespective of family of origin.   While it is common to talk about the local church as a “family” or a “family of families”, doing so can in some ways be restrictive or counter-productive (cf. Tony Robinson, “Quit thinking of the church as a family“).  Referring to the church as a “household” may circumvent some of the negative “baggage” that can arise from use of the word “family”.


What do you think?  I welcome your comments and reflections …


Retaining Youth: What Matters and What Doesn’t So Much


I have been reading the book Why they Stay: Helping Parents and Church Leaders Make Investments that Keep Children and Teens Connected to the Church for a Lifetime, authored by Dr. Steve Parr and Dr. Tom Crites (Westbow Press, 2015). The book presents the outcomes of an American research study involving 1391 individuals aged between 26 and 39. The purpose of the study was “to understand if there were significant relationships in the backgrounds and habits of young adults that may have impacted their commitments to stay in the church.” I wish to highlight some of what they identified as factors of significance, and some things that didn’t seem to matter so much.

One caveat – in so doing, I am not going to refer to those parts of the book which discuss the post-high school life stage.  The American collegiate system of post-secondary education – which usually involves young adults moving away from home for a number of years after high school – is significantly different from the system in place in Australia, New Zealand and the UK (among other places).  I will leave it my American friends to write about those sections of the book.

So, what does the book tell us?  Let’s begin with what does not seem to matter so much …


What Doesn’t Matter So Much

  • The research revealed that it didn’t matter what particular Christian denomination children and youth attended.
  • There was no connection between having a youth worker on church staff during one’s teen years and whether a person was active in the church as an adult (what mattered was that quality ministry to children and youth was provided, not whether the delivery involved employed staff).
  • There was no correlation between a particular school environment (public, private, private Christian, home schooling) and adult church involvement.
  • There was no correlation between participation in formal “rite of passage” process in the teen years (e.g. Confirmation ministry in my own faith tradition) and adult church participation.


What Does Matter

  • It is vital that young people emerge from their teenage years with a sense of a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ, linked to personal experiences of God at work in their lives through their childhood and youth years.
  • Parental faith matters: “If parents model a close relationship to the Lord, it may be the most influential thing they can do to encourage their child to stay in the church.”  The “family model of spirituality” is the “top cumulative effect on remaining active in church”.
  • As an extension of parental faith life, family worship attendance matters:  those who do not attend church regularly as children and youth are unlikely to become regular attenders themselves as adults.
  • For those who grew up attending church, a good relationship with both parents is a very strong indicator of future church involvement.
  • The style of discipline used by parents is of significance: those whose parents have a more “balanced” disciplinary style (involving instruction and correction in a spirit of love) are more likely to stay plugged into the church.
  • Parental involvement in church roles and service activities is significant:  parents who go beyond “consuming” of church and contribute themselves to church life are more likely to see their offspring continue in the life of the church.
  • Involvement in cross-generational worship matters: those who attended worship services that separated them from their parents when they were children were 38% more likely to have strayed as a young adult than those who were not in separate worship services.
  • Although having a youth worker does not correlate with whether one stays connected as an adult, having sufficient activities for young people while growing up does matter.  Larger churches will, of course, employ youth workers to ensure that this is possible.  Smaller churches will use the time and talents of volunteers to ensure ministry delivery.  As Parr and Crites express, “find a way, no matter what size church your attend, to minister to youth.”
  • Within the range of child and youth ministry activities provided by a church, camps matter: attending church camps as a teen has a positive correlation with a person being in church as an adult
  • The likeability of the church pastor matters – pastors need to portray a sense of concern and interest in the children and young people of their churches.
  • There is value in consistency and longevity of ministry to children and young people.  “Rotating youth pastors in and out every couple of years is worse for the students than having no youth pastor at all.”


Reflecting on the above, what strikes me is the vital importance of faith mediated through positive, healthy Christ-reflecting relationships with parents, youth leaders, pastors, and persons of other generations within a church community.  It is the “Christ through people” factor that seems to make the most difference … faithfully modelling lives of discipleship to our children and young people in such a way that they too meet him, learn from him and experience the joy of serving him.

Future-minded Children’s Ministry

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

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

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

A Block for Michael

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

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

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

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

Little Family Liturgies

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


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

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

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

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



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



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

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



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

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



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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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



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

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

Playing with the Children

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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