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 2

This is the second 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 Three   Part Four   Part Five

I have long had an interest in how culture shapes and reshapes who we are as people and the ways we interact with others.  Growing up in Papua New Guinea as a child of a “white” Australian missionary couple, I was exposed to two quite different cultures and shaped by both.  And upon returning to Australia just before my tenth birthday I was exposed to another.  There are many subtleties embedded in particular cultures that are hardly recognised by those who inhabit them, but which can be quite startling, confronting and disconcerting to those who enter them from outside.  I can attest to the reality of “culture shock” through my own lived experience.

In a recent presentation I defined a culture as “the sum of the beliefs, values, attitudes and practices that constitute and reproduce a way of being for a particular community of people.”  Much of what makes up a particular culture is informal, unwritten and perhaps even intuitive.  Enculturation takes place not through structured lessons but through the “rub” of daily life – through interaction, observation, conversation and participation in a common and distinctive way of being that makes for a given culture.  I did not make the somewhat vexed transition from being a “hybrid” PNG kid to an Aussie teenager by going to a weekly class. I “caught” what it was to be a 1980s Australian teenager (to the extent that it possible to generalise about a single national youth culture) by a process of immersion over time into that culture.

Over time, I have come to see many parallels between my own experience of crossing over between cultures and the challenge of faith formation.  In my experience, the task of forming faith from generation to generation is best understood as a sacred and Spirit-infused “cultural enterprise”. While the Christian faith is built upon the Biblical witness and the teachings of the apostles, the making of Christians is not so much a matter of “indoctrination” as “enculturation”.  As the people of God join together to hear the Word, celebrate the Word, enact the Word and live the Word, Christians are made.  The “culture” of thought and practice which flows from the Gospel (with all of its nuances across different denominations, races and nations) is reproduced as faithful Christians live, share and give together under the cross.  Through the daily intersections between everyday life and the distinctive way of the cross in Christian communities, faith is shaped and reshaped, seeded and strengthened.

Turning then to Charles Foster’s book, I was very interested in his description of congregations as “catechetical cultures”:

“Teachers, classrooms, and prepared curriculum resources typically associated with schooling contribute significantly to the formation of faith.  They are not sufficient, however, to the contemporary task of forming faith.  Something more is needed.  That something more, I contend, exists in relational practices of the congregation that influence the agency of its formal educational efforts.  These patterns of relationality constitute what I am calling the congregational’s catechetical culture in and through which faith is both formed and transformed.”

For Foster, a programmatic understanding of faith formation (which has historically involved a strong emphasis on a schooling or instructional approach to Christian education of youth and children) falls short.  For faith to flourish, the content of faith must be cultivated, reinforced and expressed mutually in relationships between Christians of different ages and stages, journeying in faith together.  I was reminded of following “Principles for Passing on Faith” championed by Vibrant Faith Ministries.

  • “Faith is formed by the power of the Holy Spirit through personal trusted relationships – often in our own homes.”
  • “Faith is caught more than it is taught.”
  • “If we want Christian children and youth, we need Christian adults.”

Embracing a “cultural” understanding of faith means accepting and appreciating a number of important implications for congregational life and practice.  A first implication is that all aspects and elements of a congregation’s culture (including, by extension, that of its homes) contribute to (or detract from) the faith formation enterprise.  No age grouping, activity or expression of congregational life is uninvolved with the inevitable “cultural transmission” which can and does take place across generations.  Along these lines, Foster writes that “forming faith … requires an alliance of agencies devoted to cultivating the interdependence of developmental, practice and discovery learning. [see my previous post for discussion of these learning elements]… Educating for faith in the villages of our congregations requires the whole range of a religious tradition’s cultural resources, including its music, literature, architecture, rituals, commitments and practices to give it form and focus.

A second implication I see is that congregational cultural health is vital!  While congregational cultures can be healthy and vibrant, they can also be listless and in some cases toxic.  Where the “lived” values and practices of a congregation are in sharp contrast to the way of Christ, ministry to children and young people is unlikely to be effective in cultivating disciples of Christ.  Whole-congregational health – the totality of a congregation’s culture – matters in the faith formation enterprise.

A third implication I see is that pastors and those involved in leadership in child and youth ministry should understand themselves as cultural custodians and architects.  Their role is not simply to communicate Biblical content but to nurture and shape a “way of being” (to use my words) in congregational and household life that reflects the heart and Spirit of Christ, and to ensure that children and young people are enculturated into this “way” through immersion into a “healthy” spiritual culture.  Such a culture will include “teachings, relationships, ritual events, and moral guidance.”  It will draw children and young people out of the confines of instructional settings into the relational web of congregational life, promoting what Foster calls the “interplay of a congregation’s formal educational structures and informal educational patterns.