When I speak about faith formation at congregations, retreats, conferences, and schools, I always meet ministry leaders who lament the fact that they can’t get parents in their congregations to take an active role in the spiritual formation of their children. “I’m there to help them in this job,” they say. “But they want me to do it for them.” Of course, I also meet many parents who are dedicated to nurturing faith in their children (just check out John Stonecypher as one example). But why is it that many others struggle to take up the task of spiritual formation with their children?
Maybe one reason is that we treat children’s ministry like violin lessons. When I was about thirteen years old, one of my classmates played the violin at our school’s confirmation ceremony. I fell in love with the instrument and begged my parents to let me start taking lessons. They signed me up for private lessons at a local college and within just a few weeks I had mastered a few scales and drills and I was well on my way to learning my first song—Three Blind Mice. You see, in order for me to play the violin, I needed to take lessons. My parents didn’t know how to play it, so they couldn’t teach me themselves. They had to hire a professional to do the job.
During the last few decades of the twentieth century and even into the twenty-first, children’s ministry has—like violin lessons—become professionalized. Churches hired children’s ministers and Christian education directors in order to ensure that they could provide first-rate faith formation to their children. While this shift told families that churches care about children by having amazing programs with flashy curricula headed up by paid leaders, it also told parents that they don’t have to worry about instilling faith in their kids. After all, we (the professionals) can do it better.
So as much as we may be frustrated by parents who seem to want us to do all the work of forming faith in children, we can’t really blame them. The fault, speaking broadly, is not theirs. They’re just living into a message that’s been blaring from churches for the past few decades: “Send your kids to us to be formed in faith.”
But the problem is that one effect of this shift has been the erosion of the tent, as Phyllis Tickle says. The family tent—that place where faith formation has happened for centuries and centuries—is no longer where children learn to follow Jesus. And since it’s been this way for a few decades, a whole generation of parents have grown up without knowing the value of household faith formation. And even as more and more parents are recognizing this importance, they may be frozen in fear, unsure of where to begin and afraid of the consequences of screwing it up.
The solution, however, is not as difficult as it seems. It’s rooted in the fact that many of us who consider ourselves disciples of Jesus likely grew up in families that followed Jesus (even if they didn’t use this term) . And many of us continue to love the church (universal) and love Jesus. In most cases, I’m guessing this is largely due to the formation we received in our families.
And the same is probably true for many families and parents in our congregations.
All this means that we are living success stories. Our parents may not have had advanced degrees, ordination certificates, or shelves of theological books. But they had the tools they needed to instil faith in us. And the parents in our congregations also have everything they need to do the same for their kids. They have their stories, their questions, and their imaginations.
First, empowering household faith means we help families share the stories that have shaped their spiritual lives—stories of hope and despair, loss and recovery. These stories allow families to witness to the power of God and the challenge of following Jesus by communally recalling the experiences that have been instrumental in their own walks of faith. Young people don’t need their parents to teach them theology—which is a good thing, because a common hangup I hear from parents is that they don’t know enough theology to teach to their kids. What they need are stories. In Faith Forward, volume 2, Sandy Sasso writes that “The first expression of religion is experience. We are people of faith because we had a religious experience. The closest we can get to that experience is story. Then the story is transformed into ritual and liturgy. Then comes reflection on the ritual – theology. Theology is the furthest from the experience. The closest we can get is story. We want our children to get close.”
It’s well known that Anne Lamott once said that the opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty. This is something that families need to remember. It’s not what we know that matters on our journeys of faith. It’s what we don’t know. It’s what we question and wonder and seek but rarely—if ever—find. So empowering household faith means giving families the freedom to ask questions and, more importantly, share our questions with the children in our lives. It’s okay not to have an answer to every question our kids may ask us. In fact, it’s better that we don’t have all the answers, for it models to young people that faith is less about certainty and more about questions and doubts.
Stories and questions are important parts of empowering families to walk the road of faith together. They remind us of where we’ve been and help orient us to where we are. But we also need to have a vision for where we’re going. And for this, we need our imaginations. We need to dream new ways of being disciples of Jesus wherever we find ourselves. And perhaps it’s here where parents and other adult family members can step back and allow their children to guide them forward on the journey, allowing their imaginations to forge new trails across terrain and toward horizons that we never thought possible.
Stories, questions, imaginations. We all have them. We all live and die by them. When we place them at the centre of our family tents, we stop passing the baton back and forth between parents and “professional” ministry leaders. Instead, we walk together on the journey of faith, riffing off each other and sharing responsibility for helping young people live as followers of Jesus.