Questions without answers.
Cultivating family faith …
I remember when I heard about the Hemorrhaging Faith report and discovered that only one in three Canadian young adults who attended church weekly as a child still do so today. Half of the young adults who no longer attend church have also stopped identifying themselves with the Christian tradition in which they were raised. Shocked and deeply saddened by the news, I had more questions than answers. What were we doing wrong? Why are children in local churches not getting excited about and wanting to follow Jesus for the rest of their lives? Why do only one-third of church-raised young adults have resilient faith? What could we do to reverse the trend?
I also remember the week I started serving with Scripture Union and reading that one of the aims is to work with local churches “to make God’s Good News known to children, young people and families.” I was surprised and perplexed. While it’s a stated aim, the family didn’t feature on our to-do list. Why were we doing next to nothing to cultivate family faith formation? Why did we publish Bible reading guides for children, youth or adults but not for families? And why did we do sports ministry with children but not engage meaningfully with their parents? It was incongruous. Aren’t families at the centre of God’s plan for the world’s salvation? Had Scripture Union dropped the ball by not equipping churches to connect families with Jesus and His Word?
A journey of discovery.
These two observations started me on a journey of discovery. Many years later, I’ve gleaned some insights that have changed my way of thinking and refocused my activities.
My first insight was that I didn’t know how to address these problems. A breakthrough came when I recognized the issues are correlated. Hemorrhaging faith doesn’t start in the church; it begins in the home. Parents, not children’s workers, are the primary influence on a child’s spiritual formation. To counter the exit of young adults from the church, we must strengthen the parent’s capacity to disciple their children.Hemorrhaging faith doesn't start in the church; it begins in the home. Click To Tweet
Subsequent discernment came through prayer, biblical reflection, and inquiry.
Research has been a vital component of my studies. In addition to the State of Children’s Ministry in Canada surveys conducted by Scripture Union every two years, I work with a team of multi-national researchers. I also comb through the findings of the Pew Research Center, Barna Group, Lifeway Research, Cultural Research Center, Centre for Research on Church and Faith, and others. The research reveals that while most Christian parents know they’re primarily responsible for discipling their children, the majority abdicate this duty to the church. The tragic outcome is that most Christian families don’t cultivate meaningful faith formation @ home.
Everything is linked. If churches don’t equip parents to nurture their children’s faith formation, and if parents don’t disciple their children, “church-grown” children may leave the church when they become young adults.
With the Scriptures, research, human development studies, and sociological findings all pointing to the critical role of parents in the spiritual development of children, I’m 100% convinced that local churches must equip and resource parents to disciple their children. This realization changed my whole perspective on children’s ministry. I now believe we’ve missed the boat when children’s ministry isn’t synonymous with family ministry.We've missed the boat when children's ministry isn't synonymous with family ministry. Click To Tweet
What are the implications for the church?
So what are the implications for the church that does traditional children’s ministry? Cutting to the chase – the church requires a new approach. Cultivating family faith requires intentionality and effort. Church leaders should consider the biblical foundations for family ministry, revise strategies, develop creative resources, and motivate and equip congregations.
Change is an uphill battle, especially in churches. Congregations are comfortable with Sunday School classes and mid-week clubs. Many pastors strive to maintain the status quo. So it’s not easy to convince them to shift their primary focus from church-run children’s and youth activities to prioritizing ministry that supports parents (guardians) and grandparents in nurturing their children’s and grandchildren’s faith formation.
There are many reasons why the traditional church program-orientated approach remains the status quo. From the parent’s perspective, it’s been easy to accept the idea that children’s faith formation is best done by experts (teachers, children’s ministry and youth pastors). From the church’s perspective, there’s the view that if they don’t continue doing what they’ve been doing, the spiritual formation of children may suffer.The way forward is to scale back children's and youth programs and ramp up pastoral and instructional support for parents. Click To Tweet
What helps is identifying that it doesn’t have to be one approach versus another. Don’t stop everything you’ve been doing. Change should be an incremental process. Rejig and reduce the frequency of age-specific events, add intergenerational activities, and train parents to be teachers and pastors in their homes [Free School of KidsMin videos/workshops for parents]. Concisely stated, the way forward is to scale back children’s and youth programs and ramp up pastoral and instructional support for parents.
Thinking and acting more holistically.
Seminary professor Michael Sciarra says, “The Church today must face a sobering fact: the way it has operated has not worked as well as it has hoped. It has worked under the assumption that if you strengthen the parts of the family, you will strengthen the whole family. This is foundational but not enough. This reflects an incomplete understanding of Christian formation and education.”When you start seeing your congregation as a conglomeration of families, you've taken the first step in the right direction. Click To Tweet
Strong families make strong churches. From the big picture point of view, we need to think and act more holistically. Terry Williams, a Scripture Union colleague, once asked me, “What’s the size of your local church congregation?” I replied, “About 150 people.” Smiling, he said, “Most people think of a congregation as a gathering of individuals rather than families.” To act right, we must think straight. Are there 150 people or 50 families in your church? When you start seeing your congregation as a conglomeration of families, you’ve taken the first step in the right direction.Strong families make strong churches. Click To Tweet
Suffice it to say our objective should be to reproduce the biblical model of passing faith to the next generation (Deuteronomy 4:9, Psalm 78:1-8), a model where the home is the locus for faith formation (Deuteronomy 6:6-9) and the church assists with encouragement, training and resourcing (Ephesians 4:11-13). Don’t be backward in coming forward. As author Pamela Couture suggests, “Start with a small commitment that can be regularly sustained.”
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