It has now been several decades since the Search Institute informed us that as powerful as lifelong involvement in Christian Education is, it doesn’t come close to the impact that our families have on our faith formation. Those with the most mature faith tell tales of their family praying at meals and serving others together, and especially of simple conversations with a parent about faith in teachable moments. And yet most congregations continue to focus on in-church spiritual nurture for children and youth rather than equipping parents for faith sharing and creating opportunities for families to learn and serve together. Most of us have even constructed our buildings for the purpose of dividing the ages, and many have structured our committee systems in a way that perpetuates age-segregated programs. There is a place for age specific education. But the church must find a way to model and nurture the fact that a parent is designed to be a child’s primary Christian educator.
Some group in your church needs to be looking at the bigger picture. What do parents need to lead faithful families? Is that adult education’s, or youth and children’s ministries’ responsibility, or even your fellowship, mission, or worship committee’s? Here are some ways congregations have been ministering in this area:
- Create parenting classes that not only teach skills of discipline, but also ways to nurture and recognize teachable moments. Role-play how to answer the difficult questions. Parents don’t feel adequate theologically, so even a basic Bible and theology class is a gift to them, especially if it includes how children perceive God at different stages of life.
- Create or purchase seasonal materials that go home with families to be done together – Advent calendars, Lenten readings, baptismal remembrances, something to take with them on summer vacations, a way to remember that family’s great cloud of witnesses in conjunction with Halloween/All Saints. Do your parents even know what the Sunday School lesson was about last Sunday? Send e-mail suggestions for continuing the theme at home.
- Offer church activities that comfortably place the parent in a teaching/ learning mode with their child. Easter egg hunts can have program pieces that teach everyone a piggyback song or finger play, or that explain the symbols of the season so that parents can reinforce those at home. Many churches have invited parents to the programs designed to help children learn how to use their new Bibles. Worship and sacrament workshops can be designed so that parents lead their children through the activities learning together.
- Find mission projects that can include children with parents. This can be a challenge since many agencies have age restrictions due to insurance issues, but be creative. Children can’t be on site for Habitat for Humanity builds, but families can prepare lunches together in the church kitchen and deliver them to the volunteers. Children can accompany a parent (or grandparent!) delivering Meals on Wheels. And there is always a need for money to be raised or donations to be collected. Most local food pantries will allow children to sort canned goods, especially if accompanied by a parent. Your church can do the research and organize the opportunities.
- Offer good books with spiritual themes. If you don’t have a children’s library, start one. Have a book fair with books you would like members to buy for the library and/or for their children and grandchildren. Articles in the newsletter can recommend new books, or even movies that would spark conversations at home. Most churches already present a Bible sometime during elementary school. Consider a board book as a birth or baptism gift and a study Bible at confirmation or graduation. If you cannot afford such gifts, recommend to parents what they can buy as gifts to nurture their child’s faith.
- Model stimulating table fellowship. Very recent research proved that family meals not only bring people closer, they even improve grades! Don’t waste a church family potluck opportunity! Put conversation starter questions on each table or announce a topic. What is your favorite hymn, vacation, Bible story, etc.? Tell about a saint in your life, or discuss one thing you’d like to change about church. Teach the spiritual practice of Examen and suggest that families practice reviewing the best and worst of each person’s day together and then turn it over to God.
The idea is to put spiritual tools into the hands of parents. This is really good news for the small church that may struggle to offer even weekly Sunday School. But it is also a challenge to large churches to be sure they don’t neglect this ministry opportunity that can fall between the cracks in job descriptions. Concentrate on nurturing what families can do together. Challenge the session to look at every ministry for how families with children can be included and nurtured.
Keep in mind that like many other things in this world, the best faith may be “homemade.“ May your church offer parents the freshest ingredients and most convenient recipes!
Linda LeBron of Little Rock, Ark., is a Certified Christian Educator and has been named the 2009 Educator of the Year by the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators (APCE).