Our church was having one of many conversations about Christian education. Parents were gathered in the Fellowship Hall, eating sandwiches and talking about how to improve Sunday school and “make it work for their family.” Some suggested more rigorous teaching practices to captivate the minds of children who expect much more to remain engaged than a leisurely chat about Jesus. Others suggested more time relaxing and playing with friends to build community and a sense of God’s peace among children who are under so much pressure at school. Some wanted Christian education to happen while the worship service was going on so that church didn’t eat up a whole Sunday. Others wanted the morning schedule to remain unchanged, but admitted they were often out of town. Some implored that we make it fun so that Sunday mornings don’t become a battle. Others urged that parents make their children attend if Sunday school is as important as normal school that is not treated as an “option.”
These conversations have been swirling for decades, and they bring to the surface how much the church wants to pass along the good news of Jesus Christ to the next generation and how wedded we are to certain rooms where this is supposed to happen. Sunday school rooms. Youth rooms. Rooms covered with biblical maps. Rooms with felt cut-outs of prophets and wooden figurines of the prodigal son and his angry older brother. Rooms where children experience belonging, safety and the traditions of those who came before them. Rooms where youth ask their searching questions about relationships and meaning.
We have assumed that these rooms are in the church, so we create and decorate these rooms. We staff those rooms with volunteers and lively curriculum full of witty cartoons. And we wait like fishermen for the great tug on the line, the holy Aha! moment when a young person’s heart ignites with the fiery reality of God. We plant ourselves in places deemed holy, like a bush that God will set on fire and use to speak to the future generations. And you know, sometimes that happens. Most Sunday school teachers and youth advisors have stories about that moment when the heavens opened and the eyes of a child widened with awe and belief. And most Christians have a memory of that Sunday school teacher who inspired them, that youth event that gave them a profound sense of transcendence, in those precious old rooms with thick paint and handmade posters.
But not always. Studies continue to show that the singular most important factor impacting someone’s spiritual formation is the way their parents live.
In my experience, if parents want to “expose their children to the Christian faith” by dropping them off at Sunday school while they read the newspaper in the car or run errands, they are actually achieving the opposite result. Instead of instilling in them a set of values based on the life and teachings of Jesus, they are modeling that such beliefs are not interesting enough for a parent’s time nor crucial for life. They are accidentally communicating that faith is a hobby or safe children’s programming. That lesson burrows deep down below a child’s conscious understanding and bears fruit once the child has space to make choices in high school or college. And at those times, parents rarely have the energy or the access to push back.
But the good news for busy parents who care deeply about raising children to love and serve the Lord is that other rooms feature more prominently in the faith formation of people.
The living room. Here, children watch their parents model what matters and what doesn’t. They hear their parents react to the news. They eavesdrop on the conversations grown-ups have about the world, about the family and about the church. Few things shaped my faith more than coming downstairs early in the morning when I was a child and catching my dad reading the Bible. It was the best lesson that faith actually does bear upon my life, not just Sunday morning.
The dining room. Here, bread is broken, or maybe a chicken nugget. Here, milk is poured out, on the table and the floor, more times than any parent wants, usually right after the child is reminded how close the cup is to the edge of the table. And in those moments, children learn about forgiveness and joy in imperfection. Maybe people light Advent candles together during Advent. Maybe they talk about God and science while plowing through homework spread over the table. Here, regular stories of an ordinary day are prayed over and a blessing takes place.
Sanctuary. It is so hard to sit with children in church. I say this, and I am a minister. It’s easy to feel self-conscious about the crinkling of paper that sounds to a parent as loud as a T-rex ripping up trees. It’s tempting to just get out because really, is anyone getting anything out of this? But when, even for a few minutes, a child puts her little feet up on the pews or crawls along the carpet, she is told emphatically, “You belong here.” This is when the rest of the church participates in Christian education. When a not-quite-a-grandmother-yet offers to sit with a child or walk outside with him for a while so a weary parent can experience the gold of silence, it is a gift of grace. Conversely, if congregants salivate over “how much we need nice young families” or flash disapproval if a child makes a child sound, it is hard to get over.
Car. Apparently teenagers open up when they are staring at a windshield. My children spout off existential questions from their booster seats. “Mommy, how did God make the trees? Why does God let there be mean people?” In the car, I try really hard not to shout any words that sound like “Oh my God” or “Jesus Christ.” I try not to “administer justice” on the person who just cut me off. I try to apologize when I goof up. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that the car is a rolling classroom, and it’s the only one where they are strapped in and I have control over where we end up. Someday I want to say, “Buckle up kids, today we are talking about sanctification!”
Bedroom. At night, there is an equally captive audience. It is prime time to tell Bible stories. And there is no better way to learn the stories than to attempt to tell them to children. Sure, they may fall asleep. Or, they may not, which is often more terrifying for parents. My kids choose bedtime as their favorite time to ask deep theological questions. “Night sweety!” I duck out like a ninja. Then I hear, “Mom, how do we know God loves us? Where is Nana now that she is dead? Do cats have their own Jesus?” I have my shoes off because of having tried already to sneak away, but I return to their little “late night theology” trap, which sometimes becomes holy ground… when I’d have to remove my shoes anyway. There in the dark, I only answer what I know, and I admit freely what I don’t know. I am powerfully aware that sometime in their lives they will have nights when they cry out, cry over heartbreak, cry out in grief, cry out in shame and fear. And, I can never protect them from that. But I do hope that they trust a God who is bigger and closer than even the hurt they will feel. I hope they know that God is bigger than their late night questions. I hope that when anguish presses against their chest, they also feel the embrace of one holy enough to carry them through every pain.
I salute Christian educators who are even now setting up for Vacation Bible Camp and a fall Sunday school program. I salute youth leaders who devote countless evenings to teenagers. I salute campus ministers and young adult ministry leaders. But most of all, I salute parents who take their role as primary Christian educator to heart, along with the promises of God, the grace of Jesus Christ and the conspiracy of the Holy Spirit, at work in all those rooms.
“Wherever two or more are gathered in my name, there I am with them.” (Matthew 18:20)
Becca Messman is the associate pastor at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Herndon, Virginia. She leads “Lunch for the Soul” – a ministry with Hispanic day laborers. Her other passions are preaching and offering pastoral prayers, leading retreats, energizing church leaders to serve the community around them, youth and young adult ministry, and cultivating the “fear and trembling” holy journey of parenting. She lives in Arlington, Virginia with her husband Dave, her two young children, and her dog Luna.