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What is a Reformation? — Christian education at home

This coming Sunday has been designated as Reformation Sunday by the Presbyterian Church. (U.S.A.). Pre-COVID-19, many of us would be attending or leading services focused on unpacking one of the many rich facets of our faith tradition.  And many of our children would be leaning over during the service to whisper, “What’s a reformation?”

We don’t often introduce this historical event or its terminology to children, believing they are too young to grasp the intricacies of what it means to be a Reformed church.  However, because we are “reformed and always reforming,” there is no reason we can’t start the process of forming and reforming their understanding of our faith tradition!  In this activity, you’ll have a chance to introduce the idea of Reformed theology to your children using the Greatest Commandment (and a little bit of playdough!) as a foundation.

Begin the time with your children by sharing these common words aloud.  As you share each word, ask them what they believe the word means. Freeze, view, circle, form.  Explain that we have a trick in the English language: We take a word and shift its meaning by adding a little word piece called a prefix at the beginning of the word.  This trick doesn’t work with all words, but we have many that employ it.

Write the word freeze down on a piece of paper or whiteboard.  Reiterate what the children said the word means.  Then add the prefix anti- to the front of the word.  Share that this prefix means against.  When we add it to the front of the word freeze, we get a new word that means against turning into ice, and then explain what antifreeze does.  Repeat this process using the following prefixes and root words:

After completing this exercise, tell your children that they’re going to be thinking more about this last word – reform – during your time together.  You’ll be thinking about what it has to do with their faith.

Next, read aloud Matthew 22:34-40.  Note that Jesus tells the lawyer and the disciples who are also listening that there are two main commandments or guidelines that God has given people to help them live their lives.  Review these two commandments: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Ask your children to brainstorm all the ways that we love the Lord with our hearts, souls and minds.  The ask them to share multiple ways they can love their neighbors as themselves.  Point out that these lists are long and if we continued to revisit these lists regularly for the rest of our lives, they’d be probably grow even longer.  Also, we might change some of the items on the list because we’d realize adjustments that could be made.

Share with your children that our faith grows all throughout our lives.  It changes as we change.  The same is true for Christ’s church.  As the Holy Spirit continues to work in and among God’s people, they come to new understandings about God.  One of the people who helped shape Presbyterianism, John Calvin, says our faith and the church is “reformed and always reforming, according to the word of God.”  This means we are always changing, adding to, and modifying our faith as the Holy Spirit helps us see and understand God in familiar and unfamiliar ways.

To further explore the ideas of forming and reforming with your children, gather up some containers of play dough and clear a space where each person can create.  Offer your children a faith-based prompt and then ask them to use the play dough to create a visual representation of that item.  You can choose your own prompts or you can use these: God, Jesus, creation, church, love, forgiveness. After they create one figure to represent the idea, ask them to either squish the play dough together to start over and make a new representation, or to use additional play dough to modify the figure.  As they do so, talk about the reasons why they are reforming their work.  If possible, connect these to the constant reformation of the church and our beliefs.

If you’d like to extend your family’s dive into the Reformation, the Presbyterian Historical Society has some resources that may particularly appeal to children.  You can find intricate coloring sheets depicting the city of Geneva as it looked during John Calvin’s time there here.  There are also a number of videos on the PHS website that capture the “living history” of the denomination.  While these are geared toward adults, older children may enjoy watching them, especially those depicting leaders working in contexts that are different from their own.