Some high school and college students from my church were practicing music with me for a worship service. I thanked Hannah, a college student who was home for Christmas, for joining us. She told me that one of the reasons she picked up the violin in school in the first place was because she saw my daughters play violin in church and she wanted to do that too. Hannah expressed something that is true for many people. Decisions in our lives, including faith decisions, are influenced by the people we encounter
Parents are the most important influences in a child’s faith formation, but many other factors also contribute to spiritual development. Because the way most of us grow in our faith is so complex, there is no simple answer for how we can build faith in families. There is no curriculum that will ensure that children will grow into men and women of God. We all know families who have one child who grows to be a pillar of the church community and another child who seems to have no interest in church or in a spiritual life. What that means is that there are no guarantees. Even the well-known verse 6 from Proverbs 22, “Train children in the right way and when they are old they will not stray” (NRSV), is not a promise–it’s a proverb, a wise saying telling us how things usually work out.
That doesn’t mean we should stop trying, of course! There are many ways that parents can make their homes places where faith grows. The following three possibilities may inspire you to think of others:
1. Get Involved
One of the first things families can do to grow faith is to find things to be involved in together in their local church. This kind of involvement shows children that the adults in their families think church is important enough to take more of their time than just an hour on Sunday morning. Often kids and teens have fun together and go on service projects while the adults sit in meetings worrying about the church budget. Both activities are important, but adults and kids need to be doing things together too. Encourage your church to have events that include various ages, providing the kids and teens a place to see their parents in action. When children and teens see adults from their family volunteering and teaching Sunday School or leading children’s worship, they’ll know that these are things that matter to us.
Worship is not something others do and we watch. It belongs to all of us. By getting people of all ages involved in readings, music, tech support, or worship planning, we learn more about worship while demonstrating that worship also belongs to the whole family.
2. Build in Time to Talk About Faith
Actions may speak louder than words, but often we need words to back up our actions. Words are vessels that hold ideas, and kids need to hear those ideas. We want to find ways that allow us to talk from our heart about our faith. Here are two ideas I have run across recently.
- The daily examen is an ancient practice in which you as a family reflect on the day: think about (or with kids, talk about) the best thing that happened and the worst thing that happened. Then lift those things up to God in prayers of thanksgiving and supplication. This simple process reminds us as a family that we owe the good things in our lives to God and that we need to be thankful for those things. It also lets us see that God wants to hear about our fears, our hurts, and our longings (http://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-examen/). A good time for the examen could be at family meals, before bed, or in the car.
- In addition to lifting our days up to God in prayer, we can use literature to help us see that God’s Word is not just something abstract. A project from Union Presbyterian Seminary called Storypath is one simple way to help us do this. The website,http://storypath.upsem.edu, gives many suggestions of good children’s books along with reflections on how we can connect those books and those stories to stories or passages in Scripture. Church educators could help families by supplying the books to loan out along with printed copies of the comments and questions on the books from the website. There is also a long list of children’s books that you could use for this purpose (without the Storypath comments) in the appendix to Helping Our Children Grow in Faith (Keeley, Robert J., 2008, Grand Rapids, MI, Baker Books).
3. Don’t Shy Away from Big Questions
When we imply that we have faith all figured out, we do a disservice to kids. By dealing with big questions of injustice and the unfairness of life, we show our children and teens that our faith is strong enough to withstand questions we don’t have pat answers to. God is bigger than we are, and we should not be expected to know all that God is doing and why. Talking about these things is an important part of helping kids see that faith is more than just logic-–it is learning to trust a God who is a person with whom we have a relationship.
The Psalms are a good example of what it looks like to have that kind of relationship with God. They give us the words to use to talk to God when we are happy, sad, confused, and angry. The Calvin Institute of Christian Worship has recently published devotionals on the Psalms for families to use at mealtimes, before bed, or anytime they gather together for Bible study. Devotions like these are one way to open the door to asking big questions with your children and teens. (Psalms for Families by Robert J. Keeley and Laura Keeley is available for free at http://worship.calvin.edu/resources/resource-library/psalms-for-families-devotions-for-all-ages-introduction/)
The overall theme of these three family faith formation suggestions is to show kids by what we do and what we say that God is not just an abstract idea and that being involved in church is not just something that only super-pious people do. God has an important part in our everyday lives, and we want our kids to know that.
Robert Keeley is Professor of Education and chair of the Education Department at Calvin College. He received his Ph.D. in educational psychology from the University of Denver and has more than 30 years of experience working with children and young people in churches and schools. Bob has published a number of articles, two mathematics textbooks and, along with his wife, Laura, has co-authored church school curricula and eleven Christmas plays for children. His latest books are Helping Our Children Grow in Faith: How the Church Can Nurture the Spiritual Development of Kids (Baker Books, 2008) and Shaped by God: Twelve Essentials for Nurturing Faith in Children, Youth and Adults (Faith Alive Christian Resources, 2010). Bob and Laura also serve as directors of children’s ministries at 14th St. Christian Reformed Church in Holland, MI, where he frequently uses his guitar to lead worship.