“It takes a village to raise a child.” This proverb originates from the Igbo and Yoruba regions of Nigeria, from villages where people come together to take mutual responsibility for ensuring the safety, education, and well-being of a child. It’s a saying that also offers a simple but essential truth to education for faith formation. As most of us recognize, it takes more than one person to teach a child the ways of life and faith. All the people who interact with children teach them the significant values, beliefs, worldviews, and moral sense that will guide them throughout their lives. Through multi-layered experiences within the context of a community, a child’s worldview and faith are shaped and reshaped throughout the formative years.
Keeping the Promise of Baptism for Faith Formation
Those who participate in and witness infant baptism are often enthralled by the innocent presence of a baby whose eyes are wide open in pure wonder and curiosity. However beneath the surface of such a joyful occasion is the more serious side of the sacrament. Baptism calls all people who participate in the sacred ceremony to make a communal promise to raise a young child to be Christ’s follower, to nurture him or her in the faith formation process. Whenever we witness a baptism, we should be reminded of our implicit communal commitment to all the children of the church.
John Calvin believed that baptism indicates the birth of a soul into the family of God. One of the benefits of baptism, as Calvin described in his Institutes, is that we are not only engrafted into the death and life of Christ, but also become sharers in all his blessings through unification with Christ himself. Baptism is understood, in this regard, as a kind of sacred adoption ceremony, placing those who are baptized into God’s family. As adopted sons and daughters, we are co-heirs of God together with Christ. What an awesome privilege and honor this is for all of us!
Calvin believed that baptism accomplishes three things by God’s grace: (1) assurance of salvation, (2) union with Christ, and (3) adoption into a family of God. These blessings are objectively presented in the sacrament and are subjectively received through faith. As responsible members of a faith community, we need to take an active role in educating a child about the assurance of God’s love and forgiveness through Jesus Christ. We also need to pledge ourselves to support and encourage a child’s walk in faith until he or she may arrive at the point of personal encounter with Christ. In addition, we must commit ourselves to become role models whose welcoming hospitality demonstrates how much we value the presence of childern in our midst and whose footprints suggest the clear pathway of faith.
Calvin’s understanding of what faith is also illuminates our educational responsibilities. Calvin defines faith as “a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” Knowing God and growing into faith requires a form of holistic consciousness that integrates both the knowledge of mind and the conviction of heart.
Nurturing Children’s Faith in the Church
Nurturing faith requires patience and hope, for it is a Spirit-led, lifelong process of forming and reforming. A seed of faith first bursts open within the context of a community where a child belongs and is welcomed. C. Ellis Nelson describes the importance of community serving as the seedbed of this great awakening. The faith journey begins from a communal context as the family members share their individual and corporate lives together:
- Faith is nurtured at home through interaction with parents and other family members.
- Faith is nurtured in worship as the people of God come together to affirm their identity as God’s people.
- Faith is nurtured through Bible study classes, expanding and deepening our knowledge about God.;
- Faith is nurtured through congregational life and events—both celebratory and solemnly serious.
- Faith is nurtured through intergenerational contexts of learning together.
- Faith is nurtured in standing beside people who are going through transitions and challenges in their lives.
In order to nurture faith as people in a village, we need to reclaim the centrality of worship and sacraments, be consistent in our Christian practices, be more intentional about providing more family and intergenerational sharing, and commit congregational resources for spiritual formation for all ages.
We need to invite children into participation in the sacraments, where they will taste and see God’s goodness and grace..
We also need to utilize the particular stories of the Bible and a congregation more intentionally in nurturing the corporate memory of a congregation. The more common stories we share about our faith journey, the deeper we grow into a common vision and identity as the family of God.
We need to worship together so that our children see and experience our theological conviction, ethical commitment, and spiritual life together.
Parents and other adults in the church need to serve as mentors for the children of the congregation, engaging the children in moral behaviors and religious imagination.
The power of holistic and collective faith formation is easy to recognize when you just sit down and reflect on names of people who have played a significant role in your own faith growth. I can easily recall unique ways my community has blessed me: their Christian character, life-style, religious piety, commitment to social justice, words of encouragement and admonition, the peculiar ways they loved me and shaped my identity through joyful and difficult times, and their faithful prayer and support during my wandering years of life. This is why we need a village to grow our faith—a village who continuously hands down their faith to their children in generations after generations until the day of our Lord.
Timothy Son is Assistant Professor of Christian Education & Youth Ministry at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and serves on the executive board of the Confluence Institute. He is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and served as an ordained pastor for 14 years before joining the staff at Pittsburgh.