Parents Matter Most

One of my favorite shows on television is the show Parenthood. There’s something special about the Braverman family and their relationships. They all have major flaws, but they tackle real issues, and they do it together. In an episode that aired a couple of years ago, there was a scene in which a couple was receiving premarital counseling from a pastor. The pastor asked, “Have you both considered what religious instruction you will give your [five-year-old] child?” The husband-to-be replied, “Well, I think that we’re probably going to encourage him to decide what spiritual path he’d like to take…and make sure that he knows about all of the options.” I couldn’t help but think that this kind of response is likely a very common one, even among committed churchgoers. I chuckled to myself as I thought about all of the things that this particular parent would make sure that he passed on to his child, and yet when it came to faith, this father was too afraid or unsure to share his own beliefs with his son.

At my last church, I loved watching some of the children’s conversations on Sunday mornings in the fall. Why? Because they were almost always talking about college football. Each week, I witnessed some of our youngest children passionately debating about which was the superior football team: Auburn or Alabama. I’d be willing to bet that most of these children did not come to these beliefs on their own. I highly doubt that they sat down, studied the statistics and history of each team and came to a rational decision about which team was indeed superior. No, chances are that their parents have a strong love for their football team of choice and have passed that love on to their children. They have done so by talking about their team, sharing game time experiences with their children, proudly displaying their team’s colors, and expressing joy when their team wins and sadness when their team loses. The same principle applies when one is sharing one’s faith with children. Faith is caught more than it is taught.

The research is nearly unanimous: parents matter most when it comes to the faith formation of their children. If you want your children to know Jesus well, you have to know Jesus well. If you want your children to feel the love, peace, and joy of Jesus, you have to show them that you feel that love, peace, and joy. If you want your child to read God’s word, you have to open it up yourself and share it with them. In the same way that your child “caught” your love for football or barbeque or Dolly Parton, your child will “catch” your love for Jesus and, at some point, make it his/her own.

We  in the Church must recognize that parents are the primary Christian educators of their children. If we are fortunate, we see your children for an hour or so each week, and we do our best during that time to nurture their faith, instruct them in the essentials of our tradition, and encourage them to form Christian friendships with one another. However, as important as that time is, we must know that it plays second fiddle to what happens at home. So, we need to renew our commitment to parents and families. We need to give you more tools to talk about faith at home, more ways to ensure that church attendance is a priority for your family, and more opportunities to share your faith with your children. I recognize that many churches are not doing this. Many churches are saying, “Bring your kids to us! We’ve got great curriculum and kind teachers. We’ll teach them everything that they need to know.” As controversial as it may be for a church educator to say so, I’m telling you to run the other way from that kind of church. (Or, perhaps a better response is to talk to and challenge the church leadership about this approach.) If your church is putting all of their time, money, energy, and volunteers into programs for children that happen on their campus and zero time, money, energy, and volunteers into supporting parents and what happens at home, they do not have your children’s best interests at heart. (Don’t get me wrong; they may have great intentions. Many churches simply don’t know any better. But, the end result is the same: your children not having their faith nurtured in the most effective way.)

Again, parents matter most when it comes to faith formation. If that sounds daunting to you or if you’re worried about the ways in which you are (or are not) passing values on to your children, think about the other things that you teach them. Think about the ways that you have taught them to work hard, be honest, eat healthy, or stay active. Think about the love for X (reading, fishing, baking cookies, etc.) that you’ve instilled. It really is that easy to instill love for Jesus…it just takes some intentionality. But, when your children are surrounded by it, they will pick up on it.

It’s also never too late to start nurturing your child or grandchild in the faith. I grew up a Cleveland Browns fan, and Cleveland Browns fans are conditioned to hate the Pittsburgh Steelers. Well, lo and behold, after college, I moved to Pittsburgh, lived there through two Super Bowl wins, and ended up marrying a Steelers fan. While I still don’t bleed black and gold, it’s hard to hate them anymore. The love that my husband has for them and the joy that they bring to the people of Pittsburgh are infectious. I consistently find myself rooting them on (except for when they’re playing the Browns, of course).

Surely, love for Jesus can be—and is!—just as infectious!

Image courtesy of photostock /

Image courtesy of photostock /

Questions to consider

  • How is our church supporting parents and families and providing resources and tools for parents to use at home?
  • If you are a parent, think about all of the things that you have shared with, taught, and passed on to your children. Which ones “took?” Which ones didn’t? What is the most important thing that you hope that you have instilled?
  • Some parents put nurturing faith as a low priority for their children, but they allow them to go to church with grandparents or friends. Knowing that what happens at home is most important, how can the church reach out to these children and their parents?

Godly Goosebumps: Embodying Awe and Wonder

This week, I’ve been preparing to lead a workshop for parents on “parenting in the pew.” I’ve been pondering just how unique the church experience is. For so many parents, they consider it a victory if they have managed to keep their children quiet and well-behaved during worship. For many of them, taking their children to worship is akin to taking them to a business function: it’s not for the children, but they have to be there, so the parents need to keep them as invisible as possible and do whatever they need to do to make it through. I wonder if it’s possible to shift this thinking so that taking children to worship is seen as an opportunity to introduce them to and participate with them in an amazing, wonder-filled experience of God.

About a year ago, my husband and I, along with my in-laws, went to Disney World. It was the first time that I had been there since I was five years old. We had a great time, and we did a lot of observing. We paid close attention to parents and kids, noting who was struggling, who was having fun, and what the factors seemed to be. (For your information, having children under the age of four, missing naptimes, and using strollers seemed to account for most of the challenges.). We also watched the Disney cast members very closely to see how they were being hospitable, paying attention to every detail, and creating this very special environment.

One of my favorite things to watch was the way that parents were demonstrating awe and wonder to their children. This is not hard to do at Disney. Almost everywhere you look, there is something amazing. However, these parents were not just doing it because of the amazing things; they were helping their children to have a better experience. They were joining in on the fun and participating in the magic so that their children could enjoy the encounter to the fullest. It was a lot of fun watching big, tough dads wear silly hats and act like star-struck kids when a Disney character walked by. And their children were better for it. It gave them permission to exhibit joy and awe and wonder, as well, and it created a meaningful, lasting memory.

However, although I have no hard evidence to prove it, my hunch is that these same parents have a totally different posture when they take their children to church. Instead of pointing and oohing and ahhing over the amazing things that are going on around them, they are probably silently encouraging their children to be still and distract themselves with a quiet activity. Why?

A few reasons, I think:

1.    Parents misunderstand the church’s expectations.

Most parents believe that the church wants them to bring their children to worship, but they also believe that the church expects their children to behave as adults during worship (sadly, many churches do have this expectation). If you brought your children to a children’s museum, would you expect them to calmly and quietly walk through the museum without touching anything? Would you want them to sit in the corner of the museum and distract themselves with a coloring sheet or iPad? No, you would expect them and want them to interact with the objects in the museum. You would want them to be delighted and fascinated by what they were seeing and doing. This is because you know that a children’s museum is for children.

Well, guess what? Worship is for children, too! It’s for all of God’s people. And when children are in worship, we should expect them to behave as children. This doesn’t mean that they should be running around the sanctuary screaming. It does mean that they will wiggle and ask questions and sing loudly and off-key. Making it clear to parents that children are encouraged to be themselves during worship is hard. It takes more than a passing comment by the pastor or other leader. It involves a shift in culture, and it takes time. But, if we consistently affirm children’s presence and participation in worship (and give parents some helpful resources for parenting in the pew), over time, the expectations will change and parents will begin to see worship as a very special experience in which they get to guide their children.

2.    Parents (and other adults) have lost their own sense of wonder and awe about what is happening in worship.

There is no question that everything at Disney is absolutely amazing, and there is something magical about it that I can’t quite explain. However, at the end of the day, it is a man-made place with actors playing parts (quite convincingly, I admit!). But, in worship, what’s happening is incredibly real. In fact, it’s even more real than anything else that we experience in our lives, because in worship, we are the restored people who God called us to be, rather than the broken people who we act like each and every day.

I’ve often asked parents the following, “What if I told you that the God who made heaven and earth, who put the stars in the sky, who makes the trees grow, who knows every hair on your head…what if I told you that that God was standing outside the door right now and about to walk in?” You’d be amazed, you’d have a little knot of excitement (and perhaps a bit of fear) in your stomach. If your children were with you, you’d hold them a little closer and point to the doorway with anticipation. Well, that’s exactly what happens every week in worship. God is really, truly present with us. But, instead of us pointing him out to the children around us, we tell them to distract themselves with a quiet game. If we truly believe that God is present and showing himself to us, we won’t let our kids sit there and play on their iPods. We’ll be thrilled to share this experience with them and won’t want them to miss a second of it. This is our chance to introduce our children to God and help them to see where he is at work in their lives and in the world around them. Let’s not miss it.

3. The church does not assist parents in exhibiting awe and wonder.

The thing about the Disney cast members is that they never make you feel stupid. When we were there, we weren’t seeking out photo opportunities with all of the characters. However, my mother-in-law and I did manage to score a photo with Belle. When we got to Belle, my mother-in-law said, “My granddaughter (referring to my niece) just loves you!” The cast member playing Belle could have laughed and made a comment, but she never broke character. She smiled and told us to tell my niece that she said hello. She brought us into the magical world, and for a moment, even I believed that we were taking a photo with a real-life princess.

Church members, however, are often quite different. Many are kind and offer encouraging smiles and compliments. Some are less kind and offer an evil eye or a disparaging remark. But, very few participate in the magic with you and make you feel like you are sharing an experience together. I’m as guilty as the next person. Even when I am in awe of the mystery that is happening in my midst, I don’t want to step on parents’ toes by saying anything to their children, especially if the children don’t know me very well. When you offer to assist parents, it can come across as though you’re criticizing their parenting skills or as though you think that they can’t handle it. This, again, requires a shift in culture.

The church leadership has the challenge to create a culture in which this kind of community is genuine and expected, where everyone sees themselves like a Disney cast member who is playing a part in pointing out the magic. At Disney, even the folks sweeping the streets are in character. And, they are always willing to lend a hand. If you ask for directions or they see you struggling, they never make you feel silly or embarrassed. They’re right there with you, showing you grace and helping you find your way. In my observations, parents were not offended and did not take their offer of help as criticism of their parenting skills. They were grateful to have these partners on the journey. Our churches can, and should, offer the same sense of community.

What happens in worship is truly amazing. It may even be more amazing than Disney World. It may even be the most amazing thing to ever happen. The God who made us comes to be with us. Ordinary things like water and bread and wine become extraordinary. Sins too heavy to bear are forgiven. Normal, everyday sinners become the holiest of saints. Tiny, helpless babies are declared to be children of God. A morsel of bread and a drop of wine inexplicably nourish our souls. Heaven, which often seems so far away, comes near. Can you think of anything more extraordinary? Can you think of anything that you’d rather share with your children?

 “But Jesus intervened: ‘Let the children alone; don’t prevent them from coming to me. God’s kingdom is made up of people like these.’” (Matthew 19:14, The Message)

Courtesy of Miriam Smit

Courtesy of Miriam Smit

Questions to consider:

  • In what ways can our church encourage parents and children during worship?
  • What are some steps that we can take to recover our own sense of wonder and awe about worship?
  • Think back about an experience that you have had (either as a child or as an adult) where you experienced awe and wonder. What made it special?

Magical Moments in Worship to Point Out to Children:

  • When the acolytes bring the light in (and out)
  • When the organist plays and the choir sings the anthem
  • When the bread is broken
  • When a baby (or adult!) is baptized
  • When we pray for God to speak to us during the sermon
  • When the sunlight streams through the windows
  • When someone helps someone who needs it