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!
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?