Church, Your Families Need Help (And Adding More Programs Isn’t the Answer)

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Recently I facilitated a workshop on family faith formation for a group of parents whose children ranged in age from newborns through young adults. We began with a reading of Deuteronomy 6:5-9—our call from God to form the faith of our children:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. 

Having spent the previous week speaking with pastors from across North America who described the families in their congregations as “busy,” “exhausted,” “overwhelmed,” and “over committed,” I followed that Scripture reading with what I hoped were words of encouragement: 

Faith is formed in the ordinary and the extraordinary days of our lives. It’s like breathing; it doesn’t require a degree in theology, just intentionality.

For the rest of our time together we talked about how to weave faith-forming conversations into and out of daily family rhythms so they become a natural part of who we are, like breathing. 

After the workshop I was approached by the parent of a young child. “I didn’t grow up in a home where the Bible was read or where anyone prayed,” she said. “We’re trying to teach our son about God but we don’t even know where to begin. We figured out Christmas—we made a nativity scene and read a Bible story—but we stumbled through Easter. And what are we supposed to do on all the other days? I have no idea how to do this.” 

And then it hit me: we were assuming that families know how to breathe. 

“Many Gen X and Millennial parents did not grow up in families where they experienced religious traditions and practices. . . They lack fluency with the Christian faith or the confidence to share it with their children,” says John Roberto in Families at the Center of Faith Formation

This reality also applies to parents in your congregation who were raised in homes with believing parents. Many of today’s parents lack the experience, knowledge, and confidence to tell God’s story and engage in faith practices with their children. 

Church, we have a problem. And adding more programs isn’t the answer. 

“The families in my church do not need more activities to do, more ducks to juggle. Nor do I.” says Austin Crenshaw Shelley (When Doing More Isn't Enough). “We need help setting aside all the doing that we clutch so tightly, so that our hands can be open to receive the gifts God has in store. . . . We need time to be. Time to reflect. Time to learn and grow and sing and daydream and stargaze. Time to love our neighbors. Time to seek justice and mercy. Time to draw close to a God who revealed God’s own name, which turns out not to have anything to do with doing, but everything to do with being: I Am Who I Am.”

We need to help parents breathe.

In our congregations, children and teens are being raised by the following, and more:

  • parents who were raised in a household of faith, and parents who were not
  • married parents, divorced parents, and single parents
  • grandparents, other relatives, or foster parents
  • parents who are struggling with their own faith or have differing beliefs
  • parents who are engaged in family faith formation and parents who are not
  • parents whose own faith formation emphasized biblical knowledge and who aren’t comfortable having conversations with kids who express wonder and doubt.

Each family also has its own schedule and rhythms. Some are able to attend Sunday-morning programming, while for others midweek ministry works best. Some eat dinner together daily; others are quite busy during the week but set aside Saturday morning to catch up as a family. 

As a result, some congregations are grappling with lack of attendance in programs that used to be filled to capacity with kids. Some church leaders are frustrated that a only handful of people are reading their family-focused social media posts, while others are surprised by the success of faith formation experiments they try.

“It’s not that people don’t value the content [of church programs],” says Marc Hoogstad, pastor at Ebenezer Christian Reformed Church in Trenton, Ontario, “it’s that they value family time and aren’t able to commit to long-term attendance at things. We need to meet people where they are at.”

We can do that as a church community by

  • determining what is working well, and building on those areas.
  • being open to ending long-running church programs if they are no longer meeting the needs of families.
  • providing families with resources and practices in a variety of ways (for example, social media posts, parenting workshops, a “faith talk question of the week” in the Sunday bulletin, a featured book of the month, a seasonal newsletter, and so on.
  • asking families what types of support they are longing for, and then providing options that families can customize to meet their needs.

In addition to meeting parents where they are, our churches can encourage and equip families by weaving the teaching of faith practices into congregational life and doing so in a way that blesses households of all shapes and sizes. Such an approach requires planning, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. Some examples:

  • End a worship service with a faith practice that can be repeated at home.
  • At the start of every liturgical season, give every household a colored table runner (made from a strip of fabric) along with an explanation of the significance of the color and a simple devotional guide to use during that time. At Advent you might use the cloth to wrap up a set of Advent candles.
  • Engage the help of older adults in your church. When theologian Phyllis Tickle was asked how the church should equip the current generation of parents, she pointed to adults over 60 years old. Listen to her insightful comments by downloading the webinar recording of Reclaim the Tent: The Home and Future of Faith from Vibrant Faith.
  • Provide community service opportunities for all ages.
  • Help families integrate faith-forming experiences, conversations, and practices into what they are already doing in their daily lives.  Dear Parent: A Guide for Family Faith Formation, a wonderful new resource by Laura Keeley and Robert J. Keeley, will help parents build this foundation in their family. And in the Resources by Topic section of the Family Faith Formation toolkit you’ll find dozens of free ideas to share for celebrating milestones, seeking justice, asking great questions, holiday rituals, parenting, and more, along with suggestions for ways your church can resource families without overwhelming them.
  • Provide materials in addition to ideas: a baptism anniversary candle and a liturgy to use when lighting it each year, a variety of devotional resources which are geared to the ages and stages of their family, Bibles and Bible story books (as milestone gifts or through a library), a curated playlist of songs and so on. 
  • Give households tools that teach practices in ways that aren’t burdensome. The Calvin Institute for Christian Worship recently supported the publication of Everyday Family Faith: Simple Practices and Activities for Building Faith at Home. For every day of the week there are simple options to choose from: Scripture verses that apply to family life, faith-talk questions to get conversations started, short prayers for the day, and fun or thought-provoking activities the family can do together. I love the way this spiral-bound pocket guide helps families build basic faith practices that work for them. #winwin #moreplease 

Family faith is formed at home, but it’s also formed in church community life where we have opportunities to include, encourage, and equip families. In community we show by our actions that families are part of a bigger tribe—God’s family, their church—and that the body of Christ is with them every step of the way. 

And with every breath they take.

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Admin

Karen, I want to read this post again and again because there is so much that resonates with me. I think you hit the nail on the head with the need for less programs and more "weaving of faith-forming conversations in our daily family rhythms." This is huge. And sometimes the "how" is the hardest part. For this reason, your tangible ideas, including repeatable faith practices, ideas for community engagement, and more, are so, so great. 

Thank you so much! 

Community Builder

Great headline and article. I agree that the concrete ideas are helpful. I plan to send this to our congregation and ask them for thoughts and ideas.

One thing that we do is give our kids "jobs" at church as soon as possible. They are song leaders, sound techs, accompanists, children's ministries aides (and leaders when old enough and capable). That is one way to make the church their own.

Thank you.

Community Builder

Thanks for sharing the ways you are including and engaging children at your church, Mavis. That's great!