Your Children and Their Children after Them
There is a curious cadence that emerges in Deuteronomy. As Moses prepares God’s people for life in the Promised Land, he repeatedly directs their attention to their children. “Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them.” (Dt. 4:9) At one point, Moses conveys God’s desire for Israel this way: “Oh, that their hearts would be inclined to fear me and keep all my commands always, so that it might go well with them and their children forever!” (Dt. 5:29) He later adds that the purpose of God’s commands is “so that you, your children and their children after them may fear the Lord your God as long as you live.” (Dt. 6:2) Again and again throughout Deuteronomy, the next generation and the one after them are brought into the center of what it means to live faithfully as God’s people.
Other biblical texts pick up on this cadence as well.
- Through the praise of children and infants you have established a stronghold against your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger. (Ps. 8:2)
- He decreed statutes for Jacob and established the law in Israel, which he commanded our ancestors to teach their children, so the next generation would know them, even the children yet to be born, and they in turn would tell their children. (Ps. 78:5-6)
- The living, the living—they praise you, as I am doing today; parents tell their children about your faithfulness. (Isaiah 38:19)
- Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matthew 19:14)
- The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call. (Acts 2:39)
Because of biblical cadences that emerge in Deuteronomy and reverberate throughout scripture, the Reformed tradition has a long history of prioritizing discipleship among children and youth. We have invested heavily in establishing Christian schools, developed substantive Sunday school curricula, started Cadets, GEMS, and Therefore Go Ministries, and continue to launch a wide variety of community outreach efforts that are geared toward serving and teaching children and youth. We even developed a metaphor of a three-legged stool to describe how parents, church, and school all contribute to form a sturdy foundation for discipling the next generation.
In October 2019, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada invited ministry leaders from around Canada to gather in Ontario to consider questions about what families need for home-based faith formation and discipleship. That exploratory conversation led to the development of a major research project about how parents view their role in the faith formation of their children and what practices they engage to encourage their children’s participation in faith traditions or communities. The research culminated in a final report called Parenting Faith, which was released in April 2023. (You can access a free copy of the Parenting Faith report on the EFC’s website.)
Lesli van Milligen and I participated on the partnership team that guided and supported the research project. Our participation in that research project highlighted for us how significant the faith formation challenges are for parents and their children today.
The research project revealed that parents today are less directive about what types of religious activities their children participate in than in previous generations. Interviews and surveys conducted for the project showed that parents reported a lower emphasis on fixed family devotion times and other structured engagements with personal spiritual disciplines in the home. One of the more significant shifts observed through this project is that more parents are placing a high value on their children having the freedom to choose what their spirituality will look like, even if it is different than their own faith commitments.
At the same time, Thrive staff continue to receive requests from churches for updated and new resources that can help teach the faith to the next generation. As church-based programs were shut down during the pandemic, we saw an increase in requests for resources that ministry leaders could use to support parents with faith formation practices at home. They shared how parents suddenly found themselves responsible for the faith formation of their children that churches had previously provided. Some shared how parents “felt helpless” or “unqualified” to disciple their own kids. Others commented on the excitement and hope that parents had about the opportunity to be more intentional with forming faith practices at home, but noted that they were not always sure what resources were good to use or how to go about encouraging their kids’ faith. We were able to point families toward some of our resources, like Dwell Flex and Dwell at Home resources, Everyday Family Faith, and Dear Parent in response. But the research and conversations showed us just how challenging home-based faith formation can be at this time.
Guiding Questions and Coming Opportunities
These recent experiences highlighted a bigger set of questions for Thrive staff. Questions like:
- How can we help churches listen well to parents about the challenges they are facing as they disciple their children at home?
- What resources would help church leaders encourage and equip parents for a holistic approach to at-home faith formation?
- What discipling experiences and support do parents and caregivers need in order to feel equipped and qualified to disciple their own children?
- Is there a way to integrate (or at least bring closer together) efforts that parents and churches are making for discipling the next generations?
- How can we introduce and support greater comfortability with faith practices like prayer, scripture engagement, mercy and justice (and more!) in ways that are meaningful to both parents and their children?
- How can intergenerational faith formation serve as a framework for supporting faith formation in children, teens, and emerging adults?
- What are some particular ways that Thrive staff can support and resource church leaders and parents (and other primary caregivers) as they encourage the next generations to follow Jesus Christ?
As we are putting together Thrive’s priorities for the next few years, these are some of the questions that are shaping our discernment and planning processes. From the research and listening we’ve already done, we recognize that we are in a season where it makes a lot of sense for all of us to strengthen and encourage at-home faith formation efforts. We look forward to sharing more soon, including a couple really exciting announcements!