Often, when we think of liturgy and ritual, we think of things that happen within the church walls. These are extremely important to faith development and nurturing Christian identity. But what families do at home can augment faith development at church.
My husband tells of one Christmas ritual that was especially important to his family. On Christmas day, his parents would set up the nativity scene, and his Dad would place the magi across the room. Every day, he and his sisters would watch his father move the magi closer and closer to Jesus until they reached their destination on January 6, Epiphany. This was a fun Christmas tradition for little kids. But as they got older, they were able to appreciate the journey to Epiphany in a deeper way.
As we think about how faith and human development relates to liturgy and ritual, our exploration will be informed by John H. Westerhoff, particularly his text Will Our Children Have Faith? Westerhoff describes four stages of faith: experienced faith (infancy to early childhood), affiliative faith (childhood & early adolescence), searching faith (middle and late adolescence), and owned faith (early adulthood). Westerhoff likens the growth of faith to rings on a tree. Each ring on a tree adds to and changes the tree and builds on what was there before. Similarly, we can move through the stages of faith only when the needs of the previous stage have been met.
The first stage of faith is experienced faith. Children learn, or experience, faith through others and grow by participating in rituals of our faith tradition. As infants and young children go through this phase, it is extremely important to involve them in the liturgy and rituals of the church. As a little boy, my husband watched his father move the magi every day. He probably did not understand exactly was happening, but he was learning that there was a journey. Nurturing this type of faith is done by including children in rituals. Whether it is having a young child learn the body language that goes along with prayer, bringing a baby or toddler to Communion every week or month, or having children light an Advent wreath or watch you move magi every year, these rituals teach and foster the experienced faith that is then built upon.
A child develops affiliative faith by belonging to a group. In this stage, children and teens begin to connect to a faith community and to particular segments of a faith community. It is essential that they are part of a faith community that includes them in all aspects of liturgy and ritual so that they feel they truly belong. Once they have the safety of belonging to a group, they are able to grow into the third stage—the searching faith. This is the faith of questioning and internalizing what has been taught. Often seen as a transitional stage that moves one from believing the faith of others to having a strong sense of personal and owned faith (the final stage), searching faith can imbue rituals and liturgy with greater meaning. Liturgy that evokes the questioning nature of many psalms, laments, and heroes of the Bible may be especially poignant for those in the searching faith stage. Moreover, the rituals of the faith can be a safe space for youth. As they struggle with the meaning, they can find comfort in the action as the community strives to walk with them to the final stage, a strong personal faith. Our understanding of liturgy and rituals changes, but our need to connect to them remains the same.
In a few weeks, I will pull out my own nativity set that was handed down from my mother-in-law. On Christmas Day, we will put the Advent wreath away, and my husband and I will place the baby Jesus in his place in the nativity scene. Honoring the ritual of my husband’s childhood, we will place the magi at a distance from the nativity -- across the apartment. This holy ritual connects me to the long journey the wise men took to Jesus and the long journey that many of us take to owned faith. It also connects me to my chosen family and reminds my husband of the many things his father passed on to him and taught him. I will also lead children and their families in worship on Christmas Eve as I continue to walk with them on this journey. I pray the work done with families through the rich liturgy and rituals of this worship will connect us all with our Christian family and remind us of our Heavenly Parent and the things passed down to us.