The challenges facing churches today is monumental. Church life is constantly being regulated to the margins with the demands of recreational activities and other life responsibilities seeming more pressing. To further compound these dynamics, faith formation is increasingly seen as irrelevant to life’s responsibilities of work and family time.
The Lifelong Faith Symposium - Placing Families at the Center of Faith Formation - sought to bring participants together to discuss how to meet these and other challenges faced by faith formation leaders. We named many of the challenges faced by today’s congregations - a consumerist mindset when it comes to religious participation, seeming lack of time for families, only sporadic or episodic participation in the life of the church, lack of religious and theological vocabulary, attraction to screens, seeming split between the sacred (church) and secular (family demands), competing expectations, diversity of family makeup, and on and on the list grows.
The overriding question of the symposium was “What would it look like to put families at the center of faith formation?” Stated differently, how can churches help families be the main arena for faith formation, as they were always intended to do? Unfortunately today, the church is often viewed as the institutional location for religious education. Much like most Americans outsource formal education to private or government schools, so can parents outsource religious education to professionally hired church leaders. Except that’s not the role of the church. Faith formation cannot be outsourced a couple of hours a week (if that much) and have the expectation that meaningful formation would be the result.
For most of Christian history the family was the center faith formation. Formal religious formation was mainly for clergy. The church needs a paradigm shift back towards a model where faith formation occurs in the home. This will require a change for many churches who continue to think of Christian education or faith formation happening on the church campus. Instead, the challenge is to equip the parents and grandparents to be the primary formers of faith in their children and grandchildren. While I certainly agree with this in principal, we should acknowledge a huge hurdle in this endeavor. Parents and grandparents today are not equipped for this task. Many lack basic formation in their own lives.
A few of the shifts discussed at the symposium, however, has given me new insight into how churches can begin this task of putting families at the center of faith formation. First, instead of primarily seeing the family’s role as “passing on the faith” we can shift into thinking about the role of the family as “living into” the faith. Christian Smith’s research around MTD (Moral Therapeutic Deism) that is prevalent among many Millennials is a result from this mindset being “passed on” from their Boomer parents. There is a need for churches to help all ages, not just children and youth, to live into the faith of their baptism. That’s a task that can be done intergenerationally. While adults have at least some knowledge and skills regarding their Christian faith, allowing the questions that children intuitively ask can help spark new thoughts and questions for adults. Learning can, and often does, go both ways. Just think about who teaches who with regard to technology. Families don’t have to pretend they have it all figured out. In concert with the larger church community and in relationship with church leaders, family faith formation is done best as the community seeks to live into our baptismal call.
Placing families at the center of faith formation might also help us past the unhelpful and unnatural split between the sacred and the secular or the real and the spiritual. With a renewed focus on faith formation within the family, forming a faith that reaches the entirety of our lives could result.
On a side note, this shift in particular has lead me to wonder about how we view our role as Christian leaders. Perhaps instead of viewing our role as dispensers of information we might view our role as helping families find order/peace/Shalom within their fractured experiences? For example, what might a plan for parenting intentionally for Christian faith formation look like that churches could offer to their communities? Perhaps we might also be in better position to reach those in a diversity of family situations (singleness, divorce, remarried, etc.)
That leads to the second shift, instead of families and churches being related through programming, church should shift into thing about reaching and empowering families through relationships. Thus, instead of a top down approach of the church figuring out what classes to offer, what if churches, through a closer relationship with their families, offered what the parents and children were wrestling with within their faith formation activities. This is not to exclude church-wide studies that correspond to specific areas of growth for the church community (stewardship, evangelism, church year, etc.) but could help give needed context to these and be more intentionally intergenerational. Instead of offering another class or program, what if your church just hosted families for a social gathering with the only aim as building relationships? Let the staff host the event and then just listen. Perhaps family needs will be clarified and new strategies born that focus on relationship building instead of program building.
What do families in your community struggle with?
What are some of the gifts your families bring to those struggles?