Introducing the "Four Keys" for Passing on Faith in Home and Congregation
Along the hallway just outside my office at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church (Box Hill, Victoria) there were framed lists of infants baptised into the congregation over the period of 1948-1984.Some of the names I know: these people are a vibrant part of that or other LCA congregations.There are many more I do not know.I find myself wondering if these others are still active in the church in any way, or have effectively abandoned the baptismal journey in favour of another.I wonder about their families.I wonder about their experience of faith life in the home and in the congregation.For those who have stayed the baptismal journey, I wonder who or what was significant in the forming, shaping and sustaining of faith.And, with respect to those who have chosen other paths, I wonder what was perhaps absent in their experience of faith life in home and church, or what influences converged to draw them away from Christ.
At the heart of my wondering is a profound and ancient question:“What is involved in passing on the faith from generation to generation?”It is a deeply important question and one that has consumed the thoughts, passions and energies of many, many Christians over the last two thousand years.Responses to this question have spawned an enormous amount of energy and activity.In our time, responses have included Sunday schools, youth groups, denominational youth organisations, confirmation programs, camping programs, employment of youth and children’s workers, an endless production of curricula and much, much, more.Yet, the question still seems to elude neatly packaged answers.For instance, one might conclude that all the flurried efforts of the past fifty years to pass on the faith to children and youth within the Lutheran Church of Australia (LCA) have brought only modest results.The membership decline within our denomination over the past 40 years reflects one central truth:many thousands of children baptised in our Church have not grown to adult faith maturity and retained active participation in the life of our congregations.
Of course, the LCA is not alone in grappling with such sober realities.The story is largely the same for mainline denominations across the Western world.It was this collective story that led six mainline American denominations to undertake a study of their Christian education practices in the early 1990s.The Effective Christian Education study, carried out by the Minnesota-based Search Institute, had one central aim:to analyse what “made for” effective Christian education in congregations.In this light, the central finding of the study was astounding:‘Of the two strongest connections to faith maturity, family religiousness is slightly more important than lifetime exposure to Christian education’.In other words, while Christian denominations had poured millions of hours and dollars into Christian education efforts, there was in fact a more significant crucible for nurturing Christian faith:the practice of the Christian faith in the home.While churches had frantically sought programmatic responses to the perceived crisis in faith transmission, they had been neglecting an even more important dimension, the forming and shaping of Christian spirituality in the realm of family life.The Effective Christian Education Study highlighted three particular practices of faith life in the home which appeared to be particularly influential in the growth of children and youth towards adult faith maturity:
Regular faith-based conversation between children/ youth and their parents (“talking the faith”).
The frequency of family devotions (“receiving the faith”);
The frequency of collective family efforts to help and serve others (“doing the faith”).
In truth, the Study brought to light not something new or novel, but very, very ancient.The question “what is involved in passing on faith from generation to generation” loomed large before the ancient people of Israel as they stood poised on the banks of the Jordan River, ready to enter the Promised Land.Chosen by God, and led by him out of Egypt and through the wilderness, the people of Israel now faced a new reality.The settled existence beckoning them posed new challenges to passing on the faith.There would be new temptations to distract their children from the ways of the Lord:relative comfort and prosperity, persons of different beliefs around and among them (Deut. 6:10-14).Moreover, God would not be with them in the same manner, guiding them with a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.How would faith in God be preserved and passed on in this new land?
In response to the challenges of the Israelites, God gave words of ancient, enduring wisdom:‘Hear, O Israel:The Lord our God, the Lord is one.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 upon 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.’To this, God added various injunctions to care for the poor, welcome strangers and live justly with one another.He also instituted a series of feasts and festivals through which the people of Israel would remember and celebrate his care for them in the past and in the present.
What was the sum of this ancient, divine wisdom?The faith was to be received in home and community by means of careful listening to the word of God, a word that was to be taken to heart and meditated upon day by day, and through participation in family and communal faith celebrations.The faith was to be talked, woven into the rhythms and events of daily family life.The faith was to enacted through family and communal rituals and traditions, which reminded the Israelites of their status as God’s chosen people.And lastly, the faith was to expressed through concrete acts of giving and service to others.
These four elements of ancient wisdom for passing on faith have been brought together by the Minnesota-based Vibrant Faith Ministriesas Four Keys to Nurturing Faith in Home and Congregation.Together, the Four Keys communicate a vision and shape for living out the Christian baptismal journey, so that faith is integrated into daily life and shared dynamically with one another.
Words are central to the Christian faith.It was through speech that God brought creation into being; it was through Christ, the “Word made flesh” that God acted to reconcile creation unto himself; and it is through the proclamation of God’s Word in various settings and by various means that people are brought to and sustained in Christian faith.
Given the power of God’s Word, research findings that highlight the significance for faith nurture of “talking the faith” in the home should comes as no surprise.According to American Search Institute research, youth that came from church-involved families in which parents often expressed their faith are almost twice as likely to actively participate in congregational life as youth from church-involved families where faith was rarely or never discussed.And sadly, the latter greatly outnumbered the former. The same research found that, of congregational youth, only 12% had a regular dialog with their mother on faith/life issues, and only 5% with their father.
One of the primary challenges facing the church today in passing on the Christian faith is simply helping family members communicate with each other in ways which reflect and embody the loving, merciful and saving activity of God in their lives.The first of the Four Keys - “Caring Conversation” - refers to the multiple and varied ways in which the living and active Word of God breaks through into our day-to-day communications with others.“Caring conversation” takes place in the home when and where:
family members inquire about and name the presence and activity of God in their lives and in the world around them;
family members discuss and reflect upon the great stories of faith and their relevance to our lives;
family members caringly and respectfully listen to one another, engaging each other’s hurts, joys, concerns and dreams in the light of their Christian faith;
family members give one another the gift of focused and undivided attention;
family members confess their wrongdoing and forgive one another in the name of Christ;
family members affirm, encourage and bless one another both through verbal and non-verbal communication.
In essence, “caring conservation” involves weaving faith into our daily interactions.Great times for caring conversation include mealtimes, on the way to and from school, bathtimes and bedtimes, before and after church, and during leisure activities.While formal, structured conversation can be helpful, it is often the unplanned spontaneous interactions that have more impact in conveying our heartfelt passions, convictions and values.
Caring Conversation at Home
Look for everyday moments to connect bible stories or God’s life/presence with what is happening, or with what is said.
Share “highs” and “lows” of your day or week.
Make a point of talking about what happened in church, adult class, Sunday school or at youth group.
Ask: “How did you see God working today?”.
Use FaithTalk with Children cards (available from the Youth & Family Institute) around the dinner table, when traveling in the car, when putting kids to bed …
Share stories of how God has worked in your life with your children.
Use the “Caring Conversation” questions on the weekly Taking Faith Home resource (available on this site).
Have a time of affirmation in your family:“When I think of you I thank God for …”
b)They connect us with others, giving us a sense of who we are and where we belong.
c)They reflect and enact values, reminding us of what is important.
From a faith perspective, rituals and traditions are no less important.In fact, they sit at the very heart of the Christian faith.Sunday worship services, the Lord’s Supper and Baptism are each God-given rituals and traditions that bond us into God’s family and remind us of whose we are and what is truly important.
Within the Christian home, rituals and traditions play a vital role in the practice and sharing of faith with one another.Through faith-grounded family rituals and traditions, God breaks into our daily lives, reminding us of his love and grace, and calling us to realign our lives to his will and purposes.They are a means of weaving faith into our everyday interactions with one another, and giving focus to Christ in the mayhem and frantic busyness that characterizes much of family life today.
Family rituals and traditions can be divided into a number of categories.
Daily and weekly rituals and traditions.
Church-year related rituals and traditions
Community-related rituals and traditions.
Annual family rituals and traditions.
Occasional family rituals and traditions.
Examples of Daily and Weekly Faith Rituals and Traditions are saying grace together before meals; bedtime prayers and blessings; starting/ending each day with Luther’s Morning/Evening Prayer; learning a bible verse each week as a family; and inviting a person from outside the family to share a meal with you each week.
Church-Year Related Rituals and Traditions bring into the home the meaning, practice and symbolism of the various church seasons – Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter and Pentecost.As families walk through the church year at home by means of ritual and tradition, the Christ story is deeply interwoven with their own emerging stories of life together.
Community-Related Faith Rituals and Traditions imbue secular commemorations with Christian meaning and significance.Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Australia Day, Anzac Day and New Year each provide wonderful opportunity for families to gather for related prayer, reflection and thanksgiving.
Most families will already have Annual Family Rituals and Traditions e.g. birthdays, wedding anniversaries, repeated holiday experiences.The challenge is to “tweak” these by adding a faith component.For example, a birthday celebration might include the “gifting” of a bible verse to the family member and a prayer of thanksgiving for them.Baptismal anniversaries are another special annual occurrence that families can mark with ritual and tradition.
Occasional Family Rituals and Traditionsinvolve connecting faith practices with those irregular events that pop up in family life.Such irregular events include graduations from school/university, the awarding of drivers licenses, weddings, house movings and the onset of puberty.Each of these times give opportunity to name God’s presence and activity in our lives and bring his Word to bear on important happenings in our family lives.
Ideas for Families
Make a list of rituals and traditions that are already part of your family life.Think about how you might “tweak” these from a faith perspective.Then make a list of possible new rituals and traditions, and plan to introduce one or more in the coming year.
Ideas for Congregations
The task for congregations is to resource families to enact faith-related rituals and traditions.
Compile and distribute materials that will help families engage in faith rituals and develop faith traditions.
Hold church seasonal workshops for families to help them prepare for the celebration of Pentecost, Advent, Lent etc. in the home.
Think about ways in which Sunday worship services can be better used to assist families in developing faith rituals and traditions.
Rituals and Traditions at Home
Eat meals together without the TV on.
Develop a Saturday night ritual to prepare for Sunday worship.
Mark regular family events with simple faith celebrations e.g. birthdays, baptismal anniversaries, wedding anniversaries.
Observe the different church seasons in your home e.g. Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Pentecost.
Celebrate community events from a faith perspective e.g. Australia Day, ANZAC Day.
In his letter to the Colossians, the apostle Paul writes:“Let the word of Christ completely fill your lives, while you use all your wisdom to teach and instruct each other.With thankful hearts, sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to God” (Col.. 3:16).Devotional practices are repeated activities through which the word of Christ can, as Paul, puts it “completely fill our lives”.They are the spiritual equivalent of daily meals: things we do daily, almost without thinking, that permit God to feed us and sustain us, to keep us spiritually alive and healthy.
When “devotional practices” are mentioned, most Christians think of formal gatherings around the mealtable with bible, songbooks and perhaps a written devotional resource.Such gatherings certainly are one type of devotional practice, but in truth “devotion” is more about a total way of being than specifc acts of doing: more an awareness and way of live than a formula for accomplishing a certain task.To practice “devotion” toward God is to show ardent love or affection toward him as our Divine Lover.When two people are in love, they express this in all sorts of ways: both through regular, routine actions and through spontaneous deeds.The same will be true for Christian families as they grow in hearing of and experiencing God’s love for them, and responding with expressions of loving devotion toward God.
The first step in developing a rich family devotional life is to cultivate ways of listening to God.God’s primary way of speaking to us is through his Word.As we dust off our bibles and putting them to use in our daily lives, we hear him speaking to us and experience him working within and amongst us.Here are some suggestions to consider:
Select a family bible verse for each week (e.g. a single verse out of the Sunday readings).Print it off for each family member to carry with them each day.Read it together each time you gather as a family.Try to memorise it during the week.
Decide on set devotional times: up to fifteen minutes twice a week or more when you can come together as a family to read the bible and pray.
For families with younger children, a bible story at bedtime is often keenly anticipated.
Plan a weekly family for saying sorry to and forgiving one another in Christ’s name.This teaches children about forgiveness and forgiving.
Many Scripture verses can be used responsively e.g. “You are my God, and I will give you thanks”/ “You are my God, and I will exalt you” (Ps. 118:28).Use a different one each week to begin and end family mealtimes.
Luther’s Small Catechism is a great resource for reflecting on God’s will for and work in our lives.Choose a different part to read together each week.
As a reminder of God’s presence with you in your home, develop a “sacred space”: a small table or shelf on which you can place a small cross, bible and other spiritual symbols.Redecorate it for each church season.
Play Christian music in your car and at home.Many Christian songs are based upon specific bible passages.
Decorate the walls of your home with Christian symbols and artwork.These remind us of who and whose we are in Christ.
Make sure that there is always an open bible on display somewhere in your home.This is a powerful reminder that God is with us in our family lives.
The second aspect to a rich family devotional life is responding to the Word of God. Here are some further suggestions:
Upon returning from church each Sunday, discuss how God spoke to you through the service.
Say “grace” together at mealtimes.
Use Luther’s Morning and Evening Prayers as a family.
Set up a “prayer board” in your home with photos of persons to pray for and lists of situations to bring before God.
Begin a family prayer journal:a record of prayer points and answers to prayer.
Devotional Practices at Home
Aim to have a formal devotional time around your family dinner table at least twice a week (opening, reading, discussion, prayer, song). For recommended duration, add the ages of your children and divide by the number of children.
Use the weekly Scripture verse in the Taking Faith Home resource. Read it together each time you gather as a family. Try to memorise it during the week.
Say “grace” before meals.
Plan a weekly family for saying sorry to and forgiving one another in Christ’s name
Say together the Lord’s Prayer each day.
Use Luther’s Morning and Evening Prayers..
Use the prayers provided in the Taking Faith Home resource.
Choose a different part of Luther’s Small Catechism to read at home each week.
Sing faith songs together.
Play Christian music at home or in the car.
Give bathtime and bedtime blessings.
Read bible stories at bedtime.
Set up a family altar (cross, bible, candle, symbols).
Use parts of the liturgy at home.
Decorate your home with Christian art.
Have an open bible on display somewhere in your home as a reminder that God is with you in your family life.
Set up a “prayer board” in your home with photos of persons to pray for and lists of situations to bring before God.
Begin a family prayer journal: a record of prayer points and answers to prayer.
In the concrete formation of faith, service appears to play a particularly important function. As a visible expression of Christian love and belief, service puts "wheels on faith", bringing it into the arena of daily life and connecting Christian proclamation with tangible situations and practices. It shows how faith makes a difference in the world and bears Christ into the hurts, hopes and struggles of day to day existence.
Many Christian adults can recall quite clearly childhood experiences of service which functioned as “real life sermons” on the nature of God’s love and Christian living. Indeed, Search Institute research has found that adults who are higher in faith maturity are more likely to have been involved in faith-related service as children and teenagers, and that such involvement is a better predictor of adult faith maturity than child/youth participation in Sunday school, bible study or even worship services.b What we hear is often lost to memory, but what we do in serving others is often life-shaping and faith-shaping.
While children and young people can participate in and experience service in a whole range of contexts – e.g. as individuals, at school, at youth group or Sunday school, in the congregation – family service has particular power and significance.
By virtue of their unique relationship with children and young people, parents are best placed to convey faith and values. Parents who model helping behaviours and guide their children to help others in Christ’s name preach a powerful “living sermon”.By serving with parents and those of other generations, children and youth learn service as a lifelong virtue and discipline.
Serving together helps families discover own particular sense of Christian mission and vocation. Through service, families develop from faith “consumers” to faith “practitioners”.
As families begin to embody faith through serving others, the members of the family grow in their relationships with one another, in their relationships with Christ and in their passion for service and justice in the world.
Families that serve together tend to become stronger by developing an outward focus and learning together the value and importance of selfless giving.
Families that devote time to serving together commonly experience this as significant “quality time”. Working together toward a common goal is a powerful bonding tool for many families.
The opportunities for family service are endless. A family could:
Help serve food at a shelter.
Make a food, clothing, or toy hamper for a family in need.
Think of a group that provides a service to the community (e.g. fire fighters) and surprise them with a basket of goodies to say thanks for the work they do in making the community safe.
Volunteer at or contribute prepared meals to a food bank.
Make welcome cards to be presented to each person baptized in their congregation.
Adopt and clean up a park or a busy roadside.
Offer to help an elderly person with their garden on a regular basis.
Visit a seniors home and sing songs to the residents.
Whatever the nature of their service in Christ’s name, families are bound to discover the great truth of Christ’s statement: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’ (Acts 20:35)
“Adopt” an elderly member of the congregation to visit and to have to your home.
Together as a family, buy groceries for a food pantry supporting the needy.
Plan “hospitality nights” when you can have another family around for dinner.
Go on a walk to collect stray rubbish in your neighbourhood.
Sponsor a child through World Vision or a similar organization.
Make get-well cards to send to sick people in the congregation or community.
Volunteer to help take care of an elderly person’s garden.