Introducing the "Five Themes" for Child, Youth and Family Ministry.
The "Five Themes" emerge from the thought and work of Dr. David Anderson of the Minnesota-based Vibrant Faith Ministries Dr. Anderson and Paul Hill have written more about the Five Themes in their excellent book Frogs Without Legs Can't Hear: Nurturing Disciples in Home and Congregation (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress 2003).
Faith is formed by the power of the Holy Spirit through personal, trusted relationships.
In addressing different groups about child, youth and family ministry, I have often asked the question: “What or whom has been most influential in your faith journey?”. While I have received many different responses, there has been one overriding commonality: the power and significance of relationships for forming and nurturing faith. Parents, grandparents, spouses, caring pastors, uncles, aunts and non-family faith mentors have been mentioned again and again as important persons whose faith “rubbed off” onto others in the daily interactions of life together.
Emphasising the place of relationships in faith formation is in no way detracts from the formal means of grace – Word and Sacrament. As the Augsburg Confession states, it was in order that we might obtain faith in Christ that ‘God instituted the office of preaching, giving the gospel and the sacraments’. Through preaching and teaching of God’s Word, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, God gifts and feeds faith. But this faith is not disembodied any more than Christ himself! It lives in the hearts of hearers, who bear the Word made flesh into the lives of others through relationship, serving as the “sacramental people” in their various God-given vocations. Faith becomes “enfleshed” in concrete interactions and relationships, through which the Word continues to resound and in which the Spirit of God is dynamic and active. Relationships are the school of the Holy Spirit through which faith is experienced, proved and felt.
In the concrete practice of faith formation then, it is important for parents and others who minister to children and youth to consider the relational dimension of Christian nurture. In both home and church, what is conveyed through relational interaction powerfully communicates, consolidates and reinforces Christian teaching. Love and care shown to a child or young person not only points to the nature of God’s love, but is also an expression of God’s love through the mask of parent, relative, teacher, mentor or pastor. What we say to one anothercannot be disconnected from what we do with and for one another. To paraphrase Paul, “if I have the gift of Sunday school teaching or bible story reading but have not love, I am nothing.”
The Influence of Parents
The most influential relationships in the lives of children and youth are those with their parents. This remains true even during adolescence, when many teenagers consciously distance themselves from mother and father. The recently completed American National Study of Youth and Religion (University of North Carolina 2001-2005) concluded that:
‘parents are normally very important in shaping the religious and spiritual lives of their teenage children, even though they may not realize it. It seems that many parents of teens rely primarily on immediate evidence of the overt attitudes, statements and sometimes behaviors that their teenager children dole out tothem on a daily basis in order to estimate their current level of parental influence. Many of the attitudes and statements that teenagers communicate to their parents do not exactly express great admiration and gratitude for and readiness to listen to, emulate or freely obey their parents. Many parents therefore appear to come to the conclusion that they have lost their influence in shaping the lives of their teenage children, that they no longer make any significant difference. But for most, this conclusion is mistaken. Teenager’s attitudes, verbal utterances, and immediate behaviors are often not the best evidence with which to estimate parental influence in their lives. For better or worse, most parents in fact still do profoundly influence their adolescents – often more than do their peers – their children’s apparent resistance and lack of appreciation notwithstanding. This influence often also includes parental influence in adolescent’s religious and spiritual lives. Simply by living and interacting with their children, most parents establish expectations, define normalcy, model life practices, set boundaries, and make demands – all of which cannot help but influence teenagers, for good or ill. Most teenagers and their parents may not realize it, but a lot of research in sociology of religion suggests that the most important social influence in shaping young people’s religious lives is the religious life modeled and taught to them by their parents’.
Similar results emerge from the recently published Australian National Church Life Survey report “Social Influences Upon Faith Development”. 54% of survey respondents indicated that their mother had a large, positive influence on their faith development, and 43% their father. Interestingly, the major impact of parents seem to be through their faith in God (68% of respondents), the way they lived out their faith (53%), they way they cared for people in general (30%) and the way they cared for their offspring (30%). Only 19% of respondents identified as significant their parents ability to explain the faith. In other words, how the faith was lived in the community of the family had more traction than cognitive transmission from parent to child. The “culture” of family life significantly affects the receptivity of formal faith content and its appropriation into the lives of children and young people.
While parents are key influencers upon the faith and values of their children and young people, non-parent adults also have a very important role to play. These can include other relatives, teachers or older Christians from their church who know and value them. Roland Martinson’s faith factors research indicates that for most children and youth to grow into adult faith maturity they need at least three non-parent adult mentors of vital faith. . Similarly, Mark DeVries (author of Family-Based Youth Ministry) observes that young people who grow into faith-full adults either (1) come from families where Christian growth was modeled in at least one parent; or (2) have such significant connections within the church that it becomes an extended family for them. Where both are in place the combination is typically powerful. DeVries writes that ‘every Christian teenager needs an extended family of Christian adults – adults who can be part of the “cloud of witnesses” that cheers him or her on. … Our goal is to expose young people not just to Christian teachings but also to real live adult Christians who call them by name and sit in the arena of faith to cheer them on. To provide our young people with an extended Christian family gives our teens a resource pool of adults who can help them negotiate their own ideas and their own faith’.
Practical Ideas for Congregations:
Look for ways to enhance relationships between parents and their children and teenagers. Encourage parents with the good news that “how they are” with their children is significant, even when appearances suggest otherwise.
Nurture parent-child relationships through current programs such as Sunday School or Confirmation. Look to include an interactive parent-child component.
Promote the use of family camps or specific parent-child events and retreats.
Introduce cross-generational mentoring programs for children and youth.
Make church events intentionally cross-generational whenever possible.
Have adults from all generations (not just young adults) present and involved in youth and children’s programming.
Include a relational dimension in all activities with children and youth.
What is the relationship between your congregation and its households? Does your congregation have a lighthouse or a power station mentality? Let me explain. The role of a lighthouse is to shine as a bright beacon, capturing the attention of those around it. A congregation that understands itself as a lighthouse seeks to mobilize the time and resources of its members to generate maximum brightness. The programs and activities of the congregation take precedence over the home lives of its members. The ministry of God’s people is equated with participation in congregational committees, programs or activities.
The role of a power station, on the other hand, is not to draw in energy for its own illumination, but to give out energy. A congregation with a power station mentality values the place and role of homes and families in nurture, witness and service. Church programs and activities have a different focus: to support and equip people to love and serve God and one another in home, place of work and community. Instead of asking what people can offer in service to its programs, a power station congregation takes more seriously the service Christians are already performing in God’s name through their vocations as parents, children, grandparents, godparents, mentors, friends, workers, students and so on. The question asked is not “How can we use you here?” but “How is God already using you, and how can we support you in that?”. (Sometimes that means giving people the blessed freedom and permission to do less for the institutional church, rather than asking more of them.)
Towards a Fresh Perspective
At the heart of a power station mentality is an appreciation of the second of Vibrant Faith Ministries’ Five Themes for Nurturing Faith: The church is a living partnership between the ministry of the home and the ministry of the congregation. Exploring this partnership involves looking at the traditional functions of the congregation from a fresh perspective. For instance, a fresh goal of congregational worship becomes encouraging the practice of faith in the home and resourcing households for daily home worship. A fresh goal of congregational fellowship becomes building cross-generational relationships to supplement parental efforts to pass on faith to youth and children. A fresh goal of congregational nurture becomes to nurture and support parents as the primary faith influencers in the lives of their children. A fresh goal of congregation service becomes helping households find ways to serve together as communities of faith, and developing cross-generational relationships through service initiatives. A fresh goal of congregational pastoral care becomes enriching and strengthening family relationships through pro-active ministry. A fresh goal of congregational witness becomes helping households clarify their own sense of calling and mission, and to function as mission bases through hospitality, service and testimony.
In essence, this theme calls for a new appreciation of the ministry of the home and the ministry of the congregation as mutually connected and interdependent. On the one hand, the faith life of the home both deeply influences congregational vitality and is a vital component of the collective congregational ministry. On the other hand, the Christian household needs the nurturing ministry of the wider congregation in order to live and grow faithfully. This is, of course, nothing other than the body of Christ in action, with Christ the head of both home and congregation. As home and congregation partner together, the whole body is grown and is built up, as each part does its work, to the glory of God! (Ephesians 4:15).
Closely related to the second of the Five Themes is the third: Where Christ is present in faith, the home is church too. This theme gives recognition to the home as an important arena for Christian formation, discipleship and practice, and expresses what has long been part of the church’s self-understanding. The New Testament epistles contain a great deal of material relating to the practice of faith in the context of the household. Fourth century churchman Augustine of Hippo called the family a “domestica ecclesia” – a domestic church - and John Chyrostom called it the "little church". Martin Luther, furthermore, gave equal importance to the office of the public ministry in the congregation and the office of parents as teachers and proclaimers of the faith in the home. Christian parents, wrote Luther, are ‘apostles, bishops and priests for their children, for it is they who make them acquainted with the gospel’. Accordingly, he developed the Small Catechism for worship and teaching in the home, and the Large Catechism as a resource to help pastors support parents in this.
Following Jesus … Back to Home
As the “domestic church”, the family is hugely significant for the formation of disciples of Christ and the practice of Christian discipleship. In fact, the home is, I believe, God’s ultimate school of discipleship! Why? Because it is in our families that we face perhaps both the greatest challenges to living out our faith, and the greatest opportunities to do so.
Firstly, God is at work in the “little church” of the family – in that community of people who know more of our weaknesses and frailties than anybody else – to mould us as his people. For most people, as Jim Nestingen says, home is the ‘hardest place to go. In the household, sinners rub up against one another continuously, getting in the way of each other’s plans and projects, deflating illusions, grounding flights of fancy in the cold realities of expectation. It is no wonder that most murders occur at home.’ But it is in this context – precisely because it is so difficult and testing – that faith is most keenly shaped and proved. In the practice of Christian home life, we are brought low, that God might renew us and lift us up. We learn of our need for God, and, in the truest of Christian homes, of the grace of God through the patience and forgiveness of others.
Secondly, God gives to us the most immediate opportunities for Christian love and service in and through our very own homes! In the household we have innumerable opportunities to serve, to forgive, to listen, to care, to encourage. Moreover, each household is uniquely positioned in God’s world to serve and give witness on his behalf to others: no other household has the same set of neighbours, friends and acquaintances as yours! Each “little church” is called to explore its own unique calling within the “big church” of God.
In working with families, is your congregation more like a “lighthouse” or a “power station”?
In what ways could your congregation partner better with the home to nurture children and youth in faith?
How could your congregation help its families understand and explore their identity as “domestic church”?
How have you experienced God working in the “little church” of your home, shaping you as a small community of faith?
What is your family’s unique mission as a “little church” in the context in which God has placed you?
As a parent, one of my most amazing experiences has been to see my children learn to talk. Like most parents, my wife and I were not particularly intentional about teaching the English language to our two girls. We simply communicated with them with words we knew from the moment each of them was born. Then one day, we heard them begin to speak English for themselves; first using single words, then sentences, then paragraphs! Through repeated listening they have gained an innate understanding of how the language “works”, even though they still have no formal concept of grammatical rules.
Vibrant Faith Ministries'fourth theme for nurturing faith in home and congregation is the old adage, faith is caught more than taught. In other words, growing into our baptismal identity is much like learning our native language; we pick it up as we are immersed in it.
Now, correctly speaking, coming to faith is not a matter of “catching” or “learning” anything. It is being caught in the arms of our loving God. Faith is a miracle, a disposition toward God that we are unable to bring into being through our decision making or efforts. But it is also correct to say that coming to faith is not an end in itself: faith is for living. As people of faith, we are called to live out the new relationship we have with God through Christ and to grow up in it. For this, both the content of faith and the practice of faith are important.
We do need to know, at the very least, the gospel and the foundational teachings of Christ and the church. Sunday school classes, confirmation lessons, bible studies and sermons help us acquire this knowledge. However, we also need to learn through experience how this faith content applies into our daily lives, and how God calls us to practice our faith in him each and every moment. For this, immersion into the life of a cross-generational community of faith is vital. The practices of faith – worship, prayer, fellowship, service, stewardship, fidelity and vocation – cannot be grasped in a classroom. They are caught through observing and practicing alongside others who are farther along in the journey of faith. George Koehler, author of Learning Christ, writes “a nurturing community is essential. This nurture does not a happen through instruction, or urging one another to try harder, or passing out awards for achievement. It happens largely through life together – through eating, praying, crying, singing, praising, running, touching, holding, challenging and serving with one another, through giving and receive love.” Content without practice has no grounding in reality. Practice without content, on the other hand, becomes misdirected and shallow. In the life of faith, practice and content belong together.
Homes of Catching” Faith
For most Christian children and young people, the home is the primary place of faith nurture. God’s design is that each home be a place of catching faith. The adjective “catching” means infectious, likely to be imitated, attractive or captivating. In homes of catching faith, Jesus is not merely known about but worshipped, thanked, served and prayed to in the course of daily life. Catching faith is faith that is firmly intertwined with the daily routines and habits of family members in their life together. How family members are with one another as people of faith, day in and day out, makes a deep and lasting impression on each other’s lives.
The Four Keys - Caring Conversation, Rituals and Traditions, Devotional Practices and Service - together offer an excellent template for a home of catching faith. As I conduct baptismal preparation with parents, I urge them to consider their family lives in the light of the Four Keys, to think about ways in which each of the Keys can be built into their homes. In this way the formal content of faith can be channeled into concrete faith expressions, leading both children and parents into a deeper understanding and appreciation of God’s love and grace.
Congregations of “Catching” Faith
Alongside and in support of homes, congregations are called to give children and young people experiences of “catching” faith in the larger body of Christ. No family, in and of itself, has sufficient perspective, resources or capabilities to nurture children into life long discipleship. For children and young people to grow into Christian maturity, they need to learn what it is to practice their faith within their bigger and most important family, the family of the baptized. Congregations become places of “catching”faith as they:
integrate children and young people into all aspects of their life together, so that the faith of older generations can “rub off” onto younger persons.
provide children and youth with “clouds of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1), real life models of faith who can cheer them on, pray for them, and care for them as they grow into their baptismal identity.
support families to develop “catchy” patterns of faith by offering helpful resources and ongoing encouragement.
Taking seriously the importance of “catching” faith may also require that we transform traditional instruments for teaching the faith (e.g. Sunday school, confirmation) into hands-on laboratories where children and young people can “put on” Christ through practicing what they believe. I wonder, for instance, how the Lutheran church’s approach to confirmation ministry might alter if we saw the following as some of our key desired outcomes:
Each youth knowing and being known by six non-parent adults at a “faith talk” level.
Each youth having an identified, ongoing mentoring relationship with a Christian of an older generation.
Each youth having a concrete and defined personal mission in the congregation.
Each youth having a better relationship with their parents.
The families of youth better understanding themselves and units of Christian discipleship and better equipped to practice the faith together.
Yesterday I spent some time in my garden.As I weeded, I came across a range of life forms that share my home environment with me.There were worms that feed off my lawn clippings and rotting leaves, and in turn enrich the soil in which my plants grow.There were mosquitoes that not only bite me but are also a food source for the local birds.There were birds that keep the local insect population under control, while making music for my ears.My garden is a small ecosystem.Take away any one part of it and the growth and overall health of what remains will be affected.
Congregations as Faith Ecosystems
In Ephesians 4:13, Paul writes of God’s goal for his people: ‘that we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ’.Maturity in faith is God’s desire for every Christian.But this maturity is not something that can be acquired through individual or private effort.It is a work of Christ, through his body the church:‘From him (Christ) the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work’ (Ephesians 4:16).Paul here describes a rich ecosystem of faith formation.God has designed things in such a way that people grow in faith through being part of a dynamic Christian community where people join with and support one another, and as each part of that Christian community ‘does its work’.
Forming faith in children and youth involves tending and developing the whole congregation as an interconnected, interdependent system of relationships, interactions and activities.No group or area of congregational life is unimportant to the whole-congregational endeavour of child, youth and family ministry.For instance, ministry to seniors involves ministry to those persons who serve as faith elders for children and youth.The elderly are vital to our children and youth as storytellers of God’s faithful work across time, and as living witnesses to the lifelong nature of our faith calling.Where seniors ministry serves to grow our seniors as faith elders, it makes an important contribution to growing children and youth in faith, and supporting their families as units of faith formation.
Growing Christian Children and Youth Requires Growing Christian Adults
An understanding of faith formation as a whole-congregational endeavour sits behind the fifth of Vibrant Faith Ministries' “Five Themes for Nurturing Faith in Home and Congregation”.The premise is simple: to nurture child and youth toward adult faith maturity, children and youth need mature Christian adults to observe, interact with and learn from, whether in their homes, congregation or wider community.‘The myth in the church is that youth ministry is about youth’, says Paul Hill, Executive Director of Vibrant Faith Ministries.‘Primarily, youth ministry is about adults and adult spirituality.’ (What Hill says of youth ministry, can also be said of children’s ministry.)Child and youth ministry begins with adult spiritual formation. The author of Proverbs understood this.The book was written to give ‘knowledge and discretion to the young’ (Proverbs 1:4).How? – by instructing the adults!.As the next verse says ‘let the wise add to their learning, and let the discerning set guidance.’
Unfortunately, many of the faith practices that we have strived to build into the lives of children and youth – e.g. prayer, a regular devotional life, worship attendance, bible study and service - have not been on display in the lives of many key adults in their homes and congregations.It is difficult, for instance, to encourage young people toward service activity or bible study when they see little evidence of these things amongst adult Christians.The basic message then communicated is “Do as I say, not as I do”.Christian education and service come to be seen as belonging to the teenage stage of life, things to be left behind as one enters the adult world.
The Importance of Adult Faith Development
Adult faith development is a particularly vital part of a congregation’s faith formation ecosystem.While much effort is poured into child and youth ministry in many congregations, adult faith formation is often assumed.But is that assumption a reasonable one?If American research is anything to go by, perhaps not!The Effective Christian Education Study (1990) reported that only a minority of Christian adults belonging to mainline denominations showed an ‘integrated, life-encompassing faith’.The results relating to men were most disturbing of all.The Study indicated that the faith maturity of half of all Christian men aged in their forties is not that different from that of adolescent youth!
Where one part of the body of Christ fails to learn or grow, the whole of the body suffers.A congregation which takes seriously ministry to children and young people will also take very seriously the ongoing faith development of persons throughout the adult life cycle, both for their own sake and for the sake of others. In growing Christian young adults, we prepare them for Christian parenthood and as “first third of life” mentors for our Christian youth and children.In growing Christian parents we help them to know and live more deeply the faith they pass onto their children.In growing older Christians we build them up as faith witnesses to their adult children and their grandchildren, and for a ministry of caring presence with other Christian youth and children.
To rephrase an old African proverb, “it takes a congregation to raise a child in Christ” – that is, the whole of the congregation, and all of its component parts.Tending the faith lives of adults is crucial for tending the faith lives of children and youth.Without the abiding influence of mature Christian adults of all generations, children and youth will not have the moorings of faith, but remain ‘infants, tossed back and forth by the waves.’ (Ephesians 4:14).