What I Saw and Learnt on “Serving Sunday”

Serving_Sunday

Yesterday my congregation did something new. Perhaps for the first time in the 138 year history of the church we chose to cancel morning Worship Services for reasons other than the weather or for seasonal considerations. Instead of coming along for gathered worship at the usual times we invited attenders to give some time in the morning and afternoon to serve the wider community with one another.  There were a variety of serving options available … yard work, visiting an aged care home, picking up litter, writing encouragement letters to overseas missionaries, hospital visiting and hosting a barbeque for isolated and needy persons from our local area.  Then we all came together in the late afternoon for a time of worship, where stories were shared and we experienced again the gracious service of God through Word and Sacrament.

So what did I see and what did I learn?

  • I saw people of different generations joining together in giving to others.  Seniors came alongside children and youth to give beyond themselves.  Connections were built, relationships were deepened, and common memories were created.
  • I saw whole families serving together.  I saw fathers and mothers leading by example and modelling to their children what it means to give without condition and without expectation of reward.
  • I saw people of our congregation enjoying themselves with one another and with those they served.
  • I saw people recognising that sometimes little things can make a very big difference in the lives of others.
  • I learnt that not everybody will choose to be involved, and that is OK.  Our worship service attendance was about half of that on a “normal” Sunday but what we might have “lost” in attendance we more than gained in spiritual blessings for those who were involved.  For one Sunday out of 52, it was more than worth it!

As I reflected on the day I wondered if we had been brought closer to what church should really be … people coming together in the name of Jesus to connect with each other and the wider community in real ways, and to reflect on the intersections between their life experiences and vocations and the call and workings of God through us and around us.  I wondered what might happen if “Serving Sunday” became more than an once-a-year happening.  I wondered if less focus needs to be given to the pastor’s message and more to the message that our people are proclaiming to one another and the wider community through works of collective discipleship.  Yes, I wonder …

Will There Be Faith? … Some Thoughts on Deuteronomy 6

This week I began reading Thomas Groome’s book, Will There Be Faith?  Early in the book, he says that up until about 200 years ago the Western world had “sociocultural conditions that favoured religious belief, even required it. … Faith in God and belief in a spiritual realm pervaded daily life.” But now, he argues, we live in very secular age in which sociocultural conditions actively discourage faith. Postmodern society promotes a view of life and a way of life that has no place and no room for God. It encourages self-sufficiency and self-expression as the purpose and goal of human life. So while we may live in the very same physical locations as did our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, we are really living in an altogether new land.

As I reflected on Groome’s words, my thoughts went back to Deuteronomy 6. After more than 40 years of wilderness wanderings the people of Israel were finally to enter the Promised Land. This was a big moment for them. So much was about to change. They would be no longer pilgrims but settlers. In the wilderness they were a very separate nation, but now they would be among peoples of different religions and life practices. There would be temptations aplenty to abandon the God of Abraham. And God would not be as visibly present with them as he was in the wilderness, leading them by a cloud and a pillar of fire. A big question that loomed before them was, “How would their faith in God be passed on in the new land?  How would it survive?”

At that critical point, God gave the Israelites deep, precious and timeless words of instruction and guidance. Deuteronomy 6 is God’s response to the question of how faith will survive in the “new land.” The passage gives crucial principles and guidance for passing on the faith from generation to generation, from parents to children, and grandparents to grandchildren. It’s a section of Scripture that the church and its households need to go back to again and again, generation after generation, and especially in sociocultural contexts the likes of which we are in today.

A first big piece of wisdom we receive from Deuteronomy 6 is that passing on the faith is a matter of the heartVerses 4-6 say this:  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 on your hearts.” For faith to be passed on from adults to youth and to children, it first of all needs to be vibrant and real in the lives of the adults. The truth is that when it comes to passing on faith and values to others, we tend to reproduce who and what we are.  In other words, churches can put together all sorts of programs and activities for children and young people, but if the adults in their churches and in their homes aren’t following Christ from the heart, then those programs and activities probably won’t have a lasting impact.

It has been said that “faith is more caught than taught”. For it to be caught by children and young people, adults who are infected with the love of Jesus are first needed. The most important thing that a parent or a grandparent can do to make a spiritual impact on their families is to focus on growing in their own faith: on being people of the Word and prayer, on worshipping regularly, on living out their faith in giving to and serving others, on forgiving others and confessing their own sins before God and others. And as much as age-specific ministry to children and youth is important and valuable, a focus on adult spirituality by pastors and congregational leaders is equally vital for faith transmission. Forming the kids in faith requires that we form the adults in faith, and cultivate contexts and create experiences where the adults and the kids can share and “do” faith together.

A second piece of wisdom from Deuteronomy 6 is that passing on the faith involves making an impression by practicing the faith over timeVerse 7 says,  Impress [God’s teachings] on your children.” The Hebrew word translated here as “impress” implies repeated action. The picture that comes to mind for me is of water dripping on a large stone, year after year, decade after decade. Eventually the water will wear away the stone, leaving an impression. If the same amount of water flowed over the stone in a day, there wouldn’t be the same result. Faith is passed on in our homes and in our communities of faith as Christians practice the way of Jesus together from day to day and from year to year … as they tell and listen to the God story over and over again … as they interweave that faith with their lives and one another’s lives.

Deuteronomy 6 points to specific ways of making a faith impression, particularly in our home or family settings.  It says, “Talk about [God’s teachings] 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.”  (Deuteronomy 6:7b-9). There are three significant things we should note here.

  1. We make a faith impression by talking about our faith as part of our daily lives – at the dinner table, while cooking or doing the dishes or gardening or cleaning, while travelling in the car, while on outings and holidays. If faith is a “whole of life” thing, then “God-talk” can and will happen anywhere and anytime.
  2. We make a faith impression by establishing regular patterns and habits of faith practice. The words “when you lie down and when you get up” suggests setting aside time in the morning and time in the evening to focus on God in the home. Other regular patterns or habits might include saying “grace” at every meal, coming to worship every week, setting aside a particular night every week for a family faith time. The point is that when we shape our lives around regular patterns and habits of faith practice, those patterns and habits begin to shape us. We are inviting and allowing the Holy Spirit to act and speak into our home lives on a regular basis.
  3. We make a faith impression by establishing faith-based rituals and traditions in our homes. Rituals and traditions help us to act out or express our faith in visible ways.  Church seasons and festivals like Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter and Pentecost are great opportunities to bring Christian rituals and traditions into our homes. The more we can express our faith with one another by using the five senses – touch, taste, sight, sound and smell – the more of an impression it makes.

A third piece of wisdom from Deuteronomy 6 is that passing on the faith means telling OUR stories of rescueVerses 20-21 say, In the future, when your son asks you, “What is the meaning of the stipulations, decrees and laws the Lord our God has commanded you?” tell him: “We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.” When God spoke these words, none of the adults who had crossed the Red Sea over forty years earlier was still alive, except Caleb and Joshua. And yet God told them to say, “the Lord brought US out of Egypt.”  God was instructing the Israelites throughout the ages to tell their sons and daughters not about how someone else had been rescued but how they had been rescued. He wanted them to tell the divine rescue story as their very own story.

As people who have been saved through the cross of Jesus Christ, Christians of all ages and generations have their own “rescue story” to tell. We are invited and call to give a personal account of our faith to the children and young people in our midst. Think on it:  how and when and where has the grace of God broken through into your life? How has the cross of Jesus been hoisted up over and into your life? What does your great rescue in Jesus mean to you, personally? If you have children and young people in your life – be they children or grandchildren or nephews or nieces or family friends – resolve to share your story with them. Write or speak of what Jesus has done for you and what difference it has made for you. You might be amazed at the impact your own personal story has on them.

Deuteronomy 6 can easily be read as a matter of law – as another list of “have to’s”.  I don’t believe that is how God intends for us to receive or understand these words. They are not a demand or a burden but a gracious invitation for us to be part of God’s life changing work in the lives of others – and especially in the lives of our children and young people. Passing on the faith is something we do not because we have to, but because we know what a great thing is to be rescued by Jesus and want the same for others.  It is not a matter of “got to” but “get to”. And as we strive to make a Godly impression for Jesus’ sake, we do well to remember that the same God who parted the Red Sea is right there with us. He can and does do wonderful things as we make ourselves available for his good purposes!  By his power and grace at work in us and through us there will be faith in the new land!

So That the Children Ask …

This coming Sunday I am preaching on Exodus 12, the account of the first Passover and the deliverance of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt.  It is one of the most important stories in the Old Testament, one which shaped and defined the Old Testament people of God. Again and again in the Old Testament we see references back to this story.  It showed the people of Israel who they were and whose they were.  God had chosen the Hebrews, the descendants of Abraham, to be God’s own.  God had his eye on them and would rescue them.  As they worshiped and obeyed, God would fight for them and act for their good.  That was something they could hang onto when threats and troubles came.

As I looked at Exodus 12 it struck me that God went to great lengths to make the rescue of the Israelites very much a “community thing”.  God’s instructions for the first Passover meal were for the whole community of Israel, Exodus 12:3 says.  They all did the same thing at the same time.   They prepared for the meal together and then ate the same foods in their households.  Where necessary, there was sharing between households.  And God told the Israelites to not just eat this meal together once, but to eat it again at a set time every year to remember and commemorate what God had done.  God told them, “This is a day to remember.  Each year, from generation to generation, you must celebrate it as a special festival to the Lord.  This is a law for all time.” (Exodus 12:14)  So each year the Old Testament people of Israel would come together in Jerusalem for the week-long “Feast of Unleavened Bread”.  They would feast and remember.  They would reconnect with God and each other.  They would gather as households to eat and drink, to tell stories and practice rituals, to worship and to pray.  The first Passover meal was about much more than saving the firstborn sons of the Hebrews from the angel of death – it was something God gave and God used to form and to shape the people of covenant promise over and over again, from generation to generation.

At the very centre of Exodus chapter 12, this very important chapter, God speaks of children:  When your children ask you, ‘Why are we doing these things?’ you will say, ‘This is the Passover sacrifice to honor the Lord. When we were in Egypt, the Lord passed over the houses of Israel. The Lord killed the Egyptians, but he saved our homes.’” (Exodus 12:26-27)  The symbols and smells and rituals of Passover were intended to make children curious, to spark their interest and their imagination.   The Passover was a means of telling a shared story and prompting the questions of the children.  It was designed by God to give adults an opportunity to tell their stories of faith, so that the faith would be passed on.

We live in a society which has become very much about the individual.   It’s more about “me, I and mine” than “we, us and ours”.  There’s some good in that, but I wonder if it has gone way too far.  And when “me, I and mine” thinking begins to dominate how we think and act as Christians, I wonder if we have missed the point.  While we are saved through the blood of Jesus as individuals we are never saved alone.  Like the Hebrews of long ago, we are rescued to be a people who journey together and feast together and tell stories together and worship together.  We are called to do life together in ways that matter – to share in a common faith life that is full of sights, sounds, smells, rituals and celebrations that cause the children to ask “What is going on here?  What is this all about?”  And if the children aren’t interested, perhaps that is much more a reflection on the quality and nature of our life together in Christian community than it is on the children.

Sharing the great story of our rescue in Jesus Christ is not the responsibility of Pastors or children’s ministry leaders.  God’s great rescue story is our story and it’s our story to tell – congregation and households together as one community in the Gospel.  That story will be told to greatest effect not through children’s talks or classroom lessons.  It will be told above all through the many ways faith comes to life in home and congregation through the ways we interact and serve and celebrate and practice that story as our own community story.

In that way Exodus 12 is more than just a record of something that happened long ago to someone else.  It’s a call for us to think deeply for what it means to be a community.  It’s a call for us to reflect on how our life together speaks to and engages the children who are with us and around us.  It’s a call for us to show and tell the children what our rescue through Jesus means to us, so that they too are caught up in the wonder and drama of that great story.

Dad Matters! … The Spiritual Influence of Fathers

This Sunday will be observed by many in North America as “Father’s Day” (in my home country we wait until September). My experience is that the observance of Father’s Day in churches is more subdued than that of Mother’s Day. One obvious reason is that, on any given Sunday, there are typically fewer fathers than mothers in our churches. The “spiritually absent” father is increasingly commonplace, and the impact on church life is apparent. The impact on home faith life and faith transmission is even more concerning. In many households, fathers are passive or inactive in expressing their faith to and with their children. Studies and surveys reveal that in families where both parents are people of faith, it is mothers who tend to be most active in processes of child faith formation.

Based on research, it is axiomatic to say that in most families the mother is the primary figure in children’s religiosity. … Why do mothers have such an influential role, and what mechanisms are at work? Women are more religious than men and attend worship services more often, and adults recall seeing their mothers pray more often than their fathers did. In general, mothers speak with their children more than fathers do and in conversations about religion mothers are much more involved than fathers are. In one study testing a diary method, mothers participated in all diary conversations in almost 90% of families, whereas fathers did not appear in any diary entries in almost half of the families. In a [USA] national study, 3000 mainline Protestant youth reported they had regular dialogue about faith issues with their mothers almost 2.5 times more often than with their fathers. (From Boyzatis, Dollahite & Marks “The Family as a Context for Religious and Spiritual Development in Children and Youth” – published in The Handbook of Spiritual Development in Childhood and Adolescence).

The reduced involvement of fathers in the practice of faith in the home not only places a greater burden upon mothers to embody and demonstrate the Christian faith, it also robs families of the unique contributions that fathers seem to make. Put simply, various research studies suggest that when it comes to faith transmission, fathers and mothers are not altogether interchangeable. A mother brings something “to the mix” that a father does not and vice-versa. A first study of interest, carried out in Switzerland in 1994, examined the respective impact of fathers and mothers on post-childhood church attendance. This research was reported in an article by Werner Haug and Phillipe Warner in the book The Demographic Characteristics of National Minorities in Certain European State (published by the Council of Europe Directorate General III, Social Cohesion, Strasbourg, January 2000). Robbie Low reports the findings as follows:

If both father and mother attend regularly, 33 percent of their children will end up as regular churchgoers, and 41 percent will end up attending irregularly. Only a quarter of their children will end up not practicing at all. If the father is irregular and mother regular, only 3 percent of the children will subsequently become regulars themselves, while a further 59 percent will become irregulars. Thirty-eight percent will be lost. If the father is non-practicing and mother regular, only 2 percent of children will become regular worshipers, and 37 percent will attend irregularly. Over 60 percent of their children will be lost completely to the church.  Let us look at the figures the other way round. What happens if the father is regular but the mother irregular or non-practicing? Extraordinarily, the percentage of children becoming regular goes up from 33 percent to 38 percent with the irregular mother and to 44 percent with the non-practicing, as if loyalty to father’s commitment grows in proportion to mother’s laxity, indifference, or hostility. Even when the father is an irregular attender there are some extraordinary effects. An irregular father and a non-practicing mother will yield 25 percent of their children as regular attenders in their future life and a further 23 percent as irregulars. This is twelve times the yield where the roles are reversed.  Where neither parent practices, to nobody’s very great surprise, only 4 percent of children will become regular attenders and 15 percent irregulars. Eighty percent will be lost to the faith. Before mothers despair, there is some consolation for faithful moms. Where the mother is less regular than the father but attends occasionally, her presence ensures that only a quarter of her children will never attend at all. While Mother’s regularity, on its own, has scarcely any long-term effect on children’s regularity (except in some circumstances outlined above, a marginally negative one), it does have a positive effect on preventing children from drifting away entirely. Faithful mothers produce irregular attenders rather than regular. Their absence transfers the irregulars into the non-attending sector. But even the beneficial influence really works only in complimentarity to the practice of the father.

In interpreting these results, Low (a former Anglican Vicar and now a Catholic Priest in the UK) continues:

A mother’s role will always remain primary in terms of intimacy, care, and nurture. (The toughest man may well sport a tattoo dedicated to the love of his mother, without the slightest embarrassment or sentimentality). No father can replace that relationship. But it is equally true that when a child begins to move into that period of differentiation from home and engagement with the world “out there,” he (and she) looks increasingly to the father for his role model. Where the father is indifferent, inadequate, or just plain absent, that task of differentiation and engagement is much harder. When children see that church is a “women and children” thing, they will respond accordingly—by not going to church, or going much less. Curiously, both adult women as well as men will conclude subconsciously that Dad’s absence indicates that going to church is not really a “grown-up” activity. In terms of commitment, a mother’s role may be to encourage and confirm, but it is not primary to her adult offspring’s decision. Mothers’ choices have dramatically less effect upon children than their fathers’, and without him she has little effect on the primary lifestyle choices her offspring make in their religious observances. Her major influence is not on regular attendance at all but on keeping her irregular children from lapsing altogether. This is, needless to say, a vital work but, even then, without the input of the father (regular or irregular) the proportion of the regulars to lapsed goes from 60/40 to 40/60.

A second study that speaks to the role of fathers in the faith life and spiritual development of children was conducted by Jeremy Uecker and Christopher Ellison (unpublished) and reported in the Institute for American Values report, Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith? (2013). Uecker and Ellison suggest that fathers may matter more than mothers for religious development from adolescence to young adulthood:  ‘As young adults develop a religious identity apart from their parents, or as their religious identity changes, their father’s religious characteristics become more important than their mother’s – with whom their childhood religious identity most closely aligns.’

A third study of interest was conducted by Desrosiers, Kelly and Miller in 2011 and is cited in the Handbook of Child Psychology and Developmental Science, Socioemotional Processes, Volume 3 (7th edition, 2015). The study found that ‘mothers and fathers have distinct roles in promoting their adolescent’s spirituality. … Adolescents’ spirituality was predicted by mothers’ spiritual support and dialogue (but not general care and concern), whereas adolescents’ spirituality was predicted by fathers’ general care and concern (but not spiritual support and dialogue).  … Having an emotionally close relationship with fathers may provide a broad, secure foundation that is more important that specific interactions around religious topics’. A fourth and more recent study by Leonard, Cook, Boyzatis, Kimball and Flanagan (Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 2013, Vol. 5/1) also highlights the significance of paternal attachment in faith transmission. This study of graduates from religiously-affiliated colleges in the USA found that ‘higher father attachment and greater perceived similarity to father’s religious beliefs, in combination, predicted greater intrinsic religiosity. … Emerging adults tend to match the level of religiosity of their fathers particularly if they are attached to their fathers.’

A fifth piece of research that is relevant is Vern Bengtson’s longitudinal multigenerational study of faith transmission, as reported in the book Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down Across Generations (2013). The study found (a) that contrary to expectations, there was no significant difference between mother-child and father-child religious similarity; and (b) that ‘for religious transmission, having a close bond with one’s father matters even more than a close relationship with the mother.‘ Fervent faith, Bengtson declares, cannot compensate for a distant dad. In the words of a Catholic Priest who is quoted in the book, “Dad can bring Junior to Mass every Sunday, but if Dad doesn’t show Junior his love every other day of the week, he’s not going to take Dad’s church into his heart.”

My purpose in highlighting these different findings is not to “play off” the importance of mothers against that of fathers. The passing on of faith from generation to generation is most powerful and effective when and where mothers and fathers partner together in living out and sharing the Christian faith with their children. In this both genders play a vital and important role, thought somewhat differently and distinctly it seems. My purpose is, rather, to indicate the disjuncture in faith formation that arises where dads are either not persons of faith themselves or are reluctant to live into the calling that God places upon them as Christian fathers.

Given the above, what are some possible ways forward for congregations?

  1. Celebrate and affirm the fathers who participate in your community of faith. Encourage them in their vocation as parents and affirm their importance in the spiritual lives of their children.
  2. Focus on providing events that promote father-child attachment and upon giving fathers practical tools and guidance for developing closer relationships with their sons and daughters.
  3. Communicate to male future-parents-to-be the importance and significance of spiritual fathering.
  4. Consider ways in which your congregational life and practices can be made more welcoming for men and better account for male interests and perspectives (as a beginning point, study David Murrow’s book, Why Men Hate Going to Church).

Your thoughts and comments are welcome! …

Millenials, Church Decline and the Family Factor

Generational Replacement and the Rise of the Unaffiliated

The recently released Pew Research survey data on the religious affiliations of the so-called “Millenial” generation in the USA – those born between 1981 and 1996 (or those aged between 19 and 34 in 2015) has been widely reported in Christian circles. According to the research, 35% of adult Millennials in the USA are religiously unaffiliated, and the older Milennials have becoming increasingly so since the last survey (in 2007). The “unaffiliated” share of the Millenial cohort is double the share of unaffiliated Baby Boomers (17%) and more than three times the share of the members of the Silent Generation (11%). This indicates a growing “secularisation” of American society, in line with the long term trends already strongly evident in other so-called “Western” countries. For instance, Roy Morgan research results released in April 2014 reported that in just two years (2011-2013) the percentage of Australians reporting no religious affiliation increased from 29.2% to 37.6%, with just over half of the population (52.6%) now identifying themselves as Christian.

So, what is up with the Millenials, both in the USA and in other so-called “Western” countries? Most of the discussion these past weeks has focused on the generation itself and what the church can, might or should do in response to their drift away from faith and the life of the church. Little focus has been given to the broader milieu of relationships, values, practices and experiences which has shaped this generation, its beliefs and its connections with institutional church. A bigger, deeper question is, “What has caused this generation to be religiously different from those which preceded it? Many factors are clearly involved, but one which warrants attention is the manner in which changes in the lives of families and in family structures have disrupted processes of generation-to-generation faith transmission. In his recently released book, Reimagining Faith Formation for the 21st Century, John Roberto provides some important observations and reflections on this wider picture:

‘Family religious transmission and socialization are the foundation for the development of faith and faith practices in children and for participation in church life and worship. As Christian Smith observes, “teenagers with seriously religious parents are more likely than those without such parents to have been trained in their lives to think, feel, believe, and act as serious religious believers, and that that training ‘sticks’ with them even when they leave home and enter emerging adulthood. Emerging adults who grew up with seriously religious parents are through socialization more likely (1) to have internalized their parents religious worldview, (2) to possess the practical religious know-how needed to live more highly religious lives, and (3) to embody the identity orientations and behavioral tendencies towards continuing to practice what they have been taught religiously.” Significant indicators, such as religious identification as a Christian, worship attendance, marriages and baptisms in the church, and changing generational patterns, point to a decline in family religious socialization across all denominations, but especially among Catholic and mainline traditions. Religious practice among the next generation of parents (young adults in their twenties and thirties) is especially influenced by marrying, settling down, having children, and raising them. Since individuals who marry are more likely to attend religious services than are those who delay marriage, the postponement of marriage and childbearing has contributed to the decline in church attendance. Complicating this picture is the fact that an ever growing percentage of Christians (at least 30 percent) are not getting married in a religious ceremony. The less contact that young adults have with the Christian tradition through participation in a local church, the less family religious socialization that is likely to take place when they marry and have children. We also see a decline in religious traditions and practices at home. There are a variety of reasons for this, such as the complexity and busyness of everyday life, but one of the major reasons is the religious literacy and religious experience of today’s parents. Many parents did not grow up in families where they experienced religious traditions and practices. Many were away from a church for ten or more years before returning with their children for baptism or the start of Sunday school or first communion. They simply do not have the fluency with the Christian faith tradition or the confidence to share it with their children.’

Roberto highlights two important contributors to Millenial faith decline. The first is the spirituality of their parents. When and where parents become less engaged with the practice of faith, their offspring typically follow suit (and often become even further disengaged). It is highly likely that, in many cases, the seeds of Millenial religious practice or non-practice were sown in their child and teenage years through the interplay between faith and family life. A recent analysis of data from the Monitoring the Future and American Freshman  surveys bears this out: ‘In just the 13 years between 2000 and 2013, 87% more college students chose no religious affiliation (15% vs. 28%). Compared to the early 1970s, four times as many reported that their mother had no religious affiliation, and more than twice as many reported that their father had no religious affiliation. The gap between student’s affiliation and parent’s affiliation has grown; this suggests both that more students grew up without religion and that more are abandoning their parent’s religion by college entry.’

Secondly, Roberto nominates some wider societal trends which are disrupting family religious transmission and therefore child, youth and young adult spirituality. These trends include divorce in religiously-affiliated families, and spiritually “mixed” marriages or defacto partnerships. These trends are certainly a product of secularisation, but have also become its producers through their effect on faith formation and transmission in the home.  My personal anecdotal observation is that the latter aforementioned trend has become particularly problematic for the church in Australia. Increasingly, young men and women of faith are partnering with persons with little or no faith background. Very often this results in a decline in their church participation, and faith transmission to the next generation is significantly affected. The “mixed messages” which are communicated to children and young people in such situations make it less likely that they themselves will grow up to “own” and practice the Christian faith.

My reflections on the relationship between secularisation and family life across time have also been stimulated by Mary Eberstadt’s book, How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization. Eberstadt is a senior fellow at the Washington DC-based Ethics and Public Policy Center. The central thesis of her book is that ‘family decline is not merely a consequence of religious decline, as conventional thinking has understood that relationship. … The causal relationship between family and religion—specifically, the religion of Christianity—is not just a one-way, but actually a two-way street. … Family formation is not merely an outcome of religious belief, as secular sociology has regarded it. Rather, family formation can also be, and has been, a causal agent in its own right—one that also potentially affects any given human being’s religious belief and practice. The process of secularization … has not been properly understood because it has neglected to take into account this “Family Factor”—meaning the active effect that participation in the family itself appears to have on religious belief and practice. … The ongoing deterioration of the natural family itself has both accompanied and accelerated the deterioration in the West of Christian belief.’  Eberstadt uses the image of the double helix to describe the relationship between family and faith in society.

Faith and family are ‘two spirals that when linked to one another can effectively reproduce, but whose strength and momentum depend on one another.’ Family and faith operate in lockstep. ‘One spiral in the double helix is only as strong as the other.’

Eberstadt traces the decline of the family in the West back to the Industrial Revolution. Workers left behind strongly family-centred rural communities to seek work in the cities. This movement from country to city split people off from their extended families and created new pressures on family formation. For example, patterns and rhythms of urban life affected the quality and quantity of parent-child interactions (a factor which gave famously gave rise to the Sunday School movement in the 1780s). Eberstadt contends that moving to cities made people ‘less likely to have and live in strong natural families—and that intermediate, unseen step may have been what really started them down the road toward losing their religion, at least some of the time.’ The ‘destructive effect‘ the Industrial Revolution had on the family ‘somehow made it harder for people to believe and practice their Christian faith.’  Eberstadt suggests that the sexual revolution that exploded in the 1960s has been similarly disruptive and destructive. Various outcomes such as the postponement of marriage and childbearing, marriage breakdown, and a decline in the birthrate have together impacted on the spiritual formation of persons within families and extended families, and religious decline has come as a result.

‘People are social beings. They learn religion the way they learn language: in communities, beginning with the community of the family. And when family structure becomes disrupted and attenuated and fractured, as it is for many Western people today, many families can no longer function as a transmission belt for religious belief. In addition, many people become insulated from the natural course of birth, death, and other momentous family events that are part of why people turn to religion in the first place.’ (from an interview posted on www.gospelcoalition.org)

Interestingly, Eberstadt suggests that there are some aspects of family life that serve to cultivate a greater receptivity of the transcendent, or play a functional role in leading people towards engagement with communities of faith. Experience of childbirth, for instance, can evoke in people a deeper spiritual awareness. ‘Consider what the experience of childbirth itself does to almost every mother and father. … The sequence of events culminating in birth is nearly universally interpreted as a moment of communion with something larger than oneself, larger even than oneself and the infant. It is an experience that many people describe as religious or sacred—or as close to those states as one can get.’ More generally, Eberstadt proposes that sacrificial commitment which undergirds the intimate sharing of life together in a family through the ups and downs of existence from cradle to grave ‘has the transcendental effect of raising one’s focus beyond the immediate individual horizon.’ We sense, learn and experience something of the divine and the divine presence in family life that is not accessible in other life settings. ‘Family love gives individuals an extra incentive to contemplate eternity. Just as there are no atheists in a foxhole, so too are there fewer inside the nursery as opposed to out of it—and the same for the critical care unit.’ On the other hand, Eberstadt wonders if a poorer experience of family life across time dulls spiritual awareness and receptivity. ‘Might it be possible that detachment from those people most closely related to oneself—those most evocative of one’s personal creation—might somehow make it harder to see the Creator?’

At a more “practical” level, Eberstadt submits that ‘children drive parents to church in various ways’. With children in tow, adults may have more reasons ‘to find church‘ e.g. for purposes of religious instruction, to connect them a wholesome peer group, or to affiliate with a like-minded moral community. It follows that where society is characterised by “looser” family structures and smaller families the drive to engage with church will be weaker.

So, returning to where I started, I believe that analysis of the Millenial “retreat” from Christianity can and must consider the “family factor”. Religious decline and family decline are bound together, as are religious flourishing and family flourishing. To understand the faith lives (or otherwise) of Millenials – or any other generation for that matter – we must look beyond them, to the dynamics of family life that shaped who and what they are. Each generation is “generated” by that which preceded it, and it cannot be understood apart from them.

Lest I be charged with being so theoretical in this post so as to be of no practical help, I want to humbly suggest some ways forward for congregations:

  • Focus on the Millenials who are actively associated with your church. Give them a strong sense of “family” by drawing them into the centre of your faith community. Be for them a bigger, second family or perhaps the family they have never really had.
  • Focus on tooling parents in your faith community with understandings, skills and resources for passing on faith. Do not assume that their own upbringings have provided them with personal experiences to draw upon in raising their own children in faith.
  • Focus on ensuring that the children and youth in your congregation have a rich web of intergenerational relational connections to supplement their family and extended family relationships.
  • Focus on building genuine, caring and helpful connections with new parents and parents with infants.  Be attentive to the spiritual awakenings and reawakenings which may be evoked in parents through the birth of a child.
  • Focus on helping married couples in your congregation maintain positive, healthy relationships and to work through their conflicts.
  • Focus on ways in which your congregation can act in the wider community to bring families together in good and healthy ways, and to support them to live together healthily.

As always, your comments are very welcome!  …

Reflections on Mark 3:20-35 … Jesus, Family and the Will of God

In the three year Lectionary cycle there are a number of Bible passages which provide an excellent opportunity for preachers to speak directly of intergenerational and household ministry. This Sunday’s (7 June 2015, Second Sunday after Pentecost) Gospel reading – Mark 3:20-35 – is one such text.  Mark 3:20 tells us that Jesus entered a house and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat.  We are not told the location of  the house, but it is presumably in the vicinity of the home of Jesus’ extended family, for they receive word of what is taking place.  When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.”  It is possible that their concern was not merely for Jesus, but for family honor! Jesus had become a social embarrassment, a source of shame, and needed to be restrained. Or perhaps they felt that Jesus was not fulfilling his social responsibilities, as the eldest son, to care for his now widowed mother (the omission of Joseph in 3:31 and 6:3 suggests that he has already died). Whatever the case, the reference to Jesus’ state of mind provides a neat segue into next verse, in which the teachers of the law declare Jesus to be demon-possessed. And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons. The linkage of these two verses suggests that both Jesus’ family and the teachers of the law are in spiritual opposition to Jesus and his ministry (see also John 7:5). Francis Moloney writes, ‘The members of [Jesus’] blood family are unable to understand the urgency that drives Jesus in his task of proclaiming the kingdom, and the powerful attraction which this exercises upon those who are sick, and in need of the physician (see 2:17). They are “outside” the kingdom preached by Jesus.’ (The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary, p. 82).

Verse 23 tells us that Jesus called the teachers of the law over to himself (his family members were not on the scene as yet, see verse 31) and began to speak to them in parables.  In reference to his expulsion of evil spirits (e.g. Mark 1:21-28), Jesus asks, “How can Satan drive out Satan?”  He further declares, “If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand” (verse 25). I am somewhat intrigued by this statement of Jesus. It is a rephrasing of verse 24 and adds little to the thought development within the passage. Jesus, of course, had no desire for the “house of Satan” to remain standing. I wonder if the the use of the word “house” (oikos) here – the word that in the Greek New Testament that best approximates to the English word “family” – invites the reader/hearer to make wider associations. In the Gospel of Mark, oikos is used elsewhere to refer to homes or household dwellings and to the temple. In the light of 3:24 and 3:31-32, perhaps Jesus is making a point about the effect of spiritual disunity within both familial households and the wider household of God. A household that is spiritually divided will struggle to stand in the face of temptation and attack.

Jesus then goes on to speak of a “strong man’s house” (verses 27-28).  Once a “strong man” is tied up, his house can be plundered.  Jesus is the one who is stronger than Satan. He has come to tie up the strong man through his ministry, so that the house of Satan can then be plundered.

In verses 31-35 the focus on the passage switches back to Jesus’ family:

Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.” “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked. Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”

In the first place, these words of Jesus uphold the primacy of the will of God in family life. Jesus is not denigrating the family or diminishing the value and significance of family. Rather, he is teaching us that family loyalty is secondary to loyalty and obedience to the word of God. Family life, as wonderful as it can sometimes be, is not to be “worshiped” or served in place of God. In Diana Garland’s words, ‘Jesus is not doing away with family loyalty but transforming its meaning and putting it in its rightful place.’ (Family Ministry: A Comprehensive Guide, p. 317).

Secondly, Jesus’ words radically widen the concept of “family” for Christian believers. The loyalty, love and service that is properly given to one another in family life is also due to one another in the wider “family” of believers. In Christian community our relationships are reconfigured in and through Christ. In and through him we are brothers, sisters, mothers and children to and for one another. Jesus’ words evoke a vision of intergenerational life in which people of all ages and family backgrounds care for one another physically and spiritually. Spiritual parenting and child-rearing is broadly shared in the doing of the will of God.  Preaching on this passage, William Willimon said,

Your human family, for any of its virtues, is just too small, too closely circumscribed. … Thus, when someone steps up and answers Jesus’ call to follow him, the church washes that person in water – baptism – which says, among other things, that the person has been reborn, started over, and has been adopted into a new God-formed family. It is as if the person gets a new name, “Christian,” that takes precedence over that person’s family name. It is as if the person has already died to old attachments and former relationships and has already been raised to new life. And the church is that fresh, new family that is composed of those who have heard Jesus’ “Follow me” and have stepped forward and said “Yes.” … Thus, when parents bring a child forward for baptism, Christian initiation, the pastor takes the child from them and says, in effect, “You are two wonderful people, but you are not knowledgeable enough, not skilled enough on your own, to raise a Christian. Therefore, we’ll adopt your child, we’ll take responsibility for this baby, we will help you raise a Christian.” In a world of grandparents without grandchildren close by, and single-parent families, and grandchildren growing up without grandparents, and marriages under stress, you need a bigger family than the one you were born into. You must be born again into a new, far flung family, a family as large as the love of God in Jesus Christ.

As a parent, I am acutely aware that I need the “wider circle” of the household of believers to support me in sharing Christ with my daughters. I need them to have spiritual brothers, sisters, mothers and children within the Christian community in order for God’s will to be done in their lives. One of the most significant things I can do as a Christian parent is to see that the spiritual lives of my daughters transcends their family life. A rich, vibrant intergenerational Christian community is a wonderful gift to children, youth and their families, drawing them more deeply and fully into the will of God. Moreover, a family that is caught up in the web of the wider household of God is more likely to be characterised by a unity of spirit and able to stand strong in the things of God.

So, in proclaiming this text, here are some potential applications to intergenerational and household ministry:

  • In the kingdom of God, family life is intended to be an instrument of God’s will and secondary to it.
  • Spiritual unity in families is vital for resisting temptation and the attacks of the evil One. A house that is divided is susceptible to falling away.
  • In Christ, God creates a new “family” which transcends blood ties. In Christian community the children are everyone’s children. We are called to share together in the privilege and blessing of caring for one another beyond the circle of immediate family life.

Grandparents and the Faith Formation “Tent”

How do you see the grandparents and great-grandparents in your congregation? As onlookers to ministry with children or youth or as ministers on the frontlines of passing on faith? As symbolic of a bygone era or agents of God for the shaping of a new generation of disciples? Of late, I have had three different prompts to think about the role and potential significance of grandparents and great-grandparents in faith formation.

Firstly, I had a conversation with a grandparent of faith who invests a considerable part of their week providing low cost childcare for their young grandchildren, while the children’s parents are both out working. This grandparent expressed their frustration with the challenges this presented for them at a stage in life when they expected to be past looking after young children. They wanted to be supportive of their own children, but doing so came at a personal cost. While empathising with the grandparent, I also wondered with them about the “gift” they had been given of living out their Christian faith with their grandchildren in a domestic place and space from day to day. The hours they have with their young grandchildren, even as though they are sometimes wearing and frustrating, are also a precious opportunity to tell Bible stories, guide them in prayer, practice rhythms and rituals of faith and embody the love of Christ! Within the stress and messiness of “grandpa and grandma childcare” there is the potential to make an indelible imprint on young lives in the name of Jesus and to transform extended families.

My second prompt came in reading the chapter by Phyllis Tickle in Faith Forward Volume 2: Re-imagining Children’s and Youth Ministry. Tickle writes that “the Abrahamic faiths … have always been transmitted domestically.” In ancient times the tent was the place where the faith was carried forward through shared conversations, routines, rituals and rhythms. The pattern was the “the tent and then the synagogue and then the temple“. Tickle points out that in the modern age the “transmitting function of the tent” has become eroded. The home has become a place of individual retreat from the world instead of a community that ‘informs’ and ‘forms’ across generations through shared play, enterprise, and conversation. A result of this erosion is that a generation of Christian adults have not themselves been informed and formed in the way of the tent in order to inform and form others.

“Christian parents of today’s young children do not themselves – by and large and truth be told – know the stories of their biblical or their ecclesial history. That is, they too were reared after the 20th century’s interruptions [to the way of the tent].  They too did not have the tent, and they attest to this with great poignancy and great longing, if and when the rest of us are willing to listen.”

In other words, many parents of today who may have grown up attending church with their parents do not know what it is to practice the Christian faith in their own homes because they did not experience the way of the tent for themselves. They do not have the rich childhood memories and experiences of faith conversations, home devotions, rituals and traditions and service to draw upon in tending the faith lives of their own children. One has to to back at least one further generation to find those who can speak of the tent and school others in its patterns, rhythms and routines. And going back to these earlier generations, Tickle suggests, is precisely what can and must be done to mend the tent. Grandparents and great-grandparents are precious treasures in the life of the church, for they are the repository of stories, customs and practices that today’s children, youth and parents need to hear, hear about and experience.

“Those among us who are over 65, by and large, have those stories and formative customs deep within us.  We – or they, as the case may be – still have them. I would to my soul that every congregation … might begin to contrive ways to match their seniors with either their own grandchildren or with other children in the congregation, or in the neighborhood. Match them up so that the tent’s narrative flow of faith – both read and enacted – begins to happen again. If we can get our seniors deliberately and purposefully connected, either with their own grandchildren, which is an easy fix, or with other children, youth and young Christians in the making; if we can get them connected there is some kind of ongoing, sustained, responsibility, then the tent can be restored in a new way.”

My third prompt has been Vern Bengtson’s book, Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down Across GenerationsBengtson studied the transmission of faith across four generations and 35 years, encompassing over 3000 persons and over 300 multigenerational families. He found “strong evidence of transmission [of religious orientations] from grandparents to grandchildren.” In some cases, grandparents functioned as spiritual “replacement figures” for the children’s parents. In others, grandparents significantly reinforced the faith teachings and practices of their grandchildren’s parents. And, in still other cases, grandparents served as countering influence to the non-Christian attitudes and perspectives of their grandchildren’s parents. Indeed, Bengtson proposes that, because of demographic, technological and societal developments the spiritual influence and impact of grandparents is potentially stronger than previously.

“Because of the increase in life expectancy over the twentieth century, grandparents have longer lives than ever before, and grandchildren can enjoy many years with living grandparents. This has increased the chances for grandparents to play a significant role in the lives of grandchildren. … Moreover, grandparents and grandchildren today have more time to interact, share, and lend support. They have more time to learn from each other and more opportunities for mutual socialization. Though there is sometimes greater geographic distance between generations now than in the past, grandparents and grandchildren have more ways to communicate as well, with the pervasive use of technologies such as cell phones, Skype, and Facebook – often with grandchildren teaching their parents how to use them – an instance of “reverse socialization” between generations. … Grandparents can provide a stabilizing influence in their grandchildren’s lives in situations of parental divorce, incapacity, addiction or emotional distancing. In these contexts grandparents’ influence may be highly salient for the development of children’s religious values and beliefs. In other situations, grandparents may play a larger role in influencing children’s religious orientation simply because they have more time to do so, or religious instruction is not a priority for parents, or parents are religiously indifferent. … For many children, grandparents are the de facto moral and religious models and teachers in lieu of parents who are too exhausted or too busy on weekend to go to church.”

I suspect that, for the most part, too little focus has been given to the existing and potential ministry impact our seniors have on children and youth through their relationships with them, particularly in extended families. Instead of overlooking, marginalising or devaluing the seniors in our communities of faith we need to celebrate them as God’s gift in the enterprise of faith formation across generations. So here are some questions …

  • In what ways can we affirm grandparents, great-grandparents and other seniors in their vocation as spiritual influences and role models?
  • In what ways can we better equip and resource our seniors for sharing their faith lives and their faith stories with the young?
  • In what ways can we facilitate and enable relationships between seniors in our congregations and our children and youth, whether they are familially-related or not?

One of my favourite passages of Scripture is Psalm 71:17-18. Here the Psalmist asks God to sustain him into old age so that he can proclaim the faithfulness and saving might of the Lord to future generations.

17 Since my youth, God, you have taught me,
    and to this day I declare your marvelous deeds.
18 Even when I am old and gray,
    do not forsake me, my God,
till I declare your power to the next generation,
    your mighty acts to all who are to come.

Now, that’s what I’m talking about! God bless our grandpas and grandmas!