In my ministry, I frequently have contact with couples who wish to have their young children baptised. Sadly, very few of these families have an active involvement with the church before or after the baptism of their children. My congregation is working in a number of ways to respond to that reality through purposeful baptism preparation and post-baptism preparation follow-up, but the challenges remain significant. In speaking with couples during baptism preparation I ask them to share their reasons for wanting their child to receive baptism. Often they respond by saying that they want their child to be formally brought into the sphere of the church through baptism (being “done”), so that when they are older they can “make up their minds for themselves”. There is much I could say about that answer from a (Lutheran) theological point of view. That aside, those words reveal a particular view of Christian faith as intellectual assent without life involvement or commitment. Somehow, these parents have come to understand Christianity primarily as a set of beliefs that one can either accept or reject, as one might either accept or reject a scientific theory. While Christianity holds to set of beliefs, being a Christian is finally about a relationship with Christ (the very centre and object of our beliefs) which flows into a way of being that we call discipleship. In saying this, I am not seeking to accuse or to judge the parents. Their own experiences of church may have helped generate the very understandings that lie behind the disconnection between their day-to-day lives and the practice of faith in and with the wider people of God. We as church may have a “log” in our own eyes that needs to be removed!
The response of these parents also implies that Christian faith is received or rejected somewhat “independently” of the practice of faith by the parents themselves. The reality is, however, that just as faith is more caught than taught, lack of faith is also more caught than taught. When and where children young people see Christian beliefs doing little to shape parental habits and practices, they are far less likely to take on for themselves the way of life that proceeds from the cross. When it comes to parenting, we cannot not pass on faith and values – the question is, faith in what, and valuation of what?
I sometimes use the analogy of dental hygiene in talking with parents. I do not know of a single parent who buys a toothbrush and toothpaste for their child, puts them on the bathroom bench and says to their child, “There they are. I have placed them in your life. Now, you decide for yourself whether or not you use them.” No, because parents value good teeth and want their children to have good teeth, they will insist on their children brushing their teeth. They will show them how to. They will do so with them and alongside them. They will inquire of them morning and night about whether they have brushed their teeth (at least, that’s what my parents did). They will put up with tantrums and oppositional attitudes, all the while insisting that the teeth must be brushed! Over time, children themselves come to adopt and “own” the practice of toothbrushing, so that it becomes a natural part of their lives. Now, if we as parents are willing to go those lengths for the dental wellbeing of our children, what will we be willing to do for sake of their spiritual and eternal wellbeing? Will we want to “leave it to chance?” Or will we seek to do what we can (acknowledging that we are imperfect parents who will make mistakes and fall short again and again … Christian parenting is finally a matter of God’s grace) to help them know and follow Christ, and to come to a point of “owned” faith (ala Westerhoff)?
As a parent myself, I do not want to leave their faith development to chance! I want my own example or conduct of faith to be “catching” (in the sense of “alluring”), so that my daughters see in me and through me the heart of Christ, and are drawn to follow him. I want my own example and modelling of faith to exert on them a more powerful influence in the direction of faith than the influence of so much of contemporary secular society in the opposite direction. I want them to not only know that they were baptised but each day to say in faith, “I am baptised”. I want them to rest in the wonderful hope and security that is theirs as baptised children of God, and to live out the identity that was bestowed on them through Water and Word. And I have the same prayer and hope for each and every child whom I have privilege of baptising.
I think it’s time to brush my teeth …