Some thoughts on the future of Christian formation for children (and their parents)

I had one of those conversations last week that’s had me reflecting on our assumptions as clergy and churches, the way we do things, and what the future might look like. A few weeks ago, a family visited Grace. We talked after the service and I learned that they hadn’t attended church regularly in a very long time but that all of their kids had been baptized and they were hoping to reconnect. Instead of encouraging them to sign the guestbook as I usually do, I gave them my business card and urged them to contact me. They emailed me a few days later and we set up a time to meet. In the course of our conversation, they asked about resources I might recommend to them that would help them teach the kids about the Bible and Christianity. I told them to check out our Christian Formation program in the Fall, we offer Godly Play for the younger kids and use Re:Form with our Middle Schoolers. The complication for them is that the family is active in athletics and have events scheduled almost every weekend.

 

I spent hours researching materials on the web and pretty much came up empty-handed. A plea for help to colleagues locally and to some folks I know are involved in Christian Formation nationally gave me some ideas. As I talked to people and as I reflected, it became clear that what I’m looking for is something that will help parents as well as children and that while the couple who first asked me had the guts to do so, I’ve heard similar requests couched in much subtler language from parents who are active at Grace. Many of them are uncomfortable talking about their own faith and I suspect many of them aren’t sure how to talk about faith with their children. The difference might only be that they know better than to ask me for help (I’m an intellectual, I don’t have children or grandchildren of my own).

 

The church and clergy have all sorts of models of Christian education shaping our expectations. There’s the traditional Evangelical Protestant of graded Sunday Schools that in a large church would go from toddlers to the aged, with everyone expected to attend every Sunday. There’s the picture of the family at table sitting around as Father reads scripture to an attentive wife and children. Of course, both of those reflect particular historical and cultural contexts. The Sunday School movement is a product of the 19th century; the image of a family reading scripture and praying also a Protestant model from a century earlier perhaps (it depends on literacy and the printing press).

 

There have been very different historical contexts in which Christian education was attempted and there were periods when the basic knowledge of most Christians was at best rudimentary. Protestant pastors in Germany complained in the sixteenth century that their parishioners didn’t attend services or catechism classes and that they didn’t know such basics as the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments or the Creed.

 

We’re much closer to that latter historical context than to the idealized image of twentieth-century churches with cradle to grave Sunday School. The difference between the sixteenth and the twenty-first century is that churches can’t rely on the power of the state to enforce attendance or check religious knowledge.

 

And it’s only going to get worse. One of my clearest memories of my last term of teaching undergraduates in the Spring of 2009 was a student’s question “Who were they?” after I mentioned Adam and Eve in an offhand comment. With increased secularization and the rise of the “nones,” we can no longer assume that most people who come to our churches will have any basic understanding of Christianity or the Bible, so they will have nothing to pass on to their children. And, as I learned over ten years of teaching Bible at a college in the South, even many evangelical Christians no longer read the Bible regularly or know its stories.

 

So here is my question: What does Christian formation for children look like in this context, given these assumptions:

 

  1. That attendance at services (let alone a second hour for formation) will be affected by all of the cultural changes that have occurred over the last fifty years
  2. That parents need tools to help them understand the Christian faith and the stories of the Bible as well as resources that will help them communicate those stories with their children
  3. That the congregation will not be a primary locus for Christian formation (even if everyone including parents thinks it should be)

 

Here are the resources that have been recommended to me. I share them in hopes that readers of this blog will add their own and that someone, somewhere, might have developed something that addresses the three assumptions I make above.

 

  • Manna and Mercy is the Bible told in the form of a graphic novel. The link takes to you a website where you can purchase the book and get study guides and even curriculum. It’s not geared toward any particular age group (some churches use it with adult groups as well as with youth and children).
  • The Jesus Storybook Bible. One of my colleagues who is the Episcopal Chaplain at UW Madison, used this book with students who wanted to learn more about scripture. In addition to the book, the website includes study guides and curricula.
  • Child’s Guide to the Eucharist  This is published by an Episcopal publisher and is intended for children to help them understand what’s going on in Sunday morning worship.
  • The Discovery Series A really good video introduction to the Episcopal Church produced some years ago by the Episcopal Diocese of Texas
  • Father Matthew Presents a series of videos available on youtube explaining briefly and with some humor, basics of our faith, scripture, and worship

 

So, if you know of anything else that might be helpful, let me know; and if you’re a parent looking for something to use with your kids, here are some suggestions.

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4 thoughts on “Some thoughts on the future of Christian formation for children (and their parents)

  1. Jonathan, you’re hitting all the themes we hear constantly at the Center for the Ministry of Teaching at VTS. Here are a couple of highlights from the worlds I follow.

    * Vibrant Faith at Home — Activity/lesson plans written specifically for faith formation in the home. No one we know has done more thinking about how to support parents who need the kind of help you identify.
    http://vibrantfaithathome.org/

    * Pinners and Mommy Bloggers — Lots of well-formed people of faith share their faith at home activities on blogs and social networks. E.g.,
    http://www.churchwork.com/the-domestic-church/

    * Episcopal Children’s Curriculum — Designed for the traditional Sunday school model, but useful for the purposes of this conversation in that all the materials are available online for free. We know people who have picked bits and pieces apart for non-traditional faith at home efforts.
    http://www.vts.edu/cmt/published/ecc

    I could do a whole (longer) list on faith formation for adults if you’re interested. We’ve been thinking a lot about what we’re calling hybrid faith formation to address assumptions 1 & 3 in particular.
    http://www.keyhallonline.org/profiles/expanding-faith-formation-reach-hybrid-networks/
    http://www.keyhallonline.org/profiles/shutting-sunday-school/

    • Thanks, Kyle, this is all very helpful. I actually looked at the Vibrant Faith site, but couldn’t quite figure out what’s going on there (how families might use it). The question of adult formation is another matter entirely that I’m thinking about as well.

  2. Fr. Jonathan, what do you think the fallout of assumptions 1 & 3 is? I always envisioned liturgy as the locus of Christian, especially Anglican, formation. As liturgy shapes and forms through repetition, it seems as though something integral to formation would be missing if attendance becomes sporadic.

    Could the educational material you listed be a means of reversing Christians from living assumptions 1 & 3?

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