On Family and Church (Part 2)

I recently went to a Children’s Ministries conference in Columbus, Ohio. It was hosted by our own Nazarene Children’s Leadership Network. There were workshops, keynote speakers, books and materials to buy, and a good social experience. I’m a huge supporter of ministry to/for/with children. Part of my education was in children’s spirituality and how to foster and strengthen a child’s relationship with God. Reformed theologians, at least Baptists, would prefer the term ‘acquaintance’ rather than ‘relationship’ when referring to children. One other reason why I like being Wesleyan!

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So, in what follows, I am not at all attempting to malign children’s leaders. However, I think there is a key distinction that has had far-reaching ramifications when it comes to passing on our faith to the children in our churches.

I first noticed this a few years ago, while looking into the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). The Shema is a cornerstone passage in Children’s Ministry. If you work with children and haven’t heard of the Shema, you should check it out! Also, read past verse 9 and get cozy with verses 20-25. There’s some good stuff in there, too.

Anyway, I remember growing more and more frustrated with authors, speakers, and teachers of Children’s Ministry because, even though they hold the Shema as their flagship Scripture, they by and large misinterpret it. And to the detriment of their cause. This is a frustration I have expressed among my peers and advisors, who helped me to see this misreading of the text.

Here is how the Shema is typically interpreted: “Parents, teach your children about our faith. Teach them the stories and the characters, so that they can grow in their relationship with the Lord.” And so, we develop programs to get parents involved in the faith development of their offspring; we create booklets, design lesson plans, write family devotionals, and find creative ways to invite guardians into our ministry so they can take ownership over their children’s spiritual formation.

Here is the problem: the Shema isn’t addressing the parents. The Shema is addressing the entire community of believers. It is the role of the whole community to pass on the faith. Certainly parents play a special role in that, but the responsibility of raising our children to fear the Lord rests upon the community as a whole. What does that mean for us, millennia later? – The role of passing on the faith is the responsibility of the Church, not exclusive of the parents.

Somewhere along the way we have lost this. We have relegated spiritual development of children to a family endeavor, regardless of how sound or knowledgeable our parents are in their own understanding of the faith[1]. We cannot imagine children not being always and only under the tutelage of their parental guardians.

One of the biggest reasons I hear against having children join in the regular worship service[2] is that they will be a distraction to their parents. Disregarding the fact that such a statement assumes that parents are more important than their children, this assumption is completely ignorant of the fact that parents are not the only people involved in the faith development of our children. Let me illustrate:

For most of my childhood, I do not remember sitting with my parents in the Sunday morning worship service. Even during the Sunday night service, I do not remember sitting with them very often. But, I do remember Don and Martha. They were an older couple who sat in the middle rows of the sanctuary about 6 rows behind my parents. My friend and I would always push each other to ask for candy, and Martha would somehow magically present us with it.

There were other adults in the church who looked out for me and spoke into my life while I was a child, but Don and Martha left a mark on my life that I will never forget. In fact, it was Martha who first sensed I was called to ministry. Not even myself or my own parents started to catch on until several years later! And it was Martha who helped me to accept the Lord as my personal savior. I don’t remember the details of when/where/how, but my fuzzy memory of the whole affair has an unmistakably ‘Marthan’ aroma to it.

Now we come to the point of all this. Why do we wrongly assume that parents and ‘professionals’ are the only ones capable of speaking into the life of our children? Why do we continue these endeavors to separate our young people from the rest of the community that is responsible for their upbringing? Is it because we are afraid of what other people in the church might teach our children? If so, then I feel that speaks more to what we are teaching our adults than what we are teaching our young people. If we don’t even trust the theology of our seasoned veterans of the faith, then something has seriously gone awry! Perhaps we should stop with the gimmicky themes, programs, and events, and focus on – I don’t know – teaching sound fundamental doctrine, if that is the case. I know of many parents who, themselves, can hardly articulate the basics of Christian belief, so why not involve others in the process of teaching their children?

I love parents. I love the work that parents do. But parents can’t do everything. Spiritual formation absolutely occurs inside of the home, and in ways that cannot be replicated within a church setting. However, that does not excuse the rest of the community from adhering to their part of the deal. And it certainly does not excuse us from withholding children from the faith community.

“Hear, O Isreal: […]
These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children.” (Emphasis mine)

 

[1]. Or, even more so, regardless of whether or not they are believers themselves.
[2]. Should it not concern us that we have to ‘hyphenate’ our worship services? What hubris to claim we can justifiably segregate the community of faith!

 

On Family and Church (Part 1)

The greatest thing my parents ever did for my sister and me was this: they never claimed ownership over us.

This revelation came about some years ago, when I was 21 years old. I don’t recall the context, exactly. It was either when I talked with them about feeling called to pastoral ministry, or when I shared with them that I felt I needed to go on a mission trip to Kenya. Either way, it doesn’t matter how it happened. It only matters that it happened.

It was in a moment when I had to make a serious decision, and I clearly remember the truth that was shared with me from my parents: “We raised you and Jenn knowing that you do not belong to us – you belong to God.”

Since then, I have seen pieces here and there fall into place. Parts of my life that make more sense as I look into the past through this new lens; a lens that changes the hue of my memories just enough to make things clearer. The times I was frustrated by what was going on. The times when I was confused about certain decisions, or why my parents raised my sister and me the way they did.

Now, I know that my parents are not perfect. They’ll be the first to admit it. They made poor decisions, just like anyone else does. But there remains in my life a kernel of truth that we have begun to forget in the Western church: children do not belong to the parents.

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I am not entirely sure why it is. Perhaps it’s because of our social culture. But family has become defined as the prime community – the ultimate locus of social experience and relational intimacy. We forget, however, that as believers we are called to a family that transcends biological or legal barriers. “Blood may be thicker than water, but the bond of the spirit is greater than both.” (Can’t find who said this, but it was in a book/article I read a while ago)

Why is it, then, that family time has become a rival to church time? How has it become so easy to justify neglecting corporate worship in order to spend time sharing a meal and watching a movie together?

I distinctly remember that for most of my life my parents were exceptionally busy people. But, the one thing that could be counted on is that every week, usually at least twice a week, we would gather together and worship. We would pray, sing praise, and listen to the Word together. We would participate in ground-breaking ceremonies, witness dedications and baptisms, and celebrate in ours and other’s achievements together. We would dream, mourn, laugh, and cry together.

Church was not a mere weekly activity for us. It was a central bonding agent of our lives. It prompted discussions during our car rides. It caused us frustrations and joys. It merged us with other families and developed life-long friendships with people who are more than friends to us. And the stories… so many stories! The stories of our local church became the stories of our family. Even today when we come together we talk about church – it is the one thing to which we can all relate.

It breaks my heart to see what is happening to so many churches today. It also infuriates me. When the local church is no longer a place where the family can spend time together, we have a problem. When the local church is not viewed as that place and time where a family can join with one another in worship, we need to seriously think about what it going on. And when churches distance themselves from being the prime community into which we are called, we have lost a central aspect of our ecclesiology and have forgotten a large part of who we are as Christians.

Let us not fool ourselves, here. When families need to become absent during worship in order to spend time together, we have established the family as an idol. We tell ourselves that our biological family is more important, and so it should not surprise us when our children grow up to be apathetic towards church because we have trained them to see it as an auxiliary part of their lives. The family, then, becomes a church unto itself, with its own modes of worship, sacraments (football games, movie watching, weekly meal sharing), saints (distant relatives, grandparents), and gods (Detroit Tigers, MSU, USA). These things, in and of themselves, are not bad. But when they usurp the primacy of gathered worship of a greater community to our Lord, we throw ourselves into a subtle yet powerful confusion.

A part of this, no doubt, is due to the fact that in many churches the family simply cannot be together. Silo ministry models, where people of different ages are segregated from one another, perpetuates a culture that teaches that church is not a place for families. It is a place for family members, but not a place where families can share memories, celebrate, or worship together. And so, families are justified in their absence from church in order to spend time apart. A justification that is, itself, built on a sandy foundation.

We ought to be ashamed when families must choose between “family time” and church. We belong, ultimately, to God. And yet we are creating and perpetuating a culture that says we ultimate belong to ourselves. Is this not a tragedy? Has church simply become a purveyor of spiritual and religious goods and services; a consumable item families indulge in when convenient? Or something to partake of when, in their ‘good judgment,’ they feel it is necessary to purchase through an investment of time and non-participatory attendance? As easy to attend or abstain from as going shopping at the local mall or eating out? – Just another cog in the machine for us, no more or less significant than everything else we participate in.

My parents have been asked by co-workers and friends over the years an interesting question that comes in many forms: “What did you do to have your children turn out the way they did?”

The answer is simple: my parent’s children didn’t belong to them. They belonged to God.

Church is not a family tradition for us. It is who we are. It is greater than our family. My sister and I did not grow up being taught to serve the family. We grew up being taught to serve Christ and his Kingdom. A major facet in that was our consistent involvement in the life of our local church through all seasons of life.