Reflections on nurturing faith in children...

NOTE: Here are my sermon notes for Sunday, December 27, 2009. Traditionally this is a "low" Sunday after the festivities of Christmas Eve. Nevertheless, I often find this to be a tender and spirit-filled time. My reflections are built upon the insights of Christian Educator, John Westerhorff, and suggest where we as a congregation may be turning. Blessings.

Throughout the four gospels there aren’t many stories about the childhood and youth of Jesus – and the same is true with our carols and hymns. There are a host of songs about the Lord’s birth – from “Silent Night” and “Away in the Manger” to “Love Came Down at Christmas” and “Joy to the World” – but only “Once in Royal David’s City” speaks about Jesus as a child. And only Luke’s gospel tells us a few childhood stories:

• Matthew gives us the details of the Wise Men and the flight into Egypt and then jumps to the ministry of John the Baptist 30 years later.

• Neither Mark nor John tell us anything about the earlier years; so we only have Luke to give us a few passing stories: Christ’s circumcision eight days after his birth, his presentation in the temple after his mother’s time of purification was over, the reaction of both Simeon and Anna to the young Messiah and his teaching of the elders during Passover twelve years later.

Not a lot of childhood stories in our gospels to go on, are there? To be sure, there is a reason for this – the emphasis is always on Christ’s adult teachings, his journey to the Cross and beyond – and that is as it should be. And yet there is this wonderful little sentence in today’s lesson – “and the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom, so that the favor of the Lord was upon him” – and I would like to spend some time with this clue with you thinking about how we can help our own children grow into faith in the spirit of Jesus.

• Faith and a life of holy wisdom are not accidental, you know? Neither are they matters of heredity or casual habit. As the old-timers used to say: Disciples are made, not born – for our faith is always only one generation away from extinction.

• Are you with me? Do you know what I’m trying to say with that phrase: disciples are made, not born?

It takes training – intentionality – a host of small and clear choices in the home and at church to nourish a child in the wisdom of the Lord. For what was true in the childhood of Jesus is equally true today: to become strong and filled with God’s favor is all about guidance and the long haul.
St. Luke wants us to make the connection between Jesus and the great leaders of the Hebrew people. That’s why he uses many of the same words found in the Old Testament.

• Our Old Testament reading this morning comes from the book of I Samuel – it is part of a cycle of stories about how his mother, Hannah, was unable to bear children. – and what happened because of her faithfulness.

• The story opens much like that of Abraham and Sarah the parents of Isaac – or even Zechariah and Elizabeth the parents of John the Baptist – initially they are unable to bear children. But after great patience and fervent prayer, a blessing occurs and the child who is born is dedicated to the Lord calling him, “Shemu’el,” meaning “God has heard.”

And after careful training and spiritual nurture, Samuel grows into one of Israel’s strongest prophets, leading the people of God against the Philistines in battle and restoring freedom for his people. And just as I Samuel tells us that “the young boy grew in stature and favor with the Lord and God’s people,” so Luke says the same about Jesus who “grew in wisdom and stature and the favor of the Lord was upon him.” The picture that is painted is one of intentional and careful religious and spiritual training.

But there is a huge difference between the early childhood religious education that Samuel and Jesus received and what happens with our children in the 21st century – and it has to do with the loss of institutions that support faith – a change that has really only taken root in the last 50 years.

Sunday School, you see, only came into being in the late 1780s in England and the first Sunday School in the United States didn’t open until 1785. Originally these schools were missions of justice and equality geared for children of the poor and working class; on Saturdays and Sundays, tutorials and deeper learning took place in these schools so that in time the underprivileged could escape poverty and enter the bounty of the middle class.

By the middle 1800s they had become well-established and were teaching religious values as well as reading, writing and arithmetic. Only with the rise of the public school system for the poor did the emphasis shift from general education to something more grounded in spiritual development.

Christian educator, John Westerhoff, makes this important observation: for most of our history as Americans, Sunday School was not the only institution shaping and forming young lives of faith. There used to be five other institutions including the wider community, the extended family, the public schools, the church and the world of entertainment.

• Now think about that for a moment: all the support and reinforcement – all the encouragement and back-up taking place – to sustain spiritual values.

• And now let me remind you that it has been just in our lifetime that all of this has changed: families are profoundly different, there is a deep separation between church and state, fewer and fewer people really know their neighbors anymore and let’s not even talk about how the entertainment industry has changed.

• Where there was once six strong and inter-connected institutions supporting the work of nourishing faith now there are maybe… two.

And often we expect our Sunday School and church to do what the whole culture once did for our children. Further, we are baffled and angry that there are not more faithful young people when during their formative years they spend less than 45 minutes a week in religious education. Hmmmm…

• How did St. Bob Dylan put it? “The times they are a ‘changing!” (And sometimes we didn't even notice it was happening!)

• And while I would never argue that we should try to turn the clock backwards – this is both foolish and impossible – we do need to be clear about what a dramatic change has taken place, ok?

If it is true that it truly takes a village to raise a child in faith and integrity, then parents and churches need to acknowledge that we are in a tough place today because there is neither a culture of support nor a successful model for nourishing faith in our post-modern context. George Barna, the leading religious sociologist of our time, has noted that among the biggest and most successful churches in America, less than half of all teens believe that they will be living a life of faith when they become adults.

In a message some have called the, “Opie Doesn’t Live Here Any More” syndrome – a reference to the “Andy of Mayberry” television show – he paints a picture of a growing number of young people who mistrust their church, feel lonely and alienated from their peers and are confused about where to turn. Now it would be easy right now to go into a rant about the damage our fundamentalist sisters and brothers have done over the last 25 years – how they have tried to turn the clock backwards and throw away all the advances of contemporary culture – and that wouldn’t be such a hard rant for me to work up some steam about, my friends.

• But worship is not the place to argue about evolution vs. creationism, the complexities of the pro-life and pro-choice commitments and all the rest.

• We should discuss and study and learn about all of them and more – it would be beneficial and healing – but not in worship.

After all, if I were to make the case that evangelical zeal has been part of the problem – and it has – I would also have to remind you that liberal or mainstream apathy has just as bad – and it has. So let’s move beyond the blame game and do something that could make a difference.

Specifically, let’s use the wisdom and insights of John Westerhoff – clearly one of America’s finest Christian educators – who offers us all – evangelical and liberal – some good tools that can help parents and grandparents and Sunday Schools and churches take stock of how to nurture faith in our new reality. Because, as the German mystic preacher, Meister Eckhart used to say, “Reality is the will of God – it can always be better – but we must start with what is real.” And Westerhoff is a reality-based, time-tested, practical and profoundly faith-filled mentor on how to nurture faith in our children.

First, he tells us, there is the faith of experience – the rituals, sights and sounds of our tradition – that all small children must be welcomed and encouraged to join. It is the faith of our senses – what we see and hear and taste and touch and even smell – and there is no need to explain to our children what all of this means. We simply need to make them feel a part of the experience.

• Children’s choirs where EVERYONE is welcome and there are NO auditions.

• Communion where there is joy and healthy chunks of bread and juice and sharing and hospitality.

Singing the doxology week after week – saying the Lord’s Prayer or Hail Mary – alongside of our loved ones on a regular basis: get the picture? Westerhoff writes “that when children experience warm and loving feelings in worship, they are more likely to value church and, more importantly, associate God and church with love, warmth and joy.” So the best we can do for young children is hold them and hug them and welcome them into worship. If we want to nourish young faith, this can’t be a place for just adults.

Second, there is what he calls affiliative faith, belonging to the tribe. Sometimes this looks like youth ministry, often it includes confirmation and opportunities to serve and share alongside older members. And always this stage of faith gives young people a lot of time to talk and think and ask hard questions. This stage of faith takes teens seriously – it expects them to contribute and helps them sort out what that might look like in age appropriate ways – and it never, ever shames or pushes young people away.

Contemporary research shows that teens in the United States and England grow up uncertain that they are loved and safe. They aren’t sure whether they are valued “as unique individuals or wanted by society or even their families.” As a consequence, gangs are epidemic… because they create a place to belong.

• Now, you know who does a GREAT job at welcoming and training young people? The Mormons – I don’t like or even pretend to understand some of their theology – but man, do they treat their young women and men like serious human beings.

• They have rites of passage, they have meaningful ways to serve and they regularly reward and recognize the contributions their young people make every week.

So, if we are serious about nourishing the faith of our teens, helping them grasp and experience a sense of belong is essential.

This brings me to the third stage of faith – often called a searching faith – and is filled with questions, doubts and fears. Often this is the place where churches get into most trouble because they don’t honor the hard questions or like to acknowledge that life in the 21st century is different than times past. It is risky business to explore the darker questions and often church people don’t want to deal with these doubts.

• Which is why most churches lose their young adults – we don’t know how to honor their questions and searching – and we don’t know what to do with our own fears, too.

• Most people give up on the church during this phase – they are shunted aside or made to feel inadequate or inferior because of their doubts – and they never come back.

So tell me: have you noticed that massive sign above our doorway outside? What does it say? “Questions WELCOMED here?” Not "WELCOME!" Every church in the United States will tell you that they are a "friendly" church where everyone is welcome - even when that isn't ture - and it mostly isn't. You see, this questioning and searching faith is serious business. If we want to grow the church – and mature beyond the angry sense of shame that seems to dominate our culture – we must welcome ALL questions here.

Because, you see, the fourth stage of faith is what might be called an owned faith and it rarely takes shape or form before age 30. It is build upon a foundation of welcome and early experiences of love, a deep sense of belonging and an honest wrestling with doubt and fear. And when this faith matures, it is no longer something passed on by family or culture: it is owned. It is real and personal and deeply powerful.

• That’s why we are called towards life-long learning and reflection. That’s why almost every Monday night we have a time for study and conversation.

• And that’s why churches that don’t study and think and question atrophy and die – adult faith has to be owned.

Jesus lived in a family and culture that helped him grow in wisdom and stature and strength. We don’t – so we have to do faith development in a new way. And we are – and will grow deeper with your help. St. Paul once said to his church leaders:

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. Be thankful: Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

He’s talking about faith development: so let those who have ears to hear – hear!

images: icons 1-4 public domain; icons 5-6 from the work of kathleen anderson @
icon 7 from the work of jesus carlos de villalonga;image 8 public domain; image 9from st. martin's in the field, london; image 10 dianne de mott


Black Pete said…
My denomination, the United Church of Canada, is and has been pioneering the honouring of hard questions and encouraging debate and discussion for some time:

That said, people are not flocking into the church even so. There are a number of possible reasons. My own pet reason is that the denomination's culture has not changed sufficiently to meet up with its theology: we're still same old, same old in terms of worship that does not speak to 21st century people. Worship- times, music, layout, style, and of course architecture, are largely unchanged.

Another, less changeable issue for the denomination is that "church" remains a knee-jerk pejorative for many people, a buzz-word that shuts down thinking (other example: "organized religion"). As religion sociologist Reginald Bibby put it, no one is even coming to the table, no matter what is being served up. Unlike the United States, Canada is not culturally "Christian" --there isn't the relatively large cultural identification as "Christian" that you have in the US.

There is, of course, a great deal more that could be said and considered.

I have come to the conclusion that "church" as we know it in the mainstream must die to rise again in a different form. Maybe as a series of ecclesial base communities, home churches, whatever. It may happen. It may not. In the meantime, we await the Messiah, however long it takes.
Ed said…
Good and meaningful values that are established in childhood and held true as an adult are the keys to preventing the many social and political ills of society.


Five-Time Author Teaches Us We Can Each Make a Difference – The Choice is Ours.
The Value of Values educates us on how to establish a culture that will ensure harmony for generations to come and diminish the aggressive ways of the powerful…just by teaching our children values.

Did you know that an individual’s values are established in childhood and serve as filters when determining right from wrong throughout the person’s life? In today’s society, this process of establishing values within our children is given little concern. How are our children supposed to grow up to be adults with values if we’re not teaching them values from the beginning?

The responsibilities of parenting have become a reactionary process whereby each parent is doing whatever he or she must do in order to just get through life. By default, we are teaching our children that values such as integrity, respect for life, courage of conviction, purposefulness and generosity are secondary to making a living. In truth, there is absolutely nothing stopping us from being true to good and meaningful values except ourselves.

The Value of Values teaches us the required actions and reasons this important transition is needed. This book identifies what it will take from each of us to sustain the drive to pass our values onto our children.

Publisher’s Web site:
ISBN: 978-1-60860-381-7 / SKU: 1608603814

About the Author:
Ed Gagnon is a vice president at a manufacturing company in North Attleboro, Massachusetts. The Value of Values is his fifth published book, and he has more in the works.

For media inquiries, appearances, or other publicity — please contact:
Ellen Green —
RJ said…
I think you are essentially right, Black Pete, re: the culture of church has not changed to match the theology. We seem stuck in either the 50s or the 70s when most people are living faster than the speed of light. One of my hunches is that as we change the worship and mission structure of our congregations to be more lively and engaging - our architecture, too - then we communicate a commitment to hospitality. At the same time, we then are able to invite new folk into a whole new set of values and insights that are ancient and holy.

I am glad that Canada does not have the knee-jerk anti-church bias that open-minded people do in the USA. That is another big battle... let's keep talking about this, ok?
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