If there is one thing we’ve learned as Christian educators during this pandemic, it’s that many of our parents were ill-prepared to take on the role of being faith-formers at home when our church buildings closed and our church programmes were shuttered.
And, it wasn’t their fault!
When asked, most parents say that they ought to be the primary influencers of faith with their children, and they are absolutely right. Yet, these same parents also tell us they have absolutely no idea how to do this because they haven’t been shown how. Sadly, with our decades-long emphasis on forming faith with children within our church buildings through Sunday school, mid-week groups and summer programming we’ve inadvertently left our parents in the dark on how to talk about and practice faith at home as a family.
As we look to rebuild our educational programmes we can’t ignore what we’ve learned these last couple of years; we must not cut our parents out of our faith formation plans and in fact we need to make families the centre of our approach going forward.
How can we teach and show parents great ways to talk about and celebrate faith at home? I have a simple idea for you to consider.
In 2019 I attended meetings in London, England. While there I took advantage of my time in the U.K. to do some self-guided continuing education. I connected with a friend who oversees children’s ministry for the Church of England and asked her to set me up with a few visits to small congregations that had revitalized through the Fresh Expressions movement. One of the churches she sent me to was All Saint’s, Fulham in the suburbs of London.
When I arrived the church was beginning to fill up with people of all ages. There was an incredible energy as everyone greeted each other across the pews. Scooters, prams and wagons filled the narthex, and there were no less than three dogs sitting in the sanctuary waiting for worship to begin. That morning I discovered a number of simple things this church had done to turn things around, but it was their pre-school Sunday school class that stood out the most to me.
When I entered the classroom I was surprised to see as many adults in the room as kids. Everyone was sitting in a circle. The young dad who was teaching the class had his little boy perched on his hip, and each child in the class was sitting on a parent’s lap or cuddled in beside their mom or dad.
Our teacher welcomed everyone and asked the kids and parents to share some of the things they’d done that week. We heard stories about games in the park, trips to the grocery store and special bedtime stories. He then asked everyone about the times they’d experienced God that week. Again, we heard simple stories of God’s kindness and love experienced through the everyday events of life.
Our bible story was read from a colourful children’s bible story book and was followed by opened-ended questions inviting further stories of awe and delight. Kids and parents all participated in the discussion as they built on each other’s thoughts and ideas. We then moved on to an activity that had each child and parent working together to colour a picture that expressed how they might care for others as Jesus does.
We gathered back together to view all the pictures and then sang a couple of favourite songs chosen by the kids and parents. Everyone sang loudly with the kids dancing with their parents. Finally, we closed with a simple popcorn style prayer that had us give thanks to God for those who care for us.
I asked the teacher about their unique approach with this pre-school class. He told me that the church had made a decision a number of years ago to prioritize teaching their parents how to talk about and celebrate faith with their children at home. Rather than having parents attend a few lectures each year in the church hall, they saw this class as their best way of modelling great faith formation practices for their parents with young children. With parents participating in the class week by week they were able to collect stories, activities, conversations and songs that could be repeated at home. The children loved going to class with their parents and together everyone learned ways to weave faithful conversations and activities through the everyday activities of their lives.
After class I saw parents touching base with one another, making plans for play dates and dinners out together. The teacher was happy to answer any questions parents posed and make great book recommendations. The unexpected bonus of their approach was that these families have become a supportive cohort within the church, leaning on each other for advice and new ideas.
I was told the church had done very little to make the shift to this new, tweaked model for their pre-school class. They continued to use the curriculum they had been using when it was a more traditional class, and that revising the lesson plans was relatively simple. One parent from each family was asked to attend class with their child, and while most of the children attended with a mom or dad, a grandparent was always welcome if they were the one bringing their grandchild to church. In families with two parents most rotated who would attend class with their child and who would stay in the sanctuary for worship, and in some cases a single parent rotated with a grandparent each week so that all adult members of the family would experience this mentoring model.
As we left the classroom to return to the sanctuary for communion, it was a delight to watch kids swinging off of their parents arms, chattering about all they had done together that morning. It was wonderful to see this one simple shift to an already existing class make such an incredible change in the lives of the families of this church.
What simple tweak or shift might you make at your church to support and resource parents?