Passing on the Faith
Faith Formation in the Small Congregation
Note: This article is part of a special Patheos Symposium, Passing on the Faith: Teaching the Next Generation. Read more perspectives here.
How do we pass faith on to our children? The answer used to be easy: Sunday school, Vacation Bible School (VBS), Confirmation classes, Bible memorization, Davey & Goliath videos (I know, I'm dating myself). But those days are gone, or at least changing. In all three congregations I've served, this has been one of the biggest challenges. Everyone agrees Christian education is a top priority, but questions abound about how to do it.
I should note that all my congregations have been small. However, I believe the small church is the "canary in the coalmine"; the issues we face will eventually impact every congregation. But publishers have been behind the curve in that most curricula is designed for bigger churches, with lessons divided into age groups, assuming a group of children and a teacher in each class. I laugh every time I read, "Divide the class into small groups." Our congregation is a small group!
Another challenge is that we're progressive. At almost every "progressive Christian" seminar, someone asks, "What resources do you recommend for children?" In almost every case, the response is, "I don't know; that's not my area of expertise." Although Marcus Borg once added this advice: "Don't teach them anything they'll have to unlearn."
I did pick up a flyer for Seasons of the Spirit from Wood Lake Publishing Inc. at a conference, and we've used that for many years now. Not only is it progressive, it's also lectionary-based, which allows us to connect the children's lesson with what is read in the worship service. It's the closest we've ever come to my dream curriculum of a multi-generational toolbox, which provides a variety of material to be chosen and used by our (by necessity) very flexible teachers.
But a good curriculum isn't enough. We have also discovered that what is absolutely crucial is creativity, innovation, and flexibility on the part of parents, teachers, worship planners, pastor, and congregation. For example, even though I never thought I'd agree to Sunday school during worship, for quite a while we dismissed the kids after the Prayer of the Day for Kids' Time. I began each worship service with a conversation time with the children—not a children's sermon, but a brief introduction to the scripture passage they'd be learning. It was a time for me to connect with the kids even though I wasn't their teacher. They would return in time for Communion.
Because Kids' Time wasn't very long, we added a two-hour Second Sunday School program, which gave us the opportunity to go into more depth with a lesson or theme. We've used the time for some intergenerational classes as well.
Now that our little group of children is getting older, we've discontinued Kids' Time (although the arrival of two-year-old twins has caused us to put on our thinking caps once again) and they stay with their parents in worship. I now invite them to take turns bringing an object for me to spontaneously create a message during the service. Even though it isn't supposed to be "Stump the Pastor," they delight in bringing things they think can't possibly have anything to do with church (so far, I haven't been stumped). I find these to be invaluable relationship building moments.
Speaking of relationship building, an often-neglected element is the inclusion of kids in the planning process. They have valuable insights and ideas, and need to be assured that their voices are important and welcome. They also need to hear the message that it's okay to ask questions and that we really mean it. They can come up with some doozies, but we should all be prepared for every moment to be a teaching moment.
Another important component is the inclusion of kids in worship leadership in age-appropriate ways. It is a joy to watch them grow into their roles as lectors, cantors, intercessors, musicians, and Communion assistants. Much more than just creating an assigned acolyte schedule, we allow them to develop their own sense of giftedness and calling within the church.
Finally, I am convinced that the most important component of the spiritual development of children is their interaction with adults who are willing to share their stories, questions, and journeys of faith. Of course, this means that there must be an ongoing program of adult development, too. Congregational service projects are also good, not simply as activities, but as opportunities to connect their faith with life in the world with adults who in reality are their spiritual mentors.
How do we pass faith on to our children today? The times in which we live call for creativity and imagination. No curriculum can provide it all. We must be intentional, inclusive, and inter-generational. And we must remember that we adults, with wisdom to impart, can be the best resources of all.
Pass it on!
Pastor Susan Strouse is a native of Pottstown, PA (near Philadelphia) and is a graduate of Antioch University/Philadelphia (B.A. in Human Services) and the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg (Master of Divinity) She has previously served congregations in Buffalo, NY and Novato, CA. She has been at First United Lutheran Church in San Francisco since 2004. She has also served as the Dean of the San Francisco Conference of the Sierra Pacific Synod (ELCA) since 2010.
In 2005 she received a Doctor of Ministry degree from the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. Her area of study and interest is interfaith theology, particularly working with congregations and clergy to explore the meaning of being a Christian in our religiously diverse world. She served as the Interim Executive Director of the Interfaith Center at the Presidio from 2011-2012.