Passing on the Faith: Community Trumps Theology

Passing on the Faith: Community Trumps Theology August 29, 2013

In the spirit of “back to school” time, Patheos has invited bloggers to write about passing our faith down to our children.

Last week was Choir Camp for the Boys & Girls Choir at my suburban Episcopal church. The annual late-summer camp gives young choristers an opportunity to have fun together, as well as begin learning music and the choir director’s expectations before the program year starts. Each day of choir camp consists of several hours of music practice as well as on-site crafts and games, and off-site trips to places like a local lake and a kids’ fitness center.

My daughter at choir camp last week.

My two girls love choir camp. In fact, they love choir. And my son cannot wait to join the choir this fall. They love it even though it is a demanding commitment, with up to three rehearsals per week, including 8:30 a.m. every Sunday, and weekly music theory classes. For my three kids, participating in the church choir goes far beyond a musical experience (although it is that) and beyond a fun experience (although it is that too). Fundamentally, being in the church choir has been a community experience. They feel at home when they are at choir. They feel they can be themselves. They make friends outside of their neighborhood and school. They come home from rehearsals and services with funny stories about pranks pulled and off-the-cuff cartoons passed around in the choir loft. And they work really, really hard—in part because they want to sound good, but in part because they want to please and support their fellow choir members and especially their choir director. In choir, my children are learning what it means not just to go to church, but what it is to be church for one another—what it means to be in a fellowship of people with a common faith, where standards are high and all are accepted, with a common goal of worshipping God with their best efforts and talents.

My children have participated their whole lives in various church programs, including the nursery, Sunday School, and outreach projects. But choir is the thing that (finally, after many years of hard Sunday mornings) has made them want to come to church. Choir is the thing that led them to belong to our church not just in name, but in reality. This makes sense to me, because choir is where they have most powerfully experienced what it feels like to be part of a Christian community.

I believe that meaningful experiences of community have the most potential to bind my children first to our local church and eventually to the greater Christian community, and therefore the most potential to lead them to an adult life of faith. Learning Bible stories and the creeds, figuring out exactly what they believe about God and Jesus, engaging in acts of love and charity for those less fortunate than they are—all of these are valuable. But for me, they are not the core of what it means to be part of a church. My children can do all those things elsewhere, on their own or with other people. And I’m not convinced that any of those things will, on their own, lead them to ultimately embrace Christianity and decide to live a life of faith (as I hope they will). I’m not sure it’s even possible for theological truths—God’s unconditional love, Christ’s suffering on the cross—to be meaningful to children in the deep, life-altering way they must be if one is to truly live as a Christian. Rather, I believe that the long-term potential of their faith will be most influenced by experiences of community—connecting with people whose paths they would otherwise not cross, engaging in work together for a common purpose, witnessing times when those who are struggling are held up by those who are strong, being the struggling ones or the strong ones at different times, continuing to belong to one another even in times of disagreement or trouble.

I grew up at the same church my children are growing up in. I learned the same Bible stories, heard sermons on the same topics, and participated in the same choir (under a different choir director, of course). When I eventually landed in an evangelical college fellowship, initially I wondered why I hadn’t heard all this stuff about Jesus and atonement and resurrection in church growing up. My dad pointed out the obvious, which was that of course I heard all that stuff in the church where I grew up, I probably just wasn’t ready or able to really hear it. And yet, in spite of my obliviousness to matters of sin and salvation, my church, especially the choir, was a primary community for me as a teenager. Being part of that community prepared me to hear and accept the theological truths that led me to an intentional embracing of Christianity in college. Being part of that community showed me what it looks like and feels like to be the church together with other believers, even as I wasn’t yet clear on what exactly I believed. While my children’s paths will no doubt be different than mine was, I hope their being part of our church community, primarily through the choir, will likewise prepare them to eventually decide exactly what they believe and to live accordingly.

So when I send my children to Sunday School, I’m not that concerned about which Bible stories they are learning. Instead, I hope that being taught by Ms. Tomlinson or Mr. Schott or Mrs. Hooper gives them a glimpse of the many ways one can be a minister of God’s grace in the world. When they help fill Christmas stockings or Easter baskets for people living in shelters, I hope they understand that such work is not just about “good deeds” or giving ourselves a pat on the back. Instead, I hope they see that when we come together, we can do a lot more than we can alone, and also that small acts of love done by regular people are meaningful, even if we’re not changing the world in one fell swoop. And when they go to choir camp, I don’t really care that they are learning to name musical intervals and how to harmonize. Instead, I hope know that the choir has bound them more tightly than our Sunday-morning cajoling ever could to our church community. And I believe that in such experiences of community lies our best hope that one day, our children will claim the faith we have raised them in as their own.

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