What Should We Do With the Kids? (Carla)

What Should We Do With the Kids? (Carla) January 1, 2009

I am certain there will be comments about this and that some of them will insinuate I am not a very good mother. Or a very good Christian. But a conversation I had this summer has convinced me that I have truly moved into a new place when it comes to the spiritual lives of my children.

I met a wonderful couple who had read my chapter in The Emergent Manifesto of Hope and wanted to talk to me about spiritual formation. They had both been raised in Christian traditions that emphasize a moment of conversion as the mark of true faith. Their child was only 15 months old, but they were already facing pressure from their parents to start talking to their baby about Jesus. They knew that if they didn’t have a “she-prayed-the-prayer” story to tell grandmas and grandpas soon, they were going to have some ‘splainin’ to do.

They are now invested in the emergent conversation. They are part of a small house church that they love. They feel like they’ve found an expression of faith that is meaningful and sustainable for them. And, like so many new parents, they are trying to figure out how to pass their faith on to their child.

The evangelical model of conversion makes that process easy for parents. You take your child to Sunday school, you read a decent Children’s Bible, you select a devotional or a book or a DVD from the vast collection of resources meant to help parents explain Jesus to their children and wait for that moment when your preschooler says a little prayer and asks Jesus into her heart. But for an increasing number of Christian parents, this model doesn’t fit the kind of faith they are seeking to live. It doesn’t fit with the faith they want for their children. For many, it reflects the very issues that have left them unable to continue participation in the evangelical churches of their youth.

There is a growing need for the emergent conversation to expand to include thoughts about the spiritual formation of children. There are some great models out there that move away from the education framework of spiritual formation and harken instead to experiential learning. But I think many faith communities have a hard time getting parents on board with anything that feels even remotely experimental.

Many emerging churches see families leave when their kids hit preschool age. It’s as though we are perfectly willing to mess around with our own spiritual lives and try out the candles and couches thing. But when we have kids, we don’t want the uncertainty. We don’t want the doubt and the questions and the maybes. We want them to learn the verses and sing the songs and say the prayer. They can rebel later.

I used to think this was just fear talking–and for some parents it might be–but I also think that for couples like the one I met with, the issue is that this conversation simply hasn’t moved far enough yet. They don’t want the old methods, they want new ideas for raising children who love God and desire to follow in the way of Jesus.

We need to talk about what replaces the idea of a one-time conversion in our children. We need to talk about ways to tell the story of our faith without the baggage so many of us have spent years trying to overcome. And we need to start providing families with resources that don’t rely on the educational model to help them create faith-filled homes.

So let’s talk. What are you doing as families, as churches, as communities, that you and your children find meaningful and formative? 

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  • Your Name

    How about the same thing we know we need to engage the adults in the faith…relationships! I don’t know too many people who have come to love God through Christ in any kind of a vacuum. It usually involves others (no matter what the “flavor” of the faith). I don’t have direct experience with the emergent church but have tried to read and learn so am I wrong to conclude that in addition to being very experiential, it’s also highly relational?
    Whatever the model/method/curriculum/style the body of believers is using, it needs to flood the young ones with plenty of healthy, Christian relationships. The old model of one teacher or one youth leader to a room full of kids for the whole year just doesn’t make that cut. The ratio needs to be a “good” one (however you want to define it) and it needs to involve a variety of personalities (especially the older the children get). We do a great disservice to our kids’ introduction and development of the faith if it all hinges on one person (two at best). And let’s say that leader IS a “super star” and the kids do connect with him/her. What happens when that “super star” burns out and/or moves on? So goes the faith in the child. Not a healthy situation…
    The LOGOS Ministry is very interested in looking at what child-friendly (or family-friendly) worship means. How do we really engage the kids in worship without separating them out? Is that possible? Do you lose the adults in the process? Does that matter?
    Anyone interested in being part of that conversation?

  • Sorry…the post timed out and didn’t pick up my name. I wrote the above comment about relationships and children.

  • Bizzy

    this is an issue I struggle with often. My children are aged 27, 17, and 12 and I cannot say I have done a very good job imparting faith to them. My 27 year old is a flat out agnostic/borderline atheist and my younger two have little or no faith at all either. I made a choice to stop sending them to sunday school because of the blatant teaching of a turn or burn nature but now I wish I had continued because of some very bad choices my 17 yr old started making. Something is better than nothing I guess. I just really didn’t want my children taught something that I throughly disagree with.

  • Cedar Ridge Community Church (generally viewed as an emerging church) has been grappling with how to better integrate different age groups. Cedar Ridge is 30% under 18, and for a long time kept the age groups segregated for the entire worship period except for occasional family worship Sundays. The general feeling is that this is not good, and we have been experimenting with various things with no expectation that we would adopt a new pattern that would be same every Sunday.
    Cedar Ridge has an attendance of about 400, divided between 2 services.

  • Kristin

    I so appreciated this blog! My husband and I grew up in A/G ministers homes and began our soul searching journey about 5 years ago when we lost a baby at 19 weeks and all the “christianese” just didn’t do it any more. The simple prayers just didn’t seem to help. We felt like there was more. And so we began our search and found authors such as Tony Jones, Rob Bell, Erwin McManus & Brian McLeran, just to name a few. We are still on that search. I think that is what encourages me that it is all going to be okay when it comes to my faith and my children. We have two daughters, Grace is 3 1/2 and Hope is 12 months. They have a few BOZ dvds but I sure haven’t drowned them in evangelical curriculum from GPH like our parents would probably like to. We don’t always pray over our food. In fact, there is just a lot of things that we don’t talk about until the questions are asked. Being as our oldest is only 3 1/2 the questions are really just beginning. I think one of the greatest things about this journey that I find myself on is allowing my children to see that I don’t have all the answers like my parents always seemed to have. (which weren’t always the right ones) I’m totally in agreement that we need more out there for families and parents to explore when it comes to faith and parenting from the Emergent perspective. I have, however, recently discovered Eugene Petersons “My First Message” devotional Bible that is really excellent. It asks great questions throughout it and is for ages 4-8. I think, for me, it is important to give my children the info and gently guide them but ultimately they will find their own journey. Just like I have. I think teaching your children faith is just about like anything else in parenting, its ALL experimental!

  • What an aweseom topic! My children are 14, 12, 5 and 3. The two oldest are from a previous marriage and therefore get to participate in two different communities. This leads to great discussions with them.
    But I am worried about the younger two… I am certainly interested in this conversation!
    Thanks for the topic.

  • Amy

    Carla brings up a great subject…and an incredibly important one for parents.
    I actually posted a blog about this very subject twice on my blogpage.
    For anyone interested in reading it, as well as some insightful comments from my friends, feel free:
    ~Amy 🙂
    Walking In The Spirit

  • rick

    It seems Deuteronomy 6:6-9 (http://tinyurl.com/8wuk3j) is model enough. The Bible is not something that is divorced from what we do on a daily basis. It is a part of the daily fabric of our lives. Or at least it ought to be.
    Teachable moments are not the things of Sunday School or Bible Study Class, they are the things of why we eat the things we eat and work at the places we work and read the books we read.
    We were watching Mama Mia over the holidays and my High School Freshman daughter was mad because the protagonist chose to live with the guy rather than get married at the end. Did me proud as a father. All my girls have read ‘Twilight’ and the rest of the books in the series and are justifiably incensed with Bella’s behavior and attitude. We discuss how the Bible provides an alternative.
    Deuteronomy 6:6-9 is a lifestyle choice that we must adopt is we want to do more than provide information to our children.

  • This is tough stuff. For me, I would just love to spend time in the evenings with my hubby and kids reading the Bible, kids’ Bible storybooks, sing songs to and about Jesus, talk about what God is doing in our lives, whatever. But the kids are 13, 6, 4 and 2, and they fight like cats and dogs, and they get grouchy every time I try to do something like this. It doesn’t help that my hubby doesn’t really jump on board at all, and we all end up giving up in the end. Wow, Carla, talk about feeling like a bad Mom! LOL I am worse than you – do I get an award? No, seriously, I love this topic and it is a conversation we need to be having. You go girl!

  • Kenton

    So, I’m an emergent father of a 10-year old, and we attend a church I would describe as “emergent-tolerant” (A few pockets of emergent amid a lot of (loving?) suspicion) There is a flagship emergent church close by that I would love my son to connect to, but the lack of any real peer group keeps that from happening. I do teach his Sunday School class (and format my words VERY CAREFULLY), and find that helps. All-in-all, though, I can relate to where you’re at. My prayers are with you.
    And to Kristin: I grew up A/G too! I’m starting to become amazed at how many of us found our way into this conversation who grew up A/G.

  • I have written about this before on my blog, I’ll try and sumerise my thoughts
    I know one of the first thoughts of many parents who leave traditional church to do something different is “what about my kids”. The fact is the traditional church’s children’s program works very well for Christian parents looking to drop off the kids and have them “ministered to”. I do have my doubts, however, about how well the kids are actually being discipled.
    I read some news articles about the so called ‘Millenium Kids’ who it seems they are suffering from a lack of sleep and a bad diet, spend all their time surfing the net from the comfort of their own bedrooms and playing PSP while watching their personal LCD TV while their ‘helicopter parents’ look on ready to meet their every need.
    I have no desire to cut my kids off from this completely, I want them to be relevant to their generation and the challenges that their generation will face. If they do not experience what it is to be part of their generation then how will they transcend what defines their generation to help bring gospel transformation to it. I guess this is part of the tension of being a ‘Emerging Missional Parent’. The other part of this tension is that while I want them to transcend their generation, I also want them to transcend the church.
    I want them to be fully devoted followers of Jesus.
    My family has been and will continue to be involved in forms of traditional church and in emerging missional forms of church – Rightly or wrongly, there is a compromise we have made between our missional beliefs and our parental desire for what the consumer church offers. It’s just too easy to drop the kids at Sunday School.
    The Question now becomes: Do I want my child ‘taken care of’ or do I want them discipled. As I said above I have my doubts that traditional church programs are actually discipling kids/teens/ young adults all that much. My own experience tells me they aren’t, what I see in the lives of my friends tells me they aren’t and what I hear from smatter more experiences leaders in the church tells me they aren’t. Not that I have seen or heard of anyone doing something different and claiming better results and it will be a few years before the results are in on most of the ‘newer’ forms of church.
    A while back I was drafting a doc to describe a “different sort of gathering” to some others and I included the following:
    “If the group included many ‘families’ it would be possible that one week we do ‘all age’ learning where families learn together and on the alternate weeks we separate adults and kids for learning time, Kids not in ‘Sunday School’ just free to be kids as part of the community.”
    I showed it to a mate who is a pastor in a traditional Baptist church and his response to that section was: “This is the sort of community/gathering I want to be part of with my kids.”
    I also heard of a pastor who planted a church for ‘just for kids’. He told the adults, ‘I’m not interested in doing anything for you, I’m doing stuff for kids, you can come, you can be involved, get in and get dirty but if you want stuff aimed at you do it yourself.
    I still don’t have any easy answers to this but what ever I do next (we are about to move so will be starting over ‘church’ wise) I’m going for something integrated where we worship as a family, learn as a family and mission as a family.
    Ultimately I have no easy answers, only questions.
    How does being a parent change the way I approach church?
    What experience of church do I want for my kids?
    Do I want my child ‘taken care of’ or do I want them discipled?
    Is there a better way?

  • Ryan

    I really dislike thinking of conversion as a single moment. My sister is a vegetarian, but she didn’t become one overnight just because she stopped eating meat on a specific date; instead, it was a series of events that led to the conversion. Likewise, people who change sides of a political conversation do so as a result of multiple events over a period of time. Obviously religion is a bigger deal, so it’s an even longer process. I can point to moments in my childhood when I “accepted Christ into my life,” but the reason I still believe today is due to a process of conversations and realizations that can’t be contained in a prayer pamphlet.
    If kids are to have a lasting faith, they need to have a growing, progressive understanding of the Jesus story. We shouldn’t focus on whether they’re “saved” or “unsaved” but rather whether they’re learning to live like Jesus in their own part of the God story.

  • Steve K.

    I am so grateful for this blog post, just to be reminded (again) that there are other folks out there struggling with these important questions. As a post-congregational parent of three young kids, I have felt conflicted many times over the last year and a half since “leaving church,” worrying about the spiritual formation of our kids. But then I find myself in the middle of a dinner-time conversation with my 8-year-old daughter answering the question, “What is sin?” and I remember that spiritual formation is happening all the time.
    One site that could really be a great resource, especially if more of us (myself included) contributed to it, is the Emerging Parents site:
    Thanks again for re-sparking this much-needed conversation!
    Steve K.

  • Good post and comments….some random thoughts from a dad of three kids ( 10,6 and 2) in an emerging faith community. http://www.disciplesfellowship.com/ would love to continue conversation with anyone wanting to take this further: haynes5@mac.com
    – The intergenerational thing seems key for discipleship to take place. Those that segment children and youth in multi million dollar youth and teen wings most of the time miss out.
    – Curric discussions seem to dominate the whole Children area field…and I would agree it is an element- but tends to push out other thing. Very “modern” and “western” to think that the “right”
    curric can be the “be all” here. However, I will say it I think we teach the stories well without connecting the dots and giving kids a view of the big picture narrative.
    -As someone mentioned above- discipleship is the key activity in being intentional about creating a context for God to do the work of spiritual formation
    – Children being active participants in the intergenerational worship gatherings may not seem like a big deal – but I think it is key in affirming that the children are active participants in the mission of God….even in worship gatherings.
    – I think there is some great potential for work to be done in this area in furthering the conversation. Loved Carla’s book on the Myth of Perfect Mother…..in terms of a book on children and spiritual formation I found “Children Matter” by Scottie May, Canell and Stonehouse the most thorough. Beckwith is a great thinker here also. However, I think there is much more to be written about here and those books/authors only “set the table” in terms of the conversation that needs to take place.

  • I’m so excited to see this conversation happening. The link above is what I wrote on the same issue just a week ago (on Christmas).
    Modernists seem to subscribe to what Karl Popper called a “bucket theory” of knowledge. You open up a kid’s mind, and pour in what you want them to “know.” But it doesn’t work that way. Kids create knowledge from their experience. I want so much for my kids to understand how wonderful God is, how walking with Jesus is an incredible blessing, but I know that knowledge has to grow from their own life journey.
    It’s hard to wait, though. I sometimes wish I could “transmit” knowledge to them in that way. Instead, I guess I’ll have to count on emerging/evolving community to help them learn.

  • Julie, I am glad to hear from you again. Hope you are doing better these days. Yes, I get conflicted too about what my kids do and do not do, compared to other kids. With my first, I was very legalistic (also 18 and alone, so I think legalism probably helped me just survive, LOL) and pretty much forbade everything. I have since loosened my grip, partly because I think if we are to relate to people who do not know Jesus, we should be aware of what they are into. For instance, I hated the very thought of the Harry Potter books until I read them. Then I fell in love! But the books do not portray witchcraft in a realistic way at all, and I find solace in that. Anyway, I let my kids engage in activities that do not point to Christ, as long as they do not point away from Him. Wow, I feel like I am giving you parenting advice or something. Guess it is easy to ramble online…. I just wanted to encourage you, and to relate – we have a lot in common as Mommies. And I am happy to see you here. God bless you!

  • Ivy Beckwith

    Carla –
    Thanks for raising this topic. I love reading the comments. By the way – the Beckwith book Ken Haynes mentioned is Postmodern Children’s Ministry (edited by Carla). For those out there who don’t know about it — the book deals with many of the issues Carla raised but like Ken said there is a lot more to be said about this topic and a lot more creativity that needs to be invested in this area both by parents and churches.

  • Carla

    Ivy–so glad you are here. I woke up this morning thinking “I forgot to mention Ivy’s book!!!!” and popped in here to rectify it. So thank you Ken and Ivy for beating me to it.
    Ivy’s book is the perfect “first stop” for churches looking for new ways of thinking about and working with the spiritual formation of children. She unpacks so many assumptions and offers wonderful, real-life ideas for working within existing structures to create new models of ministry. And it’s beautifully edited.

  • Matt Mc.

    I am loving this topic. Thanks so much, everyone.
    I am a divorced dad. My son lives with his mom and she is a “wiccan/witch”. I dabbled in that religion for a while but Jesus called me back. I am frustrated with how to share my faith w/ my son. In my post-modern moments of clarity, I know that living the example of Christ to my son is the best way, but, I don’t see him that often (we live in different states). Are there any other parents in a similar situation? Shoot me an email matty at the strange land dot net.

  • Your Name

    I’m so glad you’re raising this really important topic. Our church uses the interdenominational workshop rotation model (WoRM) for Sunday Schools that I think does a terrific job combining experiential learning with spiritual formation. It provides information, covers Bible stories in depth from many different angles, but finishes with more questions for kids to ponder. In today’s world, I think it’s critically important to get comfortable wrestling with the questions of faith.
    Here’s a link to the WoRM model community: http://www.rotation.org/
    Thanks for opening up the converstation!

  • Ahh- good to see Ivy on also. I will also say that the 50 or so podcasts that Ivy did on the wired parish podcast feed was just incredible. I loved listening to this sage and her fireside chats. Ivy….wish we could lure you back into doing more of these. They were golden….and yes I saved them to my hard drive in case wired ever went away….whew !

  • (sorry for the double post, I just realized my name didn’t appear in the one above).
    I’m so glad you’re raising this really important topic. Our church uses the interdenominational workshop rotation model (WoRM) for Sunday Schools that I think does a terrific job combining experiential learning with spiritual formation. It provides information, covers Bible stories in depth from many different angles, but finishes with more questions for kids to ponder. In today’s world, I think it’s critically important to get comfortable wrestling with the questions of faith.
    Here’s a link to the WoRM model community: http://www.rotation.org/
    Thanks for opening up the converstation!

  • Ivy so glad to see you on the thread also. I have told Ivy this before but I will say it again. Her 50 episode podcast on children and spiritual formation is gold ! THe blend of taking good academic work in this area along with her pastoral sensitivities was great. I loved listening to these and pretty much put it up there with the best resources out there. The podcast was part of the discontinued wired parish gig….but I was sure to save them to my hard drive in case it went away. Ivy- would love for you to crank this back up…it would continue to fill a huge gap.

  • AprilK

    My kids are 6 & 3. We’re in a house church. I send them to AWANAS with friends at a church that is the antithesis of emerging! I’ve said it more than once — it’s OK to experiment with my own spirituality, but not OK for me to experiment with my kids. AWANAS is my “safety net.” If we blow it in this house church thing, at least they got some solid Bible teaching somewhere!
    Also, I’m on board with the idea of it being something the parents should be doing at home. But someone has GOT to get my back. My husband and I can’t do it alone. Sometimes I think people say that as a cop-out because they don’t know what to do with the kids either.

  • alishamaile

    I have no children and have not had to face some of the unique questions you are faced with as a parent and Christian. However, I can speak to my experience. I did not grow up with parents or anyone introducing the concept of God to me. I became intrigued with the idea of God and flirted with the idea of Christianity throughout most of high school and finally fell in love with Christ the end of my junior year of high school and I believe Anne Lamott articulates my experience well in Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, “My faith did not start with a leap but rather a series of staggers from what seemed like one safe place to another. Like lily pads, round and green, these places summoned and then held me up while I grew. Each prepared me for the next leaf on which I would land and in this way I moved across the swamp of doubt and fear.” For me there was not one prayer or moment of conversion. It was a long, painful process with hundreds of prayers and finally understanding my brokenness and (possibly the most difficult and emotionally painful part for me) allowing myself to be loved. I think it is unfortunate when parents or just Christians in general place all this pressure on “the salvation prayer.” I believe it puts the emphasis on the wrong thing. The most important thing is when people start to ask questions because when “seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you.”