MUCH research has been done recently about households where there is faith, giving voice and official data to what practitioners in the field have been saying for decades: parents and carers have the biggest influence in the faith development of their children.
The problem we are facing nationally is that it appears that many parents do not feel that responsibility — or, if they do, they do not feel confident enough to do something about it.
In the Church of England report Talking Jesus, 76 per cent of practising Christians questioned had come to faith under the age of 19. Even more astonishing, 40 per cent of them reported that their faith had begun before they were four. Parents are a vital part of this trend, and yet, among Anglican families in the report, only 29 per cent strongly agreed that it was their responsibility to nurture their children’s faith.
Reports describe various reasons for this hesitance among parents, from lack of confidence to feeling ill-equipped. Parents reported too much busyness to fit it in, or felt that it was the church’s job rather than theirs.
Too often, parents and carers feel that nurturing their child’s faith is about doing “church” at home. It can feel overwhelming to add the pressure of creating more activity into a family’s already busy schedule, and it puts pressure on parents to feel that they must “perform” faith for their children. But Deuteronomy 6.4-9 tells us that nurturing children’s faith is not about doing more activity at home: it is about talking about God and his ways in the ordinary, boring bits of life, because that is where he is: in the midst of it all.
In modern family life, it can be when we are making lunches in the morning, or sitting with our younger child while watching the older one swim. It is on the school run, and in the few minutes you get with your teenager when they come home late at night. This is where real discipleship happens.
Parents do not necessarily need a resource, an activity, or a book to help children develop their own faith. They themselves can be the resource for their children.
Children need to see our normal connection with God, whether it is singing worship songs with them in the room, reading our Bibles or Christian books in places where they can see, or praying out loud rather than in our heads, so that they can hear how we chat to God in our everyday lives.
Children need to see how adults talk and relate to God when they are feeling sad, when they are grieving, when they are worried, and when they are peaceful, joyful, and authentically grateful.
A LIFE lived with God is beautiful, and children and young people need to see that. But life does not have to be perfect to be a good witness. Our own imperfections are a gift to children, because it shows them that they, too, can be imperfect and yet loved by God. It shows them how to grow with him, and who he is in the middle of it all.
As families talk about their days, children need to hear parents say things such as: “I was so frustrated with my colleague that I had to go into the toilet and spend some time with God, because I was so angry I just wanted to hurt the guy. I spent ages asking God to give me peace and grace.”
One parent I worked with was having a terrible day. She bundled her two under-fives in the car to take them swimming, and then turned to her children and said: “I’m so tired, I’m going to put on a song and maybe cry for a bit, and God is going to hug me, and I’ll feel much better and then we can go swimming.”
When the song finished, she told her children, “I really needed that hug from God. I feel much stronger in my heart, now.” The next Sunday, her son was upset, and told his leader, “I’m going to go cry with God and get a hug.” And that is what he did.
There are many more skills that parents can develop, to be who they are called to be in the lives of their children, like learning to talk about where God is in the everyday, answering tough questions, and wondering about God together.
Parents and carers know their own children; so they can best help their children to connect to God in other ways that might work for them. A child who loves logic and intellectual things may connect with God through science and apologetics; another child who loves writing stories and letters may express themselves to God through reading Bible stories and writing their own psalms, stories, and poems to God.
Much of spiritual parenting is proactive, but there is also skill in “surfing the spiritual waves” of children’s interests. The faith of children and young people can seem fickle: they might be very into reading the Bible, then be completely not interested; they might love church, then go off it, then want to join the outreach ministry.
Part of parenting spiritually is about riding the waves that come and go, and helping to facilitate the next step, whether it is allowing them to stay up late sometimes to join in with your home group, or noticing how their obsession with fairness creates an opportunity to explore God’s heart of justice for the poor and hurting. Parents can learn to jump on, and help their children take the next step.
But, to start with, parents need to know that to begin their imperfect journey is enough. Even if parents do nothing else, intentionally creating “windows” into their own faith journey with God is incredibly powerful for their children.
Churches can invest in parents by running courses and one-off events that gather parents together to learn skills, so that they can talk about their faith more easily. We can keep encouraging parents to know that they are the most significant influence in their children’s faith, and that they are not alone.
BE CAREFUL to purge the word “should” from church vocabulary, however. Parents and carers already tend to feel guilty, and that they are not good enough to do the normal job of parenting, much less nurturing their children’s faith.
Because each household is unique, positive encouragement is needed. Some families love ritual, and some families love informality — there is no right way or better way to express relationship with God.
One of the most powerful things that we can also offer parents and carers is the sense that they are part of a community. What if church could become a place where: “How is your kid with nightmares and God? We are having troubles and we’ve prayed, and I’m just not sure what to do next,” is a normal part of after-church conversation?
What if we became a place where the faith development of children and teenagers was important and ordinary?
I have seen churches and families transformed when they begin to grasp this together. I have seen churches become flourishing multigenerational communities. I am grateful that the Synod has called this out. What an exciting adventure we could all be in for.
Rachel Turner leads The Bible Reading Fellowship’s (BRF’s) Parenting for Faith programme. For regular Parenting for Faith podcasts visit parentingforfaith.org/podcast; for details of the Parenting for Faith course visit parentingforfaith.org/parenting-faith-course.
Rachel Ridler with her sons
Through the faith ‘window’
Rachel Ridler, 31, from Doncaster, is a mother to two boys, aged three and five
I AM always looking out for new ideas as a mum, because I run a Christian blog to encourage mums to keep going in mission in the motherhood years.
I signed my boys up to the Treasure Box People, who send monthly packs of Bible stories and activities for them. I also follow GodVenture, which provides ideas to explore Bible stories as a family. We’re also going through the book Everyone A Child Should Know (10 Publishing), about influential people in the faith who’ve done inspiring things.
We decided a couple of years ago to be more intentional about bringing faith into daily life. So, when they learn about particular Bible stories at church, we will always look at them at home. We’re always playing worship music at home, and have a family prayer=time before we go up to bed, when we say a “sorry”, a “thank you” and a “please” prayer for the day.
I came across BRF’s course “Parenting for Faith” recently. It brought up a lot of things that I had not thought about. I lead the Parent’s Life Group at our church — a group of probably ten mums who met up every other Wednesday with our toddlers; so we decided to do the course together. We watched the video clips at home, then got together to discuss it.
In the first couple of sessions, we talked about providing “windows” into our faith-lives for our children. As mums, we want time alone, away from our children, so we can get quality time with God, but even for them to see our Bible left out on the coffee table, or us singing a song, provides them with a window on how it looks to be a Christian.
That idea had a big impact on me on the course, because it reminded me that, when I was young, I used to go down in the early morning and find my dad in the lounge reading his Bible and praying. But I never saw my mum doing that. As a youngish teenager, I remember being really worried that my mum wasn’t a Christian; so I never want my boys to worry that I don’t have an active relationship with God.
Another session that I’ve used with my boys concerns how we talk to God. They label the session “Chat and Catch”. We learnt that young kids don’t understand praying in their head. They suggest young children put their hands over their mouths and whisper into them, so that they can have a private conversation with God, but can hear it as well. Sometimes, now, I hear my eldest doing it, and I’ve thought: “Wow! That’s his connection with God. He’s found a way to talk to God that he understands.”
Trying to find ways to make talking about faith interesting for boys is important, because I think girls are happy to sit down and chat a bit more. One of the things also mentioned in the course is about going with what your child’s passion is, and using that to talk with them about God. At the moment, my son is fascinated with drumming and is having drum lessons; so we’re using that to connect him with someone in our church who plays the drums, and we sometimes say: “Wouldn’t it be great to use that for God.”
I found the course really helpful. It’s something I’d probably like to do every year, just to refresh my skills. I’d definitely recommend it to other parents.
Rachel Riddler blogs at rachelridlermumonamission.co.uk.