Imagine an English, Christian household in the year 1716 . . . 300 years ago. It’s after dinner and the family gathers in the candlelight to pray and discuss the scripture for the upcoming Sunday. They all listen intently to the text and share thoughts about what it means to each of them, drawing on previous teachings and what the tradition tells them about Jesus. As the hours wane to bedtime, father gathers the children for a prayer and asks God to keep them safe through the night. When the sermon comes on Sunday morning, the family is primed and ready for further teaching about the text – what new insights will the minister offer? They worship in word and song, together, and go in Christ’s to love and serve the Lord throughout the week.
This family culture is vastly different from most families in the western world today. One major difference between then and now in the mainline church is where faith formation happens. 300 years ago it was the father’s job to teach children a life of faith, not a life of going to church on Sunday, but a daily consideration of how one’s choices measured next to the values in scripture, a commitment to daily prayer, and regular study of the scriptures. Theology was cultivated and lived out on a daily basis, individually and within families.
Sunday school started out as a mission project to educate poor children who worked in factories during the week. As the culture and needs changed, the purpose of Sunday school shifted to educating children on Sundays about faith. It became a way to draw in and engage new families in church – sound familiar? The church has been seeking ways of attracting new families longer than any of us can remember. What we lost along the way was the faith teaching centered in the family. As parents relied more and more on the church to teach their kids about the Bible and Christian values, children lost the guidance that parents can offer in integrating the theology and orientation of their hearts toward God into their daily lives. Children spend an average of 40 hours a year in church related activities, while they spend on average 100 waking hours a week with their families. This is an example of why parents are the primary educators of their children about life . . . and faith.
If children are learning about a life of faith at home, what is the purpose of the church? Jesus said, wherever (at least) 2 or 3 are gathered, there I am, so we gather to worship God, to support and encourage each other in our faith journeys, to know each other and be known in community, to answer God’s call to serve where we are needed, and to make disciples of Jesus. I would also include some time in the week for support for parents in living a life of faith, and thus teaching their children about a life of faith. Children have lots of questions and they can easily catch parents off guard, so it’s important to connect parents to support and wisdom within the church community so they can reach out and don’t feel alone in their struggles.
It takes whole community support to live into God’s call on our lives. We need the energy of young people, the wonder that children bring, wisdom of the sages, passion of those seasoned in life, safe places to share our hearts, curiosity and welcome toward the stranger, and trust in God.
We can’t do any of this without God’s help . . . the good news is that God is already here. Thanks be to God.