How Christians Pass on Their Faith
Passage: Deuteronomy 11:1–11:7, Deuteronomy 11:18–11:21
The forum was an adult Sunday school class where about fifty adults had just been asked “Who or what has influenced your life of faith?” The most popular answer was my mother. The second was my father. Grandparents and godparents scored high. Life events like “the birth of a child” or “the death of a loved one” or “being in war” were also high.
The group was then shown a list of what youth from seventh to twelfth grades listed as the top five influences on their faith. 74% of young women and 81% of young men had their mother in their top five. 50% of young women and 61% of young men had their father in their top five. While pastor did score well, featuring in 44% of young women’s top five and 57% of young men’s top five, it’s scores were still closer to grandparent than to mother.
“Why didn’t anyone mention the church?” was the question raised by a member of the Sunday school class after this exercise. And by that he meant why didn’t anyone mention Sunday school classes, like the one he was in, confirmation classes, a meaningful sermon. Why didn’t anyone mention the myriad programs that a church that could have a fifty member adult Sunday school class must surely be offering? How is it possible that in a room full of church people, many of whom I’m sure grew up in the church, no one saw church programs as a universal and impactful influence on their faith?
This morning I want us to come to see that they all did mention the church.
This morning we are looking at the question How Christians Pass on their faith. And your resource for further reading, where the story with which we began comes from, is a book called Frogs Without Legs Can’t Hear by David Anderson and Paul Hill. It’s a book with a strange title that comes from this story.
A mad scientist wanted to study the leaping ability of frogs. So he took a frog and shouted “Jump, frog, jump!” And responding to the noise, the frog jumped. The scientist measured the leaps of the jump repeating the procedure a few times. He then surgically removed one of the frog’s legs. He placed the frog on the lab table and said “Jump, frog, jump!” Again, responding to the noise, the frog jumped. He measured the distance of that jump. The scientist then surgically removed a second frog leg and repeated the process. The frog responded to the noise and jumped. The scientist then surgically removed a third frog leg and again got the frog to jump by shouting “jump, frog, jump.” Lastly, the scientist removed the fourth and final leg of the frog. He placed the frog on the table and shouted, “Jump, frog, jump!” But the frog stayed where it had been placed.
The scientist took the results of his experiments in and with great satisfaction came to his conclusion: Frogs without legs can’t hear.
Truly terrible story, I know.
However, the author’s posit if we in the church aren’t making the same mistakes the scientist made. We in the church desperately want to pass down our faith to the next generations. And yet we are seeing rates of faith decreasing with each successive generation. And that anxiety causes us to pump more and more resources and attention into church education programs and curricula that promise to be the silver bullet when it comes to making younger generations into disciples. The authors suggest that our attention might be misplaced.
The authors suggest that if the church is a frog, the head is church leadership and the torso is the public gathering of the church for worship, education, etc, the legs are the day in and day out homes of the faithful. And we have failed to tend to that aspect of the church frog
Which is something we should have known all along. Because it’s a sentiment that comes right out of the Bible.
Deuteronomy 11:1-7, 18-21 Love the Lord your God and keep his requirements, his decrees, his laws and his commands always. Remember today that your children were not the ones who saw and experienced the discipline of the Lord your God: his majesty, his mighty hand, his outstretched arm; the signs he performed and the things he did in the heart of Egypt, both to Pharaoh king of Egypt and to his whole country; what he did to the Egyptian army, to its horses and chariots, how he overwhelmed them with the waters of the Red Sea as they were pursuing you, and how the Lord brought lasting ruin on them. It was not your children who saw what he did for you in the wilderness until you arrived at this place, and what he did to Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab the Reubenite, when the earth opened its mouth right in the middle of all Israel and swallowed them up with their households, their tents and every living thing that belonged to them. But it was your own eyes that saw all these great things the Lord has done. Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates, so that your days and the days of your children may be many in the land the Lord swore to give your ancestors, as many as the days that the heavens are above the earth.
I love this passage for its wonderful simplicity yet immense depth. Deuteronomy is all about how the successive generations will live faithfully according to the laws of God. Love the Lord your God and keep his requirements, his decrees, his laws and his commands always. Remember today that your children were not the ones who saw and experienced the discipline of the Lord your God: his majesty, his mighty hand, his outstretched arm; the signs he performed and the things he did in the heart of Egypt, both to Pharaoh king of Egypt and to his whole country; what he did to the Egyptian army, to its horses and chariots, how he overwhelmed them with the waters of the Red Sea as they were pursuing you, and how the Lord brought lasting ruin on them. It was not your children who saw what he did for you in the wilderness until you arrived at this place, and what he did to Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab the Reubenite, when the earth opened its mouth right in the middle of all Israel and swallowed them up with their households, their tents and every living thing that belonged to them. But it was your own eyes that saw all these great things the Lord has done.
I love how clearly this presents the problem. When your children become adults and begin to make decisions for themselves about how they will live, how they will structure their lives, which gods they will follow, remember they didn’t see what you saw. They didn’t see the Red Sea part. They didn’t see the plagues. They didn’t see the water come from the rock. They didn’t see all the things you saw that are the basis of your life and faith.
We forget this in the church. You are here because at some point God came alive in your life. Maybe it was on a mission trip. Maybe it was on an Emmaus weekend. Maybe it was through the course of being raised in the faith that some adult took an interest in you, someone asked a question, someone showed you amazing love or generosity. Someone showed you a life that you wanted to have. Something happened. There’s a reason you’re here today. Whatever that is, it happened to you. It didn’t happen to your kids. It didn’t happen to your family members. It didn’t happen to your grandkids. It didn’t happen to your spouse. It was in your eyes, it was in your heart, it was in your soul, it was in you that these things happened.
It’s a problem for us just as it was a problem for the Israelites. And since God wasn’t going to enslave his people just so he could free them again, a solution was needed. And here it is: Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. The solution was make faith a regular part of your home. And lest you think this is merely metaphorical, there are faithful Jews who have a box on their front door that contains the words of the Shema, Here o Israel the Lord your God is one.
For the ancient Israelites the solution of how to pass on their faith involved connecting faith with the everyday life of the home. And what we are finding more and more is that it is true for Christians as well. How do Christians pass on their faith? Through connecting what we do here on Sunday mornings to the ways you live your daily lives at home. Whether your objective is to pass on your faith to your children, to other family members, to your neighbors, to grandkids, to people you mentor, the key is connecting church and home or more properly, coming to see your home as a key part of church.
How do we do this, though? Anderson and Hill have five principles, four keys, and three characteristics that will allow you to pass on your faith more effectively. And it is to those things that we will now turn.
- Faith is formed by the power of the Holy Spirit through personal, trusted relationships, often in our own homes.
This is the central tenant of the book. Simply put, church programs don’t make disciples. Disciples make disciples. Faith is formed through the Holy Spirit working through personal, trusted relationships. It’s what the story we began this sermon, not the one about the frog, the one about the adult Sunday school, was about and it’s been confirmed by myriad studies throughout the last decades. When people keep their faith into adulthood, almost universally they can point to a trusted adult that was the main influence on their faith development. Someone made faith real to them. Our faith is handed down person to person. I’m saying the same things over and over again in different ways because this is just true and we have to accept it if we are going to make our homes a place of faith development.
- The church is a living partnership between the ministry of the congregation and the ministry of the home.
If we accept that faith is formed through the Holy Spirit working through personal, trusted relationships often in the home then it reframes what we mean when we say church. Church isn’t just a building you come to for worship, fellowship, activities, programs, classes, etc. Church isn’t an isolated area of our lives. Church isn’t an activity. We don’t go to church. We are the church.
“I am the church. You are the church. We are the church together. All who follow Jesus, all around the world, yes we are the church together.”
If we really believe that, then we never leave church. Church isn’t place or a thing that we come to and leave from. If we are the church then we are the church at home, too. We are the church in school and at work and on the soccer fields and in the grocery store. We are the church on 95, although that might be another sermon. And so the ministry of the congregation, what we do here on Sunday mornings and what you do in your small groups is deeply connected with what you do at home and work and the other places of your life. So church becomes a partnership between Sunday and Monday, between morning worship and evening dinner, between the work of the people and the people at work.
But for the church to be a partnership between the ministry of the congregation and the ministry of the home doesn’t mean that the ministry of the congregation takes the place of the ministry of the home. We don’t usurp nor do we let you abdicate your role as parents. Parenting is a spiritual exercise. And Deuteronomy didn’t say that the key to passing on faith to children was to take them to Torah school, but for parents to talk to their children about what they have seen. For the church to be a partnership between congregation and home means that the ministry of the congregation is to equip and support parents as parents seek to pass on their faith to their children through the ministry of the home.
- Where Christ is present in faith, the home is church, too.
In 1987, six Protestant denominations came together to do a massive multi-year study of effective Christian education. 150 congregations were randomly selected spread across different denominations and different sizes of church. Adults, adolescents, teachers, and pastors were surveyed within each congregation. The resulting study formed the bedrock of literature behind Christian education for the last two decades. Anderson and Hill describe the results of that study by saying this:
“The Search Institute’s research evaluated what makes for effective Christian education in congregations. Perhaps the most stunning and eye-opening conclusion was that the most important factor for faith formation did not take place in the congregation at all, but in the home. The study concluded that of the two strongest connections to faith maturity—family religiousness and lifelong Christian education—family religiousness was slightly more important. The family experiences most tied to greater faith maturity are the frequency with which and adolescent talk with his/her mother and father about faith, the frequency of family devotions, and the frequency with which parents and children together were involved in efforts, formal or informal, to help other people. Each of these family experiences is more powerful than the frequency with which an adolescent sees his or her parents engage in religious behavior like church attendance.”
To me those results are stunning. And what this boils down to is its not enough for your children to see you being a Christian. Otherwise as they age Christianity will simply become the thing mom and dad do. Christianity needs to be the thing we do. Together. As a family. How often do you talk with your children about your faith? How often do you pray or worship together at home? Are you serving with your children? We’ll turn to those disciplines in a moment.
- Faith is caught more than it is taught.
Christianity is not just a world-view, it’s a way of life. It’s not just a series of facts and figures, logical propositions and their conclusions, it’s a way of life. What studies are teaching us more and more is that children and adolescents need to be invited into a new way of life, they need to see the impact that faith has on your life and their life, if they are going to keep their faith into adulthood. So much of our attempts to pass on our faith center around head knowledge education. And while it is important to learn the stories of our faith, it can’t come at the expense of experiencing the Christian life as we have all come to experience it.
- If we want Christian children and youth, we need Christian adults and parents.
How do Christians pass on their faith from a macro-level? Through Christian adults and parents inviting their children and youth and the children and youth in their church into a caring, trusted, personal relationship. And through talking with children and youth about their faith. Worshipping and serving together. But what is the nitty gritty? What practices, what things can we do, to be effective at this? So glad you asked.
- Caring conversation
- Rituals and traditions
Becky, a 21-year-old college student, had grown up knowing that her dad attended church services regularly. What she didn’t know was that he began most days by praying and reading his Bible at 5:30 in the morning before heading off to work. One day Becky got up early to prepare for a college exam. She discovered her dad at the kitchen table reading his Bible. She was greatly surprised, although she had wondered why the Bible always rested on top of the microwave. Now she knew, and the moment touched her life in ways that her dad’s routine attendance at worship services had not. The Christian faith gained new vitality for her as she witnessed in her dad a commitment to living and growing in his faith in a way she had never known before. The end result of this episode was Becky resolved to go back to church.
We have spent most of our time today talking about the need to connect the church and home if Christians want to pass on their faith. And now we turn to four practices that will bridge that gap. Those four are caring conversations, daily devotions, service together, and rituals and traditions.
Anderson and Hill report that a common theme they hear from parents in congregations they work with is, “What I want is not only to have faith in my home, but also a good relationship with my kids.” These four keys, four practices, will accomplish both. No where is this more true than in having caring conversations with your children or with children and youth in your church and in you life. Over and over again studies show that what youth look for from adults is someone to listen to them. Someone to have a real conversation with them. Someone in whom they can confide. They want this from their parents. We think children and youth want nothing to do with us. That’s a lie. They want us to talk to them, they want us to take an interest in their lives, they want to talk to us. This can be done in myriad ways. Whether it is sitting down to dinner or in another venue have another intentional time to have a real conversation with your kids. Write personal notes. Meet youth where they are and send an in depth email or text. Or if you’re looking for something more official, different organizations will put out Faith Talk cards that will open up the conversation. Youth are looking for guidance and conversation. If you want yours to be the faith that is passed on to your children, engage them in those conversations.
The next key is daily home devotionals. French monk Brother Lawrence called a devotional life “practicing the presence of God.” Daily devotions, when practiced in the home, are a way to check in with God and with each other daily. It’s a way to teach children how to read the Bible and a way to help them see how the Bible applies to your daily life and how it can apply to their daily life. A natural hang up to this would, of course, be what happens if my kids ask me a question I don’t know the answer to? What if they see that I’m still learning?! As your pastor let me assure you I have been asked questions I don’t know the answer to. As your pastor let me assure you I am still learning. And it’s a beautiful lesson of how our faith is a life-long journey if our children see that even as adults we can still have a new insight, a new discovery, a new learning. And they’ll see that more important than always being right or knowing the right answer is the repeated act of checking in with the God and each other. We’ll recall the story of Becky who renewed her faith when she saw how her father practiced his daily devotions. The United Methodist Church Discipleship website has seasonal resources for family devotionals and N.T. Wright has written a “for everyone” commentary that is accessible for older children up. If you have very young children and are stuck, simply reading a story out of a storybook Bible and asking the child for their thoughts will do wonders.
The third key is service. About service Anderson and Hill say, “When parent and child together perform service activities, the child sees the parent’s capability, faith, and values in action. The cross-generational bond Thames place not only in the service event, but in the retelling of the event through the years. We call this the ‘ah-ha remember when!’ syndrome.” So do family service in the home together. Help someone in the community together. Serve through community agencies or your church together. And then tell your child why we do this.
The fourth key is rituals and traditions. Humans are creatures who learn from routine, from repeated action. We learn what is important to our family through the rituals and traditions our family follows. Whether it’s the ritual of sitting down every Sunday to watch the favorite football team, a weekly or monthly dinner with the extended family, or regular church attendance, rituals and traditions teach in profound ways. That’s why we do communion every week. One time my three year old came through the communion line but didn’t eat his bread right away. He was halfway down that hall when Mrs. Janice told him it was ok, that he could eat the bread. He looked at her and said, “We eat this because Jesus loves us, right?” Rituals and traditions speak to us in ways we can all understand. What rituals and traditions does your family have? What do they communicate about what’s important? Look around your home and identify the faith and values communicated by how you have structured space and what you have brought into the home. What changes or additions could you make?
Those keys will help serve as the bridge between your faith and your children’s, between the ministry of the congregation and the ministry of the home.
Three characteristics of faith-bearing adults are:
We have spent a lot of time talking about parents and passing on faith to children, but our children and youth don’t just need Christian parents. They need multiple Christian adults in their lives. And they need you to be an active part in their lives. Our children and youth don’t need taxi drivers. They don’t need babysitters or chaperones. They don’t need patrons subsidizing programs. They need spiritual guides. And all of you can be spiritual guides for the children and youth of our church. All it takes to be that are the three characteristics of faith bearing adults: the three A’s, authenticity, availability, affirmation.
Are you authentically walking the talk? Are you practicing your faith, especially the four practices? Are you available to children and youth? Is there an interest you have that you can share with them? Even if that interest has nothing to do with church. And will you affirm where they are in their journey? Will you accept and love them as God has accepted and loved you?
This isn’t a sermon for parents. It’s not a sermon about children. This is a sermon for Christians. Christians who have covenanted with parents, families, children in baptism to nurture and raise them in the faith. Will our children have faith? The answer to that question is not on my, not on Brenda or Janice. That’s on you. How do Christians pass on their faith? When authentic, available, affirming Christian adults get involved in the lives of the next generation of Christians. So get to work friends. Let us pray.