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Seven Family Faith Formation Challenges

Studies conducted in 1990 by the Search Institute indicated that parents are the most significant religious influence in the life of a child.

Their work motivated denominations and for-profit publishers to produce resources that focused on parents as primary faith-shapers. This research also spawned books, blogs, and conferences about the importance of faith at home. And it led many churches to rethink their approach to forming the faith of children.

All of this was, and continues to be, important work. But there are potential drawbacks in pointing solely to parents as primary faith-shapers. Here are a few of those challenges, as well as some ideas for taking a fresh approach to addressing them.

Challenge 1: Moving beyond a one-size-fits-all approach to family faith formation

Every household is unique. In our congregations, children and teens are being raised by the following, and more:

  • parents who were raised in a household of faith, and parents who were not
  • married parents, divorced parents, and single parents
  • grandparents, other relatives, or foster parents
  • parents who are struggling with their own faith or have differing beliefs
  • parents who are engaged in family faith formation and parents who are not
  • parents whose own faith formation emphasized biblical knowledge and who aren’t comfortable having conversations with kids who express wonder and doubt

Each family also has its own schedule and rhythms. Some are able to attend Sunday-morning programming, while for others midweek ministry works best. Some eat dinner together daily; others are quite busy during the week but set aside Saturday morning to catch up as a family. You get the picture.

As a result, some congregations are grappling with lack of attendance in programs that used to be filled to capacity with kids. Some church leaders are frustrated that a only handful of people are reading their family-focused social media posts, while others are shocked by the success of faith formation experiments they try.

“It’s not that people don’t value the content [of church programs], it’s that they value family time and aren’t able to commit to long-term attendance at things. We need to meet people where they are at.”

—Pastor Marc Hoogstad, Ebenezer CRC, Trenton, Ontario

Fresh Approach Ideas

  • Determine what is working well, and build on those areas.
  • Be open to ending programs you may have provided for years if they are no longer meeting the needs of families.
  • Provide families with resources and practices in a variety of ways (for example, social media posts, parenting workshops, a “faith talk question of the week” in the Sunday bulletin, a featured book of the month, a seasonal newsletter, and so on. See the multitude of topical ideas under the Resources tab.)
  • Ask families what types of support they are longing for, and then provide options that families can customize to meet their needs.

Challenge 2: Engaging families without inducing guilt

Parents are dealing with significant guilt feelings around family faith formation. They’re hearing “It’s up to you to pass on the faith,” but what they are internalizing is “It will be all your fault if your children are not believers.” This message puts increased pressure and guilt on families—many of whom are already feeling lost and overwhelmed where faith formation is concerned. That leads to a culture of shame among parents whose young adult children no longer attend church.

Fresh Approach Ideas

  • When impressing on parents the importance of their faith-shaping roles, always include the reminder that as part of God’s big family, their church, they are not in this alone. Then provide support as promised.
  • Avoid guilting families into attending the programs offered at church. Trust that they are managing their family’s schedule as best they can. Do provide families and children with the resources they missed (such as take-home pages from Sunday school). Don’t think of these actions as making it easier for them to skip; think of them as making it easier for families to nurture faith at the times that work for them.

Challenge 3: Rooting family faith formation in congregational ministry

Family ministry can be idolized as the most important ministry in the life of a church. But where faith formation is concerned, families are one part of the whole. As Robert J. Keeley and Laura Keeley, the authors of Celebrating the Milestones of Faith, point out, “By focusing too narrowly on families, we leave behind single adults as well as kids and teens whose families aren’t part of the congregation.”

Fresh Approach Idea

  • Adapt faith formation ideas and practices for families into faith-forming activities for all households. Community CRC in Kitchener, Ontario, did this by providing all ages with “Lent in a Bag” resources. Grandparents in the congregation especially appreciated the faith-nurturing conversations they had when their grandchildren visited and saw them using the same resources. Oakdale Park CRC in Grand Rapids, Michigan, provided the whole congregation with an Intergenerational Advent Bible Reading Plan and age-appropriate Bible storybooks and translations. What might you provide in your context?

Challenge 4: Choosing curriculum that nurtures faith both at church and at home

In an effort to select resources that support family faith formation, churches may choose children’s ministry curriculum based on the parent pieces rather than on strong theology. As a result, the resources may feature a shallow, moralistic, or virtues-based approach to God’s story, rather than forming a faith that’s resilient, deep, and wide.

Fresh Approach Idea

Challenge 5: Resourcing already busy families

When we asked CRC ministry leaders from across North America to describe the families in their church, one word rose to the top again and again: busy (regardless of how old their kids are).

“The families in my church do not need more activities to do, more ducks to juggle. Nor do I.” says Austin Crenshaw Shelley (When Doing More Isn't Enough). “We need help setting aside all the ;doing that we clutch so tightly, so that our hands can be open to receive the gifts God has in store. . . . We need time to be. Time to reflect. Time to learn and grow and sing and daydream and stargaze. Time to love our neighbors. Time to seek justice and mercy. Time to draw close to a God who revealed God’s own name, which turns out not to have anything to do with ;doing, but everything to do with being: I Am Who I Am.”

Two things families don’t need are (1) an expectation that if a program is offered, they will (or should) attend, and (2) more things to do.

Fresh Approach Ideas

  • Help families integrate faith-forming experiences, conversations, and practices into what they are already doing in their daily lives. In the Resources section of this toolkit you’ll find ideas to share for celebrating milestones, seeking justice, asking great questions, holiday rituals, parenting, and more, along with suggestions for ways to resource families without overwhelming them.   
  • Provide materials in addition to ideas: a baptism anniversary candle and a liturgy to use when lighting it each year, a devotional geared to the ages and stages of their family, Bibles and Bible story books (as milestone gifts or through a library), a curated playlist of songs, a printout of 5 Questions to Ask Kids this Summer, and so on.

Challenge 6: Equipping parents who are unfamiliar with faith practices

“Many Gen X and Millennial parents did not grow up in families where they experienced religious traditions and practices. . . . They lack fluency with the Christian faith or the confidence to share it with their children,” says John Roberto in Families at the Center of Faith Formation. This reality also applies to the parents in your congregation who may have been raised in homes with believing parents. Many of today’s parents lack the experience, knowledge, and confidence to tell God’s story and engage in faith practices with their children.

Fresh Approach Ideas

  • Engage the help of older adults in your church. When theologian Phyllis Tickle was asked how the church should equip the current generation of parents, she pointed to adults over 60 years old. Listen to her insightful comments by downloading the webinar recording of Reclaim the Tent, The Future of Home and Faith from Vibrant Faith.
  • Weave the teaching of faith practices into congregational life. Doing so requires planning, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. Some examples:
    • End a worship service with a practice that can be repeated at home.
    • Provide community service opportunities for all ages.
    • At the start of every liturgical season give every household a colored table runner (made from a strip of fabric) or a colored plastic tablecloth along with an explanation of the significance of the color and a simple devotional guide to use during that time. At Advent you might use the cloth to wrap up a set of Advent candles.

Challenge 7: Shifting Our Ministry Paradigms

In the book Families at the Center of Faith Formation, Gene Roehlkepartain, a widely recognized expert in child, youth, and family development, suggests that in order to become an integral partner with families in nurturing faith in today’s complex and changing world, churches must make the following six shifts in their approach:

Shift 1: From an emphasis on programs to an emphasis on relationships

Roehlkepartain points out, “With few exceptions, congregations have assumed that the way to engage families in faith formation is to offer more or better or different programs that give parents the information they need to pass on the faith to their children,” but parents are interested in forming relationships with people who know and care about the well-being of their family.

Shift 2: From parenting as a strategy to parenting as a relationship

Parenting requires more than an accumulation of tools; it’s a relationship. As a community of faith, we can “engage families together (children, youth, and adults) in learning, service, and fellowship, providing opportunities for their relationships to grow within a broader community of faith.”

Shift 3: From pathologizing or idealizing families to tapping their strengths and resilience

Roehlkepartain cites two prominent but destructive narratives: that families are broken and in need of professional help, and that the family is not living up to what it should be. Although every family is different and has unique struggles, he points out the importance of focusing on the capacity of families to “learn, grow, and thrive.”

Shift 4. From “passing on faith” to “living into faith”

Faith isn’t a subject or a series of rules to learn, like history or math. Says Roehlkepartain, “The proposal here is to tilt the focus of family faith formation toward living into the commitments, values, and practices that emanate from a relationship with Jesus Christ.”

Shift 5. From serving families to empowering families to live their faith

This shift involves providing programs and congregational activities that focus on opportunities for families to “grapple with the challenges and opportunities they face in living their faith in a complex world” and engaging with others in the community of faith in “acts of service and justice.”

Shift 6. From congregation-centered to community-centered ministry

Noting that most faith formation activities happen within the walls of the church building and through the volunteer efforts of church and family members, Roehlkepartain points to an  unintended result: emphasis is placed on what happens at church over what happens at home, at school, and within the broader community. He invites congregations to consider the benefits of shifting that narrative to emphasize what is happening outside the church walls. What impact might such a change have on families, the church, the community?

Making these changes isn’t always easy. But which shifts might be possible in your context? And what blessings might God’s family experience—both at home and in community—if those shifts are made?

Here’s Some Good News

It should come as no surprise that even though our churches are offering some of the best resources and programs for families, we are also seeing declining participation in church programs. After all, many families are dealing with the challenges described above. And have we mentioned they are busy?

Here’s the good news: families have many strengths upon which to build. When we polled ministry leaders about the positive qualities of the families in their congregation, they described families using words like these: vibrant, active, committed, caring, inclusive, thoughtful, loving, and more. Which words apply to the families in your congregation? What other strengths would you add to the list?