During the past two years, as our family has lived overseas working on behalf of Presbyterian World Mission, we attended a small congregation with very few children. You can read about our choice to join that church here.
There were many great benefits to being a part of this diverse and eclectic community of faith - and the only drawback was that there was no Sunday school for our son to attend. He was in Egypt for his 3rd and 4th grade years - formative years when children in thoughtfully designed Christian education programs are exposed to some of the great stories of the Bible.
Of course, he was not leaving worship to attend Sunday school, and this meant that during our time in Egypt he likely heard over 150 readings from scripture (both the Old and New Testaments) as well as close to 80 sermons on those texts which in many other congregations he would have missed because of our collective tendency to remove children from worship about halfway through. It means he recited the Apostles’ Creed the same number of times, watched me put our family offering in the plate the same number of times, and prayed the Lord’s Prayer just as many times.
It also meant that for the first time I felt a personal obligation to be his primary Christian educator. Granted, in our previous congregation I was his pastor and helped to shape the curriculum that was used in his Sunday school classes, but with the hectic schedule of a pastor on any given Sunday morning, I relied heavily on my colleagues and the volunteers in our classrooms to mentor my child in the faith.
For the first time we read the Bible together as a family (at least during Advent). For the first time we had a chance to talk about what happened at church that morning (on our way back from church on the Cairo metro). Even the experience of choosing the church provided some good opportunities to talk as a family about what we value in a faith community.
Fortunately, it was also during this time that I was working on my book that has been released this month from Westminster/John Knox Press - 100 Things Every Child Should Know Before Confirmation. Writing that book gave me motivation to talk one on one with our son about different parts of the Bible and the Christian faith, often using him as a guinea pig for the ideas outlined in the book.
A significant part of the book is being thoughtful and intentional about the conversations we have with our children about the Bible and faith. When I blogged through these 100 things over the past several years, most of my focus was in helping parents and educators understand how the basics of Christianity are expanded on and developed through the process of Confirmation. In the book, my focus is more intentionally on how parents can be primary Christian educators for their children, just through a variety of intentional conversations about the Bible and our traditions as Christians.
For each item in the list there is a section entitled Planting the Seed, in which I give simple examples of conversation starters, family practices, and even encouragement not to gloss over the more difficult parts of scripture, to show how accessible many of these topics can be.
- For the stories of Jacob and Esau, conversations on sibling rivalry and how we as siblings negotiate with each other and sometimes don’t treat each other as we should
- For the Ten Commandments, encouragement not just to teach them to children but to help show children how we live them as a family
- For the Psalms, a suggested practice of sitting together and sharing with our children the parts of scripture that are particularly meaningful to us as adults
- For a miracle like the Feeding of the 5,000, a conversation about what it means to be generous in our daily living just like the boy who offered the disciples his lunch to share (in John’s version of the story)
- For the importance of naming our own family’s religious background, encouragement to be honest and open in sharing our personal faith stories
There is an important conversation happening in the church in this moment about the future of Sunday school. Some argue that a child gains just as much Christian education accompanying their parents in worship (as our son did) as they do in a classroom setting. For some, there is increasing anxiety over what is expected of our children in these days and how church and Christian education falls to the bottom of the priority list for parents who want to do all they can to help their children succeed in the world. For some, there is an honest naming of the ways that Sunday school has turned into a need to entertain children, sacrificing substance in the name of being the fun church.
An important factor in each of these conversations about the changing landscape of Christian education is how we can empower and equip parents to be active participants in their children’s Christian nurture. It is my hope that this book will be helpful in that work.
As systematic as the book is, these conversations, and a child’s growth, are anything but. The most helpful way for parents to use this book is to encourage parents to be prepared to take advantage of the unexpected yet important moments when we have a chance to talk to our children about faith, as small and insignificant as those moments might seem.
This past vacation we found ourselves in conversation with family over lunch. I can’t even remember what the original topic was, but somehow the conversation came around to the story of Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac. (This is what happens when you belong to a family of pastors and biblical scholars.) As we made a variety of jokes or comments about the story, our son piped in, needing to repeat himself to make his still little voice heard; he said, “The worst part about that story is Isaac understands that something strange is going on and asks his father to explain what is happening. He asks about the sacrificial animal, not knowing that he is it. Abraham even makes him carry the wood that he will be burnt on. What a crazy story.”
It was a pretty thoughtful perception of the story, especially from a child’s perspective. I looked forward to sharing the story once I got back to work with my colleague who had shaped his Sunday school experience this past fall.
When I told her the story we had over that lunch, she thought for just a few seconds and then revealed that his class had not studied Abraham and Isaac this year. “You must have taught him the story.” Really? That wasn’t outside the realm of possibility, and most likely he and I have talked about this story, read it in a children’s Bible together or even chatted about it on a Sunday when it was read in church. But his response seemed so fresh and fully formed, it was hard for me to believe that these thoughts had simply been percolating in him since some unmemorable moment when I must have taught him this story.
So often we shape our children’s faith and experience of scripture in small moment after small moment. Sometimes it is we as parents who plant the seed that will grow into a new understanding, sometimes it is a Sunday school teacher, sometimes it is a pastor. In my own experience, I have clearly lost track of who has planted which seeds in my son's growing faith. May we as parents feel confident in our responsibilities as a part of this community that shapes our children’s faith.
For more information about 100 Things Every Child Should Know Before Confirmation check out the book page on this website.
I am going to be posting more about the book over the next several weeks, as well as some reflections on our time living in Egypt. To be sure to keep up with new posts on Bread not Stones be sure to subscribe by email, or follow the blog on Twitter or Facebook.