This is not to put the full weight of the matter on the parents’ shoulders alone—we each and altogether bear the responsibility of teaching our kids the faith—but we need to be honest (realistic) about who shapes our children’s faith, or lack thereof, the most: us. While we each, generally, make our own decisions regarding faith (trusting the good news of Jesus Christ we hear), affiliating with and attending a particular church, and how we communicate our beliefs; when we cry out that our kids are not coming back to church after confirmation or graduation, before pointing the finger at something or someone else as THE REASON WHY, I think we have to first look at ourselves and how we have influenced that choice or not. The parent not only shapes specific theological understandings in the child, but perhaps at an even more basic level he or she shapes how their child perceives certain practices in the life of faith. Is attending Sunday worship expressed as an important (if not, the most crucial) part of the week? Is Christian education communicated as lifelong learning or a means to an end? Is baptism given any significance beyond the initial event? Does receiving Holy Communion and what that means with regards to our forgiveness of sins get talked about beyond the walls of the church?
Just as each of us learns certain mannerisms and habits (good and bad) from our parents—whether we know it or not—so also, we acquire much of our personal theology (God-talk) and faith language from our parents. For all the hours pastors spend week-in and week-out preparing sermons that are intended to be theologically-sound and faith-inspiring to all, one could argue that a significantly small portion of most people’s faith comes from the pulpit, but instead mostly from the home. (If you agree with this, does it therefore call for a constant reevaluation of our preaching techniques?) The same could, arguably, be said about the rite of Confirmation. When I think of my own upbringing, while my faith was, indeed, informed by Sunday School, Confirmation, and casual discussions in Luther League (high school group), much of the theological baggage I took with me into college and later seminary was shaped by my parents—sometimes intentionally, other times unconsciously. If you were to critically consider some of the core tenants of what you believe, would you say it was gathered from or informed more so by your parents or someone else? Our parents, I believe it’s safe to say, have shaped each of us in this regard. As such, we parents need to ask ourselves: “What might I be teaching my son or daughter about God/faith/church/service/tithing/etc. without my even realizing it?”
A somewhat humorous example from my life: I can remember a great (amount, not admiration) number of times sitting on the deck of one of my dad’s shrimpboats, while Dad would be working on something down in the hull. Atop, I was serving as the gofer—running to and fro to get whatever tool he needed whenever he called out. Stamped in my memory is a phrase I can still to-this-day hear yelled out from underneath the deck, more than a few times, whenever things were going less than successful for him. In angst, frustration, or pain (sometimes a mix of all three), Dad would cry out: “I must not be living right!” In that moment, what a young, impressionable teenager took from this—aside from “I better hurry and get what he needs”—was that in living wrongly the result was tough and tiresome work (perhaps my father’s biblical familiarity with Genesis 3:17-19, who knows). Now whether that was a baseless bellow or his true belief, Dad’s words obviously had an impact on me. (This is not to say he was right or wrong, but to simply demonstrate how a parent’s words can shape a child’s faith.)
Another, more serious story from my life—this time pertaining to my Mom: It was a Sunday morning sometime my freshman year in high school. I was getting ready, as was the rest of the family, to go to church. My Mom called me into her room. She wanted to give me a heads-up about what was going to happen after worship today—during a congregational meeting—so that I would not be completely caught off-guard. We would be discussing a topic that had been circling the church for a few years now: homosexuality, and the ordination of gay individuals. What my mother wanted to convey on me before we got there and were consumed with the heat of multiple sides was something that seems so simple and yet profound—something that needs daily speaking by pastors and parents alike: “JESUS LOVES EVERYONE.” In the moment, I heard that and thought she was saying it with regards to homosexual individuals—and perhaps that was her intent. Yet, now in hindsight I hear these words as if they were just spoken and I understand them in another (additional) way. What came of the open forum was the beginning of a nasty schism that ultimately divided the congregation in two—with the building and church name being carried away into another affiliation by those opposing the topic, while all those otherwise not adamantly against it were exiled. I remember seeing fellow parishioners take the microphone, stand up, and spew unapologetic hate without hesitation regarding those whom they disagreed with or did not understand: the other. Thinking back to that painful time, Mom’s words needed to be the loudest, most direct in my heart and mind. JESUS LOVES EVERYONE—even (and especially) this person speaking in a manner that is less than loving (or ‘Christian’). Well beyond then, to this day those three words stand fortified in my mind and ministry—the foundation of my faith.
What are you teaching your child(ren) about the faith? Who is God to them, and how have you shaped that image? What does Jesus, his death, and resurrection mean for their life, and why do they believe that? Of what importance is faith for them, and when did you instill that in their mind? You may not be saying a word (explicitly or intentionally), but they’re still picking up on something. You might be saying tons of things—with the hope that a single piece will stick—but there may still be something else they are gathering from you. Parents, you are your child’s primary faith teacher. Let that statement sit in your heart, let it cause some tension, let it force you to reflect on what you’re saying and doing, let it drive you to be more deliberate with what you’re teaching your kids. Twenty-four seven, class is in session. What do you want them to learn from you, Teacher?