Have you ever had one of those times where the Spirit came at you from every place in your life and reminded you of what you REALLY know but have forgotten? Well, that has been the story of this Christian Educator for the past few weeks. Our congregation is preparing our youth for a mission trip to Dominica at the same time we prepare to say “Go with God” to our Youth Minister who will be heading for his first pastoral appointment in another state immediately following the mission trip return.
As a staff person and in consultation with the appropriate lay leadership, we have begun the process of getting ready to call a new Youth Minister. Our Senior Pastor has been reading Kenda Cressy Dean’s Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church. Having read the book a few years back, I reviewed my notes. What struck me most about Dean’s commentary on the results of the National Study of Youth and Religion is her focus on teaching teenagers the language of faith. She argues that “the absence of theological language in teenagers is simply the absence of robust theological conversations in the worlds teenagers inhabit – certainly the worlds of the media and public education, but also the worlds of families and congregations. Since youth do not hear a language of faith, they do not speak one” (Dean, 138).
While Dean is making a larger point (and her book is well worth the read) that mainstream Christianity has handed on to the next generation a voiceless (among other things) faith, my reaction to her book as one responsible for Christian Education throughout the life cycle is that teenagers are not sui generis. If we are going to effectively speak the language of Christian faith, confess that Jesus is Lord and be sent out to transform the world in his Name, our teenagers are not the only ones lacking the language of “God-talk.”
For those of us who have the professional responsibility for leading faith formation in our congregations, it comes as no surprise that many of the folks in our pews do not” speak God.” We have at least two and possibly three generations in our pews who are not what we professionals call “churched.” And we have folks in our pews that come from other denominations and faith traditions. It is no wonder there is a hesitancy to “speak God” – folks come to us with the yearning for a language with which to both experience and share the holy mystery that is life in Christ.
My own reading this past week has focused on the February 22, 2012 issue of Christian Century. An article by Lutheran pastor and creator of Faith Inkubators, Rich Meheim stresses the importance of linking Church and home. In an article entitled, “How Faith is Formed: Family Affair,” he reminds us, “the real incubators of faith are not Church staff, but parents and guardians.” I whole-heartedly agree, but the question remains as to how we are to empower our parents and grandparents to “speak God” on a daily basis with not only the teenagers they love, but the babies, young children and emerging adult children who live at home? Faith is, indeed, “caught not taught.”
“Speaking God” requires language to express both the awe of a love of human beings so big that God dies for us and the questions raised in response to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as to how we live our lives in the world outside the doors of the Church.
And so rather effectively prompted by the Holy Spirit, I return to what I consider the “first principle of Christian Education.” The power of Christian conversion lies in the telling of the Story. As I think about how to guide and encourage parents and grandparents to claim for themselves the power of the Word, I reach for the most effective tools in my box – Godly Play. Godly Play’s founder Jerome Berryman knows that they key to nurturing faith is in providing a language with which to share the experiences we already have of God at work in our lives, “Godly Play assumes that children have some experience of the mystery of the presence of God in their lives, but they lack the language, permission and understanding to express and enjoy that in our culture.” What is true for the children and teenagers of our congregation is also true for our parents and other adults responsible for the environment in which faith blooms. Berryman continues, “What Godly Play contributes to the glorious mix of [Christian] activities is the heart of the matter, the art of knowing and knowing how to use the language of the Christian people to make meaning about life and death.” Amen.
So how do we use this “first principle” in guiding the faith formation of those entrusted to us? We begin where we are – I firmly believe that for faith to flourish, we must provide programming for children, teenagers and the adults who love them TOGETHER. I am planning a monthly Friday night series called, Family, Faith and Fun. Families –no matter the age of those in the family- are invited to come to our Chapel on a Friday night in their pajamas. Then I am going to begin at the beginning – I will tell the Godly Play Creation Story and continue through the ancestor stories and into the liturgical action stories. Following the storytelling, families will be invited to respond to the story through whatever materials they choose. After popcorn and hot chocolate, we will come back to the circle to share what we have created. One member of the group will read from the Bible the story we have explored through Godly Play. And then I will model a way of worship that parents can use daily at home – going around the circle and one month asking for each person to name something for which they are thankful , the next month inviting each person to share a concern. I will “collect” these intentions into one prayer, ask the group to join me in the Lord’s Prayer and invite us to bless each other on our way. As we move through the basics of our “God-Story,” the liturgical action stories will invite us to explore our foundational Sacraments.
I dream that our “Gold-talk” will expand to include symbol, ritual and silence. And in God’s time, through the presence of the Holy Spirit, literate and faithful language will allow us to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Dr. Elizabeth L. Windsor is the Director of Christian Education at Sudbury United Methodist Church in Sudbury, Massachusetts. Christian formation throughout the life cycle is both her profession and her passion.
Did you enjoy this article? Consider subscribing to Building Faith and get every new post by email. It’s free and always will be. Subscribe to Building Faith.