It’s About Relationships. Not Programs.

Margaret Spicer, Generational Ministries Pastor, Crossway Church

For anyone interested in Children’s and Family Ministry, check out this inspiring Podcast Interview by Carey Nieuwhof with Margaret Spicer.

The heart of the discussion focuses on two big ideas:

  1. the importance of a team approach between everyone who ministers to and with youth–from nursery, right on up to teen/student ministries
  2. an essential focus on truly serving the needs of families, a partnership, in contrast with the idea of simply “filling up” kids with all they need to grow as disciples at church at the expense of parents/caregivers as partners

How do these ideas resonate with your ministry experience? 


Free Resources Grades K-12

Two options for free printable guides suitable for elementary school and middle/high school:

For elementary school, from the “Education in Virtue” Series of the Dominican Sisters of Mary Mother of the Eucharist, a Lenten Journal featuring space to draw responses to Scripture and age-appropriate definitions of virtues to spur discussion in a classroom, catechetical setting, etc. –>

vision_saints20guide_november202017_finalFor middle and high school students, a monthly selection of short reflections on those who have lived tremendous lives of witness to the Christian faith. When we think of capital-T “Tradition,” it’s not something contained in mere words of a Catechism or Vatican documents, but a living transmission of the faith.

One source of this life is the witness of others, especially those later designated as canonized saints. These monthly Teaching with the Saints workbooks (free!) from the McGrath Institute of Church Life include reflective questions to help offer students a way to move beyond information to a connection with their own life as a disciple of Jesus –>  here.


Growing Disciples: From the Home to Adulthood

The amount of research on what “keeps kids religious” can be dizzying. Yet, this research matters, not because we need to “keep” kids a certain way, but because God has a personal plan for each one of them, and desires a relationship with every person that grows throughout one’s entire life.

How to Keep Kids Growing as Disciples into Adulthood. That’s the Question.

When we consider this most generally, the conclusions aren’t shocking:

In research using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, sociologists Christopher Bader and Scott Desmond found that children of parents who believe that religion is very important and display their commitment by attending services are most likely to transmit religiosity to their children.…One of the strongest factors associated with older teens keeping their faith as young adults was having parents who talked about religion and spirituality at home, Smith said.

Other key factors included having parents for whom personal faith is important and who demonstrate that faith through attending services. Teens whose parents attended worship with them were especially likely to be religiously active as young adults.

Among related findings, parents from religious traditions that in general promote greater commitment and encourage discussing faith outside the sanctuary also were more likely to have children who remained active in their faith as young adults. (NSYR, HuffPo, 2014)

Pulling out practical, concrete examples–that can be harder. Fortunately, additional studies and reflections provide clues.

Attending Religious Services

A LifeWay study of 2,000 Protestant households found that while attendance does have an impact on fostering discipleship into adulthood,

It wasn’t just that parents took their kids to church (where “professional clergy” could feed them spiritually), but that the children were included and integrated into the church through the avenue of service. The habit of serving others in the church and community likely formed these young adults in a way that kept them from identifying merely as a churchgoing “consumer,” but instead as a contributor to the building up of God’s people.

Talking About Religion and Spirituality At Home

Brad Klingele, a teacher (and former Youth Minister), writes:

As educated Catholics, we all to try to help our children to have an adequate ability to think clearly, to analyze, and to gain an accurate understanding of the world and of our faith. My family spends countless moments discussing events, ideas, and our faith. Each day presents opportunities for intellectual formation. We value abstract reasoning. Most educated Catholics conceptualize passing on the faith as participating in the sacraments and passing on the truths of the faith.

The truths of the faith. To hold something to be true, we tend to think that we have an understanding that we can articulate in words. Almost everything about our culture encourages us to think of truth as an idea, a concept. Our educational culture since the Enlightenment encourages verbal and written articulation. Outside of encouraging weekly Mass and some service work, we think of passing on the truths of the Catholic faith as passing on a correct conceptual understanding. A dear family friend, Fr. Joe, calls it Catholicism as Philosophy.

What Klingele senses is a challenge for many–including/especially parents who are very passionate or well-formed in the Christian faith). An overly conceptual understanding of truth (=”ideas”) is not necessarily talking about being a disciple of Jesus Christ in a way that children at different ages and stages desire.

As Marc Cardaronella writes, “Articulating faith means internalizing it, owning it, and making it a part of you. That requires dialogue.” In the study, “Understanding Former Young Catholics,” Nicolette Manglos-Weber and Christian Smith find that “narrow and rigid viewpoints” are often viewed with suspicion by emerging young adults. Talking about beliefs in a way that is affirmative and open to dialogue not only helps form young people in the faith, but also models how to be passionately in love with Jesus and respect the different beliefs of others. [If you’re familiar with Alpha, think of it as an adaptation of Alpha culture in the home.]

Fortunately 🙂 when it comes to talking about religion and spirituality in the home, it’s not all up to us as parents! God communicates with our children, just as He does with us (Praise the Lord for that). In the LifeWay Protestant household research:

The biggest factor was Bible reading. Children who regularly read the Bible while they were growing up were more likely to have a vibrant spiritual life once they became adults.

This statistic doesn’t surprise me. God’s Word is powerful. The Bible lays out the great story of our world and helps us interpret our lives and make decisions within the framework of a biblical worldview. Bible reading is a constant reminder that we live as followers of God. Our King has spoken. He reigns over us. We want to walk in his ways. (Trevin Wax, “Parents, Take Note…”)

The inspired Sacred Scriptures are a powerful gift to us as human beings who so crave communication. God hands on His very-self to us in the “wellspring” of Sacred Scripture (Dei Verbum, para. 2, 9). When our kids read it (or have it read to them), God works.

Prayer also offers the opportunity for God to speak into the family, including kids. Manglos-Weber and Smith found that among young adults who were continuing to grow as disciples in the Church, 56% prayed alone frequently, compared to only 33% of those who left the Church praying alone regularly. Prayer can take on a wide range of forms, whatever works for your children’s ages is a great place to start. Singing together is also prayer–the LifeWay study found that listening to Christian music ranked highly among Protestant youth who continued to practice their faith as young adults.

Cultivating habits of prayer and Bible reading allow the Holy Spirit to speak and move in powerful ways, to direct our “talking” to what is most important for each of us, in our families, right now–and encourage our children to delight in listening and conversing with God our Perfect Father, through His Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit directly.

Faith Outside the Sanctuary

None of us can be perfect parents. It’s a fact. But regardless of our challenges, stumbles, and hard-times as parents, unconditionally loving our children is essential. It’s our humble imitation of God’s love for each of us. It builds the basis of trust necessary for everything else, “Otherwise, your efforts fall on deaf ears” (Cardaronella).
As Manglos-Weber and Smith explain:
Emotional closeness between Catholic parents and their teenage children—especially with fathers—influences whether teens remain Catholic into their 20s. Greater relational distance between parents and teens increases the chance that the latter will leave the Church in emerging adulthood.

Well before the teenage years, imitation plays a significant role–do we as parents model a faith our children would logically want to imitate? i.e. does following Jesus bring us joy? make us pleasant to be around? lead us to love in illogical and moving ways?

Klingele reflects on a conversation with another father:

Phil and I agreed that we cannot hope to help our children to stay Catholic when they are cut off from the people with whom Jesus is closest…If Jesus is closest to those in need, and our only connection with people occurs across the ocean of a soup kitchen pot, we are not close to Jesus. We cannot find our Lord when we are absent from him, and he is with the poor…When our kids realize we are equally poor, and that we must continue the Eucharist through the sharing of our very lives with our brethren, our kids will meet and stay with Jesus.

He recognizes that if he does not live a commitment to what the Gospel is outside of Mass, then not only is his life as a disciple muted, his children’s growth as disciples of Jesus Christ will be stunted.

Concluding Examen

Much to ponder–I say that with great humility as a parent of young children who remind me all of the time about what imitation means.

Due to the writings of Sherry Weddell, “intentional” has become the ubiquitous adjective on “disciples.” And that’s not a bad thing. It’s true. And, extra-true 😉 when it comes to forming disciples starting in childhood and continuing through adulthood. The intentionality in homes and parish communities matters.

In conclusion, a set of personal questions from Trevin Wax for any household or parish to pray with, ponder, and discuss from time to time:

  • What kind of culture do we want in our homes and churches?
  • What space are we creating for our children to flourish?
  • How are we rooting our families in God’s Word?
  • How are we modeling prayer and repentance?
  • What does faithfulness look like in our home?
  • What are the songs that are in our hearts and on our lips?
  • How are we fulfilling the Great Commission?


New Year, New Sprout
Image: “New Year, New Sprout,” via Flickr tomscy2000

Update 2/16/2018: Here’s an excellent summary of another recent research project on the topic, “Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics.” Thanks Jerry Windley-Daoust for posting!

A Glimpse of Parish Life as a “None” Parent via”Losing Our Religion”

9781479883202_fullFor the past week, we’ve been diving into key points and applications from Christel Manning’s “Losing Our Religion: How Unaffiliated Parents Are Raising Their Children”. In closing, I’m sharing her own personal experience encountering a Catholic parish as a “None” parent. I’m thankful to Manning for incorporating her own personal experiences into her valuable work of sociology.

Manning, like many other parents who identify as “None,” experienced new questions during the “early childhood” stage of her daughter, Sheila. Embodying the diversity of her framework for understanding the beliefs of Nones and range of options to offer worldview formation for their children, Manning took up the recommendation of a Catholic friend, and enrolled her daughter in Catechesis of the Good Shepherd at her local parish. Here’s her reflection:

The teacher leading the program was a lovely woman, gentle and non-dogmatic and so good with kids. My husband was initially opposed to any kind of church-based education, but I convinced him to give it a try…I enrolled Sheila for the first year. She loved it…When we went to England for Christmas, my husband’s family was duly impressed with Sheila’s knowledge of religion…At the end of the school year, however, the doctrinal basis of the program became more clear. The first year curriculum, geared to very young children, was centered on the idea that God is a good shepherd who will take care of you–a fairly generic concept that I could accept. By contrast, the second-year curriculum involved teaching children the Catholic creed and preparing them for first communion. I did not feel comfortable with that. Parents were encouraged to attend church with their children, and in talking to other parents I realized that everybody else was actually doing that. I felt like a fraud. So the next Sunday, I went to mass and I took Sheila with me…There were rousing hymns singing glory to God, prayers, a reading from the Bible, a homily on a topic I cannot remember people lined up to receive communion. The hymns struck me as militaristic, the Bible reading felt irrelevant to my life,and the prayers reminded me that I do not believe in God. Sheila was bored and fidgety. I was bored and alienated. It was clear this was not the right path for us. I was disappointed, but also relieved. (192)

Take Aways

  1. What appealed to Manning?
    • the recommendation of her Catholic friend, who did not hesitate to share an experience that was positive for her child with her “None” friend —> personal endorsement/invitation is the most powerful marketing
    • about Catechesis of the Good Shepherd? We see it in her own layperson’s description, “a Montessori-based two-year program for preschoolers and kindergarten age children that allows children to choose from various religion-themed play activities rather than imposing a unified curriculum on them” (192). While this is incomplete in a technical sense (i.e. Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is in Catholic language a “systematic” catechesis and stretches to age 12) it reveals what resonated with a “None” parent —> our marketing “key words” for outsiders do not need to be what’s most theologically important to us “church folks”
    • the Level 1 (ages 3-6) emphasis that “God is a good shepherd who will take care of you” was experienced by Manning as pre-evangelistic, it connected to her existing values –> the Church’s teaching on the role of pre-evangelization should not be overlooked 🙂

  2. As described in her research, it was her interest that convinced her husband to allow the “testing the water” in Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. After the child’s interests/needs, spouses exert the second most powerful “push” to explore religious worldviews. And it’s usually the woman. –> #MarketToMoms #ConnectWithMoms 
  3. Those familiar with Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS) will notice that Manning’s perceptive description isn’t quite accurate, i.e. our “insider” understanding of different “Levels” each spanning approximately three years is not clear to her. And this isn’t her fault, she’s not trying to be a catechetical expert (and yes, the parish mentioned runs typical Level 1 and 2 CGS programs). This impacts her expectations and understanding. –> When describing catechetical programs to parents, let’s remember that they don’t have the time to research or prepare to be familiar with our “insider” language. 
  4. Manning takes her daughter to Mass. (!!!) Did you catch that? How blessed are we to receive such seekers in our midst! Remember, Manning is a “None,” her husband initially opposed the idea of having their daughter attend Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, Manning herself already feels “uncomfortable,” and yet, she still goes. This is a huge leap on her part. –> Our attitude toward seekers should respect and honor the risks they’ve already taken to encounter us on “our turf,” rather than veil a disdainful or critical, “where have you been all these years?” We rejoice (note Jesus’ 3 parables in Lk 15) that the Holy Spirit has led them this far.

  5. Manning finds the Eucharistic homily at Mass to be forgettable. –> #AlwaysBeEvangelizing. While Mass isn’t “for” seekers, seekers are present. Preaching matters–it’s worth spending the time, bringing in the team, and preparing for the sake of those who might only be giving Mass one try. 
  6. The music and lectors didn’t captivate Manning either –> Movements like Amazing ParishRebuilt, and Divine Renovation all emphasize the importance of the “Sunday Experience.” They’re right. (Other evidence supports this too).
  7. Manning’s daughter was bored and fidgety. –> While liturgically oriented Catholics may love having their young children with them at Mass, it’s unlikely a seeker or “None” will find that experience life-giving. We shouldn’t force them to by failing to care enough to offer a memorable and engaging experience for their children. It was Sheila who indirectly “brought” her mother to Mass this time–imagine if Sheila had spent the car-ride home telling her mom about the kids she met, how much she loved the singing, how fun it was–many parents would come back a second time (or more!) simply because their child had a great experience. That’s how us parents work 🙂

Again, I’m grateful to Christel Manning for sharing so personally in the conclusion of her book. Rarely do we get such a detailed description of how a “None” parent/child can go from non-attending, to catechesis, and even make it to Mass. 

Having concluded this series on Losing Our Religion, what new thoughts are you thinking about “Nones” as parents?

“Losing Our Religion” — Key Point #4, None Doesn’t Mean Nothing [When It Comes to Worldview Formation]

9781479883202_fullKnowing that Nones are the fastest growing “religious group” in the United States, it’s natural to wonder–so what exactly do “Nones” teach their children when it comes to religion or other worldview questions?

Christel Manning’s  “Losing Our Religion: How Unaffiliated Parents Are Raising Their Children” offers new insight into the diversity within this growing population of parents in the U.S. (If interested, check out other key takeaways from her book here).

Key Point #4: How Nones Form Their Children’s Worldviews

When it Comes to Worldview, What Do Nones Do To Raise Their Children? (Table 5.1)

Characteristics (across)

Options for Incorporating Worldview into Upbringing of Child (below)

Intentionally incorporate worldview into home life Enroll child in institution that transmits worldview Change in parent affiliation
conventional Yes (Judaism, Christianity) Yes (CCD, Sunday School, Hebrew School, etc.) From None to Christian or Jewish denomination
alternative Yes (secular philosophy or seeker spirituality) Yes (plural worldview education) Yes (from None to UU or AHA)
self-provider Yes No No
outsourcing No Yes (CCD, Sunday school, Hebrew School) No
non-provider No No No

What we see in the chart is that Manning identified five general “types” of how None parents seek to transmit worldviews to their children–conventional, alternative, self-provider, outsourcing, non-provider.  She concludes:

There is more variety in how Nones raise their children than existing research would imply. It is not just a choice between doing nothing and going back to church (136).

And on top of this, contemporary American religious life has a general “fluidity,” so Nones (like all Americans) are likely to shift between methods (whether deliberately or not). 

Ministry Applications

What to think?

  • Manning suggests, “These five options for incorporating worldviews into the upbringing of a child could, theoretically, be applied to churched parents as well” (p. 186) –> Yes! In Children’s Ministries we can grow in awareness that even our faithful churched parents have different methods for sharing the faith at home. Since in Catholic teachings the parent is the primary catechist, how we in ministry empower and support parents is critical.
  • Many Nones take a “conventional” approach, which means they come to church programs and often even change their affiliation as a result, this is a significant opportunity!
  • “Outsourcing” parents represent a more challenging opportunity–the kids are at church, but nothing at home. Capturing the interest of these parents is likely the special task for our discernment and on-going consideration. It’s not easy in a busy world, but there’s a point of trust with their child to build on.
  • There’s a place for marketing children’s ministry outside of parish communities. None parents are clearly in the marketplace for “institutions” and organizations to offer formation for their children. They might select your program for completely non-religious reasons (i.e. the environment is engaging, the schedule works, etc.) — this is an opportunity for outreach.

As always, feel free to offer your own insights, observations, and applications in the Comment box. 


“Losing Our Religion” — Key Point #2, We Don’t Know If Parents Are Coming Back

9781479883202_full“They’ll come back to church…once they marry and have kids…”

How often have you heard that assertion? Is it true? Is it an assumption? Wishful thinking?

Christel Manning’s book  “Losing Our Religion: How Unaffiliated Parents Are Raising Their Children” offers some evidence-based insight into this perplexing, and important, question for ministry leaders (as well as other useful research, check out my series on book and other sociology and demographic data here).

Key Point #2: We Don’t Really Know if Marriage and Family Brings Nones Back to Church

Some background: 

Prior to the recent statistical increase in Nones, there was indeed “a life cycle pattern in religious affiliation,” where young adults disaffiliated and then re-affiliated once they married and had children. Those who re-affiliated, typically returned to the religion of their childhood or their spouses’–this was especially true for Baby Boomers (p. 34). Also, the female spouse’s religion tends to be more likely for re-affiliation.

It’s probably not a sound conclusion to assume that this will continue with younger generations because “the societal pressures that may have pushed previous generations of None parents back to religion are less powerful today” (57). What we see already is that “though it’s true that Nones are more likely to be single and childless than religious Americans, that difference is largely because they are younger” overall. When controlling for age, it turns out to be a relatively small difference between the religiously affiliated or unaffiliated based on parenthood/marriage (57). Marriage and family life doesn’t seem to cause a significant increase in religious affiliation.

Okay, so what is it about marriage and/or starting a family that might cause Nones to re-affiliate with a religion? Some theories (that likely interact/overlap)(p. 55-56): 

  • the new spouse (especially the female) influences the other
  • a desire to do so “for the sake of their children,” i.e. an interest in life cycle rituals, positive emotional ties to one’s own childhood religion, and/or a marker or preservation of ethnic/cultural identity
  • desire for community

Manning’s research revealed that “there is something about having a family that raises questions about religion identity and commitment for people” (58). However, these questions don’t automatically lead back to religion (seeking answers to the questions raised by marriage and family can also lead someone from an Unchurched Believer to Indifferent, etc.). As a parent of young children (as Manning is as well) this rings true. The questions of children force adults to grapple with their core beliefs. As Manning explains it, children’s questions and/or existence in a family structure often lead to:

  • open articulation of worldview identity as parents interact with others in the family
  • a new articulation of boundaries and/or the importance of their worldviews in their lives

She explains:

The most powerful relationship to shape a parent’s religious or secular identity may be with the child…thinking about and interacting with their young children compelled None parents to consciously confront and continuously reevaluate their worldview ways in ways that are different from those induced by interactions with their partners and extended families…because a None’s worldview can be transmitted to another, [who is “unformed”], it suddenly matters (69)


This makes sense. For me, just thinking deeply about the prospect of raising children in my mid 20s compelled me to discern moving from identifying as “Christian” to the truth of particular traditions–reaching a “room” from in the “great hallway” of Christianity, as C.S. Lewis imagined it.

Ministry Applications

For those in ministry, Manning’s research on this pressing question reminds us:

  • Avoid making decisions as if history is normative or determinative, just because Baby Boomers “came back” doesn’t mean that holds true for others–>awareness of current trends is necessary for informed decision-making and expectations
  • Not to assume or take for granted that GenX and Millennial parents will return to a church of previous affiliation once they marry and/or have children
  • See the opportunity in the “baby” years of 0-3, when many children’s ministries do not yet “offer” anything specific for children, but when parents may be starting to ask those big questions about life, the universe, and religion/spirituality. These can be socially isolating years for new parents, so there’s a significant and meaningful opportunity here to offer a supportive spiritual community for Nones at this time (and, believer-parents as well!)
  • Follow-up to the sacraments of baptism and marriage may be even more important than the preparation for these sacraments (which typically receive more resources in parish life) when it comes to helping parents explore those big questions of life, especially for Nones

Stay tuned in the coming days for more key points and applications from this study! And, as always, feel free to offer your own insights, observations, and applications in the Comment box. 


“Losing Our Religion: How Unaffiliated Parents Are Raising Their Children” — Key Point #1, Nones Are Diverse

9781479883202_fullI recently read Christel Manning’s book, “Losing Our Religion: How Unaffiliated Parents Are Raising Their Children.”  I highly recommend it for anyone interested in better understanding the nuance, diversity, and experiences of Nones when it comes to religious beliefs and practices.

The premise of this sociology work (academic, yet readable–especially if you skim through the sociology of religion methods sections) is straightforward:

“The fastest growing religion in America is—none! One fifth of Americans now list their religion as “none,” up from only 7 percent two decades ago. Among adults under 30, those poised to be the parents of the next generation, fully one third are religiously unaffiliated. Yet these “Nones,” especially parents, still face prejudice in a culture where religion is widely seen as good for your kids. What do Nones believe, and how do they negotiate tensions with those convinced that they ought to provide their children with a religious upbringing?”

Key Point #1: Nones are Diverse

As Sherry Weddell often notes, “never accept a label without a story.” This is always good advice, and as relevant for “Nones” as anyone else we interact with personally! Manning makes a key contribution to our understanding of Nones by offering a framework of “sub-labels” to show the diversity within the broad label of “None.” Her study revealed four general sub-currents (Table 2.1 “Parent Worldviews”) among parents who identify as None, namely:

Worldview (across)

Attributes (below)

Unchurched Believer Seeker Spirituality Philosophical Secularist Indifferent
Self-chosen label (if used) Christian, Jew, etc. (generally reject a denomination label) Pluralist label (e.g., Buddhist, Jew) Humanist, freethinker, skeptic, atheist None
Religious or spiritual? Both Spiritual but not religious Neither Neither
Beliefs Personal god who listens and can intervene in human affairs Energy or life force that influences nature and human life (reject personal theism) Our lives are shaped by natural and/or material forces and by human decisions (not God or supernatural power) Don’t know and don’t care
Practices Prayer or attendance at services Prayer, meditation, yoga, reading Meditation, reading, and social justice work as expression of secular philosophy None

How common is each? Manning concludes that roughly half of American Nones fit into the “Unchurched Believer” sub-category. A third are “Spiritual Seekers” and a fifth are “Philosophical Secularists.” If you’re thinking, um, that’s already 100%–what about “Indifferents”? You’re right. As Manning notes, those who are truly Indifferent are more difficult to identify by survey because they are often “forced” to opt into another category or sub-category (p. 34). 

Ministry Applications

For those in ministry, especially those interacting with Nones who are parents, Manning’s research on these sub-categories reminds us:

  • never accept the label “None” as devoid of interest in religion/spirituality
  • a significant proportion of Nones have “trust” feelers with religion, i.e. Unchurched Believers often attend services, think of God of active in human affairs, and are okay with identifying as “religious”–that’s a lot to work with!
  • many Nones are familiar with religion/spirituality–let’s not “talk down” to them (or anyone else, for that matter!) or criticize them for showing interest in a way that’s different than a faithful believer
  • different approaches are relevant for different Nones, i.e. an Indifferent person would need to have interest piqued, whereas a Spiritual Seeker would be drawn to many Christian practices, etc. –> when children’s ministries can offer different ways to potentially connect, this casts a wider net for diverse “None” parents
  • children in our ministries (especially in the teen years) may take on characteristics of these various None sub-categories –> being aware and on the lookout from this can help these students avoid feeling alienated

Stay tuned in the coming days for more key points and applications from this study! And, feel free to offer your own insights, observations, and applications in the Comment box.