Small Groups for Kids (aka breaking out of classroom catechesis)

Just listened to Rebuilt Podcast #25.*  And I have to say, it was one of the most value-added Rebuilt podcasts yet–and by that I mean, it went well beyond what’s in the book(s) and Rebuilt website about the goals, vision, and practical nuts and bolts behind ministering to children from ages 6 months to 5th grade, including kids with special/individualized needs.

It also gave some insight into the parish’s vision for families–a family attends at one time for children’s small groups/parent ministry service and a separate time for family worship (which includes a Children’s Liturgy of the Word). I think this answers some of the concerns about kids being encouraged not to attend Mass. Clearly this isn’t what Church of the Nativity is aiming for, and Children’s Liturgy of the Word does allow families to celebrate the Eucharist and worship together for a substantial (usually over 50%) of Mass.

I definitely felt the pain/challenge of the hosts and guest when they talked about first action steps. One of the challenges for any parish is, how to start a practice (like investing in kids!) that requires a lot of volunteers? Part of this comes back to a key message from Rebuilt and Tools for Rebuilding–the importance of the pulpit and having a clear message for the entire church community that service is part of discipleship. I know that in many parish settings making this a unified message is a real challenge, since Children’s ministry/religious education/parish school of religion has often, both culturally and organizationally, existed in a silo apart from the pastor/associate’s sermon messages, the parish council’s focus, etc.

Bottom line, if you’re a DRE (Director of Religious Education) or minister to kids in a parish, you should definitely give this episode a listen. And, I’d love to hear your thoughts if you’ve tried anything similar!

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*Amusing note: I ended up listening to this episode while watching SportsCenter cover the NCAA basketball tournament from an elliptical at the gym, so clearly I was adopting the same pedagogical hermeneutic as the hosts 😉 or I like to multi-task. Either way. Win.

New Forming Intentional Disciples Book Club Starting

Have you read (or been meaning to read) Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples? If you haven’t given this book a look, make time to do it this year. Check out these reviews.

If your parish or ministry isn’t forming disciples, or if you assume it’s happening indirectly, or you’re just not sure–this book is a must.

If your parish or ministry is intentionally forming disciples, and you know it, this book is still great as a teaching tool for equipping everyone in your congregation or ministry to become a more effective evangelist.

There’s a free online Book Club sponsored by the National Catholic Education Association starting on Feb 1st to discuss and study Forming Intentional Disciples. A great opportunity for professional development or networking for anyone interested in catechesis and evangelization.

Also, check out our resource page for other links, study guides, and presentations to help dig deeper into Forming Intentional Disciples.

“If we accept human testimony, the testimony of God is surely greater” — a motto for faith formation and catechesis?

The first reading for the Friday after Epiphany (1 John 5:5-13) contains this short, but insightful statement:

“If we accept human testimony,
the testimony of God is surely greater.”

This seems so very simple and obvious. Yet, thinking back on a calendar year where so many parishes and dioceses actively engaged in growing disciples within the Church and evangelizing the Church, the wisdom inherent in this snippet of Scripture runs very deep. For many, Christianity, Catholicism, the Church, or religion can seem like accepting human testimony. And it includes human testimony, don’t get me wrong. But, I think we’ve witnessed the profound problems that surface when formation in the Catholic Christian faith is only about accepting human testimony. Of learning things. Memorizing stuff. Believing what mom, dad, or my religious ed catechist “says” to believe.

This is all important. But far deeper and surely greater is the testimony of God. Now the testimony of God comes in many forms. But one of the most fundamental forms is personal encounter with Jesus Christ. Relationship with Jesus the person. Not Jesus the idea, doctrine, or political concept–but Jesus the person, Jesus our Savior.

So maybe this, in a nutshell, is the goal of evangelizing the Church and faith formation within the Church–to provide human testimony, but also cultivate the conditions for encounter with God, genuine relationship with Jesus–so that this surely greater form of testimony abides and informs a person’s faith and ongoing conversion.

Small Groups in Catholic Parishes — Yes.

In short, I think small groups should be the organizational structure of parish life (and by “parish life” I mean the stuff that flows into and out of the liturgy). Small groups offer the potential to simplify and focus our activity on discipleship rather than other good, but less fundamental ends. Read more here….

Cultivating Vocations to the Priesthood during Children’s Faith Formation

Sometime early in 2009, I stumbled upon the video Fishers of Men, created by the USCCB and produced by Grassroots Films in Brooklyn, NY. It was the first vocations video I’d ever seen in my life, and it was darn impressive. Sleek, full of rich messages, good music–the people who made it clearly took their message seriously.

I was a catechist for a 3-5th grade faith formation class at the time, and I immediately thought–wow, I ought to download it (there were free downloads available at the time, not sure if that is still true) and show it to my class! [This was the first time I’d ever used a video in class]. The impact went way beyond what I’d imagined! Within the first 90 seconds I discovered this was going to be all about discussion–why this music? why the ocean? why did they trace a fish outline in the sand?–the kids were instinctively curious about every aspect. And yes, I doubt the producers’ intended audience was a coed 3-5th grade faith formation class…but that’s why the discussion part was so key. I told my kids to raise a hand anytime they had a question or thought, and I immediately hit “pause” to continue the discussion.

And what did I learn? In short, I’d forgotten how interesting fascinating the world can be through the eyes of elementary school kids! Blessed John Paul II, Pope Benedict, a monstrance, the prostrations during an ordination liturgy, sacred artwork, liturgical colors…these were all things my kids were excited to stop and see for the first time–not simply hear about.

Okay, so this was turned out to be a lesson on more than priestly vocations. But, back to the vocations part…

At one point, one of my “top contributing” students (you know, the ones who are always enthusiastic and jumping out of their seats to give (usually insightful) answers?) shouts with shock and delight, It’s a black priest!!! Now “Maddie” (not her real name) was the only African-American student in my class. Living in a military town, our area was very ethnically and racially diverse, and socially integrated (at least, that’s been my perception of the military base towns I’ve lived in, compared to typical cities). I suddenly realized that in her short life, she’d never seen a black priest–and, it had never occurred to her that such a person existed!

Now, am I expecting Maddie to have a vocation to the priesthood? No. However, seeing matters. And for elementary school kids, simply seeing a video with LOTS of images of the priesthood is in and of itself an opening experience, that maybe, just maybe, plants a seed for the future…

Children’s Catechesis with the Big Picture in Mind

One of those nagging questions when it comes to children’s catechesis (or Religious Ed, Parish School of Religion, Faith Formation, or whatever you prefer to call it) is how can it work when the parents are neither evangelized nor catechized?

Now, obviously the Holy Spirit can work in any situation. And I’m not counting that out. However, there’s probably something wrong with making extraordinary intervention of the Holy Spirit our “plan” for how children who are evangelized and catechized in a parish program can bear life-long fruit when not supported and nurtured catechetically by those in the home.

I recently came across the faith formation webpage of St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Ann Arbor, Michigan and was super excited to see that every option for children’s faith formation offered directly through the parish also included an equivalent (in time) parental component. [Note: the Catholic school option, outside of the parish itself, would be the only exception].

And what’s great, is that they make it seem so normal. That, of course, parents, grandparents, single adults, and the whole community would want to be a part of a 2x a month Sunday morning community formation option called “Domestic Church,” that also includes children. 🙂 And, when you think about it, why shouldn’t parishes require parents to also attend a weekly formation program at the same time as their children, i.e. the weekly “Family Catechism” option. It’s not about talking down to parents either. As the website points out, the parental option could be as simple as spending the time that their child is in grade-level catechesis with other parents, in front of the Blessed Sacrament praying. This is powerful and exciting stuff!

Many years ago I was a member of a parish that offered a traditional children’s formation (with no adult component) and also a family one (where parents were required to stay and participate in adult offerings). I was a catechist in the family one and loved the format. Our associate pastor also saw the value in the family/community format, and I asked him once, why we didn’t just make that the only option. He sighed and acknowledged that it would be a very unpopular shift.

Which makes me wonder–would anyone seriously argue that children’s catechesis with no concurrent adult option or requirement is better for evangelization and catechesis than family/community formats? Is the only reason we don’t see more family/community catechesis because it would be unpopular with some parents? :-/ Are we missing a key opportunity of the New Evangelization–to reach parents who while active enough to bring children to religious education, are not evangelized themselves? What kind of ministerial leadership does it take at a parish to make such a shift? 

Making the Ordinary Powerful: A Religious Education Website that Speaks!

Parish religious education websites can be pretty cut-and-dry. But I recently encountered one that speaks on so many levels. Check out this example of a First Grade catechesis page (all of the grades are similarly done).

What I love:

  • The descriptive language about the content and goals of that year of faith formation.
  • Promoting the use of weekly e-mails to parents, so that they can continue the faith formation at home.
  • A downloadable .pdf of the year-long schedule so parents can see the big picture of God’s story of salvation being told to their children! Seeing something like that might spur a parent to realize that he/she desires more faith formation themselves…
  • The invitation to “Please pray for the team members and the people they serve.” This makes the “ordinary” listing of volunteer/staff names an opportunity for prayer. And it demonstrates the reliance on prayer and divine guidance that is so essential to our humble service to our Lord as Christians!
  • The use of a “coordinator” for a larger number of single-grade level catechists…this shows the empowerment of leaders at every level, rather than a wheel-and-spokes model where a program revolves around a pastor or single lay leader. This speaks to the call for all of the baptized…it demonstrates what discipleship can be for those who are uncertain of their call.
  • Most striking, the descriptions of the catechists. These lovely descriptions accomplish a few things. #1 – they help parents see what catechists bring to their ministry…it shows these people are serious! (and it’s not just babysitting…). #2 – the descriptions are subtle recruitment for more catechists…the diversity of calls, motivations, and backgrounds shows that that modern day disciples come from as many walks of life as Jesus’ first disciples did 🙂

Thank you, Christ the King Parish in Ann Arbor, for this new website!