The heart of the discussion focuses on two big ideas:
the importance of a team approach between everyone who ministers to and with youth–from nursery, right on up to teen/student ministries
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?
A few years ago the Alex Williams of The New York Times shared a story mixing anecdote and research called “Friends of a Certain Age.” The basic question is why is it so hard for American to make [good] friends after age 30? What did he find?
Sociologists consider these three conditions crucial to making close friends:
repeated, unplanned interactions
a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in one another
By one’s 30s and beyond,
“you have been through your share of wearying or failed relationships. You have come to grips with the responsibilities of juggling work, families, and existing friends, so you may become more wary about making yourself emotionally available to new people. ‘You’re more keenly aware of the downside…You’re also more keenly aware of your own capacity to disappoint.” (Williams)
Friendship and Church?
John Wimber, founder of the Vineyard Church (and movement), observed: “People come to church for a variety of reasons, but they stay for only one—friendship.” This principle drives the ambiance and culture of Alpha, but it can mean so much more for churches.
I’m in my 30s right now and it’s an interesting* decade of life. Many Americans are starting families, highly engaged with the bustle of school-aged children, or entering a new realm of parenting teenagers. Many of us have relocated, are relocating, or will relocate for jobs or family. Many consider changes in life style or career in their 30s, or struggle with questions of purpose, ambition, and vision (Miller, “The Ambition Collision”). Some go through a divorce/separation, or end a long-term dating relationship. For those who identify as no particular religion, it can be a time of completing a process of “adulthood” by forming some personal conclusions about the meaning of life, human nature, and more. For all these reasons and more, it’s a time when deepening or developing friendships can be a practical challenge, yet when the fruit of friendship is profoundly needed.
Proximity, Repeated Interactions, and Openness
When churches can offer settings where adults can let their guard down, and engage in many, repeat, unplanned interactions, then friendships are born. Unfortunately, a lot of what many of our churches do well is exactly the opposite of this–classes, lectures, coffee/donuts, structured small group discussion, prayer, worship, etc. These things are good without doubt, but they are not the most fertile ground for forming new friendships.
Settings for being, not doing or accomplishing a certain task/learning are key. But they must be inviting. For decades, Youth Ministries have grasped the importance of informal socialization among teens. This human desire doesn’t disappear when teens become adults. It takes more creativity though to envision what this might look like for your specific setting–maybe it’s centered around certain career interests, maybe it involves hobbies or maker-spaces (note: many public libraries have evolved into offering these types of public gatherings–check out yours for ideas!), maybe it’s an appealing environment for families to gather and play, maybe it’s appealing food/drink. Many studies have shown Americans becoming less and less social. This is a challenge (because we work against this tide by cultivating opportunities for this through churches), but also an opportunity to help adults experience connection to each other, to develop friendships that will keep them coming back, maybe coming to something more overtly “spiritual.”
God is a communion of divine persons, the closest, most perfect friendship imaginable–something we can never completely experience on this earth. This longing for communion is written into us as human beings, created in His image and likeness. Our intentionality in helping adults cultivate friendship helps them experience God, even if in a very small way–something especially valuable for adults in their 30s, and more broadly, for all of us!
* = note, I’m only half-way through…so maybe the rest will be boring 😉 just saying…it’s always a possibility 🙂
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 servicesare 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.
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.
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?
For 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)
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 🙂
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
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.
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.
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?
“Unchurched Believer* parents often worried when their children showed no interest in religion.” (164)
At the same time:
“Another parent, a Philosophical Secularist whose teenagers had become born-again Christians, worried about their future while trying hard to remain true to his commitment world view choice. The hardest thing as a parent was, as he remarked, ‘not to criticize them when they became Christian.’ Instead, he hoped ‘the children will find their way back [to something closer to the parent’s worldview] when they go off to college.” (164)
Parenting is not for the feign of heart! Regardless of whether or not a parent identifies with a religion, parents worry about what worldviews their children absorb and identify with.
None parents especially value what sociologists call an “achieved identity”–meaning a person’s act of choosing beliefs/worldview–rather than an “ascribed identity” where a worldview is embodied simply because someone was raised that way (58).
*Note: for descriptions of Unchurched Believer Nones, Philosophical Secularist Nones, and more check out my series on “Losing Our Religion” here.
What’s the “so what” for us?
We can think of ourselves as partners with None parents, even if we do not share the same beliefs. The None parent who laments their child’s lack of interest in religion is someone we can empathize with, without an attitude of, “well, what did you expect?!? not having faith yourself!” Likewise, the Secularist parent who is shocked that their teen is attending parish LifeTeen with friends can still be invited to be part of the community in a way that doesn’t force belief (i.e. invitations to potlucks, etc.)–this shows love. They’ll appreciate knowing that you care for them and their child, regardless of beliefs.
None parents value the idea of choice (“achieved identity” not “ascribed identity”). Offering opportunities to explore the rationality of Christian belief resonate with those seeking to make an “informed” decision.
That our contemporary culture places a positive value on “achieved identity” isn’t a bad thing! It’s the cultural context that allows non-Catholics to perceive a freedom to come explore Catholic Christianity. Historically, the normative experience of Christians in the early Church was indeed a “believer’s” baptism and profession of faith. It was a choice during the centuries when the # of “born Christians” was fewer than the number of “convert Christians.” We need not fear elements from our Tradition that emphasize this.
Given this cultural context, it’s important that we emphasize opportunities for those who were “raised in the faith” (aka “ascribed identity”) to also experience “achieved identity” without “switching” to a new religion. Talking about Baptism in the Holy Spirit, deliberately preparing for and reflecting on the meaning of renewing one’s baptismal vows at Easter, and more from our Catholic faith are ready-made for this! 🙂
We can also explore how to avoid giving children, teens, or parents the perceptive experience having been “forced” into an initiation sacrament–something that would “feel” like “ascribed identity.” Catechesis of the Good Shepherd models this with regards to a child receiving Eucharist, explaining, “at the annual announcement of the celebration of first communion, the children respond according to the desire for the sacrament and their personal maturity, which is discerned with the help of the family, the catechists and the priest.” With regards to Confirmation, check out these reflections from Fr. Gareth Leyshon of St. Philip Evans, Chris Wesley of St. Joseph Parish & Marathon Youth Ministry, and Fr. Peter Dugandzic of Blessed Sacrament Parish. Interestingly, our Tradition does not mandate a precise age for sacraments of initiation, instead offering guidepost-based ranges and language that include parental insight into discernment, for example:
on Confirmation, the Code of Canon Law (CIC) states, “Parents and pastors of souls…are to take care that the faithful are properly instructed to receive the sacrament and come to it at the appropriate time” (can. 890)
on Reconciliation and Eucharist, the CIC explains, “It is primarily the duty of parents and those who take the place of parents, as well as the duty of pastors, to take care that children who have reached the use of reason are prepared properly and, after they have made sacramental confession, are refreshed with this divine food as soon as possible” (can. 914)
Feel free to offer your own insights, observations, and applications of Manning’s book in the Comment box.
Knowing 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?
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)
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
Yes (Judaism, Christianity)
Yes (CCD, Sunday School, Hebrew School, etc.)
From None to Christian or Jewish denomination
Yes (secular philosophy or seeker spirituality)
Yes (plural worldview education)
Yes (from None to UU or AHA)
Yes (CCD, Sunday school, Hebrew School)
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).
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.
Ever heard of Goldfish Swim School? I hadn’t until about two years ago, when I started noticing billboards, bus ads, and more for the two locations open in our area. Goldfish Swim School is a disruptive innovation in the area of children’s swim lessons. Now, organizations like YMCAs, Jewish Community Centers (JCC), and county recreational departments have been offering swim lessons for decades. [Fun fact: your humble blogger was a JCC swim instructor during my undergraduate years]. The basic concept is that the organization offers children’s swim lessons at a set interval, during a specific time of the year, in a facility designed for adults. Parents register in advance, pick from the times/days offered, and then show up.
Okay, so what could possibly be new or innovative in this market space? Goldfish Swim Schools differentiate themselves as operating from a parent’s perspective, “created by parents, for parents.” Concretely this means a facility that’s highly appealing for children and parents, “90 degree, shiver-free pools.” It also means the idea of perpetual lessons.
What are “Perpetual Lessons”?
Goldfish Swim School’s unique Perpetual Lessons model is the perfect solution for parents looking to balance a desire to keep their kids’ swim skills sharp with a busy schedule. Unlike typical swim lessons that lock you into a set day and time for a predetermined session, Goldfish Swim School lets you choose a lesson time that fits your family’s schedule. Then, if (okay, when) your schedule changes, just let us know and we’ll switch you to a different day or time. It’s that easy and convenient. There’s no wasted time or money and, most important, your child’s development stays on track with no interruptions.
Goldfish Swim Schools also offer “Family Swim” nights, where children taking lessons are encouraged to come with parents, to swim together in a fun, relaxed way. Because Goldfish Swim Schools focus specifically on children’s lessons (and families) they do not need to be co-located with a full adult lap pool or fitness center. The branches near me are both located in strip malls. There’s a cost savings for this company by maintaining comparatively lower facility costs.
Goldfish Swim Schools have been relatively successful (growth from 2,000 to 70,000 students in first decade), growing by a) enticing new families to take swim lessons, those who never fit into the traditional model, and/or b) pulling away families that previously took traditionally-scheduled lessons at larger pool facilities.
Children’s Ministry Connections
For me one of the most intriguing innovations from Goldfish Swim School is the demonstration that there are parents who prefer or need the schedule options Goldfish offers. The vast majority of parish catechesis for children is scheduled in a way that matches Goldfish’s competitors, “lock[ing] you into a set day and time for a predetermined session,” typically the academic school year. When we think of SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunity, and Threats) for catechetical programs, I wonder if the “perpetual lesson” coupled with “family nights” concept from Goldfish is an opportunity to bring more families in touch with catechesis and family prayer in our parishes.
Another “opportunity” may be Goldfish’s example of “family swim nights.” How many of our parish catechetical programs teach children, but do not offer space, family-friendly spaces for parents to pray, listen, and learn from the Holy Spirit together. Offering a comfortable and encouraging place to do this could be just the right springboard a family might need to become comfortable talking about their walk with the Lord and praying together at home.
Should Goldfish Swim Schools be copied? No. There’s no one-size-fits-all or silver bullet when it comes to scheduling. But, their innovation can help spur us to think outside the box and in more family-friendly directions when it comes to making participation in children’s ministry or catechesis more appealing to more families. A local (to my home Diocese of Lansing) example is St. Gerard Catholic Church’s “Base Camp” schedule that offers families a summer or Sunday “Camp” for catechesis. What other innovative or creative strategies have you seen in scheduling and facilities to make catechesis more “family friendly”?