For the earliest part of my childhood, I grew up in southern California. And in my family there were two foregone conclusions: 1) I would love baseball and 2) I would be a Dodgers fan. Becoming an Angels fan, or any other baseball team for that matter, was not even a question.
My dad was in the best position to show me why it was so great to love the Dodgers. I was fed the stories of years past, like Kurt Gibson’s 9th inning heroics in 1988, and the big move from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. My dad would tell me of the beauty of Dodger Stadium and together Vin Scully would lull us into a trance.
I didn’t become a Dodgers fan on my own. It happened because my dad told me those stories over and over again and we would religiously watch the games from Chavez Ravine. He was so immersed in the story of the Dodgers that he couldn’t help but share those stories with me. I don’t believe he had any secret agenda to make me a fan, it just happened naturally because that’s what I heard all the time.
Eventually, those stories became my stories. My favorite player was Eric Karros, Dodger Stadium was my mecca. I became a Dodgers fan.
When I arrived at St. Alban’s to serve as the Assistant Rector, I was charged with oversight of Children’s and Youth Ministry. Like the vast majority of Episcopal churches, the main focus for children’s Christian formation took place on Sunday mornings. For somewhere between 45 minutes and an hour, our children were intentionally exposed and taught the Christian story.
But something wasn’t quite clicking.
As I spoke with the youth of the parish, it became clear that they could articulate, at best, a vague form of Christianity. This seemed to corroborate what Kenda Creasy Dean spoke of in her book about youth ministry, “Almost Christian.” Dean says again and again that today’s children and youth are not rebelling against their parents. The issue is quite different: it’s that parents either don’t know the Christian story or do not pass it on to their children.
My thoughts turned back to my dad. I became a Dodgers fan not because some partial stranger once a week told me how great the team was; I became a Dodgers fan because that was the environment I lived in. I don’t think my experience is peculiar. Fathers teach sons how to throw a baseball or catch a pass. Mothers teach daughters how to walk in high heels and paint their fingernails (Please excuse the gendered nature of these comments. I am pointing out the most obvious examples, realizing that these don’t hold true for all families.).
So why shouldn’t the same thing happen for Christian formation? Why shouldn’t parents be as intentional about forming their children in the Christian tradition as they are committed to driving their children to swim practice?
To make a change, I realized it had to begin with the parents. They were the ones who needed to hear again the stories of our Christian faith. Only when they were being intentionally formed by and into the Christian narrative could I ask them to pass it on to their children.
And so it began.
I meet with parents, not children, twice a semester to teach them about one piece of the Christian faith. Then the parents pass on what they have learned to their children. Parents, not Sunday School teachers, know their children best. Parents, not Sunday School teachers or priests, spend the most time with their children. Parents, not anybody else, can create a formative Christian environment in the home, in the car, at the kitchen table, or anywhere else.
After having learned about this one piece of the Christian faith for a semester, I ask the children to make offerings of what they have learned. This is where we can tap into each child’s inborn creativity. Rather than molding them into a curriculum, we let them express what they have learned in their own individual and particular ways. We allow the Holy Spirit to work in their lives!
The results have been astounding.
Last semester we studied the creeds. Our children made dioramas of the empty tomb and posters of things God had created. They wrote down what they believed and made a football lineup of two teams, Team Athanasius against Team Arius. How many adults know about Athanasius and Arius? Look how our teenagers understand and have been formed by and into the Nicene Creed!
This method (it’s not just another “program”) needs constant tweaking. But so do our spiritual lives. That’s why prayer and reading the bible are daily tasks.
This method also requires dedication, creativity, and prayer. You can’t just pull out some tired, old curriculum for another year. But that’s how it should be! The disciples didn’t learn how to follow Jesus when they bought some out-of-the-box curriculum that told them exactly how to learn “From ages 1 to 18.” Rather, they lived with Jesus day in and day out in an atmosphere of formation.
Revisit your Sunday School program. Is it necessary? Are you burning out teachers? Are children really growing into the full stature of Christ? Do all of your parents have a strong grasp of the Christian story?
I am not selling a magic talisman. For some churches this may not work and one of the myriad of curricula may do the trick. Great! But take a lesson from St. Alban’s. At this church, we are committed to helping our parents grow their children into
Dodgers fans Christians.