March 2019
Becoming Disciples

Beginning Before Baptism

I’m a mom of three, and after launching my eldest into adulthood last year, I began to reflect on some of the decisions we’ve made as parents. Overall, I think we’re doing a good job of raising our kids — they don’t get in trouble, their teachers are their fans and we’re always getting compliments on how great they are from our friends and church family.

The three of them are on different parts of the discipleship spectrum, however. Our eldest has a mature faith and worships regularly, even though she’s away at college. Our youngest has a deep sense of the divine, loves to acolyte, but doesn’t necessarily dig worship. The middle one prays before eating…and conveniently tries to have sleepovers on Saturdays to avoid going to “boring” church.

Churches and parents can team up

Ever wonder what you’d do differently as a parent if you had the opportunity to go back, start fresh and apply what you’ve learned the first round through?

What I would have welcomed would have been an opportunity to think through the traditions and rituals my family would celebrate over the course of my kids’ upbringing. I realize now that there are many things my husband and I could have planned, had we thought about our discipleship strategy before we baptized our kids.

What would it look like if the church were to partner with new or expectant parents to help them think through their child’s faith development?

Many clergy gather baptismal families and hold a rehearsal of sorts before the service. Some go further and require parents to meet with them to discuss the meaning of baptism. Too few effectively equip moms and dads to take the lead role in nurturing a life-long faith in Jesus in their children. I think there are many things congregations can do to help families be more intentional and proactive in their children’s faith development.

Consider rites of passage

A rite of passage can be a powerful moment in the life of anyone, especially a child. When certain milestones are recognized and celebrated, children feel embraced by the community.

While a lot of churches have traditional rites or passages for the young, many are completely underwhelming. For example, giving a third grade class Bibles during the liturgy and saying a prayer for the kids before sending them back to their seats is an underwhelming rite of passage (better than not doing it at all, but a huge missed opportunity). Congregations that knock it out of the park make these events memorable — something that children can’t wait to experience and will remember into their adulthood.

Other than baptism, the most popular rite of passage is confirmation. Many parents who have otherwise been AWOL will bend over backward to get their kids to church to prep for confirmation…just to disappear again. What would it look like if parents had a hand in developing additional milestones between baptism and confirmation? It might even help them engage more with the church throughout their kids’ lives.

Churches can help parents anticipate, dream and plan

New and expectant parents are eager to dream and look to the future — one that includes their smart, healthy, beautiful baby positively changing the world when he or she grows up. Then life happens, and dreams are set aside while basic living gets in the way (work, bills, doctor’s visits, school, sports, etc.). Before we know it, time has flown by, and parents are left to wonder what they might’ve done differently had they been given the chance.

Churches can give moms and dads the space to dream and plan ways to nurture their child’s faith as they grow. Try this:

Host a gathering of parents to dream and plan together. If you’re in a larger church, it could be a retreat of sorts for new and/or expectant parents. If you’re in a smaller church, it could simply be a meeting between the parents and a member of the clergy. Or, to attract a critical number of participants, a diocese might host the gathering.

Start with an opening prayer for the parents and their children, one about hope, perseverance, commitment, life, love and promise. Set the stage for a meaningful time together.

Focus on three things: ages and stages, rites of passage and traditions.

Help parents consider what they want their children to know, feel and do in terms of their faith development and when. For instance, perhaps they want their future first grader to have learned the Lords’ Prayer. Maybe they want their future third grader to understand the Ten Commandments. And perhaps they want their sixth grader to know the books of the Bible in order. Help them capture these plans in writing (and if you have time, help them make it pretty so they cherish and value it).

Next, help moms and dads identify the key milestones they would like to see celebrated. Help them dream about what these rites of passage might look like. What would make it special? How can they be involved? Remember those third grade Bibles? Maybe the parents can highlight their favorite verses in their child’s Bible before he or she receives it. Help them identify at least four to five rites of passage in addition to baptism and confirmation over the 18 years.

Finally, what traditions are your parents most interested in preserving or starting with the church family? Give them space also to consider what their own family traditions might look like. What holiday traditions might they want to plan? Are there others they want to incorporate? What current family traditions do they want to let go of or reimagine?

By giving families the time and space at the front end of things to consider all the ways they can help their children grow in deeper relationship with Jesus, our church has a better foundation from which to launch the next generations — with intention and purpose.

Melissa Rau is the Senior Program Director of Leadership at ECF. She joined the ECF staff in April 2018 and is responsible for overseeing the Leadership Resources area, which includes Vital Practices, webinars and training, publications and the ECF Fellowship Partners program. In addition to overseeing ECF’s existing leadership initiatives, Melissa is helping ECF discern its unique contribution to entrepreneurial and transformational leadership in the wider church.


This article is part of the March 2019 Vestry Papers issue on Becoming Disciples