Formation for the Missionary Church
Faith Formation at Home
If I could pick one message that’s been preached and embodied more than any other over the past year, it would easily be, “The church is not the building.” I’ve heard this statement from others countless times. I’ve written it in newsletters, spoken it over Zoom pastoral care conversations and preached it from makeshift worship spaces in my home.
We are the church, not the building. We offer members resources they need to be the church at home and out in the world – from Lent at Home kits to online Bible studies to virtual weekend retreats. Over the past year, I’ve watched members of my church gain confidence in their relationship with Jesus. The questions they ask and the prayers they offer feel more honest and mature than a year ago. The pandemic has empowered them in a way no church leader ever could do on their own. And yet, despite their growth, I’ve noticed one group disconnecting from the church more and more as the pandemic continues.
Parents and their young children experience this time away from our church buildings unlike any other group. Whether parents spend weekdays overseeing online school or offering encouragement as their children attend impersonal in-person school, parents’ weekdays are full of hard conversations, grief and anger. They are followed up with Saturdays deprived of birthday parties, playdates and game night dinners with family friends. By the time we get to Sunday, my two children have worn me down. I don’t have the energy to persuade, encourage or force them to attend virtual worship or formation classes – no matter how much creativity and work has been poured into producing them.
Building up family worship at home
When this pattern emerged several months ago, I finally realized that if my children received any sort of Christian formation during the pandemic, it wouldn’t be from their phenomenal children’s minister, it would be from their emotionally exhausted parents. By default, we’re finally doing what Moses instructed the Israelites to do in Deuteronomy – build up family worship at home.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words…in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
– Deuteronomy 6:5-9.
We learn from Hebrew scripture that God gives parents the authority and responsibility for religious education. In my lifetime, parents have typically deferred to formation teachers and family ministers to teach their children about God. But right now, at least for our household, that’s not happening. If we want our children’s relationship with God, their knowledge of scripture and tradition to continue growing during the pandemic, then we, as their parents, must take on the responsibility.
Thankfully, parents are not doing this on their own.
A community of hope for exhausted parents
Five years ago, the Rev. Nurya Love Parish and Forward Movement dreamed up GrowChristians.org, an online space for Episcopal adults eager to be more intentional about faith formation at home. Craft ideas and recipes were paired with feast days, offering parents tangible ways to share stories about our faith with young children. Authors featured not just voices of parents in the thick of childrearing, but also Episcopal grandparents, godparents and lay ministers.
When Nurya handed off the role of managing editor to me in 2018, I had no idea how valuable this online community would be in the coming years. As our contributors began submitting posts during the first few months of the pandemic, I realized I wasn’t alone. Reading about struggles and minor victories from other parents buoyed me when I most needed it. Throughout the past year, Grow Christians has truly grown into Nurya’s initial dream of an Episcopal community, deeply connected to one another through our shared experiences.
One of the questions posed in this issue of Vestry Papers is how we form communities of courage and hope while engaging the present and looking to the future. For me, Grow Christians has evolved into an invaluable community of hope during a time when parenting has felt more like an isolated endeavor. Yes, the posts assure me that I’m not the only one flailing about at home. But more importantly, the reflections remind me that faith isn't something to be learned in church, but rather something we live out at home.
It takes a village…
Home is where children already know they can ask big questions, where they can make mistakes and make decisions. Home is ideally where they are surrounded by love and nurtured in everyday life…so it just makes sense that it’s also the place where we explore a growing faith. The posts have reframed how I think of this interminable time at home with our two elementary-aged children. Rather than something to simply endure, members of our community offer encouragement to take advantage of our shared time together. For me, this means intentionally looking for opportunities to develop their faith and to make my own faith visible.
My hope is that this new way of approaching faith formation will continue, even when children are back in their formation classrooms in the church building. Rather than being the dominant tool, formation ministries and programs at church will supplement the work we do at home throughout the week. In this uncharted way of being the Church, Grow Christians provides a model of shared resources, experiences and support. It’s grown into the village so many of parents were accustomed to leaning on pre-pandemic.
The Reverend Allison Sandlin Liles is wife, mother, peacemaker and priest living in the suburban wilds of Dallas. After working as Episcopal Peace Fellowship’s Executive Director for six years, Allison re-entered parish ministry in the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth. She currently serves as the priest-in-charge of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Hurst, Texas, and the editor of GrowChristians.org, a ministry of Forward Movement.
- Beloved Children of God, by Richelle Thompson, an ECF Vital Practices blog, May 10, 2016
- Can Children Understand Worship?, by Heidi Clark, an ECF Vital Practices blog, February 21, 2014
- Grow Christians: Practicing Faith at Home, by Richelle Thompson, an ECF Vital Practices blog, February 9, 2016
- Five Ways to Teach Kids Financial Stewardship in the Digital Age, by Nancy Hopkins-Green for Grow Christians, October 7, 2016