Why A Family Spirituality?
For most of us, the place where we first met the Christian faith was at home. Maybe it was Dad telling Bible stories, or Mom getting dressed for church, or maybe Oma telling about how it was when she was younger, in a day when faith was a bigger part of life even for those who didn't have any faith. Maybe it was prayers at mealtime, or before going to bed. Or a cousin's wedding, an aunt's funeral, or a baby brother's baptism. As life itself does for little children, faith-stuff revolved around the family and family members. The sad thing is, this is getting less and less true, and not because some cynical atheists declared a subtle war on Christian values (though that is out there in today's social ether). It is less true because we all have much less of a family nowadays, often without one of the parents, and with the children all split off doing their own thing. And it is less true because the believing Christian parents have forgotten how to pass the Christian faith on to their children. We have less of a family spirituality today because we have less of a family. It takes teaching. It takes talking about why you are Christian, and what that means in any given situation. But most of all, it takes actually going about being Christians every day. You have to model it yourselves. Children need to see you when you struggle with the faith. They need to see you live according to the faith, they need to see you fail and try again, they need to see you hurt and celebrate and doubt and shrink and grow and be hypocrites (as we all sometimes are) and still turn to Jesus and live in God's grace.
Why Raise Children In This Specific Faith?
Many parents have the idea that their children should sample a wide range of religions and be left to decide for themselves what to do. But there are serious drawbacks to this approach. Raising children that way raises them to be religious consumers, formulating their own religion by grabbing something from here and something from there. But it does not create believers. They might intellectually understand the idea that God is bigger than they are, but when they're master of their own beliefs, they are the god over their self-created vision of God. They come to think that something is true because they decide it to be true. This lacks the coherence and depth of a longer, deeper tradition which has been built by the discoveries and failures of thousands of years worth of believers' experience. It's important to expose children to a wide variety of religious beliefs, for better knowledge and for breeding tolerance of others. But a child also needs to have a faith-family like they need their parental family, a faith-home as well as a family-home, something they can belong to, belong in, and belong with. It will not do to have them spend the first 16-20 years of their life spiritually homeless. They need to experience in depth what the real Christian faith is made of, instead of the mocking caricatures, misperceptions, lies, and bumper-sticker catchphrases found in the outside world (and in the church itself). They need to actually live out the rhythms and activities of a faith in each moment. Most important, though, is that the core of Christian spirituality, and in particular the good news of Jesus Christ, is either true or it is a rather foolish lie. If it is a lie, then stop reading this and go to some other Web site, because it's asinine to waste your time teaching your children to do spiritual self-deceptions such as stage-acts of worship or prayers to a nothing. If it is true, then it is crucial to stake your life and your children's lives on it. The good news holds the meaning and purpose of your life, and theirs. Raise them to know that.
Some Suggestions for Family Devotions
- Put regular prayer times next to the times when the family is most often together, such as at mealtimes.
- Especially if you have little children or grandchildren,
- have a ceremony at the start of prayer, such as the lighting of a jar candle for each family member, present or absent.
- Have each person present read part of a passage from Scripture.
- Have a family member write their own prayer (either regularly or on special occasions).
- Have everyone present share something about the day, usually something to be thankful for. (But don't force them to do so.)
- Share poetry or song (including hymns). Many of these are actually stylized prayer -- just like the Psalms and much of the Prophetic writings were.
- Body language and movement (open hands for receiving, uplifted hands for praising, linking hands in prayer, hand movements in song, etc., perhaps even dance) add much to the rituals. Kids like doing things with their bodies, it holds their attention, and teaches them good devotional and worship habits.
- Pray about whatever the children ask for. Even the smallest or silliest or strangest of things. They ask you for a reason - they trust you, and they think God really cares about such things. (Do you?) Even let them lead you.
- Each week's devotions can have a theme; say, on close friends, race relations, love relationships (esp. if there are teen children), church seasons, specific duties to society, etc.
- A variety of this is when each family member shares with the others a personality trait they want to be better at. Every day, in their own private prayers, the family members pray for that person's character growth in that specific trait. Then, during family worship times, each member talks about what progress (if any) has been made on that trait.
- Talk about the different ways we pray and the different things we pray about -- then model it by praying those ways yourselves. Explain as you do.
Some families in the pietist traditions make it a point to ask for (and give) forgiveness toward other family members. It's a practice of not letting the sun go down on your anger, and getting a clean start on the next day. It reinforces the idea that family relationships are more important than whatever we're angry about.
These are suggestions. You'll want to develop ways that are special for your family.
Young Children in Prayer
Young children are freer and more spontaneous with their prayers -- both in when they pray and in what they pray about. They don't separate spirituality from life, they don't really even have those categories yet. (When was the last time you thanked God for toilet paper, underwear, puppies, or ice cream?) The inhibitions creep in as they get older; for instance, a fear of praying aloud -- which comes from knowing that someone other than God is hearing it, so it has to be censored of anything they might be scolded about. (It doesn't take long for a child to learn that people, especially parents, are not as accepting about the content of prayer as God is.) In a way, adult prayer is at its best when prayed like a child going to their parent.
A praying spirit grows in the family when the family members freely speak about God and freely speak to God about each other, themselves, and their life situations. No situation is too small for your prayers -- but don't overblow it by making the little stuff more serious or more solemn than it is.
Family Worship Patterns
Worship is not just a thing you do in church. It is something a family does together, at home and church, and on special occasions. That is, to be someone who is there to worship God, whatever anyone else does.
When there are teens in the family, it's especially important that the family worships together on the 'big' moments of growing up, those times when the child takes another definite step toward adulthood. Their first car, their first serious relationship, their first job, their first gig, winning honors, assuming responsibilities, etc.. It's very easy for a teen to think they can set aside their spirituality at least for a while. By having little bits of worship marking the key point in their lives, they get to know that God's love and grace are not just found in church or in family, but in everything they do.
The family's worship must be kept simple and direct, with key symbols and meanings drawn from the worship we do with others on Sunday. Otherwise, it will be lost on someone in the family. In its worship, the family offers up both itself and the special moment to God. It is not something to do too often. It may be good to learn that God is in the small moments as well as the big ones, but if trivia is marked by worship, worship tends to become trivial. Especially to older children, it may come off as ceremonial overload. Also, family worship time is no substitute for worship with other families and family-less people each week. Each family must keep in mind that it is part of bigger things and does not stand by itself.
It's a rare family that can have full agreement on spiritual practice. Someone will be more into it than others. Someone may love creating prayers and another is more into singing and another into candles and incense and yet another loves to read Scripture out loud. Your family's worship format should respect those differences and put them to use. It also happens that someone will want to opt out of it, for long or short-term reasons. Often, a teen will make a point of not being involved, either as self-assertion or a shift in priorities. This may be a phase, but may be part of a longer-term struggle. Also, sometimes worshipping together may just seem too hypocritical to a family member, due to the misdeeds of another family member. Family worship moments will often help bring a troubled couple together, but at other times the contrast between holy acts and unholy behavior may be too much to bear. Real worship can't be coerced; they have to want to do it. And if they don't want to take part even after some gentle persuasion, let it go and respect the decision. They may have to return to God on a different schedule than you. Pray that the Spirit keeps leading that person back to the faith, and entrust them to God's care. You can't do it for them. They will not have the same spirituality as the rest of the family -- it's called "growing up". It will have its own shape and feel. They will transmit that spirituality to their own family.
Many homes, especially for Catholic and Orthodox families, have a home altar, a space set aside for matters of faith. It usually has a cross and some candles (lit only when in use), perhaps a place for incense or flowering plants, maybe an icon of Jesus (perhaps as a child with His mother Mary), maybe pictures of lost loved ones or memorable places, a Bible, and a notepad. It is also a good place to do journal entries, but not to store journals, since it would give the rest of the family a chance to snoop. Often, older teens will make a worship space of their own on top of a dresser or cabinet. This is part of defining themselves, and is good unless they totally stop involvement in family worship. Even then, it should be allowed, but parents need to find out why there is so strong a disinvolvement.
When you go on vacation trips, take your worship with you. Simple and direct worship formats are especially effective for camping trips, what with the wonders of nature around you, all those good campfire Christian songs, and the sense of togetherness a good vacation brings. You might also plan at least one stop on the trip as a pilgrimage to some place or event of spiritual importance along the way. These may prove to be especially memorable to adult members, and there is a chance (small though it is) that it can be a spiritual turning-point for one of the children.
Preparing to Worship with Others
Worship may not be just for church, but doing it in church with other believers is the main form of worship. There are ways a family can prepare for it. Some hints:
- Be prepared. Prepare for the worship service before you get there. If your church uses a lectionary cycle for the Bible readings, use it so you can know that day's readings and study them for a few moments. Pray alone if you're the only believer in the family. If they too believe and everyone's awake, then go around the house singing hymns, praise songs, or psalms. Then take a few moments to be quiet before God. Also, learn the liturgy: words and tunes. Find the Scripture verses your church's worship order is drawn from, and study them.
- Praise so you can be heard. Use praise punctuations, such as 'Amen' / 'Yes, Lord'; 'Hallelujah' / 'Praise God'; 'Maranatha' / 'Come, Lord Jesus'; 'Thank You'. Such talk not only reminds you and your family to thank the Lord throughout the day, it also displaces some of the less honorable talk, like gossipping, backbiting, arguing, sexually graphic talk, and swearing. Some folk laugh at the idea and call it silly, but for those of us with quick, sharp tongues, it really helps, so long as we don't cheapen it with overuse or impose it on others.
- Know the moment you're in. There are times when singing, clapping, hand-raising, chat and whispering just don't belong (such as in moments of silence or sorrow, or when repenting). There are also times to jump for joy and celebrate. Cherish those moments for what they are -- special moments before God.
- Keep in mind that the Sunday worship services are not about you or your family or about your family's needs. You are a part of something bigger, the gathered worshipping community of believers. And it is gathered there to praise, adore, thank, and celebrate someOne far Bigger still. This is an important lesson for a child to learn, and they need to learn it by example early on.
Stuff: Material Goods and the Family
For most of us, wealth and attitudes toward it determine much of how a family lives. For instance, in order to have shelter or food, both adults (and perhaps one or more children, of age) may have to find employment, or may have to farm in the fields or sell what's grown. If there is much money, a young couple may do a lot of traveling, to get in some common experiences together before taking on children, or maybe just for the fun of it. Money and goods affect the time a couple spends together, the safety of the household from outside dangers, and the need for insurance or transportation or storage. If you have children, how you decide these matters will influence how your children will decide these matters.
If you don't have much material wealth:
- How urgently do you treat the need for getting more? You can warp your life immensely by chasing after it. Your spouse and your children get less of your time and attention. You are, in fact, loving them less and loving stuff more, even if you think of what you're doing as being 'for their good'. Love is shown by your priorities.
- What are the children learning? They learn mostly by example. If they see that you're willing to do anything to get by, your children will learn to be con artists and thieves, or will do whatever someone pays them to do, perhaps even kill. "Getting by" through taking from others (or slaving for others who do) is like dumping battery acid on the society you live in. Instead, choose to live a life where you trust God to provide, while carrying out your responsibility to be diligent in seeking (or creating) real work that really matters to you and others. If you choose to follow Christ, live like it.
If you have some material wealth:
- How urgently do you treat the need for getting more? You may have already warped your life by chasing after it. You may already spend more time arguing with your spouse over how to spend the money than in showing each other love and being a team in dealing with the rest of the world.
- What are the children learning? The kids see how you live, and are quite good at figuring out why. They don't need to be told if it's not good; they see the arguments, the relational distance, the financial debt from trying to live richer than you are. But they follow it anyway, because they follow you. Perhaps you're filling them with store-bought gifts instead of experiences and things you yourself or other family members made. Perhaps you're showing them that you have to have the latest gadget, model your lifestyle after the latest airheaded rich celebrity, and vote with your own goals in mind. But does that show them how to love? Or how to invest themselves, their time, and their money in relationships? Or how to work toward the common good, not just their own piece of the pie? Mammon (wealth-worship) gets in the way of God; if you choose to follow Christ, live like it.
I have my own ideas about such things: use mutual financial institutions; minimize borrowing, for only the most critical needs; raise the kids to have no fixation on wealthy lifestyles; invest instead of speculate or gamble; teach children (and yourself) how to budget money and time, and how to research facts, products and prices; and set aside a specific percentage off the top as a minimum for giving. Give not just to church, but to non-church activities and charities, and directly to other people and other families. Develop your rules for handling money, based on your own life situation and culture. Both spouses must be in agreement on the basics of their approach. Such practical concerns are where spiritual stuff most shows itself. How you handle money is a direct reflection of your spiritual state; it shows where your treasure is.
Teaching Children How to Serve
There are some simple practices, outside of prayer and worship, that can mean a lot in helping your children learn the faith. One is to start them into the practice of serving others at an early age. The best way to begin is for them to see you at work with those in need. While not all such situations are suited to children, if it can be safely done, from the start they should actually see you serving as part of your life. (That of course assumes that such service is a part of your life...). As they get older, you can have them take part as they become able. The children also need to see this in more than just in general terms of helping a body in a crowd or part of some category of people labeled 'needy' or 'oppressed'. They need to put faces on it. Some Southern US churches used to nudge their children between 9 and 12 years old into responsibility for someone elderly or ill who could use the help. It would start with an errand, then become a growing list of chores, until it took up a significant part of their time. By doing service this way, they learned to serve as Jesus did, for the small picture, the big picture, and everything in between.
Taking In the Wonders
Parents have an opportunity to put into extreme practice one of the key spiritual disciplines: that of awareness. You have a responsibility to keep watch over them anyway, so you're there with a front row seat to the greatest show on earth. Don't miss a thing. Experience every moment you can in raising a child. Otherwise, you'll look back and wish you did. Take it as it comes. Pay attention to what's happening to the child, and to you. You'll learn about those you love the most -- your child, your spouse, even yourself. Spiritual practices such as prayer, quiet time, and journaling will help prevent you from being anesthetized by the crush of daily living.
Try another angle: imagine what's happening before you from your child's view. Then, imagine how you seem to the child. Remember that you don't have to constantly talk to them or give them direction; learn when to just watch closely and quietly.
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- Effective Parenting (Scott Turansky and Joanne Miller)
- Faith Inkubator's Faith Stepping Stones
- Claretian Publications has a good blog site, At Home With Our Faith.
- Marcia Bunge on resources for forming your child's spirituality, from Lutheran Partners.
- Real Families, a good site on building faith and strength in families. Dr. Kevin Leman and Jay Passavant.
- Search Institute, with lots of youth resources.
- Worldwide Marriage Encounter
- LifeTeen, a Roman Catholic teen ministry
Some Questions To Ask Yourself
Ask yourself about your childhood :
- From what or whom did you draw your sense of right and wrong?
- How were you taught about giving and caring for those outside your family?
- Was there anything your family often did together which bore special meaning for you?
- Did you pray? Why/why not? What did you think about the one you were praying to?
- Was there a difference between how you looked at spiritual practices and how your parents did? Your brothers/sisters?
- As a child, what struck you as strangest about the world around you?
- Are you living the values you want your children to have? Do you value those values for yourself, and work to strengthen them in your life?
If you were not raised in a religious home :
- What was given as the reason(s) for that (if any)?
- Did you experience any of those reasons for yourself? What was that like?
- What Christians or churches have you come across who operated in a different way than you were raised to think they were like? What did you think of them?
- What one spiritual matter do you handle most differently in your own household?