Last time we kicked off Toolbox by asking: “What is your church called to do?” I firmly believe that all churches have both a general calling to witness to our faith in Jesus, but also quite specific callings to our local area. We asked what sort of area you serve.
We can ask a whole range of questions because God may have some quite specialised calling and the danger is that in reading all the books and articles on ‘how to do youth / children / family / schools’ work’ (delete as appropriate), we miss that specific calling.
Now, this month’s article will be a bit of a balance to that. The danger is that when we discern what we are called to in our area, it may seem so special and unusual that we can’t really learn anything from other youth or children’s workers.
This is far from the truth and this time, we are going to explore my all-time favourite ‘road map’ or theory about establishing and nurturing faith in children and young people.
Incidentally, you may have noticed that I slipped a massive assumption into the question in the first sentence.
“What is your church…?” kind of implies that mission, faith development and disciple making is a task for the church.
It is, although I say that as someone who initially came to faith through a parachurch organisation (then called Crusaders and now called Urban Saints).
So, let’s clarify a bit of theology here. Scripture makes it clear that the Church is God’s intention to embody and express his plan for salvation through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. He has no other way.
Parachurch organisations are great (I have even run some of them myself), but they always need to be somehow plugged into, and lead to, a shared life of faith in a local faith community called a ‘church’. There is no plan B.
“Our task in leading and managing youth, children’s and family work is to provide a structure to enable and nurture faith at each stage”
So, having established that a) we are part of a local faith community in some form (directly or indirectly) and b) we will have a significantly different style and ways of working depending on our local context (see the first article again), how on earth are we going to make sense of this, so we have some idea of what we are going to do?
First, a little caveat. Like many of you, when I came to faith, I first grew in a strongly evangelical faith context. It had huge strengths and I am forever grateful to the people of faith who nurtured me but, it has at least one weakness.
Specifically, for those of us from an evangelical tradition, we are culturally strongly focused on the idea of ‘crisis conversion’.
We love stories of folk who didn’t know anything about God and through some mission process come to that point of need, repentance and commitment to Jesus: “I once was lost, but now am found.”
The problem with this is (take a deep breath here) that it is not a particularly normal biblical model.
Before you reach for your favourite social media mode of protest, let me explain. Of course, there are wonderful stories of ‘crisis conversion’ in scripture – think of the centurion in Acts 10 or even Paul on the road to Damascus.
Less dramatic however are the (literally) generations of children and young people who grew up in a faith context.
What we are less strong at (particularly in the evangelical tradition) is working out what it means to be born into and grow naturally in a family and community of faith.
I will risk causing even more offence here by saying we might learn something from Judaism or even Islam.
For most young people in those contexts, faith is woven seamlessly into family culture and practice in a natural way.
Implicitly, Jewish parents may say: “We are Jewish, you are part of that. You can opt out later if you wish, but as far as we are concerned, we are all in this together.”
There is little emphasis on the famous ‘point of commitment’. Enter now, one of my all-time faith heroes, John Westerhoff. Westerhoff’s genius is to give us, as Christians, a way through this dilemma, a map of how faith can grow which is particularly useful for young people growing up in a faith context, ie a Christian family.
Westerhoff is a profound thinker about the relationship between faith and the local church that embodies it.
I want however, to focus particularly on his well-known ‘stages of faith’ which map the changes faith goes through in the context of a church:
Experienced faith (ages one to three)
Think of those children you see dedicated or ‘Christened’. Faith for them is not a reflective, thought-out intellectual entity. They are (hopefully) cuddled, loved, fed and kept warm. Parents and friends make the world a safe place to be enjoyed and explored.
Pain comes in mishaps, but it is swept up in love and the meeting of needs. Faith at this stage is experienced – it is about love, safety and knowing you are OK.
Affiliative (or joining) faith (ages three to 14)
The context of both family and church now become incredibly important. Children are seeing that faith is lived out at home and in the local church.
Stories are told (and retold) – stories from scripture and what God has done and is doing here.
Faith is shared and expressed in rituals. In many ways, this is a wonderful stage – children are like sponges soaking up what is around them but also becoming aware that this faith may not be shared in the local school or community.
Home and church are, however, the important centres at this stage so the faith of the community they are joined to is the important thing. Consciously (and unconsciously), faith is absorbed as it is practised and lived out.
Searching faith (ages 15 to 25)
This can seem like a crisis, and it can be. Young people develop unevenly. They may still have the simple faith of a child as their intellectual capacity and thinking races ahead to explore a big wide world.
Simultaneously, they become aware that much of the world they live in (school, Tik Tok, friends) doesn’t share their faith.
They also become aware that the faith they have is largely something given to them by their church and family, something they have not critically thought through for themselves. Westerhoff’s powerful metaphor is of a coat that used to protect, but no longer fits.
The child has grown and they need to throw off the coat and find one that does fit. This is the stage of young people developing, adapting, adopting and finding their own adult, Christian faith.
The process may be gentle, but it can seem like a stormy watershed as they suddenly abandon that lovely certainty that they had as children, and it can feel like defeat for parents and church.
The end, however, can be wonderful as they finally work out a true, adult faith that is genuine to them.
Owned faith (adult)
We have finally got there. This is not the faith of their family or church (though it may have a lot of those elements in it) but faith has been appropriated and belongs to them.
My adult children’s faith (for example) has a much stronger emphasis on the theology of God as creator and the need to care for creation.
I have seen Pentecostal children discover the wonder of a Catholic style of ritual and Catholics discover exuberant, charismatic worship.
This process is frequently illustrated by a ‘tree-ring’ diagram which makes two profound points. The first is that any stage is as good as another.
A small tree is not any less of a tree than a giant oak. It is just smaller. Each faith stage is as good as another – it is just what is appropriate to the person at that time.
Secondly, there is a sense in which a big tree encompasses the smaller. The small tree has not gone away, just grown.
Although we ‘move on’ in faith stages, we don’t move ‘away’, each stage encompasses that which has gone before.
If you want to read more about this, I can recommend both John Westerhoff’s Will our Children have Faith? Alternatively read Francis Bridger’s Children Finding Faith, which is based largely on Westerhoff’s work.
Both are classics and both books are still available. To be fair to Westerhoff, I also have to say that he never put specific ages against each stage (I have added them as guesstimates from my own experience).
Indeed, he would argue that people go through all four stages whatever age they come to faith.
So…what has all this got to do with your local church strategy? Quite simply, our task in leading and managing youth, children’s and family work is to provide a structure to enable and nurture faith at each stage. It is both as simple and complex as that. Let’s take some examples at each stage to show what we mean.
This is all about safety and nurture. That might be about your toddler group or helping deprived families on the local estate. Children need to know that they can trust people, for this is the intellectual foundation for faith. Much of this can be intensely practical. Food banks, parenting skills, and yes, praying for and with your children.
This is all the classic children’s work. Great Sunday groups, action songs, holiday clubs and trips to big events! Children need to be exposed to the faith of the church so other people become as important as their family. Remember the old African cliché – ‘It takes a village to raise a child’. Well, it takes a faith community to raise Christian kids.
Youth workers earn their wages here. What young people need now is someone to accompany them on their scary journey out of the security of childhood faith and into adulthood (think metaphorically of the disciples on the road to Emmaus).
We need to proactively encourage them to think, question and challenge. We earn the right to critique their thinking by exploring issues with them.
Workers need to be available, non-judgmental and happy to spend time talking without an agenda. Incidentally, workers need not be paid or even part of the youth team.
What young people need are a variety of different Christian adults who they can share with, relate to and explore ideas. This will almost by definition not be their parents and it becomes an amazing intergenerational task for the church.
Incredible people did this for my children and in turn, I have spent hours walking with the children of others. It’s how it works. The task for the local faith community is to facilitate this intentionally.
It is important not to think of adult faith as ‘finished’. God has a way of subtly changing us all the time. The reality of modern ways of life also mean that our adult children may well end up in someone else’s church! In return, you may get the results of another churches work when a young adult arrives in your place.
This has been a super-brief introduction to Westerhoff’s theory of faith development. What I love about it most is the provision for a framework for thinking and planning. Any strategy needs to hang together in a coherent way.
The danger is that, without a framework like Westerhoff’s, we hoover up good ideas from conferences, YouTube videos and books without a cohesive plan. Return to the task you had last time (looking at priorities) and see if you have all the bases above covered in some way.
What are your strengths? Where might you currently be showing some weakness?
Again, work through it and see what you might build on but what also needs addressin