In Children Finding Faith, Francis Bridger suggests that faith encompasses believing, trusting, imagining and action. Each of these develops at different times and in different ways, and is obviously influenced by the type of family in which we grow up. When thinking about faith at home it’s very easy to overemphasise one element over others, but to have a stable faith I think we need to develop all four. I want to explore each of these areas, starting with action (which I began to explore in the last May issue).
James 2:17 says: “Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” It’s quite harsh, and may not be something we often say to each other. In a culture where faith is something people feel should be private and invisible, this is not a popular verse. However, authenticity is really important to young people and children.
I have been very encouraged by some of the parents I’ve seen supporting their children and young people in actively living out their faith. For one family it was letting their son join another family on a mission trip where he got to dress up as a Narnian prince and share about forgiveness with more than 200 visitors, as well as taking part in activities such as prayer walks.
Other parents shared how they involve their children in ministry at church. These children were using their musical gifts in the worship or doing puppets, sign language or dance. They were serving on teams that helped in running the Sunday meetings (different families, you understand, not one enormous von Trapp clan!). One lady shared how, if those who run children’s and youth activities serve on other teams, they teach the younger ones how to serve. A simple but fab idea, I thought. One church was thinking through the implications of having a teenager on the leadership team, which sounded like a scary but amazing direction to pursue.
Our youngsters are usually keen to experience and do, not just read and listen
In some ways, this is the easiest aspect of helping our children and young people grow in their faith, as they are true believers that words and actions need to line up (any parent will tell you that). Just try cancelling a trip to the park after you’ve said it will happen. They’re big on action. Right from the time they are tiny children, our youngsters are usually keen to experience and do, not just read and listen. One learning theory suggests that teachers should include elements that appeal to visual, audio and kinaesthetic learners. Since we are a mix of all three, I would suggest that it’s always helpful to have variety and choice.
From around the age of 7, children and young people become passionate advocates against injustice at any and every level, and are keen to change the world. I know of many families who have taken part in beach clean-ups, for example. The context makes it a much nicer experience than doing it in the park, but I think it’s the plight of our oceans that fires the imagination and indignation of our young people to such an extent that they want to do something about it.
However, it’s easy as we read the Bible, especially with young children, to limit the scope of their response to tidying their rooms, being respectful to parents and kind to siblings. If we leave it there we are really selling them short, and should not be surprised if they decide that our faith is not for them.
What stops us going further?
I think fear has a lot to do with this. Allowing children and young people the freedom to take God’s message of love to a broken world puts them in a position where they could get hurt. They could get it wrong or be misunderstood.
I think we probably feel a bit guilty, as we know that we often don’t do as much as we would like to ourselves. Inaction on our part, perhaps caused by busyness or indifference, makes it harder for us to include them in our activities, which is a great place for children to start. Many of the parents who listed ways their children were active at church said they had started alongside them, and that as they got older they had become more independent, as you would expect.
The brilliant thing about being a Christian family within a community is that our children and young people have opportunities to ‘minister’ or act out their faith in a practical way alongside other Christians: people we know and trust, who can mentor and encourage them.
Our church recently welcomed a missionary on ‘home assignment’ and we met up for lunch. I encouraged my 6-yearold to grill her, asking lots of questions about the country she works in. One question led to another, and we discussed who displaced people are and brainstormed what they might need. Then my friend showed us lots of photos of her work, which really helped us understand what she does so we could support her in prayer more effectively. We’re also in touch with her via social media so my daughter can, if she chooses, contact her with more questions and exchange photos. She didn’t decide immediately to become a missionary, but hearing about this woman’s work in such a different place helped widen her perspective on what it means to live out the Christian faith.
What should we do?
I think we need to pray and ask God what’s holding us back. If it’s fear, we need to take those fears honestly to him. If it’s guilt, we should do the same. Let’s ask God to inspire and ignite our faith in action.
We should also let children and young people lead with their ideas. Ask them: “What do we do because we love Jesus? What could we do because we love Jesus? In what way does our faith change our behaviour?” When they come up with ideas, try and find ways to implement them.
Start small and let it grow. Pick something you care about and take action. It might start off with doing something to care for the world God has made and gave us to look after, perhaps giving up plastic goods (eg straws, bags or cling film). It might be doing something kind for a person who needs to know they are loved: a plate of biscuits or an invitation to play.
Get inspired by chatting about what you have done in the past and share stories of what God has done through you. Some parents may have great stories about how their faith has led them to action, perhaps on a year out in a developing country or raising money through a marathon. These things may have happened before the children were born and therefore won’t be part of their family story. Or you could invite a friend over to share their experiences.
Do things that fit with your family values. What do you care about? What has God given you a passion for? What would you like to change? Do something about that together.