Alongside advice on work, wealth, prayer, parenting and much more besides, the book of Proverbs has plenty to say about how relationships form us. It warns us, for instance, that we need to be careful where we seek advice (Proverbs 17:4), and highlights the importance of loyal friends and brotherly love (17:17).
The New Testament also points to the importance of relationships. Jesus was accompanied in ministry by his twelve disciples and a host of others, including a number of women (Luke 8:1-3). And while we sometimes imagine the apostle Paul as a lone-ranger church planter, a quick look at his letters reminds us that he always ministered in the company of others. He describes Priscilla and Aquila as “my fellow workers in Christ” (Romans 16:3).
Our spiritual formation is always embedded in relationships. Whether learning to pray, reaching out in mission, or moving schools or jobs, the people around us shape us significantly.
Such a truth is hugely important when we think about raising children in the faith today. The spiritual formation of young people is nurtured through a range of relationships. As parents, we are called to model and teach our children about faith, but we also need to embed our young people within wider forms of Christian community.
What, then, are the significant relationships and networks that shape us? While personal spiritual practices are important for children, the Spirit clearly works through families, friends and mentors; key figures as young people grow up in the faith. Participation in church is also crucial for children and young people, while small groups are helpful spaces of support in a context of wider church decline.
A further two networks are Christian gatherings (such as camps, festivals and pilgrimages), and times of service and mission, both means through which young people can encounter God.
While there isn’t space here to describe each of these networks, it’s helpful to explore how parents can help their children with friendships, mentors, Christian gatherings, and service and mission.
Friendships are naturally important for children, and their significance increases as they hit their teenage years. It is during adolescence that young people begin to develop a distinct identity from their parents and family – a psychological process known as individuation – and it’s through relating to peers that they develop their beliefs and values.
Because of the importance of friends in creating identity, it’s vital that children raised in Christian homes have at least some friends who share their faith. Such friends make faith seem possible, offering encouragement and support in a culture in which being a Christian is increasingly odd. Together, friends can tackle issues raised in the schoolyard, on the sports field and in the classroom, and can pray for and with one another.
“Part of the role of parents is helping children flourish in the context of other relationships and networks”
A retired minister once shared with me that he had served in a rural area of the country where there were few kids in church, so he was worried about the faith of his son. In response, he had made it a priority to travel to a nearby town each weekend so his son could take part in a lively youth group. While a hassle, this decision meant that his son formed strong friendships that helped him keep the faith as he grew older. The investment was worth it.
As parents, we need to provide opportunities for our children to build strong friendships with those who share their faith. While we cannot manufacture such friendships, we can create situations from which they can emerge. This doesn’t mean that our children should only seek Christian friends (1 Corinthians 5:9-10!), but it does mean we should recognise the value for them of a few significant friends who share their faith. As iron sharpens iron, so young Christians can support one another in remaining faithful to God (Proverbs 27:17).
Mentors are also significant in helping children and young people grow as Christians. A Christian mentor is anyone who encourages another in their faith through what they say or do. While some mentoring is formal, such as an adult meeting a young person to study the Bible, much of it takes place informally, such as an older musician encouraging a younger member of the church band.
Research shows that mentors have a significant impact on young people, including people of faith. The care shown by mentors can be deeply influential, and mentors give young people a different horizon from their parents or peer group. In one study, Christians who said they had kept their faith at university were far more likely to have had an adult mentor during their teens.
Growing up in New Zealand, I remember the impact my youth group leader, Liz, had on my new-found faith. Liz not only sought to teach us about Jesus, but modelled a generous and hospitable faith, hosting us in her home and inviting us to her beach house each summer, where we enjoyed barbecues, trips to the beach and movie nights.
“Part of the role of parents is helping children flourish in the context of other relationships and networks”
Liz’s husband, Bert, was a hard-working and unassuming Kiwi farmer, and occasionally manned the youth group barbecue. I once admired Bert’s leather jacket, and he promptly took it off and gave it to me. This was an unexpected kindness that had a big impact at the time. Liz and Bert were both mentors: sometimes formal and other times informal influences on my faith.
In a context where there can be nervousness about relationships between adults and children, it’s important that we don’t lose sight of the influence that adults outside the home can have on the faith of our kids. While good youth leaders will often mentor our children – as Liz and Bert did with me – it’s also good to draw others into the task. As parents, we can invite trusted friends to pray for our kids, and ask them to share something of their own faith with them. And as adults, we can also seek to be good mentors to other children within the church, contributing to a community in which young and old are equally valued.
Even when parents raise their children in a church with a strong youth group, it’s often through attending a camp or festival – or even going on a pilgrimage – that children make their own commitment to Christ or own their faith more deeply. It is at these times that many young people report ‘mountain top’ experiences that bring the reality of God to life.
Festivals and camps provide an opportunity to get away from ordinary life and spend an intensive time with others who share the faith. At such events, young people often connect with God more easily – particularly at festivals, where they worship alongside hundreds of others – and can have deep experiences of God’s love and grace. They also find opportunities to build community, forming strong friendships and meeting mentors, while camps can train young people in forms of spiritual practice that will sustain them after they have returned home.
Daisy, a 15-year-old from my church, started attending camps at 11 and told me about the impact they have had on her faith. As well as providing opportunities to build friendships and times of deep conversations with leaders, Daisy explained that some of the Bible studies made her feel “even move loved by God than I had done before”.
Daisy also shared the encouragement she had received through spending time with other Christians her age. As one of only two followers of Jesus in her year group, she found it a huge help to “talk to people who are the same age as you and are going through the exact same things at school”. Camps have been a key part of Daisy’s growing faith, especially in terms of making it her own.
As parents, it’s good to consider sending children to Christian camps or festivals, and ministers and youth leaders will often have suggestions if you need them. While camps can be expensive, most churches offer support for families who might struggle to pay. Parents can also have a role helping their children integrate their experience of God at an event into life back home. One response might be to incorporate the new praise songs they mention or prayer methods they have learnt into your worship within the home.
Service and mission
Children are also shaped in their faith as they serve others, either through local projects or more formal mission initiatives. This isn’t surprising. After all, serving others is part of what it means to be a disciple. Jesus gave an example of such service in his life and death (Mark 10:45), and taught his disciples that “the greatest among you will be your servant” (Matthew 23:11). Giving children an opportunity to serve helps them experience a key dimension of following Jesus.
Service can take many different forms. For young children, it may involve writing to a sponsor child or preparing a food parcel. For teenagers, it might mean helping at a food bank or volunteering at a homeless shelter. Churches or youth groups often provide opportunities for service, including mission trips, while initiatives like Hope Together (hopetogether.org.uk) offer ideas and resources to serve the local community.
A family I know recently travelled to Malawi for a couple of weeks, where, together with a number of other families, they worked with a local ministry. While the parents worked on local community projects and taught in the school, their 7-year-old son helped out where he could, including teaching the story of the lost sheep. The trip was an eye-opener for all of them, and showed their son that he too could serve the needs of others.
As parents, we should seek opportunities for our children to serve. Service is a way in which the Spirit helps us become like Jesus, and – when undertaken in community – is a time when children can build relationships with others. For some children and young people, it is in serving others that they really understand the call of Jesus, and service is a means of growing as a disciple for each and every one of them.
Networks that support faith formation are hugely significant for children and young people. While faith is a gift of the Spirit, the Spirit works through such networks to help people grasp this faith and grow in it.
Parents retain a key role in their children’s faith formation. Most children who come to faith come from Christian homes, so prioritising faith within the family is crucial. But part of the role of parents is helping children flourish in the context of other relationships and networks. It is as part of the wider family and mission of God that we become more like Jesus.
Finally, it’s important to remember that, while many may sow seeds in the lives of our children, it’s God who gives the growth (1 Corinthians 3:5-9). So, as well as seeking a community of faith to support our children, let’s keep praying that they will know the reality of Christ’s love and be “filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:19).