Raising faith 1
This is the first in a new sermon series which we’re calling Raising faith. It’s a title that we have flagrantly stolen from others who have done lots of thinking about the subject of children, young people, families, churches and faith - which is the topic of this series. And this book, called… Raising faith…. contains much that we’ll be talking about over the next few weeks, and more - and if you’d like a copy we’re going to do a bulk order and you can say you’d like one at the back of church after the service.
So we’re going to spend today and the next 3 Sundays looking at the issue of family life and faith, and how we - the whole church - can be involved in bringing the next generation of children up in the faith.
As we start, a couple of really important things to say. First, this sermon series is for everyone, whether you have children or teenagers at home or not. This is for the whole church and not just for parents and grandparents. One of the things that we will be exploring is how it takes a whole church to raise a child - a whole church - and how one of the really counter cultural things that we have to offer - as church - is a community of belonging in which everyone shares responsibility for each other and in which children in particular, belong to us all.
Secondly, talking about family life and faith risks the suggestion that there is some kind of ‘perfect’ way of doing things out there, and that as none of us ever quite manage ‘perfect’, we’re not good enough; we’re not good enough Christians, not good enough parents or grandparents, not a good enough church community. The risk is that this series just makes us all feel awful.
So please hear this clearly. This series is about encouragement and invitation - not criticism or judgement. There are an infinite number of ways to parent and to care for kids and none of us get it all right - we all mess up as parents, grandparents, godparents and as fellow church members. All we’re asked to do is to keep on seeking God and his will, knowing that we are all dong what we can.
So, with those two caveats, here’s what I am going to talk about this morning.
First I will lay out why this stuff matters - why faith in the home matters, and why this is an issue for all of us, and I’m going to share some research that has been done on the issue of faith and families.
Second, I want to look at three things that our culture tells us about children and faith.
And third I want to come back to the question why this matters from the perspective of God and children.
Over the following weeks we will look at the bible and what it has to say about families, and then two weeks of really practical stuff that we can do, as families and as a whole church.
So, what’s the issue and why does this stuff matter? There has been a lot of research done recently about how people come to faith, and about why churches grow or decline. Here are some figures for you.
When practising Christians were asked at what age they came to faith, this is what they said - 40% said before the age of 5; 16% between 5-10 and 20% between the ages of 11-18. That’s 76% of Christians who came to faith before they were 18.
And when young people who believe in God are asked who are the the key influences on their faith, 72% said their family; not church, not their mates, not their Sunday groups - their family.
And a very wide ranging survey of research in this area draws the same conclusion: the most important social influence in shaping young people’s religious lives is the religious life modelled and taught to them by their parents
And that all makes sense doesn’t it - we know that in every area of life it is parents and families who have the greatest influence on the outlook, values and behaviours of their kids; schools have a part to play, groups, friends too - but the home is the key place where children are nurtured and taught. That’s as true for faith as it is for manners, values and attitudes.
Here’s another bit of research. The European Values Survey asks large numbers of people across Europe about their values and attitudes. One of the questions offers 11 ‘values’ and asks parents to choose the 5 most important. Here are the options.
Of those who self identify as Anglicans, religious faith was the least mentioned value, and was included as a priority by 11%. The most chosen value amongst Anglicans? Good manners, picked by a whopping 93%.
One more statistic for you. Church of England attendance statistics show that 50% of the children of committed adult believers will stop going to church as adults.
50% of the children of committed adult believers will stop going to church as adults.
Let’s add all of this together.
The most important factor in anyone coming to faith and growing up to be a practising Christian believer is their family.
Anglican families do not consider bringing their children up in the faith to be a priority
Half of the children of current believers will not go on to be adult Christians.
Those three facts have led a leading researcher to draw this conclusion:
"The reason for decline in affiliation and attendance in the church is the failure to replace older generations of churchgoers. The problem is not adults leaving the Church: it is that half of the children of churchgoing parents do not attend when they reach adulthood.”
This report points out that this fall of 50% in every generation gives the church a half life of one generation - i.e. that in every future generation there will be half the number of believers than currently exist. You don’t need to be a mathematician to see where that fact leads ….. half of a half of a half is a very small number. In fact on current attendance figures, that would leave the Church of England with just over 100,000 attenders within 60 years. That’s about how many people were at the Millennium Stadium for the rugby yesterday.
So why is this happening? Why are so many of us so hesitant to share our faith with children?
Three things seem particularly important.
First. Many people just don’t believe in the core Christian offer. Scepticism, indifference and even mockery of Christianity are now the norm - and the constant drip, drip of negativity has made us less confident in our own faith. It’s hard to be a public Christian. What if you tell people what you believe and they laugh at you, or argue with you, or tell you your an idiot? And so we keep quiet about it - at work, in school - and even perhaps, within our own families.
Second. A culture of choice. We are surrounded by the promise that choice is everything - I spoke about this in a sermon a couple of weeks ago. Our culture says, you can choose anything and everything - and it is your right to do so. In fact, if you want to live a full and free life, you must do so. Don’t let anyone tell you who you are, what you should believe or how you should live your life. ‘Be true to yourself’, ‘discover your own truth’, ‘be the person you want to be’; these are the phrases that shape our world.
And that culture of choice has become part of our culture in church too. And so we want to let our children to choose what they believe. We don’t want to ‘brainwash’ our children - we want them to discover their own truth, or their own way. And so we’re happy for them to come to church and to do RE - because then they’ll have the facts they need to make a choice of their own one day. But we’re not going to tell them what to believe, because that might be indoctrinating them.
But much of this choice is an illusion - everything children hear from the culture that we all live in, says ‘don’t believe this stuff, find your own truth, religion is dull, church is for losers’. There is no such thing as a ‘free choice’. If we don't choose for them when they’re young, society will make the choice for them - and the choice will be for society’s view of things. And that almost certainly won’t include God.
And anyway, there are loads of things we don’t let our children choose; we teach them to say please and thank you; we expect them to do their homework and to go to school. The question isn’t whether we’re imposing things on them - of course we’re doing that - the question is ‘are we sharing the things that matter most to us with our kids and grandchildren?’ And if God matters, if faith is important to us, then we should be really clear about passing it on to the next generation.
And thirdly. We are all used to contracting things out - whether it’s education, health care or leisure, we expect to look to experts to do the things we don’t think we are equipped to do, or that we don’t have time to do. We give our children to teachers to learn, to doctors to make them healthy and to dance or football clubs to train them in the sports of their choice.
I wonder if we do the same with church and faith - we contract out teaching the faith to people who wear collars like this, to Youth leaders, to Sunday groups and to ‘church’. They’re the experts - and they can do what we don’t feel confident to do.
But talk to any teacher and they’ll tell you that education is a partnership, talk to doctors and they will tell you that good health starts at home, talk to a sports coach and they know that the kids who succeed are the ones where the parents, or grandparents - or another adult - are really involved and interested in the child’s development.
The same is true of faith. Of course church is crucial in the faith development of children. And that’s why children and families are so important to us at St Mary’s. But all the evidence is that it starts at home. That what is modelled at home is the biggest single factor in children growing up with a living and robust faith of their own.
So there’s the challenge. And it’s a challenge for all of us.
And it’s not a new challenge. We heard Psalm 78 just now; it was written 3000 years ago and it is already addressing the same issue - God ‘…appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our ancestors to teach to their children, that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and rise up and tell them to their children, so they they should set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments.’
Over the next couple of weeks we’ll look - with Faye - at what the bible says about passing faith on to the next generation, and then, with Caroline at some really practical things we can do as families and as a whole church.
For now though, let me finish with the real reason why this all matters so much. And it’s not about church numbers, and whether the Church of England has a future - which in God’s great plan for his creation, isn’t the most important thing. It’s to do with truth.
If it’s true; if it’s true that there is a God, that he made this Universe, that he cares so passionately about every person and every life that he sent Jesus to live, die and live again for us. If it’s true that suffering won’t have the final word, that injustice matters and that we can do something about it. If it’s true that the Holy Spirit is alive and active, that prayers are answered, that healing of body, mind and soul is possible. If this is true - whether we know it with our whole heart, or suspect it’s true and are figuring out what that means - if it’s true, then it matters more than anything else that we might ever know. And if that’s the case, then it really, really matters that our children and grandchildren, and the children that we share church life with, have the opportunity to know it too - and if we don’t tell them, and show them, and be ready to learn from them in turn, nobody will.
Society says - keep this God stuff to yourself.
Faith says - this is the greatest gift you can give a child. Tell them, share it with them. Give them the gift of God’s presence in their lives.
After all, it we don’t tell them, chances are nobody will.