A few years ago I read the book Sticky Faith: Everyday Ideas to Build Lasting Faith in Your Kids. The book is one of two coming out of a major research project by Kara Powell and Chap Clark from Fuller Institute, who researched a group of 11,000 church-going teens. One of their findings in that study was the importance of conversations about spiritual matters between parents and their children. Sadly, the study also discovered that these kinds of conversations are happening infrequently in American Christian homes.
Since then, I have read a number of interesting studies in psychology journals whose findings line up with those in Sticky Faith. A particularly compelling read was Kenda Creasy Dean’s report on the results of the National Study of Youth and Religion research, by sociologist Christian Smith. In her book, Almost Christian, Dean has a chapter on the importance of language for creating not only meaning, but faith. That chapter is so important, I reproduce a portion for you, below.
After a discussion of philosopher Charles Taylor’s writing on language, Dean notes:
If language has world-creating power, a theological vocabulary that helps us talk about God also helps us imagine what a God-shaped world looks like. The Holy Spirit reveals divine truth in the gospel not only to tell us what God has done in Jesus Christ but to help the church envision a way of life in which the life, death and resurrection of Christ become the ‘grammar’ of human existence. Teenagers who have trouble articulating what they believe about God also seem to have trouble forging a significant connection to God – and youth who do not have language for Christ are unlikely to imagine an identity in Christ. The practical theologian Thomas Long points out: ‘We don’t just say things we already believe. To the contrary, saying things out loud is part of how we come to believe.”(142)
Dean then goes on to make a case for what she calls ‘conversational Christianity,’ which includes reflections on the place for testimony as a tool for learning Christian language. (You can see the influence of Dean’s writings in my un-Anglican love of testimony!)
Dean’s writing in particular has galvanized my interest in helping parishioners find ways to gain a language of faith; in the home, it has in particular spurred on my interest in ‘sticky conversation.’
In my next blog posts, I will share resources I have found to encourage sticky conversations in the home, and my own efforts at encouraging parishioners more generally in developing their skills in conversational Christianity.
As a pastor, preparations for church Holy Week services consume a lot of my time and head space right now. As a mum, we have our own family practices that – because they are annual – we just naturally fall into. I thought I would share some of our family practices here, in the hopes that you may gain some inspiration for your own home.
Signs and Symbols
Just like we decorate for Christmas, in our household we decorate for the other seasons in the Church Year (especially feast days and holy seasons like Advent, Lent, and Easter-tide). I like there to be a consonance between the signs and symbols in the church, and the signs and symbols in our home.
We have an alcove that I guess you could call a home “altar” where we decorate for the Church season. Here’s what we have up for Lent:
I’ve collected our “signs and symbols” over the years – mostly from dollar stores and thrift stores, although some of the treasures are ones made by me and the kids. The art is all pretty much from printable downloads from artists on Etsy.com. I store our seasonal decorations in bins, just like we do our Christmas decorations. Now that they are older, the kids help decorate, just like they do at Christmas.
I know my positive, affective associations with Christmas are shaped in part by the sights and smells and sounds I associate with that season. I hope that in a very humble and gentle way, these signs and symbols from Lent and Holy week will be one more thing that ties our children’s affections to God, in that same way that the Transcendent sometimes impinges upon our consciousness through a piece of choral music, or a stained glass window, or a fiery sunset.
Food and Fellowship
As a child and teenager, I was always fascinated by the Jewish observances around food, and especially the linking of special foods with special Festivals. Once I became Chief Cook in our household, with power and authority over the menu, I began wondering about ways to tie in special foods with special season of the Church Year, noticing all of my own positive associations with special foods at Thanksgiving and at Christmas.
Turns out, there are already many historic associations with the Church year that I simply didn’t know about!
In 10th century England, clergy used to hand out Pax cakes to their parishioners on Palm Sunday as an encouragement to extend peace to one another and to their neighbours. I have found some traditional recipes, but they are a bit complicated for me. So this is the one I use:
Pax Cakes Recipe
Beat one egg.
Add and beat until smooth:
1 cup sour milk or buttermilk
2 tablespoons salad oil (salad oil is any vegetable oil)
� cup whole wheat flour
� cup wheat germ
� cup white flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
� teaspoon soda
Grease a heated skillet or griddle. Pour batter from jug onto the hot griddle in 3 to 5 cm diameter dollops. Turn the pax cakes when bubbles show.
Heat on the second side until brown. Sprinkle with powdered sugar. Cinnamon may be added if desired. Makes 30-50 pax cakes.
Variation: Use 1 cup white flour, instead of combining whole wheat flour, wheat germ, and white flour.
On Good Friday, in the morning, we eat hot cross buns. That is the first day we begin to enjoy them, and then continue eating the buns all through Eastertide. One legend has it that 12th century English monk dreamed up these delicious treats as a way of honouring Good Friday, with the cross being the obvious symbol.
We also eat fish as our main meal that day. This dates back to the the old traditions of fasting during Lent, which ranged from some kind of daily fasting, to fasting on certain days of the week, to fasting from meat on Fridays. In some traditions, the diet for Holy week fasting (ie. one meal a day) was the xerophagiæ, which was a diet of dry food, bread, salt, and vegetables. Fish was often allowed for the meal, as the fast excluded only flesh meat.
We haven’t practiced any kind of fast as a family, and this is mostly because I haven’t figured out how to meaningfully explain it to our children when they were younger, and because I myself get lightheaded and can’t work well without something for breakfast. But this year, our 12 year old understood the notion of “giving something up” for Lent for first time, as a meaningful spiritual exercise, so we might revisit it next year, and at least extend the practice to Fish Fridays in Lent.
A friend of mine taught me how to make pascha bread, and so that has become our Easter morning tradition. Unfortunately, since I leave the house at the crack of dawn, I don’t get to join the family in the meal; but I like that when our kids wake up, there are not just chocolate easter eggs waiting at the table for them, but a meal that is unique to the resurrection celebrations.
Lamb, a traditional food for Easter, doesn’t fit our budget, and anyways we are lucky in that my husband’s usually gathers this day, and so cooking is all taken care of.
Simnel cake is another lovely traditional food at Easter if you are baker (which I am not). It has marzipan balls representing the 12 disciples (minus Judas, which I guess makes only 11 marzipan balls!). If I felt equal to the task, we would eat Simnel cake on Easter Sunday or Monday.
Devotions and Worship
We do daily devotions at suppertime and during Lent have been doing the special devotional given out at our church. But during Holy Week, we enter a special time of family reflections. We have a Holy Week Egg tree devotional that we use, that I love because of the reflections and the visual reminders is offers:
The artist is from Etsy, and is called Jesse Tree Treasures. This was a birthday gift one year, as it is not cheap.
When the kids were younger, we used Resurrection Easter eggs, for Holy Week, which you can make or buy.
Or, you can simply find a special devotional online to use in the home to mark this special week. Here’s a simple one I found online this morning.
And, of course, worship with our faith community is an important part of this coming week. For us, it means Palm Sunday as a family, Good Friday, the Easter Walk on Holy Saturday, and the big party on Easter Sunday.
Usually our kids go down for the kids’ program on Good Friday; just today our eldest asked if she could stay up with the adults. She’s ready, I think.
Can’t believe how time flies!
Remember: there is no right or wrong way to mark this holy time in your home. You know your family best! Be creative. And have fun with it!
On the Grown and Flown website, there is an excellent interview with Dr. Frances E. Jensen, author of the The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults. You can find it here.
We don’t have teens yet. But I do know that from a spiritual perspective, emotional attachment with parents is an important piece of the faith transmission puzzle. Dr. Jensen offers good tips on how to stay connected to your teen during those often turbulent years. Her insights help parents understand their offspring’s sometimes trying behaviour, from a developmental perspective.
Dr. Jensen also offers advice on key parenting issues during those growing years, especially as it relates to brain development.
It’s a quick and worthwhile read.
I find neuroscience (when it is explained in lay terms) fascinating, so I may even get around to reading Jensen’s book. Likely when our kids move into the teen years, and I shift into “oh-oh” mode.
I am currently using Youth Alpha for confirmation classes for a group of eight 12-14 year olds at our church. It’s my first time using it, and I’m impressed.
Here’s what I like so far:
It’s engaging and gets them talking:
No bored kids in this class! The length of each video is about 20-25 minutes, which ends up being about 45 minutes to an hour when you add in discussion.
The production value on these videos is impressive. It’s no longer just talking heads, as in the old adult Alpha series; instead, these videos are visually rich and make use of the most creative styles of image-communication.
Since the videos were made as an evangelistic tool, they assume little to no knowledge of the Christian story. For confirmation classes, given that young people come from all different places spiritually, this is very helpful. Everybody is able to participate.
Following the model of the older Alpha series, Youth Alpha is low-coercion and open to questions. Before each group discussion question, there are interviews with ordinary people giving their perspectives on the question. There are always a range of viewpoints, and that diversity in outlook (ranging from belief to unbelief) creates space in the small group discussion for people to speak their minds.
This is one of the gifts I appreciate most about Youth Alpha. I have never had so much honest conversation with young people in a group setting. Somehow, the videos create room for people to speak the truth about where they are at spiritually, instead of giving the correct ‘religious’ answer. As a pastor, I have gained deep insight into our young people’s lives, and so been better able to engage with their questions. For that I am truly thankful.
It talks about the basics:
Kenda Creasy Dean, in her excellent book Almost Christian, talks about the failure of both Mainline and non-mainline churches to teach the basics of the Christian faith to young people. This, she argues, has led to the concomitant development of unorthodox faith amongst North American young people, which sociologist Christian Smith has dubbed Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Dean writes:
We ‘teach’ young people baseball, but we ‘expose’ them to faith…we blithely assume that religious identity will happen by osmosis, emerging ‘when youth are ready’ (a confidence we generally lack when it comes to, say, algebra). We simply have not given teenagers the soul-strength to recognize, wrestle, and resist the symbiotes in our midst, probably because we lack [it] ourselves… Exposing adolescents to faith, as it turns out, is no substitute for teaching it to them.
Youth Alpha provides an excellent resource that helps redress that imbalance.
Here’s a look at the topics they cover off:
Life: Is This It?
Jesus: Who is He?
Cross: Why Did Jesus Die?
Faith: How Can We have Faith?
Prayer: Why and How Do I Pray?
Bible: Why and How Do I Read the Bible?
Follow: How Does God Guide Us Into Full Life?
Spirit: Who Is the Holy Spirit and What Does He Do?
Fill: How Can I Be Filled With the Holy Spirit?
Evil: How Can I Resist Evil?
Healing: Does God Heal Today?
Church: What About the Church and Telling Others?:
It is user-friendly and manageable for small churches & tight budgets:
Once upon a time, when I worked in multi-staff settings, I had time to develop my own curricula. Now, I am a factotum pastor: I am needed everywhere.
Youth Alpha enables me to do (I feel) a good job of confirmation preparation without requiring hours of prep. That means a lot to me, because the kids going through confirmation in our church matter…but my sanity is worth something too.
Plus, did I mention it is free? No? It costs exactly zero dollars, so that helps churches with tight budgets. (Of course, donations are welcomed to help under-write future Alpha ventures).
The caveat: It needs tinkering for your context
So obviously, as with every program, you’re not going to love every aspect of the videos. For example, we will not be showing the video session on healing (it is optional). And, you may not agree with every angle taken in the teaching. But you can handle that yourself as the leader, in the discussion portion.
So, for example, one of the questions today took us 20 minutes of energetic discussion to sort through: “How do you feel about the idea that God has a plan for your life?” We talked about what that even means, this notion of “plan”, and what it doesn’t mean. We talked about human choice, and human responsibility. We talked about a “way of life” as opposed to a “blueprint.” We wondered about suffering, and how that fits in with this notion of God having a plan. We wondered about the scope of freedom. We somehow even ended up talking about sex and the huge pressure on teenage girls to give oral sex. (Yep. Very revealing conversation, that continued on for awhile with parents and teens after the class officially ended).
There is a new Youth Alpha being developed, although the one currently available is only four years old.
Alpha has been around for so long, some people have developed an allergy to it. I encourage you to keep an open mind and check it out. It’s not going to be for everyone, but for those for whom it’s a fit, it is an incredible resource.
For Canadians, you’ll find the videos here: https://www.alphacanada.org/ayfs/