For many years there has been a trend for parents to think that the best place for their children to learn about the Christian faith is the Church – usually a Sunday morning, or a youth group of some sort, or ideally both.
Therefore, the key task for many children’s and youth leaders has been to organise fun events and activities for children and young people, and help them to grow in faith. The parents’ main role has often been that of taxi driver, rather than tour guide; as parents tend to take their children to Christian events, rather than journey in the Christian faith alongside them.
In many Churches our children’s and youth workers have become a bit like Butlins’ Red Coats, available to take children off the parents’ hands and keep them entertained so parents can do adult faith activities. In my opinion, our children’s and youth workers should be treated more like Bushcraft Survival Instructors than Butlins’ Red Coats, there to encourage families to explore the faith adventure together and help them to remember long-forgotten natural skills.
When a child or teenager says “I don’t want to go to Church today”, parents often worry that this might be the start of a slippery slope towards atheism. However, this assumes that (a) The Church is the best place for young people to develop a relationship with God, and (b) that attendance at Church events is the same as a relationship with God.
Church is clearly very important, and can be very effective, but we need to move the centre point for Children’s spiritual development from the Church to the family home.
“Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates”
Parents, grandparents, godparents, in fact the whole extended community, can share in the joy of slowly and gently impressing God’s fingerprint on to the hearts and minds of their children.
One key piece of research to be aware of is the Faith in our Families Report that highlighted some of the most striking statistics in recent years. For example:
The majority of people who come to faith do so before the age of 19. A recent study suggested that only 2% of Anglicans in England and Wales are converts from non-Christian families, with very similar figures for Methodists and Baptists.
However, only around 50% of children brought up in Christian homes still follow the faith as adults.
Among Anglicans who say that religion is very important in their lives, only 36% listed religious faith as an especially important quality that children can be encouraged to learn at home, compared to good manners (94%) or tolerance and respect (83%).
Despite 85% of parents believing that they are primarily responsible for their child’s spiritual development, they also genuinely believe that the Church is better placed than they are to actually do it.
“A child who does not go to playgroup or nursery school will probably spend at least 21,900 working hours within the home. It could take the average church group more than 421 years to spend the same amount of time with this child.”
So how do we help parents to engage with this issue, and feel more confident in discipling their children at home. The Gen2 Team have started to support Churches as they invite parents to get together to discuss the joys and struggles of raising children in the Christian faith. Last week we gathered the first group of parents for an honest and positive conversation. We tried to create an atmosphere of acceptance with no judgement, a tone of realism, but not wallowing, of inspiration, but not boastfulness.
We spent some time thinking about the stages of development in childhood, particularly the way that the adolescent brain changes, and the significant impact this has on the spiritual development of children. For example, as the brain begins a process of significant change around the age of 10/11, at a time where young people are moving from Primary to Secondary education, they become more able to handle sophisticated concepts, test out ideas and make decisions for themselves. For parents to understand that the pre-frontal cortex and the amygdala are developing at different rates, which means that young people’s thought processes and decisions are located in a more emotional rather than rational/logical part of the brain, helps them to understand why some of the things their children say and do, particularly when it comes to risky behaviour, are going to make no sense whatsoever… but. what an exciting and raw time to wrestle with the big questions of life. This gives parents a really important frame of reference when their child says “Do I have to go to Church?”
Similarly, it is good for parents (and all of us) to zoom out and realise that we are in a period of seismic cultural change. I could speak for hours on this theme, but suffice it to say that whilst the long-term rhetoric has been that young people are growing up too fast, there has been a big turnaround, and young people are actually growing up more slowly these days. Young people born between 1995 and 2010 (so those that are between 8-23), are called iGen or Generation Z. They are much older than previous generations when it comes to all the key hallmarks of adulthood.
– They are less likely to go out without their parents
– Less likely to date
– Less likely to have sex
– Learning to drive later
– Less likely to have a job
– Less likely to have tried alcohol… and so on.
When you look at all the graphs, the trajectory is remarkably similar. There is a big drop off around the year 2007. So what happened in 2007?
That was the year the iPhone was invented.
Research shows that the average smart phone user touches the screen of their phone 2500 times a day. Young people are living their lives through the screen. There are many benefits to this, some of the apps are brilliant, and it is clearly good news that teenage pregnancy rates are dropping fast, but whenever a generation learns or gains something, they also lose something too. iGen are losing critical social learning opportunities because they are living so much of their life with their head in technology, rather than being fully present with people face to face. Young people need to take risks, feel anxiety, get embarrassed, speak on the phone, communicate with adults… in order to learn vital social skills that will serve them for the rest of their life.
These are really significant cultural changes, that trigger challenges and opportunities in equal measure. Last week, as the parents sat together and reflected on these themes, you could sense a united determination to gather the family around the kitchen table to eat and talk, and grow in faith. However hard this is a fragmented and frenetic western culture, it is worth fighting for, because it is a beautiful and profound way of swimming upstream against the toxic cultural flow. This is very difficult to do on your own, but we hope it will be much more possible when families support one another. In a recent survey, it was really interesting to see that whilst 65% of parents pray for their children, and 64% think of God as part of their family, only 14% talk to other parents about nurturing their children’s faith.
Together we need to find ways of helping parents to support one another, particularly when they’re struggling. The Gen2 Team want to help Churches to do that. We need to create time and space for parents to talk honestly without judgement, and we need to create an atmosphere of mutual learning, as no-one is an expert in parenting and discipleship.
We need to relocate the spiritual development of our children back to the family home and the extended friends and family. This way we can swim upstream, and gradually create home environments where our children can flourish in the Christian faith.