Published in Connections Magazine (July/August 2015)
faith and family
by Marcus J. Carlson
As a part of my doctoral research, I pored over a tremendous amount of research about the faith development of children and adolescents. As I looked at the various books, studies and research on faith development, I found some common themes that while not surprising to me, are also not some- thing I have forgotten as an educator, pastor or parent. The five most significant factors impacting faith development in children and adolescents are things that all parents, pastors, churches and anyone who works with children and youth should take seriously.
Faith Factor #5: Faith Experiences
Faith experiences have a tremendous impact on the faith development of children and adolescents. Of these faith experiences, the most impactful experiences are service projects and mission trips. We often emphasize the larger, more fun and popular experiences like camp, retreats and other events, but the faith experiences that are most impactful are the service oriented faith experiences. I am not talking about the youth working the ladies tea event or raking the lawn, but rather those service projects and mission trips where youth directly serve those in need. After over 13 years working in children, youth and family ministry, the most significant ministries were the service ministries. At age 6 my son came to a youth service project where we helped cook breakfast in the park for the homeless and handed out sack lunches as well as socks (it was win- ter time) to the homeless. At one point he asked me why a child (around his age) had the socks we had given him on his hands. I explained that he probably did not own any gloves. Micah asked me if he could give the kid his gloves. As he walked over to the dad and his son and offered his gloves, it was a powerful transforming moment for my son and his father.
Faith Factor #4: connection to the Larger church
Research tells us children and youth who are connected to the life of the church beyond their age-specific programs and worship service attendance (though those too are important) are far more likely to have a deep and lasting faith. Finding and creating opportunities for our children and youth to serve and be a part of our churches is tremendously important. One of our confirmation requirements is that the youth serve in the church in at least one way during confirmation and participate in church events (particularly service projects) to some degree. Involving our children and youth in the life of the church is a win-win-win. The kids win, their families win, and our churches win.
Faith Factor #3: Practicing Spiritual Disciplines
The practice of the spiritual disciplines, such as prayer, read- ing the Bible, worshipping and more has a tremendous im- pact on the faith development of children and adolescents. Faith is truly individual and communal. Practicing the disci- plines is the best tool for developing the individual faith of our children and adolescents. Teaching children and youth these practices, while also giving them space to engage in them, is essential. In our confirmation program, we have our youth learn about the core disciplines with an adult mentor. We also include a prayer that our children, along with the congregation, repeat at the end of children’s time in worship service. Another idea is offering a ‘first Bible’ class for children where they learn how to read the Bible and are given an age-appropriate Bible as a gift. We ask our own children to read the Bible each day, as well as a kids’ devotional. They do not bat 100% in this, but they do it more than most adults I know. I make sure to ￼￼ Marcus J. Carlson is an ordained pastor (LCMC & NALC), with a Doctor of Ministry focused in family ministry. He currently serves as Senior Pastor at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Auburn, IN. He and his wife, Jessica, have two children. ￼30 ￼ do this myself, knowing that modeling is more powerful than telling them to do it.
Faith Factor #2: authentic relationships with Adults who love Jesus
Children and youth who have meaningful, authentic relation- ships with adults (besides their parents) inside and outside of the church have a more genuine, robust faith that those who do not. Research continues to demonstrate that adult re- lationships are the most significant influence in the lives of children and youth (parents being the most significant). As adults, it is our call to ensure our children and adoles- cents have multiple adults in addition to their parents in their lives. This means being those adults in the lives of children and adolescents we know and finding adults to be a healthy, Christ-like influence in the lives of the children and adoles- cents in our church and sphere of influence. Mentors, men- toring programs and other experiences that foster meaningful relationships with faithful adults should be an essential part of our church ministries. Intergenerational connections are far more powerful than we often realize. In the family ministries I led, I often tried to structure our ministries and programs in a way that created multiple dif- ferent adult connections for our children and youth. As a par- ent, I am always on the lookout for, praying for, supporting, encouraging and thanking those faithful adults who are in the lives of my own children.
Faith Factor #1: the Faith and Practice of Parents
The most significant influence in the life of a child or ado- lescent is and has always been their parents. Regardless of their family makeup or health, parents are always the most significant influence in the lives of children and youth as ev- ery single good study has demonstrated for decades. While this can be intimidating as a parent, it is the way in which God has created and ordered the world. As noted in the book for parents, Sticky Faith, when it comes to the faith of their children, “parents get what they are.” The depth, commitment and nature of my faith is the most significant factor in the faith of my children. Recently, I got an email from a frustrated parent of a teen- ager. She was concerned because her adolescent said he did not believe in Jesus. She was frustrated at the heated argu- ments that they were having about this topic. I shared with her that rebellion, and even faith rebellion was normal. I also told her that doubt was normal and in fact healthy, especially for adolescent faith development. Finally, I noted that it was very difficult for our children to take faith seriously if we do not. I shared, uncritically, that family worship participation is important to the faith development of our children and adolescents. This loving and concerned mother is one of many I have encountered that wanted their children to have a deep faith, but often did not make their own faith a priority. Regular worship and a connection to the church had not been a priority for their family in the past two years. If we want our children to take faith seriously and have a dynamic, deep, meaningful and authentic relationship with the triune God, then we as parents must authentically model the kind of faith we wish for our children and adolescents. The good news is that creating an environment where our children and youth can develop a deep, sustainable and authentic faith is not rocket science. It does not require a sig- nificant amount of resources. The challenge is it does require an intentional, authentic effort by parents, the church and those who follow Jesus working together to give our best to our children and adolescents.
For more on this topic, contact Marcus at: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at: www.marcusjcarlson.com