Thursday, January 6, 2011

Imparting Religious Information But Leaving Our Kids Unchurched

Every congregation has folks who make sure their kids are in Sunday school or catechism classes but who are regularly and routinely absent from worship.  It is a difficult reality which is sometimes shaped by the parents own unchurched perspective but it might also be due to divorce and custody issues or youth sports leagues or a dozen other reasons.  There is no one easy way to deal with this all yet I think we must begin by facing up to the fact that imparting religious information is not necessarily doing our kids a favor when we also leave them unchurched.

By unchurched I mean those who have an identity separate from an identity as a baptized member of the Church, who are not a regular member of the worshiping congregation, and whose faith is not nurtured by the life together around the Word and Table of the Lord.  I am not saying whether or not they may be Christians -- that is not for me to decide.  But I echo Luther's fear that persistent absence from worship, preaching, and the Table of the Lord leads to no other conclusion than the absent despise the Sacrament and are not Christian.

My point is that for a long time we have focused on personal faith more than on bringing folks into the life of the Church and having an identity as a baptized member of the Body of Christ.  Some of us do this by emphasizing Christian experience.  Whether pentecostal or decision oriented, some have attempted to arrange an experience of Christ or the Spirit -- or at least set up an arena where such experience might be expected to take place.  Some of us do this by emphasizing knowledge.  Whether the old pattern of memorization of Bible passages and the Catechism or knowledge of truth propositions that must be believed in order to be Christian, some have worked to Christianize the person by imparting a certain set of truths and have expected that consent to this dogmatic canon is what makes a person Christian.  Some of us do this by emphasizing moral behavior and a changed lifestyle as evidence that Christianity has taken hold.  Whether this is living in distinction from the world through, for example, abstinence from drinking or sex outside of marriage or the outward behavioral change of goodness, love, and compassion, some have suggested that faith is evidenced by what you see in a person's life.

I would suggest that for Lutheran Christians, we bring people into the Church less by imparting religious knowledge than by leading them into active participation in the worship life of the congregation.  Lutherans are not so much theoretical people as we are practical.  Faith is confessed within the liturgical assembly and faith is formed and nurtured in that same liturgical assembly (through the means of grace).  We do not make Lutherans by imparting religious information nor do we make Lutherans by having a shared experience.  Lutheran piety is not shaped by certain behavioral changes but in the absolution, at the pulpit, and at the table of the Lord.  We are doing our children (and adult converts) a disservice if we impart religious information (as good and needful as this is as a component of discipleship) but fail to connect them to a specific baptized people where faith is confessed, the Scriptures taught and applied, sins forgiven, and the Eucharist is the source and summit of their piety.

You can bring your kids to Sunday school and catechism and make sure they are confirmed and yet you have left them unchurched.  They have the information but not the culture and life of the Church gathered around the Word and Sacraments.  Their faith will be crippled because it is not tied to a place and a people in which and among whom the Word and Table of the Lord impart divine grace, forgive sins, restore the fallen, uplift the sorrowful, sustain the weary, calm the fearful, address dying with the Word of life, and feed the hungry with the body and blood of Christ.  They will always feel on the outside of the Church, as if they have the secret information necessary to open a door but once it is open, what is inside turns out to be foreign and strange to them.  They view God at a distance because the religious information supplied to them does not have a practical outlet -- our life together around the Word and Table of the Lord. 

I remember Archbishop Fulton Sheen saying Two glasses that are empty cannot fill up one another.  The parents who are functionally unchurched cannot help their children to be churched without themselves being filled and nourished in the means of grace.

The first and most important duty of parents is to bring their children to the House of the Lord, to prepare them for their place at the Table of the Lord, and to model their own faith in a life of prayer, forgiveness, and love.  Perhaps the reason we are losing so many folks (youth and adults) is that we have imparted all the information but left them unattached to the Word and Table of the Lord, separate from the community of the baptized gathered weekly at His bidding to receive His grace.  Naturally this is not the only thing.  Religious information must be imparted and the life of the Lord's Table extended in the way we forgive one another, serve one another in love, and pray together as one people in Christ -- even in our homes.  But these flow from our life together around the Word and Table of the Lord and not the other way around.

Just some thoughts after teaching catechism to a full room of kids -- some churched and some who get the information but do not have a clue for what purpose this information is given or what it has to do with their lives (the unchurched). . .


Anonymous said...

In our LCMS parish, we precede our
confirmation classes with a required
parent and child orientation. This
one hour meeting is led by the pastor
who explains the importance of the
involvement of parents in their
child's spiritual formation. Each
parent is asked to sign a promise
that their child will attend Sunday
Worship each week, that they will
pray for their child, and set an
example by attending worship with
their child. Each child is also
required to submit a weekly sermon
summary as part of his homework.
The Parents are also given a book
on Christian parenting to read and
turn in monthly book report. The
response to this program has been

Anonymous said...

A nice post, Pr. Peters. I have read several pieces like this, so the idea and concept is not new. And certainly it is something that I too preach and teach and encourage for my own flock, and especially children and their families going through 1st communion and confirmation. I would venture to say that most pastors strive for this as well, regardless of their particular worship practice/belief/style. To have youth in the Divine Service as a means by which the faith is handed down should be our modus operandi. The question becomes, how to do that? Do we make Divine Service attendance a "requirement" and thus fall into the legalistic view of catechesis? Do we encourage it, but not enforce it, and thus encourage a watered down, shallow, or empty faith? In my limited experience, I am beginning to see that people no longer connect a life in Christ with being in the gifts of Christ. People claim to be Christian but do not see a need for absolution or the eucharist. Channelling your inner Luther, you rightly said they are not Christians. But, how do we change the mentality (yes, I know, preach the Gospel - but if they aren't there, they won't hear it)? How do we encourage faithfulness to God's gifts that the catechesis of both youth and adults may find its proper place?

Anonymous said...

Hebrews 10:25 "Let us not give up
meeting together as some are in the
HABIT of doing, but let us encourage

Faithful worship on Sundays is a good
HABIT that needs to be cultivated by
Christians so they can be strengthened by Word and Sacrament.

Failure to worship every Sunday is
a bad HABIT, which weakens faith.

Anonymous said...

Are we interested in making church members or leading young and old alike to Christ as their Savior?

I dare say that there are countless church members who have no more than a nodding relationship with Him.

Becky said...

To Anonymous who said "Are we interested in making church members or leading young and old alike to Christ as their Savior?": I see these as one in the same. A church member (of the Holy Christian Church - with a Lutheran label or with any other label) is one of God's elect. God's elect are those who believe, teach and confess Christ crucified, died, buried, ressurected, and ascended as the Savior. Therefore, when we encourage young and old to attend where the Word is being spoken, the Word will "not return empty" (Isaiah 55:11). God is taking care of building the church body. We just encourage the attendance, and we pray. And isn't it great that we don't have to be burdened with the knowledge of how it all turns out?

Pastor Peters said...

Why is it that we are so quick to suggest that church members and pew sitters are not necessarily Christian? I venture to say that it is more likely that those who are members and pew sitters are Christian than those who are not. Honestly, the defensiveness about suggesting that Christians ought to be worshipping members of a congregation as well as believers is strange, at best. This one should have been a no-brainer.

Anonymous said...

It should be a no-brainer, but it isn't!

When I was a baptist, it was very clear to me that those around me at church believed the things that were taught. People would talk about the sermon afterwards. People would look forward to midweek services and bible studies. Parents enthusiastically got their kids to religious education, and once they dropped them off, they went for the adult midweek bible classes in order to strenghten their own faith. Extra services? No problem! We'll be there whenever the doors are open.

Now I am a Lutheran and it is draining for me to watch baptism after baptism of babies I will likely never see again, being baptized only because it is important to the grandparents. We are one of the only families with small children who will even bother coming to church weekly, though we technically have other families as members. My husbands family all attends church weekly, but when asked about their beliefs some will say "well, religion is not all that important to me (which is obvious by their language and other habits anyways) I have no idea why they go, but they always have so they do. I've met a Lutheran who said to me "I'm half mormon". I've seen parents drop their kids off for Sunday school and pick them up in their sweats. I have no idea why their kids are in sunday school, but I fear that maybe the parents just want a quiet hour or two on Sunday morning and here is a free oppurtunity.

I think "nodding relationship" was perhaps a polite way of saying "unbeliever". Or "nominal Christian".

I should say that I was pleasantly surprised that the situation was not as bad as I thought it was going to be when I was leaving my baptist church. There definitely are believers at my church. But what I feared is present much moreso than I have ever experienced before. I think about the "why" of this a lot.