Transmitting Faith to Children: How Can We Do It?

An unexpected Biblical text counsels parents on how to share their faith with their children.

It has been said that the church is only one generation away from extinction. That is certainly true if we talk of local congregations. New churches rise, old ones die all the time. This highlights the importance of transmitting the faith from one generation to the next.

But how do we best do that? Many Christians are asking this urgent question as we watch young people abandon their religious upbringing in droves. Too often we spend enormous resources of volunteer time and money on educating children in our faith only to see them never step into a church again after they graduate from high school.

The American artist Howard Pyle reads to his daughter Phoebe, early 20th century.

Wisdom out of Deuteronomy

So where can we turn for some insight and help? Surprisingly, I think we find a peculiarly succinct and perceptive understanding of the educational challenge in a place we don’t expect–the book of Deuteronomy in the Old Testament.

As a literary conceit, the book of Deuteronomy comes to us as the farewell sermon Moses gives before he dies and before the children of Israel cross the Jordan River to take possession of the Promised Land.

It comes, therefore, at a transition point in Israel’s history. Israel is going to leave behind its 40 years of nomadic wandering in the desert to take up a settled life in Canaan. The generation that left Egypt in the Exodus has died off. A new generation has arisen.

Finally, a change in leadership will accompany this transition. Moses, the towering leader for the last 40 years, will die. Joshua will succeed him. The author asks us to keep all of these transitions in mind as we read the text.

So in the context that the book creates, Israel faces the question of how it can pass on its faith to the next generation. We find “Moses” (the speaker in the text) providing some guidance in Deuteronomy 6:20-25.

When your son asks you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the ordinances which the LORD our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say to your son, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt; and the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand; and the LORD showed signs and wonders, great and grievous, against Egypt and against Pharaoh and all his household, before our eyes; and he brought us out from there, that he might bring us in and give us the land which he swore to give to our fathers. And the LORD commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as at this day. And it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the LORD our God, as he has commanded us.’(Revised Standard Version)

You becomes We

As we study this text, notice a fascinating switch that goes on in the first three lines. The passage opens with a youth asking the question: “What is the meaning of the testimonies and statutes and the ordinances that the Lord our God has commanded you?”

When I read this, I think Moses must have had some experience raising teen-agers. He knows adolescence is a time of rebellion. Young people often assert their independence by rejecting their parents’ beliefs and values.

I hear just such an adolescent speaking in this text. “Now, Dad, just what is the meaning of these ordinances God commanded you.” Note he says emphatically “you.” It’s as if he were putting himself outside the circle of the family, saying, “This may be your faith, but I’m not sure it’s not mine.”

How does Moses counsel the parent to respond?* You shall say to your son, he says, “We were Pharaoh’s slaves, and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.” In effect, the father says, “Son, this is not just your mother’s and my faith. It’s also yours. You, too, are a part of the people of God. We are in this together.”

That’s important to remember when we instruct our youth. In Catholic and most Protestant churches children are baptized into the faith. As such, they are insiders. The challenge is to help them understand and live out the faith to which they already belong.

This means the church community becomes an important setting for Christian education. We’re all familiar with the old African proverb that it takes a whole village to raise one child. Well, it takes a whole church to raise one Christian. And in the Presbyterian church to which I belong, we promise to do that every time we baptize a new child into our fellowship.

The father’s answer also points to the solidarity between the past and the present. When the father says, “We,” he places himself and his child right back there at the Exodus event itself. What happened at the Exodus was not something that happened to our ancestors. It happened to us. We were there, too.

As Christians we do the same thing every time we sing the spiritual, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” Past and present are not then and now. They are both now, in the life of faith. We need to convey that mindset to our children as we educate them in the fundamentals of our faith.

What is the meaning behind what we do?

The second thing to notice about this child’s question is that it asks about the meaning of the community’s faithful behavior.

Sometimes in Christian education, we so focus on the teachings of Christianity that we overlook the actions that express our faith. Being a faithful Christian is far more than reciting the Apostles’ Creed. It includes actions like worshipping God, baptizing and eating the Lord’s supper, caring for the sick, feeding and housing the homeless, protecting the rights of the vulnerable, and engaging in prayer.

It’s important that children and new believers know the doctrines of our faith. It’s just as important that they know how to live as Christians.

Have you ever noticed how reluctant some church visitors are to make a commitment to church membership until they feel comfortable with the ways of a church? Welcoming visitors and making them feel at home with how we practice Christianity in our church may be the most fruitful way to bring them to a commitment.

Tell me the old, old story

Since we’re noticing interesting shifts in the text, let me point out one more. When the child asks the meaning of the actions he sees the community practices, the father does not respond with a philosophical analysis or a scientific explanation.

He tells a story. He recounts the story of the Exodus. “We were Pharaoh’s slaves, “ he begins, and then he tells how God brought them out of Egypt to this place where they now stand.

I think this is terribly, terribly important. Story lies at the heart of our Christian faith, as it lies at the heart of Israel’s faith. It’s one of the very distinctive features of both religions. The story tells of God’s acts on behalf of his people. It is a story about God taking the initiative to liberate his people…from enslavement to Pharaoh in the Jewish story…from enslavement to sin, death, and the devil in the Christian story.

That’s why I believe instructing our children in the stories of the Bible is fundamental. Those stories are the foundation of everything else we do in Christian education.

I know that from personal experience. When I was a child, my mother read Bible stories from a children’s Bible to my sisters and me before we went to bed. I had to become an adult before I began to understand their deeper meaning, but all of my future theological study was grounded in knowing those stories from my childhood.

This has enormous consequences for how we teach ethics to our children. It is so easy to communicate the idea that we follow the Ten Commandments because that is what will make God happy and motivate him to bless us. Deuteronomy is saying something very different. The meaning of our obedient behavior, Moses says, is that we live ethical lives as a grateful response to what God has done for us.

In our instruction, we must never separate the ethics of the Christian life from the story of gracious love that lies behind them. If we do, we turn the ethics into a tyrannous law that kills rather than enlivens.

The family as the nursery of faith

The last thing notice in the passage is the role of the family as the agent for transmitting faith to the next generation.

It is common today for many Christian families to hand over the task of their children’s religious education to Sunday schools. Sunday schools are very important in our ministry of Christian education. They deserve all the support we can give them. But when parents surrender their own personal responsibility, they make a serious mistake.

The Protestant Reformers believed the most fundamental school for faith is the family itself. For them, families are the chief agents for educating their children in the faith. Sunday schools in fact were not even invented until the 19th century.

Moses shares this same perspective with Luther and Calvin. When it comes to transmitting the faith to the next generation, he places the heaviest responsibility on parents. When a child asks the meaning of the faith, it is the parents who respond.

Parents have the most influence on the rearing of their children. They model the life of faith most directly for their children. How well they do so often determines whether their children retain the faith when they become adults.

If we are a parent, how do we model our faith for our children? Do they see us reading the Bible and praying? Do they see us reaching out in compassion to people in need? Do we talk about faith issues with our children? Are they learning from our example that our Christian faith is central to how we live?

Sometimes parents feel embarrassed to talk religion around their children. They may do so because they are not sure what they believe or because they don’t want to unduly influence their children’s religious development.

Their silence, however, sends a powerful message. It tells their children that religious faith in not important in their parents’ lives and so it need not be important in their children’s lives. That almost certainly ensures that the faith will not be transmitted on.

Difficult though the challenge of Christian education is for churches and for parents, the Deuteronomy text gives us confidence. We know that the Jews did make the generational transition when they entered the Promised Land. The Jews did not die off. They are still alive today, practicing their traditional faith just as generations upon generations of their ancestors have. And the same can be true for Christians.

* I recognize the text reads father and son. It reflects the patriarchal society in which it was written. But in our culture, where fathers and mothers share responsibilities in raising children, what the text counsels applies to both parents.

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