I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.
2 Timothy 1:5
Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.
The leaves are turning, a sure and ageless sign that it is time to get out those felt boards, dust off those Bibles, and pull out the maracas. It’s time for another round of Sunday School. Before I became a Lutheran, I did a stint with the Baptists. When I joined the Lutherans, I was appalled to find out that, for the most part, Lutherans take a holiday from Sunday School and adult education in the summer. What is this? Is God on vacation?
Before long, I was working as a Youth Director and eventually I became an ordained pastor in the Lutheran Church, so I have become accustomed to our more seasonal schedule. But I’ve learned that the topic of faith development for our youth will always be a hot one in Lutheran congregations. The emphasis used to be on keeping teenagers involved in church after they were confirmed and what to do about those parents who simply drop off their children for Sunday school and then speed away. Nowadays the celebration of faith milestones is all the rage and folks are much more concerned about nurturing, watering, or “catching” faith in children and teens. (Slogans abound; the popular one these days insists that faith is caught, not taught.) Pastors interviewing in the call process these days are bombarded by questions: How will you get more young families to come to church? Do you like children in worship? How will you help families teach faith at home?
In essence, the questions always remain the same: as Christians, how do we raise our children in faith, passing on to them the trust we have in Jesus Christ? As Lutherans, how do we pass down our traditions, confessions, and law-gospel dialectic? In a world filled with temptations and competing gods that promise everything from reincarnation to immortality, how will children develop a faith with roots that are deep and strong?
As Lutherans, we should excel in education. Luther translated the Bible into vernacular German for everyone to read, and he put his Small Catechism into the hands of parents to teach their children the basics of faith. For centuries, Lutherans have prided themselves not just on their institutions of higher education but also on how they educate little Lutherans from preschool on up through parochial schools. It seems that we’ve got all the structures we need, and we’ve even got the Small Catechism for a home study and devotional book.
Recently, there has been a revolt against much of this: down with structure, down with memorization. Often the new trend is simply to have as much fun as possible with children and teens and hope that somehow this fun translates into Biblical literacy and theological understanding. Or, crediting the changing technology available, we tell Bible stories by flashing one form of media after another in front of our children, assuming that if we just talk fast enough we’ll hold their attention and the message will sink in.
Perhaps the greatest temptation to all parents is choice. “We’re going to wait to baptize baby Sara; we’d like her to be able to make the choice when she’s older. Then she’ll really own her faith.” When a child is born the parents choose a name and a nursery theme for their child. But in the name of “choice,” more and more parents are choosing not to baptize their children as infants. They feel that baptism is somehow more valid, more real, if instead of carrying their child to the font, they simply wait until their child has decided that they are ready. They will leave it up to their child to make his or her own choice.
This, then, is where Lutheran theology meets the daily life of parents and families. What are Lutherans to do with the children, grandchildren, godchildren, nieces, nephews, or young friends in their lives? How do they pass on faith? Paul exalts the faith of Timothy, faith that grew out of the influence and direction of his faithful mother and grandmother. The writer of Proverbs extols the parent to raise his child in the ways of the Lord. Where does one begin so mighty a task?
On one thing, we have been mistaken. The place to start is not a method, style, philosophy, or trend; the place to start is God. “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are” (1 John 3:1). God makes us into his children, with love that does not consult us or give us some choice along the way. God makes faith.
When we try to take on God’s job as our own, we may succeed in teaching our children memory work or holy living (both of which I support and use in Confirmation, by the way), but we have fallen short of what God is already up to and have taught them nothing of the true meaning of faith. Faith is trust, belief in that which we cannot see, centered on Jesus and his promises. Faith is, as Martin Luther says in the explanation to the third article of the Apostles’ Creed, not something I can create or come to on my own, but rather God’s work in me.
I did not grow up in a Christian home; I was a child who was given the “choice” to find her own religion. I was raised to be open-minded, welcoming, and tolerant. Look where it got my parents; I wandered through the Baptist Church and now I am a Lutheran pastor who is married to a Lutheran pastor, whose first baby was just baptized this past winter. God himself was the only one sowing seeds of faith in me as a child and now I find myself singing the doxology incessantly, praying a table prayer as my son nurses, and fretting over his church clothes. Our God will not be limited to simply one choice among many options.
It seems that God has taken all the work away from us; he is the one who is at work in our children, grandchildren, and godchildren. It turns out that God means what the Letter to the Ephesians says, “By grace you have been saved by faith and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” The faith of our children is not a project we can boast in. In fact, more often our actions in raising them turn out to be the deeds that we must bring to confession. But by God’s grace, by the work of his word, he makes faith in our children, despite all of our best efforts that all too often fall short.
In Matthew 19, Jesus says, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” Trusting in God’s work on the cross, we must not stop the little children from coming to him. What are we to do? Gather up the children and bring them to where Jesus is. He is at the font, ready to get children of all ages wet; bring them there. He is where his word is preached, so scoop up the children and sit next to their squirrelly bodies during worship. Do not tuck them away at some mini children’s church or in the nursery, but put them in the pew, to hear his word and jump around during hymns. Do all this even while mom and dad pop treat after treat into their child’s mouth just to keep her from screaming loud enough to derail even the smoothest pastor.
When the time comes, open their hands at the table to receive the gifts of the Lord’s Supper. And at any age, place in their hands the Holy Scriptures, reading to them, with them, and listening to their words. Then fold these hands in prayer and sit with them in the presence of God, because he has long been at work in their lives.
Raising children in the faith is not all about our good works, as it turns out. It really is much more about God and his work. He has long been shaping his people into children of God and then forgiving these same people for the terrible things they do to one another. There will always be trends in raising children and new fads in our churches as well, but our faithful God will just keep doing his work.
Katie Koch is pastor of United and Our Savior’s Lutheran Churches in rural northwestern Minnesota.