In our rapidly changing landscape, church leaders face the profound challenge of establishing and nurturing meaningful connections with parents and families. In the Barna study “Who Is Responsible for Children’s Faith Formation,” virtually all Protestant and Catholic church leaders agreed that the responsibility for a child’s formation starts with parents. Though we embrace this practical and biblical reality, the church often acts as though it’s not true—we unwittingly usurp the responsibility we believe parents have. How do we gently affirm parents in their faith-forming role, then attract, support and accompany them on that journey?
At Vibrant Faith, we’re currently engaged in a Lilly Grant project focused Christian Parenting and Caregiving—our four-year work is called Fourth-Soil Parenting. We’re asking how we can accompany parents in their growth as discipling influencers in their kids’ lives, and how we might coach them to accompany their children. So, when I read Spiritual Conversations With Children: Listening to God TogetherbyLacy Finn Borgo, I filled the margins of the book with questions and comments. I don’t know this author, but we’ve had quite the conversation in those margins.
She suggests her book is for parents, grandparents, church leaders, anyone who accompanies children. She starts with a message for those accompaniers: “Listening to a child’s journey with God is a sacred gift we can give them.” She continues, “Children’s spiritual formation is the journey of becoming aware of God and participating in the trinitarian reality.”
Perhaps this is where the church can start the conversation with parents. Can we coach them to listen? Can we assure them they do not have to have all the answers? Can we walk with them as they learn to be accompaniers, as they learn to create the space to have spiritual conversations with their children?
What does Finn Borgo suggest accompaniers need to know? First, she reminds us what this kind of accompaniment looks like (a glimpse into the conversation along the margins).
“When children are invited to listen and look for the movement of God in their life, it is a tangible reminder that they are not alone and opens them to the possibility of resilience when life feels overwhelming… Helping a child recognize that God is not only with them but feels alongside them is an antidote to shame and isolation.”
Note: Every parent wants this kind of resilience for their child. Imagine empowering them with the tools to make it happen!
“Listening isn’t all words. Whole self-listening is about being fully present to another. When we are listening with our whole selves to children, we are open in expectation of the wonder of a child’s life.”
Note: Accompaniment is about being fully present. In our fast-paced world we are often busy thinking about how we’re going to respond in a conversation, multi-tasking, or scrolling on our phones while in a conversation! For adults to learn to accompany children in these spiritual conversations, we have to let all that go and listen with our whole selves. Parents know what it’s like when the child puts his little hands on your cheeks and pulls you in to focus just on him. Children know when you’re paying attention or not. But we need to remind parents to be gentle with themselves—being fully present may take practice. We learn through repetition.
“When a child expresses doubt it can be unsettling for the adult. However, doubt is part of the ebb and flow of children’s spirituality. Children are remarkable free from religious certainty. There is fluidity as they construct and deconstruct their perceptions, understandings, and beliefs. A listening companion to a child can be a faithful witness and a sacred conversation partner as this process takes place.”
Note: We don’t have to fix kids’ doubts, correct them, or try to “make” them believe. We just need to listen and continue to be a witness who is a safe place for them to wrestle with these doubts.
“When adults listen to children, our natural inclination is to try to make meaning for the child. This is decidedly unhelpful due to the fact that we don’t have access to all the information or insight into what the Spirit is up to in that particular experience…. What a child shares with us is incomplete, it is a glimpse of their life with God, not the whole picture of their experience. If we push our interpretations or good advice onto the child, we may suffocate the child’s voice and agency.”
Note: What would it look like to just sit with the information the child has? Perhaps to ask further questions, but not to rush to answers? I think of Rilke’s famous quote: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves…” What does it mean for us to live into the answers, together. Can we allow children that freedom?
Finn Borgo gives adults advice on how to get started with questions and/or with play, giving the child the agency in the dialogue, whether with words, or objects. She suggests tools such as Listening Stones, art materials, toys like LEGOS, or rocks or leaves in nature. “Play is the mother tongue of children,” she says. “Play is an essential part of having spiritual conversations with children.”
Wouldn’t this focus on play also put parents more at ease? They can ask children questions as the children play. There isn’t a specific curriculum they need to teach faith to their children. They don’t have to be Scripture experts. They simply have to learn to ask questions that help them get to know their child a little better, while creating space for wonder and awe and the Holy Spirit. The future of faith formation and discipleship might look a little different if we invite parents into such a partnership.
Note: As we play with the idea of what this might look like, what do you think? Are you already doing something like this with parents? Please share your ideas/tips with us.
Denise Utter, M.A., is a freelance consultant, writer, and a speaker—she’s been coaching with Vibrant Faith since 2018. She has worked in ministry and education for 30 years. Denise loves to inspire ministry leaders to reimagine faith formation, put families at the center of faith, and provide innovative approaches to faith formation.