The time from Thanksgiving through the end of the year is always so full. Yes, busy, but also just full—rich for the time we spend with family, and big, rich meals too. We focus on preparing to welcome others, and we reflect on the year coming to an end. This year our Thanksgiving gathering was small—just my parents, my siblings, and their spouses, my youngest daughter, and a couple we’ve designated as chosen siblings who join us for holidays and other big moments in life. It was a small group compared to other non-Covid years, but as our family grows, our children (mine, my sister’s, and my sister-in-law’s) switch off between coming home and joining their partner’s families. It made for an intimate gathering, even if bittersweet for the absence of those missing.
We talked a lot about when the kids were little. We shared stories of our years growing up—Thanksgivings with only our immediate family, especially when we kids were sick, and even a journey to California one year to be with extended family on my dad’s side. So many memories. We took pictures of the “growing wall.” It’s a wall in my parents’ house with marks that chronicle our heights from birth to full-grown. And when my son and his wife brought my grandson over on Friday, another generation joined the wall.
The holiday was rich with conversation and memories and gratitude. And when the weekend was over my husband and I continued to share stories. I kept thinking about all the ways we’ve parented that we owe to our own parents. We have our faith because of them. And we pass it on to our children, as they passed it on to us. Some of it is “catching;” and some of it still working itself out. We talked about what it was our parents did to instill that faith in us. My husband went to Catholic schools from kindergarten through high school. My own journey wasn’t so linear.
Still, my parents instilled a deep love of God in me. My parents read to us every night until we could read on our own. We heard Bible stories, fables, fairy tales, and all the classics. There were crosses on the walls and prayers in frames. We learned to pray through their example. We knew we were loved. We learned how to love, and what real love looks like. We knew what sacrifice looked like. We learned how to forgive. We learned how to care for creation. We learned how to advocate for justice. We learned to ask questions and follow that “still small voice” that would guide us.
The spiritual life was infused into our daily living. We talked about life at the family dinner table. We knew we could talk about the big things. We knew that together we could get through anything. There is always hope, even in death. We do not grieve as those who do not hope.
When I was only six years old my maternal grandmother died. It was my first great loss. It was hard, but the cemetery where she is buried became one of my very favorite places. My younger siblings and I would go with my mother and play under the tree next to my grandmother’s grave. We learned early of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy (burying the dead, praying for the living and the dead) even if we couldn’t list those mercies until many years later.
For years I’ve talked with parents and ministry leaders who work with parents about the research that says two things have the greatest impact on a child’s spiritual development: faith conversations and faith practices. Yes, it’s important to learn the Christian story and know the Christian tradition. It’s important to learn about Jesus, who he is, and how to follow him. But for children, it’s faith conversations and faith practices (primarily in the home) that have the greatest impact. Parents matter most. How we live the faith makes a difference.
I find this research incredibly exciting. We’ve made faith formation so difficult in so many places. Either we have “hoops” children and/or parents must jump through, or we create complicated systems that sometimes fail to help young people come to know the person of Jesus Christ. But if we take this research to heart, imagine the transformation that might be possible. If we accompany parents, equip them to have meaningful conversations, encourage them to do the simple things, affirm them in what they’re already doing, and empower them to be the spiritual leaders of the family, growing in faith and spirituality becomes a part of daily living.
When I first started working in family faith formation, we were spending most of our time with families talking at the parents. We learned quickly—that’s not the way to engage families! They taught us what they needed. We listened to them. When we gave them more time to speak to each other, to build community with one another, we saw something powerful happen. We asked parents to talk about their children. Simple questions at first, deeper questions later.
- Tell us what most surprised you about parenting, about becoming a parent.
- What have your children taught you about life, love, prayer, faith, and God?
- When have you had to surrender to God as a parent?
- When has it been difficult to pray?
- When have you known God was with you in this parenting journey?
Parents began thinking of family life as an opportunity to recognize where God was at work in their lives. We began coaching them on having faith conversations at home. We shared faith practices for them to begin at home with their children and gave them ideas to expand or deepen practices they already had.
As I coach faith-formation leaders today, they often start this process with seasonal practices, Advent or Lent, or with themes such as Prayer, Gratitude, Caring for Creation, and so on. The possibilities are endless. If we fail to engage families, we are limiting ourselves to the few hours we have with children each month. Our influence is then so limited. But, if we partner with parents, that influence goes up exponentially. If we truly want to make disciples, this is our call.
I’m grateful that my parents passed their faith on to me, that I might continue to grow closer to God as I raised my own family, and as my husband and I journey into these grandparent years. I am ever grateful to my parents, to my grandparents, and the spiritual ancestors before them. I believe we have to return to this kind of immersive faith experience. Think about your answer to these questions:
- Who helped you grow in faith?
- What spiritual practices do you remember from your childhood?
- When did you learn to have faith conversations?
Share your stories. I look forward to hearing them.
Denise Utter, M.A., is a freelance consultant, writer, and 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.