We know two crucial truths from Notre Dame sociologist Dr. Christian Smith’s two decades of research into the role parents play in their kids’ faith:
- We know that a lifelong, embedded faith in God is primarily influenced by: a) parents’ horizontal relational intimacy with their children primarily experienced as authentic and close, and b) parents’ vertical relational intimacy with God primarily experienced as authentic, everyday, and core to their identity. Parents, or those who are like parents, set a “glass ceiling” of religious commitment above which their children infrequently rise.
- We know that that parents who “talk about their faith with their children” profoundly influence the importance children place on faith. So parents who are confident and equipped in an everyday conversational approach to their faith increase the odds of their children having an everyday, deepening faith long-term.
“Authentic” and “everyday” are the key words here. Add those together and you get “unplanned.” I mean, this is the sort of faith formation that spills out of parents in unplanned moments, not the prepared-for moments that we expect (family devotions or church attendance, for example). The authentic faith of parents influences an authentic faith in their kids by a process that looks much more like “infection” than “inculcation.”
This is why, as part of our ongoing work with 20 churches in our Fourth-Soil Parenting Project, we’re right now developing a tool churches can use to help parents embrace and live out their faith normal rhythms of their life. We’re calling it our “Faith Dailies” project (but who knows what we’ll call it when it’s finished). Essentially, we’re spotlighting 12 “pain points” in parents’ lives and turning them into monthly themes. Each month, through a church’s normal in-person and online communication channels, parents will get a one-minute video that connects their faith to that pain point. That video is followed through the month by a regular stream of short, everyday, and authentic ways to build their trust in God while they build connection with their kids. All of this is delivered through the “streams” of a parents normal daily patterns—social media and texting.
The idea is to slowly, in bite-size ways, prepare parents to influence their kids’ faith in their unplanned and un-prepared moments. To help them them embrace and practice faith-infuencing until it becomes autonomic, like breathing. Here’s a metaphoric example of what this looks like…
Researchers working for Volkswagen in Stockholm, Sweden, were searching to find ways to influence people to be more physically active in everyday life. We all know that planned efforts to help us get in better shape follow a similar cycle of shame that eventually leads to abandoning the goal. So the Swedes came up with an inventive way to get people exercising that capitalized on their natural inclinations and momentum. At subway stops throughout the city, you can ride the escalator up to the street level or climb the stairs. Most people plant themselves on the escalator and let it do the work. So, working all night, a swarming team of technicians transformed the stairs leading out of the Odenplan subway stop into a giant functioning piano keyboard. The steps, mapped to look exactly like the progression of black and white keys on a real piano, each produced the sound of a corresponding musical note when stepped on. Then the planners mounted video cameras at the base of the stairs so they could record what happened when commuters showed up in the morning.
Travelers first stopped, surprised by what they saw, and then began experimenting with the stairs. Many not only climbed the stairs, they also hopped around on them as they tried to “play” music instead of trudging their way up. Stair-climbing was transformed from planned and prepared-for work into an unplanned and un-prepared playful experience. Volkswagen researchers found that the “musical stairs” diverted 66 percent more people than normal onto the staircase and away from the escalator. They managed to entice commuters into a “fitness” behavior they never would have considered otherwise. They were caught up in an experience that made them forget about the work of physical fitness.
Here’s what under-preparing in our everyday relationship with Jesus could look like …
- Make it play—Instead of compartmentalizing our relationship with God into planned experiences, we can learn (and show others how) to invite God into the things we’re already doing. If you’re out shopping at a mall, for example, make it a playful connection to Jesus by silently asking Him to show you an inexpensive gift that he knows will delight someone. When you see it, buy it, put it in a gift bag with a little note that says “A little gift for you, from someone who appreciates you.” As you’re leaving the mall, walk through the Food Court, asking Jesus to give you the right opportunity to give your gift. Set it on a table when the occupants won’t notice, then walk away.
- The word of the day—Every day, pause to think of a single word that describes the beauty you see in Jesus. For example: “Grace” or “Humility” or “Fierceness” or “Passion” or “Tenderness”… Ask Him for help in choosing the right word each day—maybe spurred by the beauty you see around you. Then, as you go through your day, when you’re in-between things, simply thank Him, using your word of the day, over and over under your breath: “Tenderness—thank you for how tender you are, Jesus.”
- Micro-devotions—Because it’s hard to find the time, or slow down our pace, to sink deeply into Jesus through conventional Bible study, try something that takes little time and effort, but exercises your dependence on him. Every day, simply ask Jesus to give you the name of the one of the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) and then a chapter and verse. Whatever gospel/chapter/verse pops into your head, simply flip there (or find it on your Bible app) and ask Jesus to show you His heart—what He’s really like at His core—as you mull what you read. Read the context around your chosen verse if you want, but confine your mulling to the one verse, just so it’s easy to remember.
These are just examples of what under-preparing might look like. We’ll be exploring, and playing with, dozens and dozens of these micro-experiments over the next three years in our Fourth-Soil Parenting project. We’ll do our best to give you a backstage pass to everything we’re doing…
Rick Lawrence is Executive Director of Vibrant Faith—he created the new curriculum Following Jesus. He’s editor of the Jesus-Centered Bible and author of 40 books, including The Suicide Solution, The Jesus-Centered Life and Jesus-Centered Daily. He hosts the podcast Paying Ridiculous Attention to Jesus.