The start of school often heralds the return of churches’ children’s programs – Sunday schools, after school clubs and youth groups. The pandemic, however, is altering those pre-set plans. Many churches still aren’t meeting in person, and those that are meeting physically are still trying to determine if and how children’s programs can be done safely.
Yet we know that no matter the season or challenges, ministering to children is not optional. Jesus instructed his disciples to “let the little children come to me” (Matt.19:14) and David reminded “each generation [to] tell its children of your mighty acts” (Ps.145:4 NLT). So in this uncertain time, churches and families are working to find new ways to proclaim God’s greatness in their own communities and homes.
Nurturing faith at home
Some churches are fostering spiritual growth among the children in their congregations by encouraging parents to build spiritual development into their daily routines.
“In the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), there’s this whole push towards faith at home,” said Pastor Brittney Salverda of Victoria CRC in B.C. “Research has said for a really long time that the influence of a parent or parents far surpasses the impact of a church program or the pastor on the development of the child.”
In part, this is because parents have a greater chance of normalizing spiritual development into their everyday lives. “You can integrate the practice of worship into family life,” explains Liz Tolkamp, Children’s Pastor at Willoughby Church in Langley, B.C. “The question is – what are those opportunities that naturally lend themselves to engaging in faith formation? It’s really hard to separate from all of life, because all of what we do is about faith formation.”
While it can be intimidating to think that every decision, action or thought is a part of a child’s spiritual growth, it can also be a relief. Parents do not have to come up with a structured curriculum like their child might encounter in Children’s Church. Spiritual formation can and will look different in every family.
“Just build it naturally into the rhythm of your day,” says Tolkamp. It can be as simple as letting your children pray, asking them what their highs or lows of the day were, or something more structured. As Tolkamp points out, “There are some families where it works to say ‘this is our Friday night worship time.’ That would never work for mine, but I know it works for some.”
For parents in Salverda’s congregation who were struggling with the idea of being the one in charge of their children’s spiritual growth, she would tell them to “start not where you want to be, but where you are. Don’t set yourself up for failure, this is a growing process – teaching the facts of God is more like playing the piano than having a wish come true in the morning.”
“Christian people are filled with the Holy Spirit,” continues Salverda. “Christian parents are instructed to pass on the faith, and it’s a fact, the Holy Spirit will empower us to do the things that are required of us that are really hard and that feel beyond us.”
Though Salverda acknowledges that parents are filled with the Holy Spirit, she does not expect them to do build up their children’s faith on their own. “That’s what community is for,” said Salverda. “We should experience our limitations. We all have spiritual gifts, but we don’t have them all.” This means parents who are feeling overwhelmed, ungifted at teaching, or uncertain of spiritual truths should rely on others in their faith circles.
Friends can recommend different children’s devotionals or Bibles; they can share their practices and strategies, and they can hold each other accountable for investing the time to practice spiritual disciplines at home.
Reimagining children’s ministry
Church leadership can also support parents as they struggle with the added burden of guiding their child’s spiritual growth at home during COVID-19. Though this support will look different depending on the specific circumstances of each church.
In June, Tolkamp held a Zoom meeting with the parents in her congregation to find out what they were missing about getting together on Sundays, what spiritual disciplines were currently helping them to grow, and what would help them the most when it comes to their children’s faith formation.
What she found from this conversation was a deep sense of disconnect among the parents. And so Tolkamp convinced her church to reopen their Sunday school program in person instead of continuing to hold it online.
“I know many of the families with young kids are meeting regularly in parks and their kids are having play times together,” says Tolkamp. “If you can do this in a park, we can do this outside on the lawn at church.”
But even though this has had its challenges. “Trying to build in the same rhythms outside that I would do with the children on a Sunday morning in a room is really challenging with wiggly three-year-olds. Yet for the parents, it was just so important to them. So important to their children – they were so happy. You should have seen them come running outside the sanctuary.”
Salverda also took time to speak to the parents in her congregation. She visited each family, asked how things were going, dropped off resources and “reminded the children that they belong to God and that they are an important part of God’s family.”
No matter what the fall brings in terms of ministry and connectivity, churches and parents can help children grow closer to God. But, as Tolkamp stressed over and over again, be prepared to pivot.
Books and activities worth buying or borrowing
- Take 5 bookmarks – a simple daily/nightly at-home faith formation practice for parents and children.
- God’s Big Story Cards – “I wish I had this resource when my children were at home. It could form the foundation of at-home faith formation. We make an effort at Willoughby church to make sure all families with young children receive a set. either at baptism or at some other milestone.” — Liz Tolkamp
- Dwell Curriculum
- Kids Corner from Reframe Media
- Everyday Family Faith by Sandy Swatzentruber
- The Jesus Storybook Bible by Sally Lloyd-Jones
- Everyone A Child Should Know by Clare Heath-Whyte
- 30 Prophecies: One Story, How God’s Word Points to Jesus by Paul Reynolds
- Paul Writes (a Letter) by Chris Raschka