The beginning of the school year is a good time to reflect on faith formation. Take a minute to think about just how important this is. If we believe that “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16), then passing on our faith is really important. In fact, neglecting to teach our children about our faith would be worse than neglecting to teach them to read. Think about that.
Just as we spend time at Trinitas learning how to teach reading well, we also spend time learning how to raise children in lives of faith. In Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down Across Generations (Oxford University Press), the authors communicate the results of one of the largest studies of religion and family across generations.* Spanning nearly four decades, their research follows more than 3,500 people in over 350 families to determine how faith is passed on, or not. In this and upcoming posts, we’ll reflect on some of the characteristics of families who successfully pass on their faith. According to this research, such families have: 1) high standards combined with warmth, 2) strong intergenerational relationships, and 3) parents who are “all-in.” We’ll explore what these can look like both at Trinitas and at home.
In considering what it means to have high standards combined with warmth in faith formation, we might first ask what it looks like to have one but not the other. If we have only warmth but not high standards for our children, they may initially be quite happy about this. It’s (fallen) human nature to like what is easier and immediately satisfying. It’s also human nature to rise only to the level of the standards that one is given. So, if faith is portrayed as pretty easy, requiring little of us in terms of time and our life choices, e.g., little to no worship or prayer or Bible study, little to no “dying to self” or “becoming a new creation”, it’s unlikely that our children will rise above our expectations. If, on the other hand, we present only high standards and little warmth, our children are likely to see the life of faith as unwelcoming, harsh, and undesirable.
So, what does it look like to have both high standards and warmth? Before answering that question, we should ask: Where do our standards come from? In a Christian home and school, the foundation of those standards is Scripture and Christian tradition, rather than the culture. We need to be deeply familiar with the Bible and the teachings and lives of the saints. We need Christian role models. We also sometimes need to speak with a vocabulary that differs from the world’s. We’ll focus briefly in this post and the next on two un-worldly words: “holiness” and “reverence”. Both words show the intimate connection between high standards and love in the Christian life.
All throughout scripture, God’s people are called to holiness: “[A]s He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, ‘Be holy, for I am holy.’” (I Peter 1:15-16) Note: we are not told to be “good” or “authentic”. We’re also not told to be “holy some of the time”. We are told to “be holy in all your conduct”. Now that’s a high standard. It could also be pretty off-putting, especially if it is approached without wisdom and love. If holiness is portrayed as a series of “no’s” to a long list of sins, it will be far from attractive to our children. Rebellion may have more of an allure. Of course, holiness involves saying “no” to some things, but those “no’s” should not leave a vacuum. They should be crowded out by “yes’s” to the endless good things of God.
If we attempt to pass our faith on to our children primarily by pointing out and forbidding sin, we miss the opportunity to draw them close to God by his sheer goodness and beauty. In the book of Jeremiah, we hear how God himself draws his people near to him: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.” Passing on our faith involves teaching our children to obey God’s commands: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). It also means showing them that in such obedience they will find joy—the “life more abundant” that Christ came to give (John 10:10).
Practically speaking, it means that there will be times when we tell them they cannot watch a certain movie, listen to that song, read a particular book, or play a popular video game. But the conversation should not end there. As parents and as a school, we need to provide for our children, or join them in searching for, really good God-honoring alternatives. There are so many! It means that we don’t let their grumbling or gossip just slide, but we help them to see that God has called us to more grateful and loving ways of treating people. It means that we guide them in better choices about how to use their time. And in all this, we should help them to see that living this way isn’t being “uptight”, it’s being courageous: sometimes people will make fun of you; sometimes they will admire you; sometimes they will follow you.
And we should help them to see by our own lives that seeking to be more holy isn’t fun-killing, it’s life-giving. Loving “the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” and loving “your neighbor as yourself” requires making better choices, sometimes sacrificial choices in response to the One “who first loved us” (I John 4:19). Faithful Christians before us and all around us have made and are making such sacrifices. Our Lord has higher standards for us. He has those standards because he loves us. He loves us so much he gave himself for us.
*Vern Bengston, with Norella M. Putney and Susan Harris