Can spiritual practice make perfect?

Our spiritual lives are made up of tonnes of small, everyday practices. But what can these look like for children and young people? How can they get started? What is our role in working with parents on these? Margaret Pritchard Houston has some ideas…

In his 1998 memoir, Things can only get better, John O’Farrell talks about the first stirrings of his social conscience. As a birthday present, his parents sponsored a donkey in a donkey sanctuary. One day, as a treat, they drove out to the sanctuary to meet the beneficiary of their good will. O’Farrell recalls being bitterly disappointed by the elderly, slightly scraggly donkey that greeted him. He’d wanted a happy, picturesque donkey, frolicking in the sunlight and kicking up its heels with joy at the sight of the child who sponsored it. He threw a tantrum and cried all the way home. “But somewhere,” he says, “the idea of caring about things other than myself started to take root.”

While prayer is a key part of how we support families to nurture faith at home, there’s more to it than that, as O’Farrell’s anecdote illustrates. Rev Mary Hawes, Archbishop’s Council advisor on children and young people, stewardship - use of money, resources, Bible reading, service, belonging and contributing to community as spiritual disciplines that we can help our children and young people develop in their day-to-day lives.

Obviously, prayer feeds into these – it’s not a clear dichotomy. As Rev Ally Barrett of Westcott House points out, outside of prayer as a discipline, there is: “Ad hoc prayer in response to fleeting life moments and the role of prayer in daily living – like praying for the person who is being gossiped about when you overhear something unkind, the role of praise in learning to live in God’s world, and the way in which we answer our own prayers through social action. Indeed, does ‘prayer’ encompass the whole idea of a rule of life?” So these practices aren’t in place of prayer, or separate from prayer – rather, they are ways of nurturing and being nurtured by prayer, as part of a broad spirituality.

The question then becomes how we can begin to build these in our work with children and young people. As is often the case, much of this begins with supporting and equipping parents – E M Bell, a parent and volunteer children’s leader, says: “Often we find families don’t have Bibles at home, or only children’s Bible stories.” So first we’ll look at a few ways of equipping parents to feel more confident sharing faith with their children, and then look at some of the themes that came up repeatedly as I spoke with clergy, children’s workers, and parents.

Discipling parents

Many young adults return to church when they have children. They may have only a smattering of actual knowledge of the Christian faith, but they have a deep sense that this is something that matters in raising their child, and they’ve come to us for help. There are a few resources available to help families you may encounter via baptism or baby dedications. The Church of England Christenings website has a newsletter looking at faith at home which parents can be encouraged to sign up to when they have their child christened (churchofenglandchr istenings .org/ amazing-journey-next-steps), while the project’s baptism preparation course, ‘We welcome you’, is designed to get parents thinking and talking not just about the day itself but about the journey.

Jenny Paddison’s ‘Starting rite’ programme (startingrite.org) is another way for churches to support new parents. It’s designed as a five-part course, encouraging gentle discussion and hands-on activity, all using day-to-day play with your baby as a starting point.

For parents of older children who already attend church but might want support in their own faith, think about whether your existing teaching and nurture programmes are family-friendly. Are they at times when people who work can attend? Is childcare available?

The Mother’s Union also provides leaflets on a variety of topics, from bereavement to commercialism, as well as their ‘Hand in hand’ leaflet on faith at home. These can be sent home with parents or can form the basis of a programme.

Developing spiritual practices can’t be done by church alone, and may take a while to work

Stewardship and charity work

Of course fostering generosity in children is crucial to spiritual growth, but this is a challenging area. Here are a few things to think about as you consider how to get children involved:

  • Are there significant differences in socio-economic status in your area? Is that reflected among the children you support? If you encourage them to bring in money to donate to the church or to charity, will some feel their contribution isn’t enough, or struggle to be able to bring anything at all?
  • If they’re involved in charity work, are they encouraged to see the people they’re helping as having agency and dignity, rather than as passive recipients of the beneficent largesse of the more fortunate?
  • If they’re encouraged to save money for the church or for charity, do they know what work they’re supporting? Are they given an active role in choosing and evaluating where they give their money?
  • How is it connected back to faith? People of many faiths and none give to charity, which is as it should be. Where are they being helped to think about what it is about our Christian faith that motivates these actions?

Rev Amanda Gott explains a project she started with her daughter when she was 4, which could easily be turned into a whole-church activity: “Ten per cent of [my daughter’s pocket money] is a tithe. She gets to pick the charity of her choice - I don’t force it to be church - to contribute to. She decorates a little jar with things relevant to the charity. She usually picks an environmental charity and she decorates her little jar with pictures of wilderness or animals or something. Ten per cent of the [money] goes into the charity jar, to be counted and donated as a ‘large’ donation every six months or so.”

Many charities provide Advent or Lent calendars which, as Lauryn Aubrey, an Anglican reader, points out: “Enable not just giving but also conversation about lots of different issues and faith.” Talking about stewardship and giving as a ‘God thing’ can help children think about our relationship to money as Christians and that: “Where our treasure is, there will our heart be also.” It also becomes a way in of discussing the consumerism of our times, its emphasis on ‘you are what you own’, and how we, as Christians, are called to live with different values.

Bible reading

Many parents want to read Bible stories with their children, and may even own a children’s Bible or two. This is therefore a pretty easy win for churches – parents generally feel confident in reading bedtime stories in a way they may not feel confident in prayer, and so getting them to include Bible stories is probably not too difficult. However, not all children’s Bibles are created equal, and it’s worth looking at how parents introduce Bible stories to their children.

Churches can take advantage of Bible Sunday or another event to provide parents with a list of good children’s Bibles. Things to consider include:

  • Does the children’s Bible include the broad variety of genres contained in the real Bible? Is there prophesy and poetry as well as story? Are there examples of Jesus’s teachings as well as his actions?
  • How does it end? Does it finish with Easter or Pentecost, or does it include the promise of God’s kingdom, the big‘happily ever after’, without which the story is incomplete?
  • Is the story presented with trust in its own power, without the need to dress it up with preachy moralistic lessons and conclusions about its meaning already presented, pre-digested, for the reader?
  • Does it include the struggle of God’s people – slavery in Egypt, the Babylonian exile, Roman occupation – or just the happy bits? Is it honest about the crucifixion and resurrection or does it gloss over them?

My very first Bible, by Lois Rock, is a good starter. For older children, Usborne and Lion have a good selection, and the Lion graphic Bible is excellent at including prophesy, law, and poetry – how, when and why they were written, and how they fit into the story of God’s people.

Parents can also be encouraged to talk about the Bible stories they read with their children – ‘wondering questions’ are easy to teach and provide space for parents and children to explore the stories together and make meaning out of them. You can model wondering questions in church, and encourage parents to use this practice at home. These developed out of Godly Play, but can be used in many contexts; the idea is that wondering questions are open-ended, have no right or wrong answers and don’t need to be answered immediately. “I wonder what the most important part of the story is,” for example, can be a springboard for parent-child conversations at any age, and symbol and imagery can be explored this way: “I wonder why God used a rainbow as a sign of his promise”. Parents can also explore the characters’ thoughts and feelings: “I wonder how the disciples felt when Jesus said that”.

Wondering questions are easy to teach and provide space for parents and children to explore the stories together and make meaning out of them

With encouragement from church, parents can start a bedtime tradition of a Bible story, some wondering time and a goodnight blessing. This is probably similar enough to what they already do that it doesn’t feel overwhelming or impossible. And, as E M Bell points out, it’s rich territory: “The really big existential questions seem to pop up at bedtime in our house!”

Seasonal traditions

Even when children are going through times of doubt and searching, seasonal traditions can still be, and often are, meaningful. The teenager who tells you everyone at church is a deluded hypocrite may still find comfort from setting up their childhood Nativity scene at Christmas (though they’d never admit it). Fay Rowland, a parent and theology student, says: “Although my teens aren’t keen on church anymore, they are adamant that we keep the ‘traditions’, such as the daily readings for Advent that we hang on the tree.”

Churches can offer take-home items for faith at home at special times of year – the internet is full of ideas, including a Lenten one from Building Faith (buildfaith.org/lent-in-a-bag) and Mary Hawes has a whole Pinterest board full of ideas (uk.pinterest.com/revmaryhawes/faith-in-the-home). There are also seasonal activities – Rev Ruth Pyke suggests chalking the door at Epiphany or kite flying at Pentecost.

Getting started

These ideas can’t be done by church alone, and may take a while to work. Some may not be right for you at all. However, a few general rules can help. First of all, don’t try to do everything at once. You’ll overwhelm parents. Pick one thing and introduce it everywhere – in church on Sunday, in the notice sheet if you have one, by email if you have a communications list (if not, make one), at Messy Church or toddler group, and so on.

Explain what you’re doing and why, for example: “We’re handing out money boxes at our pancake party for children to collect pocket money for one of our church’s charities during Lent. You will also get a sheet with reflections and Bible verses to help you think together about how we, as Christians, spend our money.” Repeat the message over and over – people need to be reminded more often than they need to be told.

When you launch your idea, whether it’s a parenting course or a take-home resource, provide parents with the materials they’ll need to make it work. Don’t send them home with a Holy Week-at-home idea and a shopping list – give them the materials and instructions yourself.

Finally, where possible, follow up. If you’re doing a Lenten stewardship activity, remind them to bring in the money on Easter Sunday (and keep reminding them in the weeks after Easter!). If you’re encouraging them to do something at home, have a display board for pictures and quotes about how it went.

And if it doesn’t work – and not everything will – try something else. We have the children an hour or two a week, if we’re lucky. They’re at home every day. It’s worth building that connection.



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