Sermon by Rev. Todd Weir

June 15, 2014


Great singing!

Great singing!

A few weeks ago I was part of a team engaging in a leadership retreat with a Latino student group at Springfield Tech.  The school has noted that they have poor retention rates of getting students to complete their degrees, especially from low-income and new immigrant families, and they have been mentoring and supporting students to help them through the program.  Lora Wondolowski was a part of program, representing Leadership Pioneer Valley, and in the opening she asked the students, “Who inspires you?”  Now what would you expect a group of 18 to 20 year olds to say?  Sports stars, singers, CEOs?  Nearly all of them said their parents or a close family member. I suppose that should not surprise me, but it does.

We know from research how important the early years are in a child’s life, and how much parents shape personality and well-being at a young age.  But as children become teenagers and young adults, we feel like they slip away.  Peers become more important and the world intrudes through social media, and parents start to feel like they have little to do but keep their kids alive and well fed.  I have felt this myself, and now as our children are all now between 21 and 26, I noticed how much they are acting like us. Jeanne and I are apparently a lot smarter than we were 5 years ago. Christina and Patrick have adopted Jeanne’s healthy diet and exercise habits, and James works things out in his head like I do.  They still do things we can’t always understand, but we see that our influence is in there. The point is we often matter to a younger generation more than we think we do.  Celebrity figures may capture the imagination, but for most people, it is someone much closer in their lives that truly inspires and forms them – a parent or family member, teacher, coach or mentor.  Think about this for yourself.  Who inspired you and gave you confidence or shaped your self-esteem?

A great crisis of the church is that we are not retaining younger people.  This is really a two generation problem that began long before Twitter and Facebook, in fact it may date from the beginning of television. (That’s a topic for another day!)  But some churches are doing this well and developing faith for the next generation.  What do these congregations do?  What are their church school programs like?  How do they build great youth groups?  The Search Institute, which specializes in Christian Education research, has found some surprising conclusions. They endeavored to study faith maturity, to discover which people had developed a rich and practiced faith, and then tried to figure out where it came from.  Participating in a good Christian Education program was important, but the highest factor was family religiosity.  The more kids saw their faith practiced at home, the more likely they were to be practicing Christians as adults.

Here are the four things that really mattered: Having regular faith conversations between family members.  Kids who talked with their families about faith are twice as likely to be involved in church as adults.  Here is a shocking corollary.  Only 12% of those surveys said they had these kind of conversations in their home.

Sharing in regular rituals of faith.  Engaging in meal or bed time prayers, attending religious holiday services, and marking important life occasions with some type of religious ritual helps strengthen faith.

If kids see adults having devotional practices, they are more likely to engage in religious life. The simple truth is kids do what we do, not what we say.  Honestly, that is a bit of a scary thought for me.  This is true in other research.  If kids see parents reading, they are more likely to read as adults.  The biggest indicator of political party is still what party your parents were involved with, or not involved with at all.  So too with faith.  In fact, churches that have strong retention of younger people also have effective participation in adult education programs.  The Search Institute recommends that congregations put as many resources into adult education as into children’s education, because we are all the ones transmitting the faith. (Acknowledge the challenges that not all of us fall in love and marry people who have our same religious beliefs.  I think that would be a great seminary to offer.  How do you talk about faith when your own family is interfaith and pluralisitic?)

Finally, regular participation in service to others as youth correlates with a more mature, participatory faith as an adult.  I was a youth leader for the first three years of ministry, and I know that a week-long mission trip was the most important thing of the year.  I was first called into the ministry on a mission trip.  And we don’t have to wait till youth group.  My mom had me out in the Vietnam peace marchers when I was five.  During the Iowa caucus season, she made sure I stood in line a shook Jimmy Carter’s hand, and dragged me to lectures at Iowa State University-I heard Carl Sagan, Bill Russell talking about race and sports, Buckminster Fuller-I have no idea what he was talking about-I was not happy about any of this at the time-but it made me appreciate meeting great minds.

I want to be clear that I am not putting a greater burden on parents.  Parents are blamed for almost any demise of civilization.  Good parenting feels like a task for Superhero’s task.  The necessity of a two career family, work schedules and the lack of social supports for families make it difficult.  America joins Swaziland and Papau New Guniea as the three nations that do not offer paid parental leave of some type a the birth of a child. Here are the two things that matter.  First, I want to say to every adult nurturer of children, you matter.  You are doing important work.  In the times that you think you are engaging in Mission Impossible, trust that your work is planting seeds that will one day flourish.  The second main point is this: we need to configure our Christian Education programs to reflect these best practices.  It is not enough to hire a good Christian Educator and fund the program.  If we as a congregation are not engaging and sharing our faith, why would our children?  Pay attention to the flight attendant, in case of turbulence, first put on your own oxygen mask and then assist your children. We added a line to the job description for Christian Education that says, “Empower parents to be involved in faith formation for their children.”

We are a religious minority.  Only 23 percent of Massachusetts residents go to church, one of the lowest rates in the nation.  We are a minority within that group as a progressive leaning church, we are often misunderstood, and people project beliefs upon us that we don’t have.  (Fundamentalism, not believing in evolution, anti-gay, etc.)  Here is what I learned teaching confirmation – it is not easy for teenagers to be a Christian.  We don’t have to stop being open and appreciative of people who believe differently than we do to still have a strong faith.  Here is our challenge: We need to develop mature faith, faith that makes sense of life, faith that heal and feel more alive in this world.  And we need to transmit that faith to our children so they have the resources they need for life.