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The Church and a child’s memory

Importance of passing our faith to the young

AMONG my many Sunday School teachers in the past, I remember one for his unusual methods.

He would make his students stand in a line and then ask us to recite the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, and so on. He would walk down the line with a wooden ruler in his hand. No one could hide behind the collective voice of the class; his ignorance would stand out like a sore thumb, for each was asked to recite in turn. If he failed, he would have a sore thumb for he had to stretch out his hand to be hit by the teacher’s ruler.

This teacher would probably be in trouble if he were to teach Sunday School today. But we need to think about how important it is to pass on our faith to the next generation. What is it that we need to pass on to the younger generation? What importance do we actually give to this process? What consequences will there be if we fail in this task?

To show from history how the Church shapes a child’s memory and how this affects society, Michael McDuffee has written a book on small-town Protestantism in 19th century Germany. He shows how major cultural trends and forces led to secularisation and an erosion of Christian worldviews and values in society. People were becoming indifferent to the Christian faith. Nevertheless in small town Germany, the Protestant Christians kept their Christian faith alive by keeping their doctrinal and Christian identity intact. A key reason — they were diligently taught the Christian faith when they were young. (Pastors and teachers in the church took their educational role seriously and helped to shape the childhood memories of the young in the church by injecting a good dose of Christian content into their personal and collective memories. This, according to McDuffee, helped that generation in 19th century small town Germany “live lost faith”.)

Scripture instructs us to pass on our faith to the young. When the ancient Israelites experienced the original Passover in Egypt, their fresh experience was immediately connected to theology (what they knew about God), liturgy (how they should worship God) and spiritual education (how they should teach their children). We must note the last point here. Moses instructed the Israelites to observe the Passover ceremony as a lasting ordinance (Ex. 12:24-25). He also left instructions on the teaching of the young. (Ex. 12:26-27).

Elsewhere, Moses reiterated the importance of teaching God’s commands to the young. “Impress them on your children. Talk about them … Tie them as symbols … Write them … ” (Dt. 6:7-9). It is not surprising that Israel had a tradition of remembering God’s saving acts such as the Passover and Exodus in its worship (cf. Psalms 106, 136). The commands of God were also taught to the young. “My son, do not forget my teaching, but keep my commands in your heart,” (Pr. 3:1) wrote the sage of Israel on behalf of all spiritually concerned parents and teachers. This tradition of teaching and passing on of the faith, though imperfectly practised in Israel due to human sin and irresponsibility, helped to maintain a remnant who pursued God with all their hearts.

How then do we pass on the faith to the young today? We live in times that are more challenging than 19th century Germany. Today, the market and media are powerful creators of values, behaviour and lifestyles that are often contrary to Christian faith. Our best attempts at Christian education seem so feeble measured against the powerful onslaught of corrupting worldviews and values. What can we do?

For one thing, we must rediscover and strengthen existing but forgotten processes in the church. After a child is baptised, he or she becomes a preparatory member and is nurtured in the faith. When the child becomes a youth, it is time for confirmation. Here is where we note some alarming signs. The preparatory member lists in many of our churches have become greatly diminished. Neither these lists nor the numbers being confirmed reflect the much larger number of children and youths in our churches. Surely we must do something about this.

Even if a youth makes it to confirmation class, we sometimes fail to make the experience meaningful and significant. Walter Wangerin, in an article (“Making Disciples by Sacred Story”) recalls the solemn and stern confirmation class he went through as a youth. Not promoting that method, he also laments that modern Christian educational methods have gone to the other extreme, where “the blither spirits and contentments of youth have shaped the atmosphere of their religious schoolrooms”. He notes with dismay that there is often a lack of seriousness. “No longer need they memorise great portions of Holy Scripture, that the words may be handy in circumstances yet to come; no longer need they give a good verbal account for the basic, most important tenets of their faith and salvation.”

As a pastor, Wangerin decided to do something about it. He visited families to make three-way covenants between pastor, child, and parent. He then initiated a two-year confirmation programme. In the first year, he focused on biblical storytelling (meeting God), while the second year dealt with memorising biblical words and doctrines (knowing God). He linked doctrine with story and his church saw a significant change.

Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon have also made helpful suggestions. In their book, Resident Aliens, they argue that education should be done primarily in the community and not the classroom. They propose that confirmation candidates be assigned godly senior members in the congregation so that the relational aspect of personal mentoring would enrich the nurturing process.

They do make an important point that passing the faith to the young must be done in community. One of the weaknesses of a “children’s church” or a “youth service” is that while they are sincere attempts to keep the young in church, they end up keeping them away from the church. A truly integrated, inter-generational church allows the young to be nurtured in community. They can observe, learn, interact with the older members, and have the full benefit of a much-needed traditioning process.

Whether the Sunday school teacher carries a ruler or sweets in the hand, the key is that we are responsible for passing the faith to our young. Many of us in that old Sunday School teacher’s class have forgotten the pain of freshly-hit palms. The pain has passed, but the Truth remains.