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Chicago conference asks, 'Will Our Faith Have Children?'

By  David Skidmore
[Episcopal News Service]  The four questions are pristine in their candor and simplicity, demarcating the baseline of every inquirer's class and catechumenal program in the Christian church:

Do you believe in God?
How did you first learn about God?
How do you tell others about God?
Why do you go to church?

For over 600 faith leaders, Christian educators, and formation ministers participating in the landmark national conference on Christian formation -- Will Our Faith Have Children? -- these queries served as blaze marks for regaining what the church has lost through decades of indifference and half-hearted or haphazard approaches to forming and enriching the faith of children, youth and adults.

The brainchild of the Rev. Robyn Szoke, staff officer for children's ministries and Christian education for the Episcopal Church, and a network of Christian educators and children's ministry advocates, the February 13-17 conference in a Chicago suburb plumbed the promises and impediments of embracing life-long learning and formation at all levels of church life.

In four days of worship, workshops, speeches, reflections and experiential learning, the participants -- a number of whom from other Anglican provinces -- came away with new ideas and perspectives, and the resolve to work for change in attitudes and structures.

'Every church that has at least one child should be expending resources of money and time on helping that child develop his or her relationship with God,' said Margaret Schaefer, a Christian education director from Nebraska, in an interview. 'Our children should have the best we have to give, not what is left over.'

Phoebe Griswold, who with her husband Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold was present for the entire conference, said her wish was for the church to 'be more militant about the importance of raising children with hope.' She said that other Anglican churches can offer us that gift through their witness of living through crisis and conflict, of coping with children forced to serve as soldiers or labor in sweatshops.

Center of the church's mission

The question of whether our faith will have children should be at the top of the church's mission priorities if today's leaders are to 'ensure the future of the church by passing on the lessons and the legacies of the faith,' said Bishop Franklin Turner, retired suffragan of Pennsylvania, preaching at the conference's opening Eucharist, a celebration of the life of Absalom Jones, the Episcopal Church's first African American priest.

As an advocate for children's ministry and 'ministry with children' for over 20 years, Turner said young people 'must be at the center of the church's mission and be included in and involved in the worship, ministry and total life of the church so far as they are able.'

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. understood this principle, said Turner, and made it a point to include children in the civil rights marches and demonstrations he led in the 1960s, even though he was chastised for exposing them to the bigotry and violence then. King was right, he said, because the struggle was as much for the children's liberation as it was for their parents. Out of their action they formed their faith, and as a consequence those same children 'are still involved in the struggle today for human rights and the dignity of every human being,' he noted.

Not there yet

The fear of losing children from the church, and from the faith journey itself, primed conversations in the 22 seminar tracks and in a series of forums on the conference's final night. In a forum on young adults in the church, the Rev. Jan Griffin of Washington who shared a lament common to many clergy: the exodus of college bound young adults from the church and tradition in which they were raised.

But for Vivian Lam, a member of Church of the Holy Spirit in New York City, the journey has taken her deeper into the church, largely because of the leadership opportunities she was given as an Asian-American. Her roles include teaching Sunday School at her parish and working with Chinese congregations in the diocese. A turning point for her was an Episcopal AsiaAmerica Ministry Conference where she saw other Asian young adults fully engaged in the program. She acknowledges that this is the exception for many young adults. 'As much as we would like the church to be at the ideal, where everyone has a place at the table, we are not there yet,' she said.

The churches set the stage for this turnoff, and turndown, by not engaging the minds and spirits of its children, said convention chaplain, the Rev. Suzanne Guthrie. As a result, by age 12 children have lost interest in a church that apparently has lost interest in them. 'Children want depth and they want breadth,' she said, yet adults are not prepared to quench that thirst with programs like Catechesis of the Good Shepherd and Godly Play that respect children's 'natural theological brilliance.'

Theology is built around questions and adults are there to help children frame their questions in a context of creativity, she said. 'The church should be the playground. The church should be the place where the child can still be a child and be a theologian, and to be their true selves.'

The birth of an idea

In the wake of the 2000 General Convention and just two years into her role, Szoke invited members of various Christian formation and education networks for a three-day retreat at Southern Ohio's Proctor Center to brainstorm ideas for a national event on formation. Her inspiration came from chapter five of Walter Brueggeman's Hope within History, in which he addresses the tensions in the church's attitude toward children by way of two scripture passages: Rachel weeping for children exiled during the Babylonian captivity (Jeremiah 31:15), and God's assurance that Israel will have abundant children (Isaiah 54).

Szoke saw these as bookends for an experience that would pick up where the 1998 Treasure Kids conference -- the church's last national event dealing with faith formation -- left off. What they ended up with was a palette that emphasizes diversity, welcoming worship that includes children, the basics of Christian belief and practice, and outreach to people with no faith tradition. But to convert these colors into a composition they needed a canvas. Szoke decided she needed to go on the road.

Accompanied by videographer Karl Schurmann, Szoke set up focus groups -- what she called 'circles of conversation' -- in five cities across the church. From the 48 hours of taping Szoke and Schurmann distilled the experience into a 40-minute video designed to be shown in ten minute segments. It was a profound journey for Szoke. 'I am here to say that my whole approach to curriculum has been transformed,' she said.

Szoke saw the video as the vehicle for taking the participants from grief to exultation within an intense four-day event that combined elements of a trade show, revival, teach-in and summer camp.

The need for relationship

The issues were addressed by four keynote speakers: Robert Kegan, professor of adult learning and professional development at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education; Parker Palmer, senior associate of the American Association of Higher Education and senior advisor to the Fetzer Institute; Bishop Michael Curry of the Diocese of North Carolina; and Vicki Garvey, Christian formation coordinator for the Diocese of Chicago and formation director for St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Barrington Hills.

Palmer, a noted retreat leader, education consultant and author of The Courage to Teach, outlined what he termed 'the shadow side' of the church's approach to children. The indicators, he said, include too many parents 'eager to be able to drop their kids at church for an hour and have someone do religion to them'; too many clergy and Christian education directors having to coerce lay people into becoming church school teachers to ensure 'at least one warm body in each classroom'; too many lay people operating out of a sense of 'spiritual scarcity and insufficiency'; and the use of 'too many canned curricula' in order 'to make up for adult insecurity about not knowing the faith from inside out.'

As a result too many kids are alienated by religious education that is 'distant, uninviting, unengaging and lifeless,' said Palmer. What they are missing is the one element that children most need: a relationship with adults around matters of weight and significance. 'A living, breathing adventure, hand in hand with an adult seeker. That is an adventure in faith,' Palmer said.

His point echoed Kegan's observation that 'your faith will have children if they are well held, if they feel well held. If the person we are holding is not just a person of our imagination but a person who is actually there in front of us.' He emphasized the importance of accepting the individuality of children. Parents can blind themselves by being so fused to their children, seeing them 'as an extension of ourselves and our own aspirations for ourselves.'

What should happen?

Will the Episcopal Church have children? Part of the answer may come when General Convention this summer considers a resolution from the Standing Commission on Domestic Mission and Evangelism that would commit $4 million to fund a children's minister, a youth minister, and a young adult minister in every congregation, and an Episcopal ministry on every college campus.

The money would be funneled through the provinces, said the Rev. LeeAnne Watkins, a commission member from the Diocese of Minnesota, but it will be up to the dioceses and provinces to develop the programs and resources to realize the goal.

'What we are learning is that it is easy to get overwhelmed with all the things that could happen and aren't happening and should happen, and the limited resources and time,' she said. Though everyone struggles with the worry and weight of passing on the faith, 'God will survive' and 'be present to people throughout the generations.'