Last night over dinner, my husband and I listened to a dear friend share her recent journey to find relatives she never knew existed.* This discovery of ancestors on her family tree is opening doors to connect and establish relationships with their descendants. She reveled in hearing their family stories and discovering unique connections to her own life. This journey is also revealing that she has a new ethnicity and people group.
As I listened to her story, I could feel this deep sense of self and identity emerging from my friend. She was amazed at the commonalities she shared with her new family – how she is like them, having similar facial features, kindred personalities and behaviors. As one of her new relatives shared, “This is how we know you are one of us. You look like us.” These familial discoveries are explaining parts of her that she has never understood. The excitement was palpable as she exclaimed “You cannot imagine how affirming this was for me. These are my people. I have a place I belong.”
I started wondering what it is like to find a place where not only are you welcomed but you have a deep connection, a place to contribute, and sense of belonging. I wondered if in our churches, do children feel this kind of connection to the family of God? Do they feel like they belong – not just tolerated or acknowledged, but truly seen and valued, welcomed as equal members of the family? Is there a deep connection to a people group and a place where their contributions are not only welcomed but essential to the life of the family?
The place where you belong
As my friend entered into the church to meet her new relatives, they welcomed her with open arms and proclaimed, “We won’t overwhelm you. We will love you.” They spent time together discovering how they were connected and the different ways they were similar to one another. The new family didn’t try to mold my friend to be exactly like them, but enjoyed discovering her uniqueness and how it contributes to the rich tapestry of their family.
I wonder how children experience the church as family. Do we proclaim to our children “This is your family, the place where you belong. We will love you!”? Or, do we expect them to first learn how to conform to our ways of thinking and behave in a certain manner before we accept them into the communal actions and rites?
In order for children to find a place where they belong, it is important for us, as their faith family, to discover their uniqueness and nurture the ways it can contribute to the rich tapestry of the Body of Christ. Do we value children enough to create space where the are welcomed in and their unique gifts are celebrated and utilized?
I’ve already begun to miss you
The morning my friend was getting ready to fly back to Chicago, one of her new relatives sent her a text, looking forward to the next time they meet again. He added this: “I’ve already begun to miss you.”
It is easy to hear this story from my friend’s perspective – she is the one who is telling it. Her life has been profoundly changed. But she is not the only one. These new relatives are being shaped by her presence in the family as well. Her life is not the only one that has been changed.
As we live in the family of faith, are we being shaped by the children in our midst? How do we see our interactions with children? Is the relationship only one-sided where children are the receivers of what we give? Are we open to receiving from and being formed by the children in our congregations?
One of the biggest challenges to this reciprocal aspect of formation is that it requires we are together. In order for a relationship to be reciprocal, both parties must be present. How can reciprocity ever happen between adults and children in the church if children are consistently sent away from the community? In order for us and our faith to be shaped within community, it must be intergenerational. Children must be present and a part of the community not pushed aside until they are older and we deem they are able to contribute.
I belong to God and to his people
The first question in the Heidelberg Catechism asks this: What is your only comfort in life and in death? The answer is one of belonging: That I am not my own but belong – body and soul, in life and in death to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.
For a person’s faith to grow, they must know they belong – belong to God and belong to his people, the Body of Christ. When we truly belong to a community, participate in the communal actions, and share stories of a common history, we are shaped by these interactions. We are formed through relationship with one another.
John Westerhoff, in his book Living the Faith Community, writes: “The meaning of faith is developed by its people out of their common history, by their interactions with each other and in relationship to the events that take place in their lives.” (p. 99) Just as my friend is making meaning of her life by interacting with her new family, our children are making meaning of their faith by their interactions with us. What are we doing that is shaping their identity and sense of belonging to the people of God?
Do our children sense a deep connection to us and our faith stories?
Are they finding their place on our family tree?
* This person gave me permission to share her story.
Photo credit: iStock.com/Zinkevych