44400 West Ten Mile Road
Novi, Michigan 48375
Phone: (248) 349-2345 - Fax: (248) 349-5716
EQUIPPING PEOPLE OF FAITH
You've probably gotten those religious emails that I often get. A lot of the time they lack depth and sometimes come across as rather pious. It doesn't help when, at the end, you find a comment like "If you don't forward this email to twenty friends you don't really love Jesus!"
A lot of the time these emails have a tone that is judgmental and harsh, and you can't always recognize them as specifically Christian. Some seem to be vaguely religious or promoting a definite political position under the guise of religion.
I am especially baffled by these emails that come from people that I know don't go to church. They are adamant in promoting this kind of cultural Christianity, but they don't seem to be as interested in understanding what the Bible really says.
Some of you may remember that last year we spent a fair amount of time talking about a study done of young people in seven denominations. Researchers found that most of the teens they surveyed thought they understood the Christian faith, but what they believed was instead, "Almost Christian." The researchers termed it "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism." We might call it Cultural Christianity. It is what passes for Christian faith in much of American society.
The results of the study showed that most teens thought that the main beliefs of Christianity were:
These sound something like Christianity, but many of them do not represent faith that is based on the Bible and the teachings of Jesus.
If there ever was a time when you could pick up the Christian faith from just living in our culture, it has long since passed. No one becomes Christian by osmosis. We live in a vastly more pluralistic culture than in the past. In Novi we live in a much more diverse community than we did just ten years ago, and in many ways that is a very positive change. But it isn't possible to
pick up what it means to be Christian just by living in our world, without specifically learning what the Christian faith stands for.
Our cultural understanding of what it means to be Christian has been adapted to our changing society. What people think Christianity stands for has morphed into a blend of generalized spirituality, patriotism, Christianity, being a nice person, and an Oprah-like version of self-help.
You may have seen some of Jay Leno's "Jaywalking" segments where he asks people what they know about what should be pretty common knowledge. When he asked about the Ten Commandments, for example, people didn't know them and worse, they added ones that are nowhere near what the Big Ten are really about.
We can't learn about Christianity just by living in our world. Our children won't understand what Jesus taught by attending school or playing soccer or being in the high school play.
It is now more critical than ever that we and our kids know the foundations of our faith. We and they need to learn it. It isn't just going to happen by itself.
The scripture we read this morning tells of Jesus and his disciples trying to get away for a little break. Jesus has sent out his disciples to preach, heal, and teach, and they have returned and are talking about their experiences. Jesus suggests they get away for a while. So they head off on a boat for a "deserted place." But the crowds of people learn where they are heading and when Jesus and his disciples arrive there, a huge crowd is already waiting.
As tired as he is, Jesus responds to the people because he sees that they are lost; he says they are like "sheep without a shepherd." So he gathers them on a hillside and teaches them "many things." He teaches until late in the day.
These people have come from the towns and villages of the area to hear what Jesus has to say. As the day goes on, it gets late, and the people have been there so long that they are getting hungry. They haven't eaten and their stomachs are grumbling. So Jesus miraculously feeds the 5,000 men (not counting women and children).
Jesus sees their needs and responds to them. They are lost, like sheep, so he teaches them about God, forgiveness, mercy, and what God wants for their lives. They are hungry for meaning and truth, so Jesus feeds their spirits.
Then their stomachs become hungry, so Jesus feeds their bodies too. He saw their hungers, spiritual and physical, and fed them both.
Jesus spent a great deal of his ministry teaching on the hillsides to the huge crowds that came to hear him. He knew that it was impossible for the people to learn his Good News without him teaching them. Education was a critical part of Jesus' ministry. He was often called "rabbi," which means teacher. Imagine how much smaller our New Testament would be if Jesus hadn't taught so much.
For us today, learning about faith is just as important. As Jesus' disciples and followers needed to know the foundation of the Christian faith, so do we, his present day disciples. It is critical for us as adults and children to understand the faith we follow, and we aren't going to get that understanding from the culture in which we live.
I think we should set as a goal for our Sunday school program that by the sixth grade every student will know: the Apostles' Creed, The 10 Commandments, The Lord's Prayer, the 23rd Psalm, and Micah 6.8 ("What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God."). In addition to that we should expect that they would know of the two creation stories, understand the beatitudes of Jesus, and the story of Noah's Ark (and that Joan of Arc was NOT Noah's wife!).
Understanding our faith is too important to not set standards and expectations.
That means, of course, that some of the most valuable people at church are our Sunday school teachers. What they teach and how they present it will make God real in children's lives. They can help young people understand the foundations on which their faith is built. They can have a dramatic effect on the lives of our kids. A strong Sunday school teacher can make the biblical stories real. They can help kids apply what they learn about God to their everyday lives. What is more important than that?
But we can't put all of our kids Christian education on the shoulders of our Sunday school teachers. The best place, the most effective education, will come from our homes. As parents we have the best opportunity to help our kids learn about faith. Who knows our kids and their needs better than their parents?
There is a very practical and easy way to do faith learning at home. Rich Melheim is a Lutheran pastor who is now working with families to make faith experiences an integral part of family life. He calls his program "Faith Five," and here are the steps he says we can do at home.
A little while before the first child is ready for bed, ask the whole family to gather. That means turning off the TV and computer, putting down the paper, and silencing the cell phones. Then the family gets together to go through these five simple steps:
This practice carries the Bible readings from Sunday worship all through the week and relates them to our everyday lives. Kids and parents have a chance to talk together about how faith relates to the events of their day. It's a simple, easy, and effective process. Doing this together as a family will speak loudly to a child about the importance of faith.
Our children and grandchildren will face more and more resistance to their Christian faith. It isn't that there will be some sinister plot organized by a subversive anti-Christian group, but that the American culture is changing. Fewer people will understand the difference between Cultural Christianity and the biblical faith of Jesus.
We are already seeing far less emphasis on religion. News organizations shun faith based stories unless they involve a scandal.
Theologian William Willimon has written, "While many of us Christians are more likely to be ignored by the world rather than persecuted, there is a renewed sense that the world is no longer in any way a prop or nurturing environment for the church. If our children are going to grow up Christian, we will have to intentionally form them into this faith."
We can no longer rely on the world around us to help teach our children about faith, if we ever could. The responsibility for that rests on the church and each of us as parents. Our children simply won't learn our faith unless someone teaches it to them.
It seems to me that it is very difficult to learn what Christianity is about without being involved in an organized discussion or presentation of Christian beliefs and practices.
Christians find themselves in a difficult situation. Many of the supports faith had in the past are no longer there. The Sunday school classes that were crowded in the 1950's are now largely vacant. Adults, youth and children seem to have more hectic schedules than ever been. We can no longer rely on people outside our churches and families to help support our faith.
The good news is that we care about what our children believe. We have strong leaders here who are profoundly interested in helping people enjoy, appreciate, and understand the great Good News that Christ has brought us. Our faith community provides strong support to families in helping our kids to learn. We have many opportunities to enrich and practice our faith.
We are not alone. Together we can help our children, and ourselves, grow deeper in faith. We can talk about faith at home. We can enjoy strengthening our faith together as we learn about and experience God's great love for us.
© Richard J. Henderson 2012