By Calvin Lane
There is, arguably, no greater imperative for the Church at this moment than deep formation in the Christian narrative. Everything we do hinges on our story, the story we hold deep within that governs how we navigate life. To be direct, as the Church of Jesus Christ, we cannot do social justice if we do not know the justice of God. As the Church of Jesus Christ, we cannot extend hospitality in any meaningful way if we do not know the hospitality of God. As the people of Christ, we cannot feed the poor with real integrity if we have not been fed with the bread of life. If we are not grounded and shaped at our inmost level by the Christian story, then we are only shooting out in different directions, scattered and taking cues from other stories. The question is, where does that formation begin? There are two competing possibilities, the Church and the family. In earlier eras, other loci for this kind of formation, for better or worse, included schools and broader civic life. Again, for better or worse, those arenas are now gone.
Before addressing the question of Church or family, let’s linger, for just a moment, to see how scattered our broader culture really is, and how we, as the Church, are not immune from any of this. There are, in short, too many stories bouncing around in our individual and collective imaginations as Christians and Americans (or Westerners if you prefer). In the United States more broadly, our recent election exposes how we inhabit multiple realities. Asking “where America is” on any issue may simply be a non-starter. As a nation we have no center. And it’s not that we’re neatly divided into simple red-blue binaries. We are a culture of several competing, overlapping, and even contradictory narratives about reality. Beware anyone telling you about the “voice of the masses” about any issue.
If, (a) it is imperative for Christians to be shaped deeply by the Christian narrative, especially given the cacophony of stories on offer in our wider culture, and (b) the venues left to us are the Church and the family, which then is the right avenue?
On the one hand, there is tremendous evidence in Scripture that the people of God relate to one another in a familiar sense — we are brothers and sisters with a common rebirth in the waters of baptism. We are born not of blood, but of God. Doing away with “private” baptisms was indeed a marvelous thing for the mid-twentieth century liturgical renewal. The radical community evidence in Acts certainly shows us that to raise a Christian, it does indeed take a village, or perhaps a church. And this is not incidental to the gospel itself: the distinctions of race and tribe break down in Jesus Christ, and we are the people he wins for God. What an indictment of the bourgeoise middle-class fetishism, even idolatry, of “the family” in American culture!
And yet, mothers and fathers are, in reality, the shapers of a child’s narrative of the world, and the ministry of parents for good or ill is sidelined to our peril. Witness the utter failure of late twentieth-century styles of “youth ministry,” the handing off of the sacred responsibility of forming disciples to a “youth minister,” who in the 1980s and 1990s more or less segregated teenagers from the rest of the body of Christ, ensuring they never were included in the Church’s life. And those teens (my middle age contemporaries) are now enjoying their 40s liberated not only from the common life of the Church but also the Christian narrative about Christ and his in-breaking kingdom. We’re doing all the things our boomer parents did — keeping the lawn cut, enrolling our kids in sports and scouts, making sure our retirements are in the right shape — except staying in the life of the Church. Just Google the statistics. It’s no secret. My wife is a seminary professor whose expertise is in Anabaptist groups, and most fascinating in her research is how certain strains of those groups in the early twentieth century rejected Sunday school. Wait, what? Who would reject Sunday school? What could be the problem with kids gathering with a teacher to hear Bible stories? The argument was that if a church institutes Sunday school, it both deprives parents of their sacred ministry of daily teaching their children the faith and practice of Christianity, and enculturates parents to leave it to someone else, thus weakening the discipleship of both children and parents in one fell swoop.
Here’s the reality: Church and family are not mutually exclusive and, more than that, they are both necessary. One cannot go without the other in the formation of disciples. We do not have the luxury, under the cover of some fantastical apostolic primitivism, of relying solely on our brothers and sisters in Christ to saturate our children in the Christian narrative. Let’s be honest, how often are many of us who would be judged “active members” really bringing our kids to the Christian education hour? Even if it’s every Sunday (which it is not), we’re talking about an hour or less once a week. That’s not going to form life-long discipleship. Just count the amount of time. They get more narratives pumped into their minds by PBS Kids (and unfortunately Disney and Nick, Jr., which I cannot recommend at all) than they get in Sunday school. And yet how are we parents ever going to be equipped for this ministry? Leaving the challenge solely to parents will mean crashing and burning into a sort of cultural Christianity which is either biblicist (though ignorant of the text) on the one hand or a rehash of anemic liberal Protestantism on the other. Either choice is a form of civic religion that does not serve the gospel.
It is only in the life of the Church — or, as James K. A. Smith puts it, in a community of practice — that our families will be formed, that parents themselves will be equipped to minister to their children, and we become that people with a different story to tell, a story which will, God willing, outlast the myriad narratives floating in and out of our neighborhoods, schools, election booths, and homes every hour these days.
The Rev. Dr. Calvin Lane is affiliate professor at Nashotah House Theological Seminary and associate rector of St. George’s Church, Dayton, OH. He has also taught for Wright State University and United Theological Seminary and is the author of two books on the reformation.