Several things were commonplace at these gatherings. There was always way too much delicious food, my grandmother fussed over and took care of everyone, the house was overcrowded, stories were told, and the kids sat at the kid's table in the "living room". This last phrase is in quotes because I don't want you to get an image of a formal living room conjured up in your mind. This was a simple small house on East 29th Street in Marion, Indiana, that my grandfather built with the help of a few friends. This was the home my mother grew up in. Grandpa added the "living room" several years later. It really was most like a converted garage. Yet, in spite of or perhaps because of its simple beauty, I loved this house. I spent a lot of time at this wonderful home. If I think about it long enough, I can even bring back the way the house smelled when grandma and grandpa were canning green beans or making jam. I guess what I really loved was the home that house had become for generations of people.
I digress, back to the reunion.
The kid's table was never more than ten feet away from the adult room and the adult table. They were separated by nothing more than a couple of steps up and a wrought iron railing (I told you it was simple). Everything could be seen and heard by everyone in each room. This was important for the adults who were watching their children and more than annoying to the kids who were trying desperately not to get caught by their parents.
Unbeknownst to any of us gathered there, something amazing was taking place at each one of our gatherings. The adults were teaching the children what it meant to be a part of this strangely wonderful Fones family. The kids heard the stories, watched how the family - even with its own peculiarities - acted as a family, witnessed love in action, learned how to live and survive life's biggest challenges, understood the importance of tradition, and became more and more family with each gathering.
When we consider the faith development of our young people, we often first think about what kind of children and youth programs our congregation provides. We want to see the number of young people involved in these programs so that we can prove that spiritual nurture is taking place within the walls of the church. I strongly believe that these programs and opportunities are important. Afterall, I have worked in the same church as its youth director for over half of my life. However, these programs, events and opportunities are not the most important predictors of spiritual health and spiritual development in the lives of our young people. Research is beginning to show that these programs indeed have their place, but their place should not be at the head of the table when it comes to our children's developing spiritual lives and spiritual roots that will last into adulthood.
One longitudinal study conducted by the Fuller Youth Institute, "Sticky Faith", sums up its findings with this statement, "Rather than only attending their own Sunday School classes, worship services, small groups, and service activities, young people appear to benefit from intergenerational activities and venues that remove the walls (whether literal or metaphorical) separating the generations. Churches and families wanting to instill deep faith in youth should help them build a web of relationships with committed and caring adults, some of whom may serve as intentional mentors" (for more on this study, click here)
This is what happened at the Fones family reunions. The children learned about the family and how to be family by being in the same room with the adults. Sure, we went off to climb trees together and had our own meaningful discussion with one another, but the most important "stuff" that happened took place when the generations were all within earshot of one another.
If our children are to develop a faith that sticks, they need to be in the room with us. They need to hear the family stories, watch how the family - even with its own peculiarities - acts as a family, witness love in action, learn how to live and survive life's biggest challenges, understand the importance of tradition, and become more and more family with each gathering. It is not just about intergenerational activities, it is about children and youth being integrated into the full family life of the community of faith.
So, two questions remain:
1. How might this look in your own family? I am confident it is already happening. Celebrate the moments when it is taking place and create new opportunities for it to happen.
2. How might we imagine what this looks like at Second Presbyterian Church together? There are already many places at Second in which this integrative approach to spiritual nurture and development is happening. Let's discover those places together and create more opportunities for shared faith and life.