From the time I was 2 ½ until I was 18, my church was St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Laguna Beach, California. Naturally, I thought all churches were like my church. I remember the smell of incense and the sound of Sanctus bells and the sight of people coming down the aisle in shorts, tee shirts and flip-flops.
At St. Mary’s, we had Christmas pageants and pancake suppers, we stopped eating green grapes in support of Cesar Chávez and the migrant farmworkers, and boycotted Nestlé over marketing baby formula in underdeveloped countries. We helped ready the rectory to become home to a succession of Vietnamese boat families. Until I was old enough to know better, I thought every church had gay and lesbian families. Faith in action formed me.
When I was 10, I was paid to help Miss Gigi with the babies and toddlers in the nursery, 50 cents an hour. It was my job to help them feel God’s love, and we did that by playing with them, reading to them, giving a bottle to a baby, even changing the occasional diaper.
At 11, I was confirmed and awestruck that the adults who taught us encouraged us to wrestle with ideas like transubstantiation and consubstantiation. I remember my first taste of the bread and wine made holy. The new prayer book wasn’t out yet, but we had the green book, and my imagination was caught by the will of God creating “the vast expanse of interstellar space, the galaxies, suns and planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home.”
At 14, I started teaching Sunday School. It was before I’d ever heard of Godly Play, but Brad Karelius, who had been our seminarian and then became our curate, baptized my baby doll, Elizabeth Anne, for my class of 4-and 5-year-olds, because I was teaching a lesson on baptism and I asked him to. I sang in the choir, directed by my high school humanities teacher, and on the same Sunday it might be Mozart and music from Godspell and “Wade in the Water.”
At that point, I was also the youngest member of the Christian Education committee, led by my beloved Mrs. Mudge, who was not only our Director of Religious Education, but had been my social studies teacher in 4th, 5th, and 6th grade as well as my drama director and the person who oversaw my work as editor of the school newspaper. The Christian Education Committee met after church on Sunday afternoons, which meant I could actually go to the meetings. During my freshman year of high school, my parents separated, and for a period of months, my mother stopped going to church. I got on the bus and went by myself, because I was pretty sure they couldn’t have church without me.
God is a mystery, but how children and youth grow into an adult faith is not: we now have 40 years of longitudinal research from across the country and across denominations. Here’s what the data supports: Children whose parents were active in their congregations, who practiced their faith and talked about matters of faith at home, are far more likely to be religiously active as young adults. Participation in Sunday School and youth group are not indicators of children and youth who grow into an adult faith. Active participation in worship and connection to other adults in the faith community are stronger predictors, as well as integrating faith into all aspects of our lives, and modeling that doubt and questions are aspects of faith, not its opposites.
I am so grateful to have been raised in a church that took my gifts as a child and teenager seriously enough to use them every week. I long for children and youth to be incorporated into the full life of the congregation. We have much to learn about following Jesus, but that’s best and most authentically done in community, growing together in faith as people of God.
Wendy Claire Barrie is the author of Faith at Home: A Handbook for Cautiously Christian Parents and is currently at work on a book about this very subject: how churches become intergenerational, and why it’s essential.