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Raising children to have faith: Going to church isn’t enough

February 10, 2014

I remember my reaction to the word missional when I first heard it back in the early 2000’s. Missional, smishional. A new gadgety word. A new way of saying mission work or mission oriented, or something.

But as I learned more about it through my job at Mennonite Mission Network with in-depth training and exposure to the concept, I realized missional was how many of us grew up without calling it that: being involved in God’s work in the world right where we are at, beginning at home. The church’s primary activity is not just serving its members with programs (Sunday school, uplifting worship) but an understanding that the purpose of our gathered worshiping communities was and is for the purpose of helping us be about God’s work in the world.

You can see why when the Mennonerds bloggers group (that my blog links to, here) invited bloggers to contribute on the topic of being missional Christians, I quickly signed on to explore the family aspect. I’ll divide this into four brief areas: 1) what I experienced growing up with a missional father and mother (they just didn’t know it); 2) why I never became the Spanish missionary I thought I might; 3) how it worked out with our own children; 4) how I’m involved missionally today. Whew. That’s a least a four-part blog that I’ll likely say more about somewhere down the line, but you’re in luck that I’m pushed for time this week so I’ll keep it pithy. Maybe.

One more (long) has-to-be-said sentence: it is not just my own experiences that lead me to the title of this post, but the experience of hundreds of thousands of folks who believe a lived faith and putting faith into action through service is a great way to grow into an adult faith, such as the network of people connected to Faith Forward, some of whom I had the opportunity to interview on this topic: Brian McLaren, Joyce Mercer, Tony Campolo.

P1040231Dad as an active part of CROP’s Indiana Friendship Acres program.

My own family background. Dad was a farmer: by nature a doer. But he also had the servant theology down in his 8th grade-educated way, greatly amped by the real education he received as he spent four years in Civilian Public Service during World War II (which I wrote about here). So in his deacon work he took us visiting the “widows and orphans” including literally a widow with two sons with mental challenges, who lived in a woebegone shack not one mile from our church. On family vacations, Dad made sure we not only visited churches on Sundays (Mennonite if available, any denomination if not), but also Mennonite voluntary service units and mission work (Navajo Nation mention here). P1040154

Family vacation out west where we visited various Mennonite churches and mission activity; here on the Navajo reservation.

I remember a trip to Hannibal, Missouri where we enjoyed after-Sunday-evening-service refreshments at the VS unit home and thinking wow, this would be fun to live with a bunch of cool young adults in a city setting with no mom or dad. Daddy preached “I sure hope one of my kids grows up to be a voluntary service worker” and I took the bait (spending a year in the program in a rural setting in Kentucky, mentioned recently here). P1040987

My VS unit leader Judi Brenneman teaching a craft for local girl’s club on Troublesome Creek, Kentucky.

Without calling it missional, Dad innately understood that being a Christian meant reaching out to others, connecting with those of different races, cultures, and even faith, all because of our own love of God and commitment to Christ. Mom and Dad encouraged our youth group in its (then) slightly edgy and ground breaking connections to the migrants and poultry plant workers in our community who lived in barracks type housing (owned by Mennonites). At first our goal was to learn Spanish better. Along the way, we made friendships which led us to want to go to their home community in South Texas. My parents willingly signed on as chaperones for a three week youth mission trip to south Texas in 1969 for a cross cultural learning. (Long before every youth group did mission trips.)

My personal call. This all led to Eastern Mennonite University in 1971 with initial plans to major in Spanish and Bible with the thought of actually being a missionary in Spanish speaking countries. But through my years at EMU, including a year abroad in Spain where I did learn a lot of Spanish and also how difficult it was to try to share my faith with agnostic roommates (both U.S. and Spanish), I began to see and feel that with language and cultural barriers, perhaps the best way for me to be about God’s work in the world was just relating to people in my own culture and language and not necessarily seek to serve in another country.


Outside of “Iglesia Evangelica” with friends in Barcelona, Spain, one of only a handful (then) of Protestant churches in the city. Friend in navy blue dress, Cathy Bewley Martin, was instrumental in helping organize a Bible study with agnostic and atheist friends in our boarding house.

Conversations, lecturers, professors and friends through those college years opened my eyes and faith to a maturing sense of Christian call.


Apartment mates my senior year of college: Barbra Graber, left, and Sara Wenger Shenk, right. Great conversations around that table, as you can imagine!

So when I graduated, I deliberately decided to look for jobs in the U.S. rather than entering more years of volunteer or mission service in settings abroad—which had always sounded like the most exciting thing to do. While God calls some to new settings in other lands, some are called to the trailer court (where my husband and I first lived when we got married in 1976) and bowling alley (where we hung out some in those early married years).  Our church attendance was sometimes sporadic during those years but there were plenty of opportunities right in our backyard of connecting with kids who needed love, a listening ear, understanding.

P1040989Stuart (corner) working with kids from the trailer park who thought it was a hoot to help paint our storage building. We went hiking with them and frequently just let them hang out around our stair steps.

It was only years later when learning about the concept of “missional” that I could call these relationships that. Because the Presbyterian congregation we attended was very mission-oriented, we faced some pretty keen challenges such as visiting a local low-security prison every week, including helping those getting out of prison—housing, transportation, jobs. It was fulfilling even though one learning curve was getting stuck with a small unpaid car loan for which we had co-signed.

The family we raised. Fast forward a couple years as we finally put down roots in that congregation and decided to join it—not unusual among young adults—when we were expecting our first child. As we approached the threshold of parenthood, we felt it was time—even though we came from different denominations (me Mennonite, him Lutheran) to go ahead and join Trinity Presbyterian, structured around house churches—small groups that were called and formed around specific missions. The emphasis was on local mission, and without calling it that, definitely missional, in that the priority was hands on involvement with people. (I’ll write more about “incarnating in the local context” in my next blog post on this topic, 2/17/2014.) But family faith building in my experience is in a local context, so it’s hard to separate that out here.)

P1040995Kids from Helping Hands house church listening intently to a story by master storyteller, Donna Barber.

When the kids were really small it was hard to be very involved in any house church but when they reached school age, one house church we participated in was called “Helping Hands” where we took on home maintenance projects for others, helping with Habitat for Humanity builds, doing local disaster relief. Our tongue-in-cheek motto for that group was We try to do more good than harm.” More emphasis was on doing, rather than preaching or sharing faith in verbal ways, but that’s another aspect of missional that works especially well in the family setting.


Outdoor worship at Riven Rock park near Harrisonburg with house church.

Our children may have struggled to put words on why they liked hanging out with church friends in our house church setting, but—and I’m so thankful—I feel it helped each of them claim a faith without going through the immense struggle (rebellion) of many kids and youth who grow up feeling the church was only about rules and right answers and doing things certain ways and not about a lived faith struggling with doubts and questions and failure.

Missional today. None of this is to in any way brag. We, our church, our house churches, our family, are all human, imperfect, blazing failures in many ways. I won’t detail those imperfections and failures but I believe God is faithful anyway and keeps working God’s purposes out in all the mess.

P1040992Trinity Clothes Closet outreach.

My personal main involvement is with a Clothes Closet ministry which not only distributes and recycles an amazing amount of free clothing, it gives me opportunity to still use my Spanish at least once a month.


Daughter Tanya, right, helping with Clothes Closet check in, with Kevin Gallagher, left and the late Rev. William Ramkey, center.

Over the years, as we’ve experienced waves of new immigrants and refugees, I’ve also tried to learn a few words of Russian and Arabic, and currently some of the volunteers who help organize and bag the clothing are Iraqi Muslim women and children. A Muslim teen issued a call for others to help with the Clothes Closet ministry from the Trinity pulpit last fall during our annual recalling/re-covenanting season. Nice turnaround.

So the world has come to our backyard—and that is true in almost every community in North America, right, with all the attendant difficulties–but also the joys and learnings. Families especially are a great place to connect with all that messiness, all that world-in-our- backyardness.

The take away? Children who grow up seeing faith lived out in a variety of ways–and have opportunities from a young age to actively participate in mission or service activities–have a better chance (not guaranteed, ever) of growing up to embrace faith.

And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. Deuteronomy 6:6-9 Bible Gateway.


What do you think? How have mission and service activities impacted your life or the live of your family? Is looking at service this way self serving?

This post is part of a MennoNerds Synchro-Blog on Missionary Spirituality for the month of February. MennoNerds is exploring “spirituality through an Anabaptist-Christian lens” and what it means concerning participation in the mission of God. Find other MennoNerds blogger posts on this theme here.

And here’s one family that took missional a step further!


From → Faith, Family Life

  1. You can take children to church every time the doors open and even ground them in theology, but if they don’t see how the Lord is involved in everyday life and decisions, then it’s still compartmentalized instead of saturating faith.

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  1. How to Have an Active Faith: Operating Instructions | findingharmonyblog
  2. My ecumenical life. | findingharmonyblog

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