TheEFC.ca/CEFFFS). She continues to serve the Christian Reformed Church in North America as Canadian director of congregational ministry and team lead for the denomination’s regional catalyzers. She spoke with Faith Today’s Karen Stiller about what families and children need now from the Church, and how we can help form the faith of our children, anywhere and anytime." />
Magazines 2023 Jan - Feb The FT Interview with Lesli van Milligen

The FT Interview with Lesli van Milligen

02 January 2023 By Lesli van Milligen

Lesli van Milligen helped lead a new study coming out this spring by a partnership of 16 Canadian ministries to examine how faith is formed in children and how churches can help (TheEFC.ca/CEFFFS). She continues to serve the Christian Reformed Church in North America as Canadian director of congregational ministry and team lead for the denomination’s regional catalyzers. She spoke with Faith Today’s Karen Stiller about what families and children need now from the Church, and how we can help form the faith of our children, anywhere and anytime.

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Faith Today: How are churches doing right now?

Lesli van Milligen: I think churches have found themselves at a crisis point after the pandemic. Volunteers aren’t coming back. There are families who aren’t engaging in ministry in the same way. They love the opportunity to sit in their pajamas and experience worship online, and programs aren’t getting off the ground. What we used to rely on is we get our kids into Sunday school, we get our kids into youth group opportunities. And what we’re finding now is that between the lack of volunteers and the lack of support, we need a new way to look at how to support faith formation.

The pandemic has been a great accelerator of what already has been living in our systems. And I think two things that we’ve been very aware of, even pre-pandemic, is for congregations to have sustainable faith formation for everyone from three years old to 93 years old, we have to lean into an intergenerational approach. We’re forming our faith together.

We’ve also realized over the past five to ten years, we do not get kids in Sunday school regularly or kids coming to youth group regularly. So what we need to do is to support families to do that faith formation in the home, so that our programming supports rather than pulls away from. We have to see how to do life intergenerationally.

If you go back to the program model, we’re pulling parents away from doing that faith formation work in the home by either saying, "We’ve got this. We’re the experts," or "You’re not going to have those reflective conversations about faith with your children because we’re just going to keep you so busy."

FT: So there’s a shift away from doing it all on Sunday morning?

LvM: What we were heading toward in church ministry was an efficiency model. If everybody’s coming to worship, then let’s do it all in the morning – our youth group and our Sunday school programming, and any other faith forming-type program because we’ve got people here, and people are busy. But what the efficiency model didn’t consider was two to three years of not gathering. So how do we create that connectivity again?

I think what we’re being called into right now is a much messier approach.

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" For congregations to have sustainable faith formation for everyone from three years old to 93 years old, we have to lean into an intergenerational approach."

It’s not going to be, "Here’s our program for this, that and the other thing." It’s going to be about listening to our parents. What would really help you to have the kind of conversations you want to have with your children?

FT: When we say faith formation, what exactly are we talking about?

LvM: We could also say discipleship. We can say faith formation, we can say spiritual formation. The idea is that we’re constantly growing to be more and more like Jesus. The Spirit is working through us to change us, and the Spirit can do the work on its own. Let’s just be clear about that. We’re not trying to step in the way.

But the beauty is that we’re invited to be part of the journey. So, as an individual, I participate in my own faith growth. I do that through faith practices or spiritual disciplines, but we also create spaces where we can support growth, to give young people or people on the journey opportunities to grow and to learn.

So it’s not just a learning model. It’s also experiencing service and experiencing worship, and a variety of ways that we grow to know Jesus more and more.

We know today that what we need as young people is way different than when we’re middle aged. And what we need in the third season of our faith life, when we see the end more closely, is different too. This is a lifelong journey.

I think the Church often is in a pendulum swing, and we’ve got to learn to live more in the tension. It’s in the tension and the messiness that we will do better.

FT: You mentioned the busyness of families and parents, but is there also a bit of fear or hesitation on the part of parents to be the primary influencers on the faith formation of their children?

LvM: Oh, I think so. Definitely. I think youth, ministry, and Sunday school models from the past generation have kind of said, "We’ve got this. We’re the professionals." We’ve given a message around parenting that there’s somebody who can do this better than you.

It’s an unfortunate consequence to having professional children’s leaders. And I’m not saying we don’t need them and that they haven’t done great work, but the messaging has often been that there’s really nothing for parents to do, and so part of that lack of confidence is they haven’t had to practise a lot.

The other reason for a lack confidence maybe comes from that graduation motif we have with youth, that there’s a point where a person has finally committed themselves to the Church, and that there is no more ongoing discipleship and growing. Most churches have been most anxious about that [birth] to 18 age group, and they’ve kind of said, "The rest of you are on your own." I think we’re also reeling from that reality as well.

FT: As families are supported to take control of the faith formation of their children and in their own lives, what kind of practices or habits are we talking about?

LvM: Well, I think again, rather than fighting the busyness of a family life, we’ve got to find ways to help support how families live their lives together. So maybe it’s a devotional book that Mom can throw in her purse, or can be thrown in the car, and as we’re on our way to soccer practice we talk about it. I know for some people this sounds very sacrilegious, and that you need to set out a place and a time. But I think we also need to be realistic.

Rather than fighting the busyness of a family life, we’ve got to find ways to help support how families live their lives together.

We don’t know how often our families are even having meals together these days, let alone time to open the Bible, read the Bible, maybe read a bit of a devotion and pray together. Our kids grew up that way, but I can’t assume that every family grows up that way.

We can say, "Oh, well, you need to take your kids out of activities." I don’t think that supports families. It just makes them feel guilt and shame, and it pushes them away from something that could give them life as a family together.

Throw that devotional book in your bag and chat about it when you’re driving. Take some time to talk and pray together. Do a kind of faith five activity where you have conversations like, "Tell me about your day. What went well? What didn’t go? Well, what can we pray about? And who can we pray for?"

There are small practices we can do together that can fit into the way families live today that might make us hungry for other things. But if we set the bar so high and say, "This is the only way you can do faith together," I think people just give up.

There are also seasons to faith practices. And again, if we think intergenerationally, where it isn’t just on the parent, that can help us. Can we get together and have a meal once a month with people within our congregation, and share faith in life with each other? Are there social things that help us to be connected to each other?

How can we look to some of our seniors who have been doing this for a long time? They’ve gone through seasons of dryness. They’ve parented before. We can gain wisdom from a variety of people.

FT: That idea of using time as it presents itself is helpful.

LvM: Sometimes when families are in the car, things come out. You’re not staring your children in their eyes, and it can give permission to share some things that they might not have shared had we been sitting around the table. It is about leveraging all different kinds of time with each other and seeing every moment sacred. We know God is part of every part of our day, and sometimes we don’t take advantage of having those smaller holy moments that could create a thirst for more.

If you’ve been changed by living the life of faith by a relationship with Jesus, why wouldn’t you want that for your children?

I think the other gifts to give our kids are the gifts of curiosity and wonder, but also the gift of space to have doubt.

As parents we so desire for our kids to know Jesus, to have a faith walk, to be engaged, at least at that level. And if we’re honest, to find a faith community to be engaged with. But that can get in the way of making space for our kids to be curious about things that we don’t know how to answer, or to wonder about things.

We need to not close that down. We need to have a place to say, "I’m not sure. I’m not sure I get it. I’m not sure I believe this. I’m not sure where I fit in." That can push our parent button of wanting to fix it. We need to open some space for those things.

FT: What about giving our kids the choice about whether to attend church? This is a hard issue for a lot of parents.

LvM: It’s such a tough question in that you’ve got to know your child. I think it’s probably child dependent. I think choice is important. But we all know that there are some things that we know will really bless our kids to participate in, even when they don’t want to.

You’ve probably heard the example of something like teeth brushing. My girls did not like to brush their teeth, but they still had to brush their teeth. And some times we had to have a chart for incentive, and they didn’t always see the benefit until they went to the dentist and heard they had no cavities.

We know, if we are believers ourselves, that being in community with other Christians is so important. We know that life with Christ is a good thing, so why wouldn’t we want that for our kids? I think the idea of giving choice may seem like we’re not cramming it down their throats, but we’re also saying, "This is good. There are other good things, and I’m not sure for me that there’s anything better than walking with Jesus."

If you’ve been changed by living the life of faith by a relationship with Jesus, why wouldn’t you want that for your children?

FT: Thank you, Lesli.

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Listen to Karen Stiller’s full interview with Lesli van Milligen at FaithToday.ca/Podcasts

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