The Michigan Conference, in collaboration with Traverse City: Central UMC and the Northern Waters District, launched an innovative set of videos and online resources to equip parents and caregivers as they offer healthy spiritual nurture and care for their children.
How do our children grow up learning to trust the grace and forgiveness of Jesus? How do they come to believe that God created everything they see? How do they know that God loves them unconditionally and will be with them throughout life? How do we respond when they ask difficult questions about divorce or when a beloved pet dies, or when they’re lonely or scared?
A new United Methodist resource birthed out of the Michigan Conference hopes to assist parents and caregivers, as well as churches, in answering these questions by making the case that spiritual formation starts early and is a key component of our children’s development.
Central UMC in Traverse City, in collaboration with the Northern Waters District and the Michigan Conference, has launched an innovative set of videos and other online resources to equip parents and caregivers as they offer healthy spiritual nurture and care for their children. Churches are also encouraged to use these resources in worship and educational settings and share them via social media. The resources are free and may be distributed broadly.
The Childhood Spiritual Formation Toolbox was created to let parents know they aren’t alone and that a faith community can help them navigate life’s challenges. The toolbox gives them simple, easy-to-make-time-for resources to support their children as they form their building blocks of spirituality, such as prayer, reading and understanding Bible stories, and developing language and practices that will help them make sense of life as they grow older.
The toolbox is split into five topical subsections, with each one featuring a 5-minute video that makes a case for why faith formation is essential, followed by a variety of articles and practical ideas related to that topic:
- Starting Early—Starting faith formation in early childhood is an excellent opportunity to model and share God’s love with the littlest ones. Young children can know they are loved by God, the church is a safe place, and learn simple rituals to grow in their faith.
- At-Home Formation—Participating in worship and Sunday school is just one part of holistic faith formation. Families can also build faith-forming conversations, rhythms, and routines into everyday life.
- When Kids Ask Hard Questions—One of the ways that churches can support parents and caregivers is to be places where all questions can be asked, even hard ones. A place where it’s okay to say, “I don’t know,” or “That’s a great question, let’s find out together.”
- Telling the Biblical Stories—The Bible is full of ancient wisdom and exciting stories that capture children’s attention. It has stories about why we are here, how God loves us, why we hurt, and how to ask for forgiveness.
- Lessons for Life—Churches and families have an opportunity to guide faith growth and make it relevant to life. They also have a responsibility to address the faith development of children with diverse needs and experiences.
Parents and caregivers with very young children (ages 0-3) are also encouraged to complete a brief, 10-minute survey to help the Michigan Conference better support parents and caregivers as they teach their children about Christian faith. This survey is part of a separate initiative between the Michigan Conference and the Rio Texas Conference as they partner to create diverse faith formation resources for parents. The survey ends on January 31. Thirty participants will be selected at random to receive a $25 Amazon gift card.
Making a Case for Our Children’s Spiritual Lives
The seed for this project came from Traverse City: Central UMC as a response to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on children and families and how best to support them during times of isolation and loss of community.
When Rev. Linda Stephan arrived at Central as their Associate Pastor in July 2021, COVID-19 variants were quickly emerging, with no vaccines yet available for small children. She quickly realized the church needed a different approach to helping their families as they navigated when and how they would return to church. What Central had been doing by providing take-home packets was overwhelming some families, and something simpler and flexible was needed.
“We just couldn’t assume families were going to come back,” Rev. Stephan said. “We needed to tell the story of why spiritual formation is important. We needed a campaign of some kind for Central.” But then she realized that Central wasn’t the only church that would benefit from such a project, so that’s why she reached out to the Northern Waters District and to Rev. Kathy Pittenger, Children’s Initiatives Coordinator for the Michigan Conference, to see if a larger collaboration could happen. How could they lift up the importance of faith development in children as we emerge from the pandemic and provide resources that fit the evolving lifestyles of families? How could they make the case that the spiritual development of our children is just as important as reading skills or math proficiency or exposure to the arts?
Rev. Stephan contacted the Northern Waters District to see if they could assist financially with this new project. The district awards grants to initiatives that seek to provide a new way to reach people for Jesus Christ. And this project aligned perfectly.
Under the leadership of chairperson Rev. M. Wava Hofmann, the district awarded the project $5,000. “When [Rev. Stephan] asked the district . . . for funding,” said Rev. Hofmann, “it was an absolute yes. There wasn’t any debate. . . . [We] were so gung ho to support this innovative way to share the gospel with children and to support families.”
Michigan Conference staff member Rev. Kathy Pittenger joined the project, and she and Rev. Stephan began working on the toolbox’s components. To create the five videos, Rev. Stephan worked with Silvio Ciccone, a local video producer who handles Central UMC’s worship audio-visual production needs. Rev. Stephan and Rev. Pittenger then invited faith leaders and parents throughout the Michigan Conference to be interviewed for the videos. Rev. Pittenger was also responsible for curating the accompanying online articles and resources.
Rooted in God’s Love and Grace
As Rev. Linda Stephan and Rev. Kathy Pittenger began shaping the Childhood Spiritual Formation Toolbox, the theology that grounded it became clear. Rev. Stephan explained, “Spiritual formation is about giving kids tools in a toolbox, starting with the fact that God loves me, that I’m created out of love. And moving from there to this ancient [Christian] wisdom and tradition that can help me figure out what I believe, just like Monet had to learn all the rules and then broke them.” Children will learn, in time, what they believe and why it matters.
The tools given to children to help them articulate what they believe about God and faith and the world around them are critical in their faith development as they mature into adulthood. These tools also help them trust God and ask questions when life gets hard.
“COVID broke open a lot of things in our lives,” noted Rev. Stephan. “Kids are inquisitive, curious about the big questions. They don’t want easy answers. And they don’t want just another classroom. But they do have questions and want to explore things that matter.”
The videos and resources within the toolbox, especially in the When Kids Ask Hard Questions section, delve into how caregivers and faith leaders in churches can navigate challenging topics and questions with children. And sometimes, the best way to handle bad things that happen is to acknowledge that there will always be ups and downs in life but that God is with us. Rev. Stephan said, “[Christian] spirituality provides building blocks to nurture us in a sense, that God grieves with us, God walks with us, God understands when we’re hurting. There aren’t always easy answers, even with God. But you are loved, and never forget that.”
United Methodist theology can be found throughout. God’s grace is always the starting point, along with God’s love. “We lean in and name God first, giving children God,” said Rev. Stephan. And then an intense emphasis on community follows throughout. “A walk in the woods is important, but a lot of spiritual formation is doing it with your friends. Laughing together. Living life together. Building relationships around something solid and that lasts.”
A theology of open hearts and open minds that aligns closely with the spirit of Methodism also permeates this toolbox. Rev. Stephan explained, “They’re messages of inclusion that every church across the [Michigan] Conference, no matter what theological positions they have, can embrace and move toward, recognizing that every church will have families that have members who are disabled or who have different makeups, or that have grandparents raising grandchildren or single parents or foster children.”
And that’s one way this toolbox can help churches become more attuned to the people they are connected to and develop practices and language that welcome all.
Rev. Stephan encouraged all congregations within the Michigan Conference to continue to ask and live into this question in intentional ways as they review and consider using the various videos and resources in this new toolbox: “How do we as a church find ways to embrace and include all kinds of different families, and then welcome them into those spaces?”
Last Updated on January 17, 2023