One of the main insights from the book Sticky Faith: Everyday ideas to build lasting faith in your kids, by Dr. Kara Powell and Dr. Chap Clark, is that how parents practice and talk about their faith with their kids is crucial to passing on authentic faith. If parents hope to cultivate a Christian identity in their children — one that survives the tumultuous teen and questioning young adult years when young people are “discovering who they are and making the commitments toward who they want to be” — they have to do more than just go to church, pay their tithes, and send their kids to youth group.
The authors’ research, conducted under the auspices of the Fuller Youth Institute and Fuller Theological Seminary, concludes that “it’s never too early” to start building faith that sticks into your children. To do that, parents need to go beyond teaching Christianity primarily as a system of “do’s and don’t’s” and obedience, and instead help kids experience what it is to know and trust Christ. Practical ways to do this include: surrounding your child with a Christian community (mentors, peers, family) that will dialogue honestly about even difficult issues and doubts; using rituals and celebrations (like prayer at birthdays) to reinforce identity; focusing on character growth rather than behavior; and modeling a relationship with God.
As I read through Jared Patrick Boyd’s new book, Imaginative Prayer: A Yearlong Guide for Your Child’s Spiritual Formation, I immediately thought back to the lessons of Sticky Faith. In his introduction, Jared invites busy parents to slow down, to recognize and live out their importance as the most important influences in their children’s spiritual development. He writes:
As a father of four girls one of my greatest desires is to pass on to them a deep understanding and awareness of the experience of God. My hope is that they would feel connected to God and the story God is unfolding in their lives and in the world around them. Will they see themselves as part of God’s story? Will they feel close and connected to God as they navigate decisions that come their way and pursue risks on the horizon? Will they say yes to all that God is inviting them into?
Jared’s language and spiritual practices are steeped in the Ignatian tradition and borne of out his long experience as a contemplative practitioner, spiritual director, and teacher, as well as his pastoral ministry in the Vineyard, an association of evangelical churches explored at length in Tanya Lurhmann’s When God Talks Back. Lurhmann’s psychological and anthropological study of the Vineyard and its practices of listening and prayer leads her to conclude that connectedness to God, while full of mystery, is a learnable skill.
Taken together, Sticky Faith and When God Talks Back (not to mention the larger backdrop of Western Christianity’s well-documented and ongoing failure to pass on faith to the younger generations) provide strong rationales for exactly the kind of imaginative prayer experience and sustained spiritual formation that Jared’s book is meant to guide parents and children through.
Over the course of a year, the book explores six theological themes: God’s Love, Loving Others, Forgiveness, Jesus is the King, The Good News of God, and The Mission of God. Each theme is divided into 7 weeks, with six weeks of imaginative prayer sessions followed by a week of review.
Each (non-review) week is further broken down into repeated sections. “Connection and Formation” introduces the theme for the week, through a theological reflection, poem, perhaps a story. Next, a “Q&A” provides a brief catechism to help children remember the theme. The “Imaginative Prayer” is the heart of each week: a guided prayer, rich with imagery, sensory information, and metaphor that invites children to enter into an experience with God that they can see, hear, smell, taste, and feel. The “Q&A” is then repeated, to emphasize the theme that the child has now experienced in their own imagination. Each week concludes with reflection and devotional prompts for “For the Parent or Mentor” and a reminder for children to journal (write or draw) for twenty minutes, based on a question that will lead them to reflect on their life that week — not “just” the spiritual formation part — in light of the explored theme. The review week wraps everything up by bringing back all the creedal questions (catechism) from that section and through suggested activities and questions.
As a sometime homeschooling parent, a professional educator, and a writer of curriculum, one of the things I appreciate about Jared’s book is how thoroughly it’s planned. Each activity is nested within the credal theme for the week, which is nested within the theological theme for the section, and everything is meant to contribute to the larger goal of the intertwined spiritual development of children and parents. As an example of Jared’s attention to detail, each imaginative prayer script is timed down to a range of seconds! Jared has also created a Conversation Guide for teachers, for those churches that want to bring to book to a Sunday School classroom in partnership with parents. (It’s a supplement to, not a substitute for parental involvement.)
One of my favorite imaginative prayers in the book is Jared’s picture of Jesus coming to defeat the power of sin. He asks the child to imagine a deep cave filled with seven giant faucets, all spouting different-colored water, one faucet and color for each of the deadly sins. Together, the faucets fill a cave that is “dark and murky and smelly.” The child is asked to imagine a wheel that will turn all the faucets off. It’s too heavy – the child can’t turn it. But Jesus steps in and turns the wheel right off, and instantly the cave fills with clean air, with sweetness and light. In this and many other instances, Jared’s metaphors are concrete, vivid, and fresh, and I believe will help children — and their parents and other spiritual mentors — understand, experience, and remember abstract theological concepts in a new and “sticky” way. Jared’s focus on building a shared theological vocabulary to go with a shared experience of God also lays the groundwork for many years of faith-building conversations between parents and children, between siblings and Sunday School peers, and between each member of the family and God.