Important strategies to build up Catholic families
We know how important parents and the whole family are in forming the faith of young people. The United States Catholic Conference of Bishops states that the family is “our first community and the most basic way in which the Lord gathers us, forms us, and acts in the world” (Follow the Way of Love). We know that the primary way by which Catholic identity becomes rooted in children’s lives is the day-to-day religious practices of the family and the ways parents model their faith and share it in conversation, collaboration, and exposure to outside religious opportunities (see A Report on American Catholic Religious Parenting, Justin Butkus and Christian Smith, page 7). Parents are simply the most significant influence on the religious and spiritual outcomes of young people (Follow the Way of Love).
The family is the community where Christian faith practices are nurtured and developed. We have discovered through research that certain faith practices make a significant difference in nurturing the faith of children and adolescents at home. Among the most important practices are:
- Reading the Bible as a family and encouraging young people to read the Bible regularly
- Praying together as a family and encouraging young people to pray personally
- Serving people in need as a family and supporting service activities by young people
- Eating together as a family
- Having family conversations
- Talking about faith, religious issues, and questions and doubts
- Ritualizing important family moments and milestone experiences
- Celebrating holidays and Church-year seasons at home
- Providing moral instruction
- Being involved in a faith community and participating regularly in Sunday worship as a family
Strategies for success
What approaches can we use to equip and support parents and families in embedding these practices into their daily life so they become “habits of faith?” Here are several strategies for nurturing faith practices at home that involve both infusing these practices into our current parish and school programming and creating new initiatives to equip and support faith practice at home. We begin with three foundational strategies and then move to
more “programmatic” ideas.
1. Create a digital platform, using the parish or school website or by building a family faith-formation website. To reach parents, we need to use digital tools and methods, and a website focused on families is essential today. The website is the resource center and portal (i.e., links to other online resources) for faith-forming content (resources and activities in print, audio, and video) for families to engage in at home. A parish or school can develop a family faith-formation website featuring each of the faith practices with engaging activities — print, audio, video, apps, and more — tailored to families with young children, older children, young adolescents, older adolescents, and the whole family, including “how-to” information and videos for parents.
2. Provide “how-to” assistance to parents so they feel confident and competent to engage in faith practices at home with their children and teens. Provide parents with online practical information (print, audio, video) with actual activities to do at home. One simple way to do this is to create a short video of the children or teens experiencing the activity, and then make it available on the website or on a special YouTube channel for your families.
3. Communicate regularly with parents using a family email newsletter or texting to highlight activities and videos online. Use social media to reinforce and spread the practice. For example, set up an Instagram account for faith formation with photos of the children and teens engaging in the practice in the program or class, and then invite parents to post photos of their family engaging in the practice.
4. Incorporate faith practices throughout the year by teaching the practices through experiential activities in children and youth programs and then inviting parents to reinforce the practice through continued at-home experiences you provide online for easy access. This strategy can reap huge rewards from childhood through the teen years. Imagine what a difference it would make if families focused on one Bible story each month or one prayer
practice each month for 10 years. Here are two examples:
◗ READING THE BIBLE: Develop the “Bible Story of Month” plan to introduce children and teens to important stories and teachings in the Bible by teaching them how to read, interpret, pray, and apply the Scriptures to their lives. Select 12 of the most relevant and developmentally appropriate Bible stories for each age — from ages 5 to 18. Integrate the Bible teaching into one session or program each month; use videos to assist you. (Check out the animated videos at TheBibleProject.com or at JellyTelly.com.) Then provide online resources for parents to reinforce the Bible story by reading the story, watching the video, and discussing the story.
Be sure families have a good children’s Bible: The Jesus Storybook Bible: Every Story Whispers His Name by Sally Lloyd-Jones (ZonderKidz), and The Catholic Children’s Bible (St. Mary’s Press) are great resources. Another free resource is “Reading the Bible” from Living Well: Christian Practices for Everyday Life.
◗ PRAYING: Develop the prayer life of children, teens, and families by focusing on learning Catholic prayers, teaching the different forms of prayer, and experiencing a prayer practice each month during the class or program. Have children and teens experience the different types of prayer: contemplative, Scriptural, intercessory, praise (adoration), and thanksgiving. Develop a short video of the children or teens praying so parents can see prayer in action. Provide prayer activities and resources online for parents to continue the “prayer of the month” at home.
Living Well: Christian Practices for Everyday Life offers excellent online prayer resources for
5. Celebrate the seasons of the year at home by identifying a monthly seasonal event reflecting the calendar seasons and the Church-year seasons and then publishing the activities on the family website. Incorporate Scripture, prayer, learning, service and action, ritual, and family conversation into each seasonal event. Highlight a Christian practice that will be communicated and experienced through each event.
◗ JANUARY: Martin Luther King Jr. (working for justice and peace, serving)
◗ FEBRUARY: Valentine’s Day (loving)
◗ MARCH: Lent (praying, serving/almsgiving, forgiving)
◗ APRIL: Earth Day (caring for creation)
◗ MAY: Mother’s Day (honoring parents, loving caring)
◗ JUNE: Father’s Day (honoring parents, loving, caring)
◗ JULY: Independence Day (working for justice)
◗ AUGUST: Back to school (celebrating new beginnings)
◗ SEPTEMBER: Fall harvest (being grateful, being generous, caring for the earth)
◗ OCTOBER: St. Francis (caring for creation, caring for animals, living simply)
◗ NOVEMBER: Thanksgiving (being grateful, serving, living hospitality)
◗ DECEMBER: Advent and Christmas (celebrating rituals, praying, serving)
A parish or school can develop family festivals and gatherings to support the seasonal plan using the four seasons — fall, winter, spring, and summer — or the church-year seasons — Advent and Christmas, Lent, Easter, Pentecost.
6. Connect families to Sunday worship by incorporating preparation for Sunday in children and teen programs and then deepening the Sunday worship experience at home through activities, practices, and resources from a variety of age-appropriate and whole-family digital content on the website. These activities can include family conversation questions, a weekly table ritual, a podcast or video of the homily with a study guide for the parents, children’s creative Bible activities, storybooks, videos presenting the Bible story, daily prayer, and weekly family devotion.
7. Create family immersion experiences on faith practices. Design extended programs (half-day, full day) that teach faith practices through immersion experiences — at church or in the community — where families can experience a practice first hand, such as hospitality at a homeless shelter, serving a meal at a soup kitchen, or caring for creation by planting a garden. Combine the at-church experience with activities for families to do at home.
Substitute an age-group program for a family program or add three or four family programs throughout the year that teach a faith practice by having the whole family experience it together.
8. Develop family life skills by adding a parent-child/teen component to age-group faith formation or by adding special parent-child/teen programs throughout the year. Focus on the types of skill-building that will strengthen family life and parent-child/teen relationships, such as: communicating effectively, discussing tough topics, making decisions and solving problems as a family, learning how to build strong relationships and express care for each other, supporting each other (encouraging and praising, giving feedback, standing up for each other), and treating each other with respect and dignity. Many of these skills can be developed using movies selected for their positive messages. An example of a movie that provides a foundation for follow-up activities is Disney/Pixar’s Inside Out about the emotional life of a child growing up.
Over the next year try one or more of these ideas in your parish or school. There’s nothing more important in faith formation today than equipping and supporting parents and the whole family in becoming communities of faith practice.
John Roberto is on the leadership team of Vibrant Faith, where he serves as the coordinator of training services. His publications include Faith Formation with a New Generation (2018), Families at the Center of Faith Formation (2016), Seasons of Adult Faith Formation (2015), Reimagining Faith Formation for the 21st Century (2015), Generations Together (2014), and Faith Formation 2020 (2010). He is the founder of LifelongFaith Associates and the Center for Ministry Development.
This article was originally published in Catechist magazine, March 2019
PHOTOS: (T-B) GEORGEMURESAN/ISTOCK, ALDOMURILLO/ISTOCK, GEORGE MARTELL