Participating in Your Community of Faith in Ways That Make It Part of Your Family’s Emotional Support System
Commitment is the first step families take toward participating in any congregation in ways that make it part of their emotional support system. And the primary way to express that commitment is by becoming a member. Sure there are plenty of families that are “friends” and “pledging non-members” in our congregations, and while they may receive many benefits from their involvement—worship, religious education, community—they are missing the opportunity to fully participate in their community of faith and in the Unitarian Universalist faith tradition. After all, “the use of the democratic process within our congregations” is one of our most cherished principles, and membership is the only way individuals and families can be part of that process. But perhaps more importantly, membership is an outward sign of an inward intention to make a community of faith part of the family’s emotional support system. It acknowledges the need for that emotional support, as well as the willingness to give that support to others. Simply put, without this commitment, a family is merely “going” to a Unitarian Universalist congregation. Membership is an absolute necessity for being a Unitarian Universalist family.
When people think of “church,” one of the first things that comes to mind is probably “worship.” It is, without a doubt, the public face of practically every community of faith. As such, it’s entirely reasonable for families coming to a congregation to expect that they will have an opportunity to worship together, as a family. Unfortunately, Unitarian Universalist congregations do not have a long history of giving families that opportunity. For much of the past century, worship at a UU congregation was design primarily for individuals—not surprising given the history of our faith tradition and its embrace of the American notion of “rugged individualism.” But participating in a congregation in ways that make it part of a family’s emotional support system requires more than a story for all ages and an intellectually stimulating sermon. Families need as many opportunities as possible to experience the all of the elements of our worship: opening words, chalice lightings, hymns of praise and thanks, responsive readings and litanies, moments of silence, joys and concerns.
Just as families should be offered multiple opportunities to worship together, so should they be given as many chances as possible to learn together, as a family. The obvious place for this to happen is a congregation’s religious education program. Rather than presenting religious education as something that is developed and administered by experts, consider approaching RE as a family affair. Find ways to involve as many parents as possible in all aspects of the program, from choosing the curricula to teaching and assisting in the classrooms. Give parents the tools they need to explore at home the lessons taught in Sunday school. Transform the Religious Education section of your congregation’s website into an interactive Family Faith Formation center where parents can find and share resources to help them with their children’s spiritual and ethical development. Perhaps most importantly, be bold and bring multigenerational faith formation experiences to the entire congregation. These experiences offer the opportunity for congregants of all ages to learn and grow together in faith.
While worship and religious education are essential elements for building a religious identity in families, when it comes to participating in a congregation in ways that make it part of a family’s emotional support system, community is the key. From potlucks to congregational retreats, families need to feel at home in their community of faith. This means making sure that there are plenty of multigenerational events beyond worship and RE for families to participate in. Many congregations group together a variety of activities on a single weeknight to bring people of all ages together for food, fellowship, and faith formation. These “church nights” can happen regularly throughout the year, or be limited to six to eight weeks in the fall and spring. Either way, they present the opportunity for families to experience their congregation as something more than Sunday worship and RE. Other opportunities for strengthening community include holiday parties, congregational camp outs, and gatherings with other Unitarian Universalist congregations in your area.
Another way to help families participate in their community of faith as part of their emotional support system is family service. Offering families opportunities to live out their faith through service to the congregation and the larger community not only strengthens families, it strengthens their religious identity as well. In fact, family service is so important that it is considered a practice in its own right.
Resources for Congregational Participation
Right now I’m unaware of any resources specifically about welcoming families with children into church membership. If you are aware of any, please let me know!
The best resource available is Michelle Richards’ Come Into the Circle: Worshiping with Children. As I said when asked to write a blurb for the book:
Richards has taken the worry out of planning children’s worship and replaced it with wisdom and joy. From setting worship goals, to choosing child friendly-hymns, to finding stories that illustrate our Principles, Come Into the Circle is a resource I’ll be turning to again and again.
For a classic answer to the question, “What should the Sunday morning experience include for children?”, see this response from DRE Mary Marsh in the October 1999 issue of Interconnections. Many of the things Marsh would like to see could, and should, happen during a worship experience shared by families.
The Worship Web at uua.org also has a list of resources for Multigenerational Worship.
Don’t forget the Family Pages in every issue of the UU World. They contain a wealth of ideas for topics and stories that can be used in family worship settings.
Lifelong Faith Associates has a fantastic resource called “Best Practices in Intergenerational Faith Formation.” [PDF]
A variety of other resources are also available from their website: www.lifelongfaith.com.
The UUA’s curricula series, Tapestry of Faith, has a multigenerational program that teaches stewardship with a focus on water called Gather the Spirit.
Jenn Nichols of the Southwest UU Conference has prepared this excellent document on “100+ Ways to Create a More Multigenerational Faith Community.” [DOC]
For resources on how congregations can help families serve the community together, the upcoming post on Family Service, scheduled for Wednesday, February 2, 2011.