Faith formation begins at home
Growing your faith at home doesn't have to involve hours of reading the Bible, studying Scripture and meditating.
Spiritual growth for families and individuals can begin with baby steps.
"The very first thing that I encourage people to do is just start looking for God in everyday life," said Kara Lassen Oliver of Nashville, Tennessee, author of Passing It On: How to Nurture Your Children's Faith Season by Season.
"As parents and just as disciples, where is God and can you articulate that? That starts from the moment we wake up to over breakfast to the drive home from work and going to bed at night. Just being attuned to God's presence is the primary or the starting place in the home."
Faith formation at home is more important than ever as people attend church more sporadically.
"The space that allows the most opportunity for persons to connect with God and grow in their faith then is in their home and in their family lives," said the Rev. Tanya Marie Eustace Campen, director of intergenerational discipleship for the Rio Texas Conference.
Where to start
So how do families and individuals get started on the road to spiritual growth at home?
"Start simple and pick one thing," said Campen. She suggests starting with a simple prayer at the dinner table, "Thank you, God, for this food," that the family repeats daily at the same time.
Oliver, mom to a 17-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son, advises against creating something new. She recommends finding places where families are already together and using that time to pray and talk about where God could be found today.
"Where we started, when my kids were probably 2 and 7, was around the dinner table. We did what's called ‘sads, glads and sorrys' — just going around the dinner table and asking, ‘What made you sad today? What made you happy? And is there anything you need to say you're sorry for?'
"It's become so much easier over the years when they have problems at school or a fight with a friend, whatever it is, to bring God into the conversation because we started doing that when they were young. It's more natural."
Right before bed and driving to or from school or extra-curricular activities also are great times to start faith conversations.
Campen said it's important to recognize that it's not going to work perfectly the first time you try it, and parents need to be upfront about that.
"It takes practice and sometimes it feels awkward and sometimes we're not in the mood to do it. But, if we go through the motions and practice it anyway, it becomes a part of who we are."
Symbols and blessings
In her book, Oliver focuses on everyday symbols that people see and can use to remind them of God's love. She includes a loaf of bread signifying charity and an empty plate as a reminder that we depend on God. They are easy conversation starters, she said, and kids often get excited to share the symbols they spotted each day.
Oliver, who works at Discipleship Ministries, said the symbolism works for children of all ages.
For preschoolers, the empty plate, for example, can be a reminder that God is with them as they eat their meal. For high schoolers, the conversation could move to fasting and sacrificing for their faith, she said.
Campen urges families to offer regular blessings. Making a cross on a child's forehead and delivering a blessing can be powerful, she said.
"If the one thing that we do is bless our children and remind them that we love them and that God loves them, that's all we need to do."
She said to keep blessings short and simple and to begin the ritual at bath or bedtime.
"Do it over and over again," she said, even if it feels messy and uncomfortable.
She recommends silent blessings for teenagers and also urges leaving sticky notes on steering wheels for teen drivers or on the bathroom mirror where they will see it before school.
Oliver and Campen agree that reading the Bible should be a regular occurrence in the home.
"We can't lead our children where we haven't gone. If we're not praying in our home, reading the Bible in our home or considering the news in light of God's presence ... then it's much more difficult to have those conversations with our children," Oliver said.
Campen recommends starting with a story that you know well and telling it to each other. Introduce Scripture slowly. Print out one verse from the passage that is going to be discussed on Sunday, she said. Put it on your child's plate with their breakfast and begin the conversation.
She finds it "beautiful" when families who are "experiencing hard times can say, ‘I wonder if there is a Bible verse for that.' And then they go looking together," Campen said.
She also suggests practicing the Prayer of Examen. Sleeping With Bread: Holding What Gives You Life (Paulist Press) is a great tool for learning how to start the ritual in your family, she said.
"I think the best thing that we can do for our children and for ourselves is ask the question every day, ‘When did I feel close to God?' or ‘When did I experience God?' ... There's a lot of power in the daily examen of just stopping and thinking about the day."
Whether you are just beginning your faith journey at home or building on family traditions, turn to God for guidance.
"Pray about what is the next step for (your) family and then push through whatever feels awkward," said Oliver. "Trust that God is leading you."
Julie Dwyer is general church content editor at United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tennessee.