Leveraging milestones: Making spiritual conversations normal at home

Steve Dang Image Steve Dang | May 19, 2017

Photo by Annie Spratt

Watching a toddler take that courageous first step without assistance.

Ensuring a backpack is full of essentials for the first day of school.

Celebrating the birthday marking the start of the teen years.

Fostering the freedom and responsibility accompanying the first set of car keys.

Unashamedly wiping away a tear while hearing the full legal name of your student walking across the stage at high school graduation.

From the bar mitzvah to the walkabout, virtually every culture has a unique way of celebrating milestones which mark a significant transition or achievement within a person or a family’s life. The unique milestones in your family or mine speak to the value of recognizing change, development, and transformation for all it is worth. These moments in a family’s life within the context of a church community create natural opportunities to engage some of these key moments together. Celebrating milestones within a church allows the spiritual village to name successes as well as prepare for the challenges ahead with a confidence rooted in multigenerational wisdom and collective faith.

Research consistently affirms that parents are the most influential voices in a child’s life regarding faith development, but this can feel overwhelming to most parents. In our church, as our seniors begin the final semester of their high school careers, we gather together as a community to have our parents bless their students by calling out the best aspects of their character, encourage faith, and share hopes. In turn, our students will turn and bless their parents by affirming what they have learned and convey their own hopes for the future.

It’s a beautiful night, but each year there are a handful of parents who will express their concern, anxiety, or fears around blessing their child. In the past five years since we have celebrated this night, I have come to discover that the anxiety is not because of a parent’s inability or unwillingness to bless their child, but the fact that parents simply do not know how to bless their children. If spiritual conversations are not a normal practice from early in a family’s life, then we should not be surprised when it feels awkward to start the practice for an 18-year-old.

What are milestones?

A milestone in travel historically referred to a literal stone marking the distance along a road. In our culture today, the language of milestones is used in a variety of ways, from fitness to project management to child development. We think of them as goals or markers along the way toward a destination.

We often create milestones as we move towards something or somewhere. For example, I know the In-n-Out in Kettleman City on my drive from the Bay Area to Disneyland marks the halfway point in my journey. Milestones act as a reference point for the distance traveled and the remaining journey, but also create a sense of intentionality and meaning-making. In various cultures, rites of passage are synonymous with or act as milestones in and of themselves. Rites of passage typically line up with natural stages of life such as birth, puberty, marriage, and death.

We often see these rites in the transition between childhood and adolescence. In Jewish culture, the bar/bat mitzvah happens at the age of 13, the time when boys and girls begin to bear personal responsibility for living out Jewish law and tradition. While the bar mitzvah lines up with a transition from childhood to adolescence, it also calls out a shift in responsibility and purpose. Rites of passage are often established to help a person or age cohort navigate the confusing and ambiguous space between one stage of life to another. Having a clear marker of milestones creates intentionality and purpose across the transition. Knowing a milestone is approaching, some communities will gather around young people to help them prepare for life ahead.

Whether rites of passage or milestones, church communities have unique opportunities to intersect families at these various points and equip them to normalize spiritual conversations within their home life. Our encouragement to parents is to shift the pressure off the view that “spiritual conversation” is confined to opening the book of Leviticus on the dinner table every night for a family Bible study, but simply means integrating spirituality into everyday life and experiences. Our desire is for spiritual conversations in the family ecofriendly-minivan to be as normal as the conversations about basketball or the latest Disney hit.

What could milestones look like in your church?

At our church, our first milestone is child dedication. The purpose of this first milestone is to create an easy starting place to normalize spiritual conversations through an interactive workshop. We help parents pick a passage of Scripture to proclaim over their child and craft a prayer to guide their child’s life. We also practice praying for our child, which for some parents is a first-time experience. When the family stands before our church to dedicate their child, we give them a candle meant to be lit at each birthday, and encourage parents to retell the story of their commitment before their church family that took place at this milestone.

One of the goals of the first milestone is casting a vision for each family as they move toward the final developmental milestone of high school graduation. As each family gets a glimpse of the eight other milestones between child dedication and high school graduation, we hope the vision creates a sense of intentionality and purpose around their role in the faith development of their children.

One of the stories we share in preparation for child dedication is what happens during a student’s final year of high school. Before beginning the final semester of their high school career, we host a family dinner where parents have the opportunity to bless their student before they begin their last semester of high school. In turn, the students will then turn and bless their parents. The night is moving and beautiful. As I mentioned at the start of the article, a couple of parents each year express anxiety or awkwardness around blessing their student. In contrast, we have discovered that those families who have made praying, blessing, and spiritual conversations a normal part of their family prior to this moment find this experience moving. We share this story to encourage parents in our child dedication workshop that while still a long way off from high school graduation, our church is committed to walking alongside their family by intersecting ten key milestones we have identified:

  • child dedication,
  • growing a great preschooler,
  • first day of Kindergarten,
  • 5th grade promotion,
  • faith decision,
  • baptism,
  • 8th grade confirmation,
  • GO Team (mission trip),
  • becoming an adult, and finally,
  • high school graduation.

These milestones are all opportunities for our church to celebrate and help our families normalize spiritual conversations at home.

One of the beauties of establishing milestones over the years is to see parents who are now “empty-nesters” come back and mentor other parents through various stages of our milestones. In our high school graduation milestone, we host a six-week small group just for parents. They walk through the content of Sticky Faith led by the parents of the graduated classes of the past two years. Other parents choose to come alongside those who are just starting their parenting journey at Child Dedication.

Milestones create a natural environment for our church to come together as a village to raise our children, and I have seen the countless ways it has worked over the past few years in the life of my own family. My oldest daughter, Evangeline, was one of the first children to pilot our child dedication milestone. This coming October we will be lighting her candle for the 5th time as my wife and I retell the story of our commitment to the sacred calling of nurturing our daughter’s faith (Deuteronomy 6:4-9), but we will also take the opportunity to thank the people gathered to celebrate with us because they will continue to be her community as she grows up and matures.

I must admit, having spiritual conversations with a toddler who can only say “milk” can feel silly, but my hope and dream 13 years from now is to stand behind my daughter as she begins her last semester as a high school student confidently and boldly proclaiming who God has called our daughter to be as she emerges into adulthood. We will be able to do this because it will have been our family’s practice every day of her life.

As you consider establishing milestones for your own context, you might consider the following:

  • Start with the team: Do you have the team members serving those life stages in the same room? If not, who else would you need to get on board in order to have the best conversations?
  • As a team, identify natural milestones in the life of a family from your community’s context and traditions. Consider what you would like each family to experience by the end of high school graduation and begin thinking through the process of getting to that moment.
  • Create a vision. In the words of Scott Cormode, leadership professor at Fuller, “create a shared story of future hope.” What would this vision look like if we told it as a story of something that was true in the future of our church? How could we move from where we are today to where we would like to be? Can we identify some key questions parents ask as they journey through various life stages? Are there natural intersections where our church can intentionally step in and help families begin to explore these deeper questions? In our context, we added a question we are trying to answer as we developed the structure for each of the milestones we created. For example:

  • Consider how your ministries can begin creating seamless transitions from one marker to the next. This involves not only milestone celebrations, but also ministry handoffs from one level to the next, including paying attention to the relational transitions kids experience along the way.

If you have kids in your own home, my last piece of counsel is to ensure that your own family benefits from the milestones ministry you are creating. Milestones have fundamentally changed how we do family ministries at our church, but it has also changed how Kate and I do ministry in our family.

Steve Dang Image
Steve Dang

Steve Dang is the Pastor of Family Ministries at Calvary Church of Los Gatos, where he oversees the ministries from birth to emerging adulthood and is part of the teaching team. Steve is passionate about the local church, developing a team culture and developing volunteers. Over the past 12 years he has served students in a variety of roles as a youth pastor, a volunteer in parachurch organizations, substitute teacher, as well as a local high school football and lacrosse coach. He holds an MDiv from Fuller Seminary and a BA in Biblical Studies and Christian Ministries from Azusa Pacific University. Steve is a triathlete, motorcyclist, coffee enthusiast, and a serial hobbyist. His wife, Kate, and two children Felicity and Evangeline live in San Jose, CA.

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