Milestones of faith

Creating rhythms through rites of passage

Steven Johnson Image Steven Johnson | Feb 18, 2013

Photo by Austris Augusts

Looking around the room at a friend’s Bar Mitzvah, there were family, friends, and faith community members cheering in celebration of a boy who had just turned thirteen and so had become a “son of the covenant.”

I could not help but smile at all the excitement happening around me, but a little piece of me wondered, Why doesn’t my faith community celebrate rites of passage this way? What would it look like for my church to celebrate faith-development rites of passage for children and teenagers?

Marking Faith Milestones

Throughout the historical life of Israel, at times when the people of God have an encounter with God, they pause to build an altar to honor God’s movement in their lives. For instance, after Jacob has a life-altering experience of wrestling with God and receiving a new name, Jacob/Israel builds an altar in remembrance of what God has done in his life.

Similarly, in many of Paul’s letters he refers to his faith life as a race. On every track, there are mile-markers (or milestones) that allow the runner know how far along they are in their journey. The runner can pace him or herself, change speed based on remaining distance, and push on toward the end goal. Along the sidelines at mile markers, crowds of people gather to cheer on the runners as they race, providing energy and support to the runners.

Combining these ideas—Israel’s use of altars as memory markers and Paul’s language of running the race—our community developed what we call “faith milestones.” These milestones act as a concrete map of hoped-for faith development that fuels parents’ and the church community’s involvement in the lives of kids.

Leaving Silos Behind

Creating milestones at our church took a long time. Like most church communities, we have the tendency to gravitate toward what we refer to as “silos,” in which ministries or programs operate as distinctly separate, rather than working in collaboration. When we began this process, only our children’s ministry really was wrestling with how to partner with families. I sat down with our retired Children's Ministry director Judi to explore what initially helped Milestones take off in our church.

Our milestones ministry started with conversations about what “rites of passage” might look like in our context. 1 Our essential question when developing faith milestones was: What does faith development look like in our community from birth to when our kids go off to college and beyond? Those conversations turned into ideas, then into small events and shifts, and then moved into consistent programs. It was only after people started seeing and getting excited about the programs working on the periphery of our church that our whole church caught the vision for milestones.

Compelled by what God was doing on the margins of our church, our staff felt we had to shift the vision. The staff sat down to recast our vision of ministry together. It was only then that milestones became more than just an idea, but instead a means of accomplishing the vision God was giving us for children, teens, and families.

Getting on the same page is not easy; it takes time and has to be an ongoing process. Our teams have each given up idols in our ministries and continue to be challenged to die to the pride that so often taints our motives and actions. For example, to put some of these changes in place, our youth ministry program had to cut away programs that were in conflict with where God was leading our church. This was not easy because many mourned the loss of these programs, but our team continues to work to stay on course with where God is leading our community.

The First Rite of Passage: Baptism

In many Christian communities across the world, infants are dedicated or baptized into faith by their parents and their community. In our church faith life begins with infant baptism. Within the ceremony parents and/or sponsors are asked to promise before God and the community that they will raise their kids in the faith, attend church, read the Bible to them, and teach them the gospel of Jesus Christ. They respond, “Yes, with the help of God.”

The pastor then turns while holding the baby and presents the child to the church community. While walking the rows, the pastor asks the community, “Will you commit to praying for this child and for the parents, and to helping raise the child in the faith?” The congregation is then urged to respond, “Yes, with the help of God.”

With this ceremony, a child becomes a part of the Christian community and the child begins the process of faith development. As the first of many milestones in a child’s spiritual journey, baptism gives us a chance equip our parents, as well as the community, to pour into each child.

Adding Rites of Passage for Every Grade

Once our ministry staff started to drive toward our vision, we began with the faith celebrations already present in our community: first communion, first Bible, and confirmation. The next step was developing these celebrations into something that accomplished the other two goals of our milestone program—equipping parents and inviting the community to celebrate with the kids.

We asked ourselves: What do we want kids and families to learn during this stage of their life? Around this question we built key learning goals for each grade level that were developmentally appropriate. It is out of this conversation that we developed our milestones for each grade level. For example, when a child enters into second grade we wanted to them to start to grasp the importance of the Bible in their faith development. Therefore we introduced a milestone that helps train parents and kids about the importance of reading the Word of God. At the beginning of the year, parents attend a class on the importance of teaching and reading the Bible to their kids and helping their kids start to read their own Bibles. Then during the following Sunday service, families are brought forward and the parents are given Bibles by the pastors. The parents then hand the Bible to their own kids and make a promise in front of the church to teach them and read them the Word of God. Then throughout the school year, kids are encouraged to bring their Bibles to Sunday School so that they can learn how to read and learn from them.

Through the process of developing milestones, we saw that some rites of passage traditionally held more significance than others. For example, within the Lutheran church, First Communion and Confirmation hold a lot of meaning to our tradition. We decided to build on that enthusiasm within our tradition while also introducing new milestones. Here is a list of our elementary and middle school milestones:

Elementary Milestones:

Kindergarten: Lord’s Prayer. The kids learn the Lord’s prayer and explore what it means. At the end of the lessons, kids recite the prayer by memory.

  • 1st Grade: John 3:16. During Sunday School students start to learn the basic idea of the gospel. Families work with their kids to understand this concept over dinner conversations designed by our Children’s Ministry team.
  • 2nd Grade: First Bible. Each parent presents their child with a Children’s Bible at the beginning of the year in church. Then the kids are invited to learn how to use it all year long in Sunday School as they journey through the Bible. Parents also attend a class on the role of the Bible in faith development.
  • 3rd Grade: First Communion. Parents and kids attend a special class that teaches kids the meaning of communion. Then at a special ceremony during worship, parents serve their kids communion for the first time.
  • 4th Grade: 10 Commandments. Kids learn the meaning of the “law” and what the 10 Commandments are in the context of a Sunday School class. At the end of the year, they recite the 10 commandments by memory.
  • 5th Grade: Apostle’s Creed. Each family receives Luther’s Small Catechism as kids start to learn the meaning of their faith and what the Apostle’s Creed means with their families.
  • 6th Grade: Martin Luther. Being raised in a Lutheran church, during this time kids start to learn why Martin Luther was important to our faith tradition through special classes on Martin Luther.

Middle School Milestones:

  • 7th Grade: Youth Bible and Confirmation Introduction. Students each get a new youth Bible as they enter into Confirmation/Middle School Ministry.
  • 8th Grade: Confirmation. After the student has gone through the 2 years of our Confirmation that trains them through scripture and theological discussion, they can be confirmed as members of the congregation. On the Saturday before Confirmation Sunday, families are invited to celebrate their teen’s faith milestone at a special banquet dinner. As a part of the banquet dinner, each teen is affirmed by their parent(s) in a public affirmation. Then on the following Sunday, the confirmands are confirmed in front of their church community and prayed over by pastors, family, friends, and the community.

Building Milestones in High School Youth Ministry

Only after the children’s ministry faith milestones were developed did the youth ministry start to include milestones into our middle and high school ministry. When creating high school milestones, our ministry team created a milestone for every grade level that would help to equip adolescents with a faith that would stick. At the same time, we partnered with the children’s ministry to introduce new parent seminars into our yearly calendar to equip parents to spiritually lead their kids.

Using the Sticky Faith research and other rites of passage ideas, we created four high school milestones:

  • 9th Grade: Discipleship. Placing each new high school teen into a discipleship group that would last for the rest of high school.
  • 10th Grade: Gifting. Offering a spiritual gifts class that would help teens discern how their passions, natural gifting, and spiritual gifts work together as God’s calling to serve. We then work to place each student in roles in our church serving alongside other adults in our community.
  • 11th Grade: Retreat. Building two spiritual retreats into the year that encourage students to recharge during their craziest year of high school, as well as help train them in deeper spiritual disciplines and prepare for their senior year and beyond.
  • 12th Grade: Commissioning. Creating a monthly class for seniors to help them think through their spiritual life after high school. At the end of the year, students are asked to invite friends and family to a barbeque celebration honoring all seniors. During this time, seniors thank friends and family for helping them develop as a Christian, and seniors are invited to share the testimonies of their spiritual journeys. On the following Sunday, the church community commissions students into the next phase of their spiritual life in a special ceremony.

Practical Ideas For Your Own Context

  1. Start Talking: Your church probably has key learning goals you hope kids will grasp, whether you have articulated them or not. With a team, map out those key learning goals for children and teenagers in your congregation. Make sure that what you want them to learn aligns with their developmental abilities at different ages. What are the core aspects of faith you want kids in your community to understand and engage at each stage of childhood and adolescence?
  2. Families and Community. Each child’s faith development requires the entire church. Or as Chap Clark says, turn the 5 to 1 ratio on its head. Work to equip parents to spiritually parent their kids and learn how to invite others to love on each kid in your community. What might it look like for your church to equip parents and others in your community to get involved in the faith development of your kids and teenagers?
  3. Start on the Periphery: Starting small is okay. Think about the small wins you can gain for your community that support your vision. For more ideas about small wins and leading change, see our Making Changes Stick Toolkit. The first small win for us was putting together a confirmation banquet to celebrate our 8th grade students. What are some easy first small steps we can take in our community to start casting our vision?
  4. Program it: Now you can create programs to map out this new approach to faith development in your congregation. Make sure that your programs accomplish your vision, build relationships, and address your key learning goals. What might specific milestones look like in our community?

A special thanks to Judi Hoefs (Good Shepherd Lutheran Church’s retired Children’s Director) whose dreams for family ministry shaped and continue to transform our church community. Judi worked as a consultant on this article.

More resources and ideas on rites of passage:

1. The term “rites of passage” was coined by French anthropologist Arnold Van Gennep who described life transformation in three movements: rites of separation, rites of transition (or liminal rites), and rites of incorporation/re-entry. As a person moves through the transformation process, a person’s identity, or in our case their faith identity, becomes more solidified. 

Steven Johnson Image
Steven Johnson

Steven Johnson is currently serving as High School Director at Bellevue Presbyterian Church in Washington. He is a 2009 MDiv graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary with a concentration in Youth, Family, and Culture. Steve also speaks at local youth conferences and is passionate about helping teens encounter God, see themselves as a vital part of the church, and train them to manifest the Kingdom of God.

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