How do we form our identities? How do we come to identify ourselves with what we end up identifying ourselves with? How do I come to take on certain of my identifying attributes?
Most (including most Christians) would say that I come to identify myself by an act of will. I, an autonomous agent, simply choose among options and thereby come to identify with a group/ideology what have you. I am free from external, cultural, determinative factors that might impose an identity on me and I am therefore free to take on any identity I so choose.
This view of the matter inevitably shapes the way we come to see how our children come to identify themselves as Christians. We fret over whether they will ask Jesus into their hearts, whether they will make that decision and then begin their life as Christians. We evangelize our children. In doing so, we tend to reinforce the autonomous nature of identity formation.
I’d like to suggest that Scripture points us in another direction. Another direction that recognizes the role of community and ritual in forming identities, including (especially?) Christian identity. Perhaps there’s a more biblical way to think about this. Perhaps helping our children identify as Christians is like helping them come to identify as OU fans.
I fairly certain that I’ve never commanded that my children shall love OU with their hearts, souls, minds and strength. I don’t think I’ve asked my children to ask OU into their hearts, nor fretted over whether they will make the decision to do so. Yet, they love OU with (most) of their heart, soul, mind and strength.
How? How, without my explicit calls to do so, did my children come to love all things OU?
Simply, we come to identify with our community’s values and beliefs by participating in their practices.
I took my children to campus from a young age. Even before they were able to walk around themselves, we took them to campus for walks. They were filled, from the earliest age possible, with the sights of the south oval, the sounds echoing through Owen Field, the smell of a dank subfloor in the library. We plan around OU events, eat food while watching, participate in strong emotional moments. These things came to be OU for my children, because those things are OU. In fact, there is no relationship with OU outside those things, those smells and sights and sounds and those rituals. In the end, the religion is the relationship. Indeed, refusing to enter into those things is to refuse relationship at all.
In an analogous way, we raise (as we are commanded) our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Long before they understand anything that’s happening to them, we enter them into the communal practices of the Church. We put them under the waters of baptism, initiating them into the Realm of the Spirit, who offers tastes of the heavenly kingdom, who works in their hearts to love and repent. Subsequently, we teach them to pray, to call God their Father, to repent when they disobey, to offer forgiveness, to read Scripture (long before they can do it themselves), to share in small groups what’s happening in their lives, to celebrate seasons of the church calendar (even if only Christmas and Easter) in celebration of the life the Savior. If these aren’t Christian practices, then it’s unclear what counts as a Christian practice.
But what I don’t do is teach my children that coming to faith is a crisis moment; a moment I fret about until they ask Jesus into their hearts. We don’t ask them whether they want to be Christians, we tell them they are and invite them to live accordingly. To repent, to love, to pray, to worship, to sing, to eat bread and drink wine, to pray, to read Scripture, to act as a Christian. We do this because this is how they come to identify themselves as Christians. They don’t simply ascent to some truths, but they enact those truths in their lives.
Certainly, none of this guarantees that my children will remain Christians (or OU fans for that matter). It’s certainly possible that they’ll grow up to reject the faith, to decide that they’d rather wear orange, to find another community and take on their identity forming practices. But this will be in spite of not because of their being brought into the Christian community and her identity forming rituals. But we cling in hope to promises made to parents and we recognize that becoming a Christian is a lifelong process that begins at baptism. We can bring our children, our wiggly, impatient, screaming, bored children to their Lord and trust that, through His Church and her liturgies and rhythms, He shapes his children into His Image.
Josh Spears writes blogs here sometimes. His bow ties are smashing and hand made by his wife.