Many of us may be expecting larger than usual numbers of young families in our churches over the next few weeks – school services, crib services, and Christingles mean we have contact with families we may not see at other times. Who are these families? What do they value? Where are they, spiritually? What can we learn from each other?
This is an excerpt from my book, “Beyond the Children’s Corner: creating a culture of welcome for all ages”
Despite a strong cultural narrative of modern life being more isolated than ever before, the idea that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ still resonates with parents, and the church is part of that village. The research into baptisms conducted by the Church of England’s Life Events team found that the biggest reason for parents wanting their children to be baptized was so that they would have godparents.
‘A christening gives parents the opportunity to formally involve other significant adults in their child’s upbringing, for advice, protection, support and encouragement, and they will give a lot of thought to choosing good people,’ the research says. It found that ‘the choice of godparents often honours long friendships, and in choosing them, parents are envisaging a relationship that will last at least 20 years, probably a lifetime.’
One parent I spoke with told me, ‘Both times I’ve found myself looking down at a positive pregnancy test, my first thought was, “Oh God, who’s going to help me do this?” Of course I’m lucky in that I have my partner, but in that moment when the reality is beginning to dawn on you, you know you’re going to need more than that. It’s like that quote from About a Boy – two isn’t enough. You need backup.’
This desire – for a community of loving adults – has clear implications for mission and ministry, and for what the church can offer to provide what parents want for their children. And it also suggests we would be remiss to overlook the importance of recognizing the godparent/godchild relationship when families come to us for baptisms.
What else do parents value, when it comes to spirituality? The majority of parents with very young children will be under 40. This is relevant, because recent polling for YouGov shows that for the first time, in the last few years, the number of people under 40 identifying themselves as ‘nones’ – i.e. of no religion – passed 50%.
While this may seem like bad news at first glance, this group is not as straightforward as they seem. Linda Woodhead, the author of the research, writes, ‘Only a minority of nones … are convinced atheists … the largest bloc is made up of maybes, doubters, and don’t knows, plus 5.5% who definitely believe in God. As to what kind of God they believe in, less than a quarter of the nones who think there is a God adhere to the traditional idea of a personal “God”, with the rest believing in a spirit, life-force, energy, or simply “something there”. So the nones are not [a] phalanx of doughty secularists … but they are certainly more sceptical about the existence of God than those who identify as religious.’
But Woodhead’s idea of religion doesn’t end with identification – she then goes on to look at practice, where again she finds that ‘the picture is not straightforwardly secular … A quarter [of nones] report taking part in some kind of personal religious or spiritual practice in the course of a month, such as praying. What they absolutely do not do is take part in communal religious practices … On the whole they do not much care for religious leaders, institutions and authorities, but they tolerate them … The only leaders for whom nones have regard are Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, and to a lesser extent Pope Francis. It seems clear that nones dislike being preached at and told what to do; they prefer to make up their own minds.’
Woodhead also found that ‘nones’ are more likely than practicing Anglicans to consider themselves global citizens, and in terms of their attitudes towards personal morality, tend to adopt a ‘live and let live, as long as you aren’t hurting anyone’ attitude.
So families these days form a variety of structures. They may be households consisting of two people or many more. They may have three or more generations living together, may have a single parent, or two parents of the same or opposite sex. A child may spend two weekends a month with mum and two with dad, having obvious implications on their participation in weekend activities like Sunday worship. There may be children with additional needs in the family, and both they and their siblings and parents will be affected by this. The family will likely believe in some form of higher power or spirituality, but be suspicious of organized religion and not keen to label themselves as part of a group. They will be likely to have a strong belief in the rights of other families to live as they like as long as nobody is getting hurt, and desire a community of significant adults around them to help raise their children. They value authenticity and community, but are sceptical about hierarchy, institutions and authority.
And, crucially, they are unfamiliar with church. Under-40s are less likely to have regularly attended church as a child than any generation of parents before them.
So when you have a family coming for a christening, or to a crib service, or even just an ordinary Sunday morning, you’re not just meeting a child who isn’t enculturated into church, but you are likely also encountering adults who are unfamiliar with the routines, practices, language, codes of behaviour and general expectations of what going to church means.
This has long-term ramifications in terms of how we help parents to nurture their child’s faith at home, when they themselves may be only just starting to explore faith, but it has immediate ramifications in how we welcome these families and treat them on Sunday morning.
I moved house a few years ago, and there was an independent bakery on my new high street. I wanted to go in, but for weeks I put it off and went to the chain one instead. Why? Because I wasn’t sure of the rules. Would I have to pay cash, or is card okay? (I don’t normally carry much cash.) Do I order and then sit down, or is it table service? I was worried about looking awkward and out of place.
Imagine how much more magnified these emotions must be if the place you’re coming to is someplace very quiet and reverent, with a lot of unusual practices like singing together, and you also have a restless two-year-old with you, with an unwieldy pram to worry about. Remembering that parents bringing their children to church will probably be uncertain, and nervous about what happens there and what to do, is crucial to creating a culture of welcome.
 Church of England Life Events, https://churchsupporthub.org/baptisms/explore-thinking/importance-godparents/.
 Interesting question to ponder: what do those three figures have in common? Does your church share those traits?
 Woodhead, Linda, ‘The rise of “no religion” in Britain: The emergence of a new cultural majority’, Journal of the British Academy, 4, 245–61. DOI 10.5871/jba/004.245. Posted 8 December 2016. © The British Academy 2016.
 For those who like numbers: 83% of Britons fell at the more liberal end of this scale, 92% of lay Anglicans did, and 100% of the ‘nones’ did.