This weekend was an experience, let me tell you. I spent the past 48 hours with a rambunctious group of middle schoolers, building community, exploring faith, and eating a lot of junk food. Like too much. The best part of the weekend may have been when one of my students called his mom and asked her not to pick him up early because he was having so much fun he didn’t want to leave. Usually my boys are so busy with sports and other competing commitments that it’s hard to build consistency. But here we were, and the defacto leader of the pack had finally bought in to what we’re trying to build together. Every parent knows that feeling of pride. In fact his mother texted me later to share just how happy, shocked, and proud she was of him.
For the past year and a half I’ve been serving as a youth leader at my church for a small but mighty group of now 7th grade boys. The plan is to follow them from 6th to 8th grade, building relationships and creating a safe space as a community for each of them to grow in their faith. This weekend is one of numerous events that we host to accelerate the bonding and growth process. And while I’m definitely exhausted, it’s been worth it. I’m forever grateful to all the other volunteers including my own daughter’s small group leaders who invest their time in the next generation, partnering with us. It’s an incredible thing to do.
I was hooked as a parent of a middle schooler when we were told that this would be an opportunity for our kids to discover a faith of their own. In fact, it’s a story that almost didn’t happen. Flashback to summer of 2021 and if you’ll recall, we were still smack in the middle of Covid. Our church which had been virtual throughout the previous year was now preparing to reopen for families in person. We did a few soft launches before officially reopening in June.
I’d been looking for new ways to get engaged and I was curious about what was happening in some of our children environments. So I did what any curious parent should do, I got involved. I first volunteered with my wife in our youngest environment for babies and toddlers (at the time our youngest two daughters were there as well). But, like Goldilocks it didn’t quite fit me. I tried the elementary age group next and thought… this might work, but then I remembered, I’ve done this before, back when I taught second grade in public schools. Thanks, but no thanks to that either. I don’t have that kind of energy anymore lol!
What piqued my interest about the middle school environment was the newness of it all. My oldest daughter Riles was a rising 6th grader at the time, and it felt like we were about to enter a whole new world. I’ve always had a bit of unease about the middle school years, perhaps because mine were so rough. My parents split up, we moved several times, and I went to multiple schools all in the span of three chaotic years. While middle school was no cake walk for me, in fact it turned out to be probably the most transformative phase of my life.
So clearly I was invested as a parent in seeing how I could come alongside my daughter as she began to transition from kid to young adult. I also saw this as a chance to see up close and personal exactly how we as a church are preparing the next generation. The phrase, finding a faith of their own kept being repeated in our parent orientation and I was mesmerized by the language. As parents, Samantha and I are trying to walk a fine line between indoctrination and providing our kids the space necessary to really explore and choose a faith of their own.
It’s not an easy task. We both grew up in rigid religious families, and while we have maintained a core foundation, it’s also been a journey unpacking the legalism and shame that often undermine spiritual practices. Parenting the girls to discover a faith of their own is still very much a work in progress, and it constantly requires us to be open, flexible, and gracious with ourselves and the girls.
What I’ve discovered now halfway into this journey is that I’ve grown just as much in my own faith. I wasn’t expecting that. It’s more than a nice bonus, I suspect it’s also the point.