Last year an article in The Age indicates, according to Jacqueline Maley, reporting on an Age Nielson poll, ‘Australians are more religious than we might have thought.’ According to that poll ‘68 per cent of us believe in God or a universal spirit.’ What is surprising is that only 24 per cent of people declare themselves as atheist, do not believe, and 7 per cent as agnostic, unsure. Even though 68 per cent say they believe, only ‘50 per cent say religion is important or very important in their lives.’
What is probably not surprising is that ‘women are much more likely to believe in God.’ 56 per cent say they believe in God compared to 43 per cent of men.’
‘Christianity [is] still the largest faith, with 64 per cent of believers nominating it as the religion they most identified with.’ What surprised me was this: ‘The next biggest [is] Buddhism, at 2 per cent, followed by Hinduism and Islam, which each had 1 per cent of those who said they were believers. Judaism accounted for less than half of 1 per cent of those who said they were believers.’
Accepting that this poll was of a mere 1000 people, I was surprised by the small pool of Islam believers. I thought it would have been much larger than this. What I admire about Islam is the level of involvement of men in religion.
I know you have heard me say this before, and I will keep on saying it until it makes a difference, is the lack of recognition of Joseph in the Christmas story and the continuing story of Jesus. Mary was indeed a faithful woman, and dare I say it, a liberal woman, of her time. We do not need to go beyond the words of the Magnificat, familiar to most of us from Evensong, to appreciate that she was faithful to God. But in focussing on the Lukan infancy narrative, Christian religion and religious art, has given Mary an almost solo parenthood of Jesus. The Matthean account, however, recognises the significance of Joseph. We get, from Matthew, a picture of Joseph as a man with an amazing depth of faith and an amazing commitment to his family.
When the three wise men, magi, or traders, arrived from their journey from Persia, present day Iran, they were looking for the infant king, but they found him in a family, with both his parents, Joseph and Mary. I can’t help wondering how Jesus might have turned out if Joseph had not been the man of faith that he was. The reason that Jesus, as the human he was, was able to express faith so clearly and express the miraculous power he did, was because both his parents modelled faith for him and nurtured him in faith.
Our lectionary used to have the first Sunday after Christmas as Holy Family. It has been replaced by Holy Innocents, recognising the journey of Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus, into Egypt to escape Herod’s wholesale slaughter of baby boys born around the same time, because the claim of Jesus as a king was a threat to his power. There is a wonderful collect that reminded us and called us to imitate the Holy Family:
And when I read passages like the one from Isaiah, a part of the Morning Prayers for Thursday and preparation for Christmas:
God will feed his flock like a shepherd:
and gather the lambs in his arms;
he will hold them to his breast:
and gently lead those that are with young.
(Is 40:11; APBA)
I am convinced that a primary focus of our ministry must be to the family – or, perhaps, more accurately, to the parents – equipping, leading them, so that they can raise their young.
My experience in youth ministry is that it is almost a waste of time and energy trying to educate children about faith and expressing faith through religion, if their parents are not modelling it for them. I don’t think we should be doing youth and children’s ministry that has its purpose in attempting to raise kid’s in faith. Any ministry of this kind should only be done as a means to support parents in nurturing their young. In our Mission Action Plan, therefore, we do not address youth or children’s ministry as a specific goal, but only as a strategy for the goal of ministry to families.
The role of parents in raising children in faith is key to the promises and expectation in the practice of baptising infants. Parents and godparents are asked to recognise that their child depends chiefly on them for the help and encouragement she needs. They are asked, whether they are willing to give their child this help and encouragement by every means in your power. They are asked, on behalf of their child, if they profess this faith and ask for baptism in this faith. Then comes the question about their modelling faithfulness to their child, ‘will you, by your own prayers and example, by your friendship and love, encourage your child in the life and faith of the Christian community.’
In addition to the promises of the parent to raise their child in the faith, there is also a question put to the congregation, having heard the parents and godparents respond to Christ, they are not asked, ‘will you teach their children the faith,’ but ‘will you support the parents in their calling to do so.’ It is the responsibility of the Church and congregation to support the parents, to nurture the parents, so that the parents can, by their own prayers and example, by their friendship and love, encourage their child in the life and faith of the Christian community.
One of the reasons, perhaps, that we are failing to raise children into adults who are expressing a sustaining and mature faith is because we have failed to focus on the whole family. We cannot expect parents to model the faith for their children if we are not equipping and nurturing them to do so.
The example of Mary and Joseph encourages us to strive, as a church, to put the whole family at the top of our ministry agenda. This is not at the expense of anything else that we do, but everything else we do is motivated and inspired to nurture those that are with young. Then, and only then, will we grow young people who will continue to be a part of the church into the future.