Cultivating Faith: Godparents in the Reformed tradition?
Though it has faded in importance over the last few decades, the godparent relationship has had a long and distinguished history in the church. Traditionally chosen by the parents of a child and present at baptism, godparents played a number of roles in the life of a baptized child. Sometimes they even assumed the parental role when the parents were unable to for some reason. Perhaps most important, godparents were responsible with the parents to insure that a child received the proper spiritual training.
A few years ago, while I was serving as a pastor at the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, our youth and education committee was brainstorming ways in which we could better prepare young people (ages approximately eight through high school) to make public profession of faith. In the Christian Reformed Church public profession of faith marks a person's free response to and acceptance of baptism and entrance to the Lord's table. Our traditional approach was a "pastor's class," in which the pastor would teach some of the basic truths and concepts of the faith to prepare young people for public profession. This practice had several strengths, not the least of which was that it provided the pastor with an opportunity to get to know children and young people in a large congregation. It also had the advantage of insuring that the children and young people who made profession had an adequate conceptual understanding of the faith.
But we were coming to recognize that the transmission of faith from one generation to the next is something that is more "caught than taught." We felt that young people needed to see faith modeled. Instead of merely learning doctrinal truths, as important as they are, young people needed to understand the struggles and triumphs of faith by seeing it in action in the life of an adult they respected.
What we began to envision was a sort of "Reformed version of the godparent," an adult who would be willing to meet with a child or young adult for a time and share his or her faith in a way that not only taught certain essential concepts but also allowed the young person to see what faith looked like in real life.
In searching around for resources we became aware of a program developed by George Brown at the Central Reformed Church in Grand Rapids (now dean of faculty and professor at Western Seminary) that is centered around "sponsors." The American Heritage Dictionary defines sponsor as "one who assumes responsibility for another person or a group during a period of instruction, apprenticeship, or probation. One who vouches for the suitability of a candidate for admission." That's exactly what we were aiming for! The idea of sponsor picked up some of the more important aspects of the old godparent tradition without all the imprecise connotations.
The first issue we faced in developing the new program was the selection of sponsors. We decided that when possible it would be best to allow the young people to choose their own sponsors—people whom they knew and looked up to. The obvious problem was that the church member chosen might be unsuitable for that relationship for some reason or unable to offer the time. Someone else needed to be involved in the choosing and in monitoring the relationship.
We invited young people who were ready to explore public profession of faith to submit the names of two possible sponsors to the pastors (this could also be elders or a small committee of people who know the congregation well). The pastors (or others) then had the freedom to decide which of the two people would make the best sponsor and to contact him or her. We seldom, if ever, ran into a situation in which both names were unsuitable.
Did people respond to this challenge? Yes, overwhelmingly! We found that almost all the adults contacted for sponsorship felt honored to be selected and were deeply responsible in carrying out the task. Young people were equally enthusiastic. They selected a wide variety of sponsors, from church school teachers to family friends to people they had always looked up to.
To provide our sponsors with the material they needed we developed a sponsor packet modeled after the one George Brown had used at Central. Our sponsor packet was designed to cover in about five sessions the basic content we felt essential for making public profession of faith: baptism, faith, disciple-ship, and communion. But we emphasized that sponsors should always try to explain the concepts through personal experience whenever possible. Many times we found that sponsors were unable to cover the material in five sessions and extended their time with the young person to six or seven sessions. As part of the learning we asked young people to write a personal "credo" and to memorize the Apostles' Creed and the Lord's Prayer because of their frequent liturgical use.
One of the pastors always met with the sponsor beforehand to explain the program and answer questions. A pastor also met with the sponsor and the young person near the end of the process.
One of the obvious dangers of this program is the possibility for abuse of the situation by the adult sponsor. The sponsor may be alone with the student at times, and the two of them may meet outside the home and the church facilities. This issue needs to be addressed up front with the sponsor and with the parents. Sponsors should be advised to avoid even any appearance of impropriety.
It's also important that parents be involved in the selection process. At Eastern Avenue we began the process by inviting parents and young people to a meeting at which we explained the entire program and invited parents to participate with us. Certainly, whoever is responsible for choosing the sponsor from the two names given should make sure the parent is also comfortable with the designated sponsor and knows him or her relatively well. The parent may also want to lay out simple ground rules for meeting times and places.
By carefully following these procedures, the people of Eastern Avenue have avoided potential problems. In fact, parents are enthusiastic about the program because it involves other adults very directly in their children's faith nurture in a special relationship.
After the sponsor program the young people who choose to make public profession of faith meet with their sponsor and some elders. The elders need to make sure that the young person has an adequate basic understanding of the Christian faith and the sacraments. (This aspect of the process is required by the Church Order of the CRC.)
The public profession usually takes place on a communion Sunday, giving the young person the opportunity to participate in the sacrament—usually for the first time. The sponsor usually stands with the young person and asks the questions during the service of profession. Often he or she says something appropriate to and/or about the young person as part of the liturgy. This is always a veiy moving and joyful moment in worship.
We've found that these relationships between youth and sponsor often continue and even grow after the sponsorship is over. A sponsor can remain a very important adult to the young person, one he or she can turn to in moments of difficulty for support and advice.
A SPONSOR'S REFLECTIONS
Lindsay was seven years old. I had been her worship center leader for two years, and I was thrilled when I got a call from our pastor asking me to serve as Lindsay's sponsor.
We had our first meeting at the children's worship center at our church—a place where Lindsay and I had often met before for prayer, singing, and listening to God's story. We lit the Christ candle and talked about what brought us here, about our favorite Bible passages and songs, and about where we had learned those stories and songs. Lindsay told me the story of the Good Shepherd, using the wooden figures from the worship center. I added the figure of the wolf. We thanked God that the Good Shepherd was willing to lay down his life for the sheep.
The next week we met again. We went upstairs to the sanctuary and ran our fingers over the carved wood of the baptismal font. We touched the words carved on the communion table—this do in remembrance of me—and looked closely at the communion cup and bowl. We wondered, "What does all this mean to me?"
As we talked, we discovered that the two of us had actually been baptized in the same church! We wondered if some of the same people had made promises at her baptism as at mine. And we colored rainbows to remind us of God's promise.
We each said, "God is my God and I am God's child." We put the date of Lindsay's baptism on a time line to illustrate the map of her journey of faith. We included other important events that she chose too: her baby brother's baptism and her first day of school. "Look at the room left to fill," we said. "Our journey of faith continues our whole life long, and we have so much yet to discover."
A few weeks later Lindsay and I walked through the woods and marveled at how we can see God in nature. We visited a restaurant for hot chocolate. "Our world belongs to God!" I said to Lindsay. If we say we love Jesus and want to live for Jesus, then everything we do and everywhere we go is for Jesus.
Sometimes I struggled as Lindsay's sponsor. How could I shepherd one who already loved her Lord so dearly and unquestioningly, and who followed so readily. I asked her one day if she truly believed in Jesus as her Savior and Lord. "Of course," she replied, "of course." I yearned then for her childlike faith. I wished to see things the way she saw them and wished too that she could be spared the sin and sickness of the world that would mar that vision. God spoke to me through Lindsay. We guided each other in faith.
We met several times more. Sometimes I felt like talking, other times we just needed to be together. The time was coming soon when we would meet with the elders and tell them what she believed. Lindsay chose a song she loved and wanted to sing the day she made her public profession of faith. She also prayed: "Jesus, I know you are good. I know that you died for me. Thank you Jesus that Jalen (her little brother) can be a part of our family. I want to live my life for you. Amen."
On a sunny afternoon several months after our first meeting in the worship center, Lindsay and I gathered in her living room with her parents, her pastor, and three elders. Lindsay held her folder full of pictures she drew and writings and stories from our meetings. On the cover she had drawn a picture of her favorite Bible story, Jesus and the children. "Look at the children," an elder said. "Jesus said, 'Let them come and do not keep them away.'" "That's why I like that story," Lindsay replied. We took turns sharing our time together. We answered and even asked some questions. Lindsay's faith was confirmed and celebrated by everyone there.
A week later Lindsay stood in front of the congregation next to the baptismal font with me. I asked her these questions:
â€¢ Do you know that God loves you?
â€¢ Do you know Jesus came to save us from our sins?
â€¢ Do you love Jesus and want to follow him?
â€¢ Do you also want to know Jesus better?
Lindsay answered yes to all the questions. Then we all sang the song she had chosen for this moment:
I've come to tell, I've come to tell, O Savior divine.
How much I love you, how much I love you, with all my heart.
I've come to tell, I've come to tell, to tell you the truth:
I love you, O Lord, I worship you, Lord, with all of my heart.
A large white cloth covered the familiar old wooden table in front of the church. The silver bowls filled with bread and wine were set just right and the Christ candle was lit. Lindsay watched with anticipation as the elders gathered in the front pew. She heard the words: "The gifts of God for the people of God." "That's me," she said. With the bread to her lips, Lindsay joined her church family in remembering the great love of the Savior.