Real families: Meditations on family lifeby Rachel Ringenberg Miller
I would like to think I coined the phrase "church baby." It's possible, since I wasn't able to find the reference when googling it. When I was pregnant with my first child, I told people at church that I wanted my daughter to be a "church baby," which means, in the simplest form, she would feel comfortable going to any adult in the church.
This was important to me for two reasons. As one of the pastors of Portland (Ore.) Mennonite Church and as a wife of an emergency department nurse who at the time worked every other weekend, I needed help on the Sundays I was up front participating in the service. I once tried wearing my daughter in a front pack while leading sharing time, which did not go well. The only thing my daughter wanted to do was grab the microphone. So while the microphone was being passed to another congregant, I took my daughter out of the front pack and handed her to one of the two people who saw me unbuckling and headed to the front to help. I did not have to ask either of them to do this.
I also wanted my daughter and subsequent children to feel at home at church. I wanted them to feel like I did about the church. My family never lived close to the rest of my extended family. In each of the churches we attended, I had people who were, to me, adoptive grandparents, aunts and uncles. These people still have a special place in my heart.
My husband, children and I now live thousands of miles from our extended family. I hope my daughter and son have similar types of relationships. It’s hard not being close to our parents, siblings and other close relatives, but we try to remain in close contact with family. We use Skype about once a week with our parents, which is especially important now that they're grandparents.
While technology is great, it's not the same as face-to-face, personal contact. In the age of social networking, relationships with people you can actually touch is decreasing, or at least that's the way it feels, making contact with real live people even more essential. Whether we realize it or not, having friends we see in person on a regular basis is pretty crucial to our development as human beings. That's why I want my children to have people at church they consider their adoptive relatives, as people they can go to besides Mom and Dad, people who love them, want the best for them and can be a part of their growing-up years.
The most important quality for these adoptive relatives is a relationship with Jesus and the church. The purpose of being a church baby is to be surrounded by people who love Jesus and the church, people who, guided by the love of Christ, can be an example of what it's like to be a Christian in a world that is not. I realize that not all blood relatives can fill this role, even when they live right next door. To me, this is just another reason for raising a church baby. Being a church baby is not only for children who don't live close to their grandparents. It's for all children; and, if I can expand the phrase, it is for all people who are in a church community. All of us are better people when surrounded by others who care, love and support us.
Many people come to a church to find a sense of belonging, to be part of a community. People often talk about community, and we have many Mennonite churches with the word community in their title. It's necessary to be in community with people who we can relate to on deep levels, both personally and spiritually. Otherwise, we may find ourselves living in isolation. In a healthy community our lives are enriched, our sense of belonging is strengthened, we have help in times of stress, and our level of happiness is given a boost.
My children are church babies; they have a church community that loves them. A few Sundays ago my daughter was running around after church. As she encountered groups of people talking, a few of them stooped down to talk with her. At the same time, my son was asleep in the arms of another church member. I hope all of us can be so lucky as to call ourselves church babies.
Rachel Ringenberg Miller is pastor of community life at Portland (Ore.) Mennonite Church.
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