How do we help children develop faith that won’t crumble when the going gets tough? Kay Morgan-Gurr outlines the key factors for spiritual resilience.
It was the end of a four-hour session at a large kids’ event. We were counting up the children in our small group. We were tired, and we had lost a child. After a lot of searching, we found her. She was curled up under one of the chairs that made up our den, behind a blanket which we put over chairs to make it cosier. She was sobbing. Between the sobs she yelled, ‘I don’t want Jesus in my heart any more, I hate him, I hate him, he doesn’t work.’ As she yelled, she was making clawing motions at her chest as if trying to pull a small person out of her heart.
This happened at the beginning of my ministry over 20 years ago and it’s a phrase I continue to hear to this day: ‘It didn’t work’. And I’ve heard many children since say the same thing. Why is this the case? Why do so many children choose to walk out of our churches thinking this but not articulating it? What has happened to the spiritual resilience of previous generations?
I used to think it was just down to inadequate teaching of scripture, but as I’ve looked at it more and more closely, I’ve come to a different conclusion. There’s no one simple answer, but rather a toxic soup of stuff within our culture - both in the Church and outside – which, mixed together, creates a positively lethal combination. Sometimes the effects of this ‘soup’ are slow and insidious, at other times fast and devastating - but both eat away at the spiritual resilience of our children.
This mix will be different for each child. What is toxic for one won’t be a problem for another. My brother and I are a case in point on this. Both of us were exposed to the same toxic mix, but one of us chose to leave the Church for good, while the other drew closer to God and moved to a church which was an antidote. You could say it was down to personality, but I’m not so sure. So where does this toxicity come from, and what are the antidotes that give us spiritual resilience?
OUR CHILDREN NEED THE MEAT OF THE BIBLE TO GROW GOOD RESILIENCE
The sources of toxicity are hidden in the Bible stories we choose to tell, and the ones we choose to leave out. It’s also hidden in the personal narratives we choose to share - the triumphal testimonies of success rather than the stories that talk of God’s help and love in the midst of the storm.
By picking and choosing like this, we set children up for disappointment - not only with people and themselves, but also disappointment with God. We do not give them the tools to use when life goes wrong. This can also be a consequence of weak theology, and our reluctance to answer questions that call into question our own picture of God as we arrive at the wrong conclusion that the children’s questions show a lack of faith or are disrespectful. All too often I come across children’s leaders who have grown up with only the ‘Jesus loves you’ theology and nothing else. It’s what I call ‘twee-ology’ - all of the nice stuff and little of the robust theology that is needed for faith to be resilient. These leaders have been given the basic ‘milk’ in what they have been taught, but little of the meat. This means they are ill-equipped to pass on solid teaching to the next generations. When parents begin to wean their children, they don’t just continue with milk and sloppy food, they start to introduce other food, including meat. It’s not served up as a steak but rather cut up into smaller pieces they can manage. Parents know that to leave a child on milk will lead to stunted growth, and lowered resilience when it comes to infections. Spiritual growth is much the same. Our children need the meat of the Bible to grow good resilience. By continually giving them only half of the message of the Bible we end up giving them a weak and powerless version, that inoculates them against the real thing.
It is for good reason that we choose to tell stories from the Bible that have amazing endings. We want to encourage and build up the listeners. But when we tell the awesome story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal, we are not so keen to talk about his depression after. Our children need to hear those stories when people say, ‘I don’t feel God with me, I feel abandoned, but I do know he’s there’. They need to see examples of folk who choose to determinedly follow God in the storm, to sing his praises through gritted teeth; this is pure gold for our children. We need to teach the full story and not shy away from endings that are not so happy. We also need to tell the stories where heroes get things wrong and God works in those situations. They need to know about the valleys as well as the mountaintop experiences so that they can be equipped to function in those times. They need to know that faith can function in the valleys too. They need to know that even in the times when it appears that God is silent, he is very present. All this should be balanced alongside the joyful and the good stuff.
I know one young boy who regularly states that he hates God. I don’t have a problem with this. This is the outworking of his wrestling, and I want to be alongside him as he wrestles, not judge him for what he says. Another young friend told me about leaders and family members who answered her questions fully and checked she understood. They challenged her lifestyle while also caring. From knowing just a little of her story and her struggles I can see that this was key to her holding on - by the fingernails, but nonetheless, holding on. Our children need the space to ask their questions, to wrestle with the tough stuff. We need to teach them how to wrestle with it and allow them to own their faith for themselves first-hand, not as a second-hand faith they have been taught using the ‘you will believe this’ method.
The way that we articulate our theological standpoint on suffering can be a key moment for our children. The temptation is to rip ‘comforting’ verses out of context, only to find later that they don’t comfort but raise more unanswered questions. Badly thought-through platitudes dent the resilience of our children.
I’d like to use my youngest stepson, James, as an example. He lost his mum in his mid-teens. He was already rejecting the faith he was brought up with for many of the reasons I’ve already touched on. With the death of his mum came comments such as, ‘Be thankful she’s in a better place’ and, ‘It was God’s will’. These comments had a profound and negative impact on him. What both he and the girl who wanted Jesus out of her heart needed were not words, but a wordless hug, followed up with notes to say we are praying and calls to ask how they are. Thankfully James found his way back to God in his 30s. I don’t know about the girl. We want to comfort. We want to help. But by giving a memory verse in response we are doing neither.
SPIRITUAL RESILIENCE IS A WHOLE CHURCH PROBLEM, NOT A CRISIS IN YOUTH AND CHILDREN’S WORK
When did we last ask the children in our group to pray for us? When did we last admit that we were struggling with something? When did we last apologise for getting something wrong? These are all powerful things that help to build resilience and teach important truths.
My colleague Graham Reed, in his succinctly named book We Lose a Thousand Children Every Day! talks of brother or sister relationships with the children in our groups. If they are believers - they are our spiritual siblings. He goes on to talk about the honesty this should bring out. Another of my young friends says: ‘I was honest about my struggles and as a result felt like the “black sheep”. Others in my peer group weren’t so honest, and they were always elevated for being out there for God. That was a massive injustice in my eyes. It got to the point where I felt like even though I was sat in among the congregation, a window was separating me and them, and I was on the outside, looking in.’ Honesty in our faith is another key to resilience.
In talking to some of the young people from my own church one thing has been clear; the influence of friends, both old and young, can be profound. Many educational psychologists will say that strong friendships from an early age affect resilience and learning, but it’s more than that. Most of these young people can name significant older Christians who have influenced them; others have said that a strong peer group has kept them in church. Even those who have left for a while will say it was their friends, often the grandparent figures, who coaxed them back. The other factor they mention is discipleship. They don’t call it that, but what they describe is living and breathing mentoring and discipleship. It has either kept them in the Church, or it has drawn them back after a period of walking away. I had one key person fighting my corner - supporting me and giving me time when I was young. Anna Roberts was the oxygen that gave me protection in my personal toxic soup. Because of Anna’s concern I am ‘alive’ today. My brother didn’t have this.
What has given me hope in talking to these young people has been the acceptance that they can come back to God. This is by no means the norm. My usual experience is of children who slip up, do something wrong, and then feel they can’t come back. We rightly teach that God hates sin, but we forget to re-enforce the power of forgiveness and the ability to come back to an all-embracing God. As one child once said to me, ‘I’ve been too bad, God won’t love me now’. This keeps some away from church for years. This is resilience eroded by not knowing how much they are loved.
It appears that the antidote to the toxic soup that takes away spiritual resilience is as multi-faceted as the cause. It isn’t a quick fix and it’s not a one-size fits all. It’s a whole Church problem, not a crisis in youth and children’s work. Our children need good teaching that is grounded in reality, surrounded in love and given life in its outworking.