There is silence as the new Christian takes to the platform. Their story begins with a search for meaning, purpose and love. There are twists and turns. Their life story seems desperate and the congregation sits in rapt attention. And then suddenly there is a turning point in the story.
The story ends as they talk about this new life they have begun. They finish and hand back the microphone as the congregation’s faith is strengthened and we give thanks for all God has done. I love these testimonies of people finding faith.
But there is also another kind of story. These are the ones we rarely hear, especially from our church platforms. Stories of people losing faith. As we saw last month in ‘Empty Pews’, statistics suggest that half the children who grow up in Christian homes will reject the faith by the time they reach adulthood.
During my years in church youth work, I have witnessed many young people walk away from their faith and have wondered what I could have done differently. In 2010 I conducted nine interviews for a book called Losing Faith, listening to young adults who had left Christianity. Their stories were heartbreaking.
I now have two young daughters and, according to those statistics, one will end up walking away from the Christian faith by the time she is 18. I know there are no guarantees and my children must make their own decisions, but I am determined to give them the best shot at encountering God and knowing who they are in him. So I have come to believe that stories of people walking away from faith need to impact the way we parent if we want to see that 50 per cent statistic change.
Stages of faith
Before we dive headfirst into the challenges, it’s important to understand the nature of faith journeys. I have found the model John Westerhoff III gives in his book, Will our Children have Faith? really helpful. He looks at faith development within a Christian family and argues that there are four distinct stages in our children’s spiritual development. Each stage builds on the earlier ones, like rings inside a tree.
The first is ‘experienced faith’, when our children are first exposed to Christianity. Our children experience how we choose to live out our faith at home and see this as ‘normal’. They might have Bible stories read to them, prayers said with them and be taken to church on a Sunday morning. The way our children experience faith in their early years will shape the way they see God in later life.
The second stage, ‘affiliative faith’, takes place in the early adolescent years as our children become active participants in what is happening around them. Children take on some of the traditions, values and practices they have witnessed as they look to belong and find their identity. The church community and their peers play an important role, but parents remain the greatest influence.
The third stage is ‘searching faith’. This is when they begin to ask questions as they become aware that their personal beliefs may no longer be the same as those held within the Christian community to which they belong. They need to make sense of the faith they have been taught. This stage can be particularly troubling for parents and youth workers.
The final stage is ‘owned faith’, in which a person comes to a real and personal faith of their own. They may still have doubts and face difficulties living out their faith, but they have a living relationship with God.
Recognising these stages of faith can help us understand that our children will need our support and encouragement in different ways as they grow and change. The searching faith stage is particularly significant as sometimes we can try to shut down important questioning rather than seeing it as a pivotal opportunity
I believe there are four significant challenges that can throw faith off track:
EXPERIENCES OF GOD
The Bible is full of incredible encounters people have with God, including Moses at the burning bush, Isaiah in the temple and Saul on the road to Damascus. We tend to celebrate the extraordinary biblical stories and the ‘wow-factor’ modern day testimonies. We often make these experiences of God the norm rather than the exception.
A common thread in the stories of people leaving the Christian faith seems to centre around an expectation that a valid experience of God needs to be sensational. Perhaps they have seen friends enjoy emotionally charged experiences, while things for them weren’t quite so clear cut. Prayers seem to have gone unanswered. God never felt truly present. While other people were hearing God’s voice, they heard only silence. The truth is that we all experience God in different ways. The story of Esther is powerful in that there is no mention of God. God was at work without any evidence of spectacular encounters.
As a parent with two young children I sometimes think my children’s faith decisions lie way off in the future, but Westerhoff’s ‘experienced faith’ stage is a reminder that what we model in the early years will have a profound effect. For example, if the weekly church service is warm and friendly our children pick up on that, and this will affect the way they view God.
As I model what my own relationship with God looks like, I can take some of the mystery out of the process for my children. Rachel Turner explains that kids are naturally curious and we can give them a window into our times with God, making our invisible relationship with God visible. It’s about explaining how we discern God’s prompting and how he speaks into our lives. We can also explain that there may be seasons when God seems very tangible and seasons when he doesn’t. My children’s relationship with God might look very different from mine, and that’s OK.
To help our children flourish in their faith we need to give them a variety of ways in which they can engage with God. For example, I have been teaching my 6-year-old differ-ent models of prayer. Her favourite at present are the simple Catholic liturgies she has picked up at school.
Nothing we have done can ever stop our children from returning to God, and they all have to make their own decisions
EXPERIENCES OF CHURCH
The local church is beautiful and messy. In listening to stories of people who have lost their faith, many talk about how they have been hurt by the Church. Their stories of cover-ups, hypocrisy and abuse of power are painful to hear.
I want my children to love the local church because I have seen the life giving necessity of belonging to a community of believers. But I am very aware that no expression of church will ever be perfect. I want my kids to belong to a local church while at the same time doing two things.
First, I want to prepare them for the disappointments they will encounter. There will be times when the Church lets them down, their dreams are quashed and they are bored stiff. Part of teaching my kids about how the Church will sometimes fail is about helping them discover that church is not just a place we go to receive, but to give; that they have a role to play in shaping the Church. Finding practical ways for our children to participate in church life is really important.
Second, I am trying to give my kids a big vision of the Church; that this community is global and multiethnic. In the affiliative phase, children are looking for belonging, so we need to find them a whole raft of Christians they can connect with.
This might involve intentionally having Christian families around you with other kids who are their age. It might involve adopting elderly Christians who can pray with and for your kids. It might involve going to Christian festivals and worshipping with thousands of others.
It might involve hearing stories from Christians who are making a profound difference in some of the most difficult situations in the world. When our children are having a meaningful time with people who love God, we make it easier for them to feel they belong, and this can be a significant factor in them finding a faith of their own.
EXPERIENCES OF PAIN AND SUFFERING
Some people who have walked away from faith don’t doubt the existence of a divine being, but they do doubt the nature of God. When it comes to understanding the character of God, we all have the same contradictory evidence to work with. The beauty of waterfalls, the sound of children laughing and the smell of summer alongside the horror of abuse, the groans of sickness and the stench of death.
Sometimes, as the Church, we are guilty of painting an idealised picture of following Jesus. We forget that he promised there would be persecution. We forget that picking up our cross is painful. We forget that although the victory is won we still live in the mess of this reality.
Last year, we heard that a friend’s daughter had been born prematurely. We got the kids together and, prayed for a miracle as a family. Tragically, the baby died. We had the difficult task of telling our kids the news. Too often we hide our kids away from the reality of pain and suffering. Instead, we need to create space for these difficult realities. It’s in these moments that we remember that God comforts those who mourn. Life is not always easy. There will be challenges and hard times, and the Psalms give us permission to vent our confusion, our lament and even our disappointment with God.
Too often we hide our kids away from the reality of pain and suffering. Instead, we need to create space for these difficult realities
EXPERIENCES OF INTELLECTUAL CRITIQUE
It’s during the searching faith stage that questions often come to the forefront as young people interact with different world views offered in the various settings they find themselves. I think we have too often failed to equip our kids to deal with these intellectual critiques. Perhaps we have given them oversimplified answers or failed to give them the tools they need to explore the answers for themselves.
For example, we often teach from the Bible in our churches but perhaps fail to share why we give the Bible such credence. We may feel unable to help our children directly, but let’s ask for help and seek out on the diverse range of scholars who can articulate more clearly why the Bible is reliable and how we can better wrestle with the most difficult passages.
As we make space for intellectual critique, we won’t always have neat, watertight answers to their questions. Some won’t be answered this side of heaven, but the space to articulate doubts and wonderings will help them move on to the final stage of owned faith. After all, faith is not about certainty, but a deep-seated confidence.
Too little too late?
Perhaps your children have already chosen to leave their faith behind. My brother and I walked away from God for a season. We gave our parents a tough time of it, but we both came back. It’s easy to beat ourselves up as parents. We might wrack our brains over what we could have done differently, but we need to remember the Christian faith is ultimately about God’s grace. Nothing we have done can ever stop our children from returning to him, and they all have to make their own decisions.
If your children seem to have left the Christian faith behind, don’t lose hope. Keep praying. It may be worth thinking through the four challenges above.
For those struggling because they have never had an experience with God, maybe we can help them reflect on where God might have been present in their story so far. Maybe we could show them a broader framework for how we can experience God, from using ancient spiritual disciplines to looking up at the stars at night and sensing the enormity of God the creator.
For those who have walked away because of the failings of the Church, we might need to help them stop blaming a faceless institution and identify those who have hurt them so that, in due course, they can forgive those who have let them down.
For those struggling with suffering, theological arguments might be useful, but perhaps even more importantly we need to make ourselves available pastorally and be praying for the comforting presence of God.
For those struggling with intellectual arguments, we can help them articulate specific issues they are wrestling with and journey together with them to explore the evidence, while remembering that it’s not about head knowledge but about the Spirit of God softening hearts.
Above all, let’s make time to listen to their stories. As we look to change that 50 per cent statistic, let’s remember that there are no guarantees. Whatever our situations and whatever stages our children are at on the journey of faith, we can continue to play a part in supporting them on their journey. We can pray and hold on to the knowledge that God, their heavenly Father, loves them passionately and longs for them to put their trust in him.