The deconstruction of faith is in the air. This tends to make Christian evangelical parents double down on further insisting on their children hang on to their faith by hook or by crook. Their actions may be well-intentioned. However, they are mostly counterproductive. We'd best take stock why.
Do we give our children room and permission to doubt? Can their faith really be their own without it? Are we not denying the complexity of genuine belief in a cross-pressured pluralistic world if we deny them the opportunity to raise uncomfortable questions, even doubt? To put it bluntly, do we give our children room to rebel? These are questions that Christian parents, youth ministers, Christian educators, and Christian camping administrators need to address.
Haunted Questions Young people today grew up reading or viewing the film version of Harry Potter, Pokémon, and the Twilight series. Even within more constrictive Christian households they have generally been exposed to the Chronicles of Narnia or Lord of the Rings. They will be immediate intrigued by the opportunity to explore a haunted reality and the numerous questions it raises about fantasy and reality, myth and gospel. Through the onramp of a sanctified imagination, can we provide a safe space for our children to ask questions and explore doubts. We need to provide opportunities that empower them to take ownership of their own faith pilgrimage. We need to reach out to those kids that are skeptical about their parents’ faith tradition and have yet to truly make it there own. Making them feel ashamed of their doubts is woefully counterproductive and will lead them further away from the church. We need to create experiences where a child’s doubts can be used as a catalyst for furthering his or her spiritual journey.
Losing a Generation The evangelical church is at risk of loosing its youth. One cannot expect to keep doing what we have been doing and expect different results. About 80% of young people currently attending their church youth groups will loose all connection to the church after two years in college. The fastest growing segment of the American religious demographic are the “religious nones” or those who are religiously unaffiliated with the institutional church. They now make up 40% of millennials—or young people in their twenties and thirties. Old assumptions that this group will return to the church of their parents once they are married and have children is proving to be a forlorn hope. Perhaps even more revealing is that of the 40% who identify as “nones,” 78% grew up in the church—though not all from strictly evangelical churches. This means that those who know the church the best, are among those who are most disillusioned with it. Clearly, what the church has been doing in reaching the next generation of youth is lacking.
I’d like to suggest four reasons why the church is contributing to the alienation of its youth. I’m not suggesting that this is the proverbial silver bullet. There are no silver bullets when it comes to tweens, middle, and high schoolers. To suggest so is naive. But when one is losing a generation, and we are, we’d best try to lose a different way.
1. Dominion The first reason we are losing our young people is because we often approach them with an assumption of dominion. Even when we know better, we act as if we can coerce belief. We force them against their wills to go to church, youth group, Christian school, or Christian camp.
When Francis Schaeffer’s daughter Susan announce that she no longer wanted to go to church, she was given permission to stay home with the caveat that she must stay engaged in the family’s dinner conversations. Her spiritual wishes were respected without encouraging any sullen isolation from the family life. She eventually came back to faith and became the author of For the Children's Sake: Foundations of Education for Home and School.
Our assumption is that as adults we know better what is good for our children. In spite of their protestations, we force church and religion on them hoping that something of the gospel will stick. The assumption of coercive parenting lies behind many of our youth programs. We’ve institutionalized forced feeding of faith in a way that is counterproductive to genuine belief because it violates the dignity and will of the individual child. Dallas Willard warns, “In close personal relationships, conformity to another’s wishes is not desirable, be it ever so perfect, if it is mindless, purchased at the expense of freedom, and destructive of personality.” The possibility of rebellion is the mark of being made in the image of God.
Parents get away with the illusion of coercive parenting until the child reaches their late elementary years. The push back starts when they reach the tween years—10-12 years old—unless they are temperamentally a strong-willed child. Parents with a strong-willed child are actually blessed, because they learn early that parents can only work with a child’s will not against it.
It is appropriate to question whether the institutionalized patterns of controlling parenting aren’t best seen as low-grade spiritual abuse. Assumptions of dominion when it comes to the spiritual formation of our children will backfire. This is true even in spite of passages of Scripture like Proverbs 22:6, “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” This is not the fine print on a life-insurance policy. Biblical scholars Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart write about this passage, “There is no guarantee, of course, that life will always go well for a young person. What the Proverbs does say is that, all things being equal, there are basic attitudes and patterns of behavior that will help a person grow into responsible adulthood.” One of the ways we can enhance a good spiritual outcome is in fact treating the young person with the respect that their spiritual self-determination deserves.
C.S. Lewis warned that parents tend to be far too uncivil toward their children. Dallas Willard quotes Lewis, “Parents are seen to treat their children with ‘an incivility which, if offered to any other young person, would simply have terminated the acquaintance.’ They are dogmatic on matters the children understand and the elders don’t, they impose ruthless interruptions, flat out contradictions, ridicule things the young take seriously, and make insulting references to their friends. This provides an easy explanation to the question, Why are they always out? Why do they like every house better than their home? ‘Who,’ Lewis inquires, ‘does not prefer civility to barbarism?’” Are our forms of parenting when it comes to the critical matter of our child’s faith really just forms of “barbarism”?
2. Discount In addition to an attitude of dominion, we also tend to discount the significance of the life experiences and phases of youth as passing fantasies or whims. We don’t equate the breakup of a high school love with the same empathy we might for someone going through a divorce, even though the depth of feelings and emotional pain might well be the same. Years later on a counselor’s couch, hindsight teaches a different story. Much of adult counseling deal with unresolved childhood trauma that has left a permanent scar on the person’s soul. It might even be true that the younger the trauma the deeper and more lasting the impact.
The NASA Challenger disaster was caused by the O-ring in the right rocket booster. The low temperature at the time of the launch led to the subsequent explosion. The risk of failure was dismissed by NASA management prior to the launch—a 1 in 100,000 chance of failure. We know better now. A small crack in a small rubber ring in the first stage booster can lead to disaster. So too youth trauma. We best not discount the traumas, questions, and doubts of our young people. If we do, it will come back to haunt us later. Willard warns, “Forcing religion upon the young even though it makes no sense to them is a major reason why they ‘graduate’ from church about the same time they graduate from high school and do not return for twenty years, if ever.”
3. Decision Coupled to attitudes of dominion and a tendency to discount the views and experiences of young people, there is also the pattern of framing our encounters of faith with our youth as moving them toward a one-time decision. A hallmark of evangelical piety is a personal encounter with Jesus, which has in some circles been reduced to the repetition of the “sinner’s prayer” after which, like Wesley, one’s heart is to be strangely warmed. We have made faith into throwing a light switch, where one turns it on in a singular event or moment. What is the experience of some has been made the unfortunate mark of authenticity for all.
As a consequence, there is an assumed trajectory in youth programs to move the young person toward a one-time personal decision—the altar call or closing campfire. Such a narrative arc is out of touch with lived experience. We need to reframe coming to faith differently.
This is not how Jesus dealt with nascent believers. To the fishermen at the water’s edge he gave an open-ended invitation to a relationship. Simply, “Follow me.” To the woman at the well, he offered “unending living water,” a metaphorical answer to her spiritual longing, which showed that she was looking for love in all the wrong places. The pattern of Jesus is always an open-ended invitation to a relational journey. It is not one and done, but a call to join in a life-long adventure. It’s more like falling in love than throwing a switch.
This adventure is started in the midst of the acknowledged messiness of life right where one is. One assumes that the Samaritan woman had a tense conversation with her current paramour as she began her adventure with Jesus. And the fishermen had to say something to their wives and business partners as they headed out with Jesus.
It is one thing to make a public decision via saying a prayer, coming forward in a church, or raising one’s hand around a campfire. It is quite another thing to begin an apprenticeship to Jesus in a life-long pilgrimage. While a pilgrimage always begins with a single step, we must not frame the faith experience mechanistically assuming that it is only the first step that counts. No it is about gradually falling in love with Jesus by being with him over time. This is a completely different project than what is normally offered to our young people today.
4. Doubt Speaking of messiness, this process must leave room for doubt. The evangelical church does not provide a safe place for doubt. This conspiracy of silence is crippling to thoughtful young people. One of the consistent failures of the church toward our youth is our unwillingness to talk about doubt and when we do talk about it we do so in a manner that furthers shame. Both approaches hurt our children.
British philosopher Bertrand Russell is one of the most famous atheist because of his book, Why I Am Not a Christian. It began as a lecture first given in 1927. As a published book it was later banned from sale in some countries. The New York Public Library listed it among the most influential books of the 20th century.
Less well known is his experience of losing his faith as a young teenager. About his experience of faith at fourteen he wrote, “I became exceedingly religious and consequently anxious for supposing religion to be true. For the next four years a great part of my time was spent in secret meditation upon this subject. I could not speak to anybody about it for fear of giving pain. I suffered acutely, from the gradual loss of faith and from the necessity of silence.” For him, doubt was something to be ashamed of, because he believed it to be dishonest to believe if you have doubts.
C.S. Lewis also had a tragic experience as a young boy of ten that also shaped his spiritual trajectory. His mother Flora died of cancer. Though he had grown up in the Anglican church, at the time he had no solid belief in God, only thinking of him as a Cosmic Magician who would grant requests through prayer. After praying earnestly for his mother’s healing, upon her death he prayed for her miraculous resurrection. Lewis scholar David Downing sums up the impact of this on Lewis’ spiritual life, “The failure of his prayers did not produce a loss of belief in him because there was no genuine belief there in the first place.” Nonetheless, the loss of his mother was profound. Thirty years later he would reflect, “With my mother’s death all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared from my life. There was to be much fun, many pleasures, many stabs of joy; but no more of the old security. It was sea and islands now; the great continent had sunk like Atlantis.” The spiritual impact of these kinds of childhood realities should not be minimized. During the 1960-2016 period, the percentage of children living with only their mother nearly tripled from 8 to 23 percent. The experience of being a child today is much more complicated than in the past with the fragility of families, the pluralism of beliefs, and the intrusion of social media. Children grow up faster and with far more fragility. It is all sea and islands now.
Where is there space for an honest conversation about the reality of childhood with children? Nowhere. Does one ever think about what joint custody does to the sense of security in a child’s life as he or she is weekly shuttled back and forth between parents? It is difficult being a child today—relationally and spiritually. The church’s silence on this difficulty is deafening and crippling.
The general assumption is that doubt is a problem unique to faith, but not for knowledge in general. This is not the case. All belief when understood existentially comes pre-mixed with doubt. It is a reminder that belief demands an ongoing posture of trust and reliance. It is Descartes not the Bible that makes doubt the inviolable pathway to knowledge. It was Descartes not the Bible that suggested a divorce between the objective and subjective poles in human knowing. Practically, this means that in the public mind, science operates in the realm of objectivity while all other claims to knowledge—particularly religion—are merely subjective. But this is not true. All knowledge is personal knowledge having simultaneously both objective and subjective dimensions. The root of this problem is an Enlightenment-based false sense of “certainty.” Doubt then as an intrinsic aspect of all knowing, scientific, religious, or otherwise. Doubt is the check on the hubris of certainty—the kind of knowing that is only possible for God. Doubt is not something for which one is to be ashamed. It is not unique to religious belief. When faced honestly, doubt is an opportunity for spiritual growth.
Making Room for Doubt If this is the case, where can a young person begin to make their faith their own, affirm their own self-determination in belief, and in the process express their own confusions about faith aloud in a safe, supportive environment. The answer is almost nowhere—and this fact is tragic for young people who are living in an increasingly cross-pressured world. They assume that in every room and on every topic there will be someone who disagrees strongly with their views. Every belief is assumed to have multiple perspectives. A safe posture is simply to “affirm my truth,” which may shut up the detractor, but fails the test of reality that knowledge requires. Genuine knowledge is never private. The other safe position is to deny truth itself, but this too denies the reality of lived experience, where a host of truth affirmations are made everyday and are relied on by necessity. For the church then in this context to add the possibility of shame to religious doubt is an epistemological error and a form of spiritual abuse.
In such a spiritual environment, 1) where parental domination of belief belies self-determination, 2) where the struggles and doubts of the young are discounted as unimportant, 3) where religious belief is reduced to a simple, one-time decision, and 4) where doubt is equated to unbelief and reinforced through social shame, it is no wonder that the church is alienating the next generation of believers. The church has unintentionally added a high octane catalyst to the cultural default posture of unbelief.
This need not be the case. The truth of the gospel is the truth of reality. We do not have to approach our intellectual doubts in a defensive posture. What is dangerous to faith is not doubt but distraction. If only seeker’s find, then the problem is not doubt but spiritual sloth. We don’t need to force feed faith. Willard warns, “Doctrine is taught in a way that says you must believe this whether you believe it or not. That doesn’t work well. That’s why we see the steady exodus of young people from our churches. But Jesus wasn’t like that. He never does that sort of thing. Anyone who can find a better way than Jesus, he would be first to tell you to take it.” There is no defensiveness here. The inner work of the Holy Spirit and the outward constraints of reality will, if attended, lead one home. But by not giving our children the room to rebel we get in the way of the constructive benefit of doubt and give them the sense that we have something to hide.
G.K. Chesterton said of his youth, “All I had hitherto heard of Christian theology had alienated me to it. I was a pagan at the age of twelve, a complete agnostic by the age of sixteen; and I cannot understand anyone passing the age of seventeen without having asked himself so simple a question.” It is time all those engaged with the spiritual formation of youth to take seriously our pattern of dominion, our tendency to discount, our insistence on a decision, and our avoidance of doubt. It is time to stop consciously alienating our youth in these ways. The pattern of Jesus calls us to a new approach to youth ministry and to the embrace of doubt as an opportunity for growing in spiritual maturity.
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