The living, the living—they praise you, as I am doing today; parents tell their children about your faithfulness~ Isaiah 38:19
Over the last few months I have read a number of articles on the topic of why kids who were raised in Christian homes are leaving the faith. Parents and leaders are alarmed that roughly seventy percent of all kids who have been raised in evangelical churches leave the church upon graduation from high school. A small number of them return years later when they have families of their own, but the vast majority of our young people are simply leaving the faith they were raised in, never to return.
This statistic is troubling for a number of reasons. First, this statistic reaches across denominational lines; Baptists, Assemblies of God, Evangelical Free, Christian Missionary Alliance, and non-denominational evangelicals are all experiencing the same losses, which tells me that no one is getting it right and there is currently no how-to program available to save us. Secondly, if money were the issue we wouldn’t be in the mess were in; the vast majority of evangelical churches spend a small fortune on children and youth in an attempt to keep kids engaged in church during their growing up years. If seventy percent of kids are leaving our churches as young adults it means we are wasting a shocking amount of God’s money on a failing system.
Third, when young adults have been interviewed about why they left the faith, they state overwhelmingly that when confronted with arguments against the Bible and Christianity (usually in high school or college) the arguments against the faith appeared credible; that suggests to me that church kids are reaching adulthood biblically illiterate and unable to give a cogent reason for why they believe what they believe.
I have some experience on all sides of this issue. As a licensed minister in my denomination I have attended numerous meetings and seminars intended to address the problem. Until this last year I taught the Bible to high school and college students in a large evangelical church. During those seven years of teaching I got to know at least two hundred students and see what they did with their faith after high school. On a more personal level I am the Mother of three young adults who are by the grace of God all still in church.
After reading and rereading books and articles on this subject, I wonder if we aren’t approaching this problem from the wrong angle. Most of the articles I read focus entirely on two issues: improving existing church programs and the specific reasons why young adults are leaving. I will be the first to say that I believe there are some things Churches could do to improve the situation (more on that later) but focusing almost entirely on our churches as the source of the problem when most kids spend only a few hours a week there seems a bit myopic to me.
Focusing on the ones who leave also seems somewhat pointless; beyond finding the commonalities of their reasons I don’t know how much we can learn from them without dissecting each of their motives on an individual level. After many years of church work I have observed that two kids can grow up with identical church experiences and have radically different spiritual outcomes.
I believe that the key to understanding this problem lies in looking at the thirty percent of the kids who stay and trying to figure out what those kids have in common. After twenty-three years of parenting and watching other people parent their kids, as well as many years of active youth ministry, I have watched a lot of kids grow into adulthood. Some of those kids have embraced the faith and some have not.
The ones who do tend to have one thing in common: similar families. These are families that value faith and lovingly discipline their kids. These parents understand that it’s not church programs that keep kids engaged in church; it’s wise parents who keep their kids engaged. Today I am going to share five characteristics I have observed of families who succeed spiritually with their kids. Some of these my husband and I did well and some I wish we had done better; there is more to parenting than these five principles but they are a good start. Families that keep their kids Christian tend to…
Create routine and embrace tradition~
I am convinced that keeping kids Christian is as much about creating a secure environment and strong sense of identity as teaching truth. Nothing makes a kid feel safer and more loved than knowing that their life is going to be the same day after day, year after year. Routines and traditions assure kids of this and help them to form a sense of family identity. A strong sense of family identity makes them more likely to embrace the family’s values later in life. Little things like eating dinner together as a family or making the same cookies every Christmas help kids feel secure and a part of something bigger than themselves. Traditions don’t have to be elaborate to make a difference. When our kids were young we wanted to teach them that Christmas was about more than getting. So we started the tradition of buying a farm animal for a family in a third world country every year. It was as simple as deciding what we wanted to do and writing a check but to this day my kids still enjoy going through the gift catalog and picking out a goat or a flock of chickens for a family they’ve never met. Any small thing done on a regular basis becomes a part of a family’s unique identity.
Shelter their kids~ (wisely)
All of the families I know who have successfully launched their kids spiritually have sheltered their kids from the seamier side of life by limiting their access to books, television, movies and music and other worldly influences when they were young. These families did not attempt to keep them ignorant of the world forever; as their kids matured they opened up a dialog with their kids about life choices, introducing their kids to a biblical way of looking at the world in the process. These families understood that there is a right way and a wrong way to shelter kids. Sheltering kids can be dangerous when we forget that all kids grow into adults who will inevitably be faced with the opportunity to make sinful choices. Healthy sheltering is aimed at keeping kids pure rather than innocent. An innocent person knows nothing about a subject; a pure person may know a good deal about something sinful but they understand the consequences of choosing wrong and so they choose right. Innocence is dangerous in a corrupt culture. Innocent people are often naïve and even foolish. Someone who has chosen purity is wise and self-protective.
Have fun together~
The most well-adjusted teenagers I have known are the ones who come from families that make fun a daily part of their family life. Fun doesn’t have to be expensive to be meaningful; it’s the memory that’s made that matters. Camping trips, movie nights, board games, general silliness and water fights are all inexpensive ways to create fond family memories. As the kids get older it’s important to keep having fun as family. Some parents (especially Moms) put a lot of energy into making memories with kids when they are small and then leave kids to make their own fun as they approach the teen years. Teenagers may not be as obviously expressive or grateful for the effort you make but they need the fun every bit as much as they did when they were small.
Teach the Bible and apply biblical principles to real life situations~
Wise parents understand that it is their responsibility to train their kids in the way that they should go, not the Church’s job. There are 168 hours in a week. Even if our kids are in Church every time the doors are open there is no way they will learn everything they need to learn in those few hours to grow into healthy, God-fearing adults. It’s important to teach not just the Bible stories to kids but to teach the principles behind the stories as well. The story of Esther is not just about a pretty girl who won a beauty contest. It’s about a flawed young woman who changed the world with one act of bravery and faith. We also need to let our kids see us living out God’s commands in a real way. Once when my youngest daughter was a newborn I took the gang to the grocery store. The trip was a nightmare from the get-go. The horrors included a crying infant, older kids who kept asking me for stuff (a big no-no in our house), endless whining about being hungry, many disapproving looks from other customers, and an unfortunate incident where we knocked over a display of oranges. After an hour of torture (for me and everybody else in Winn-Dixie that day) I got checked out and made to the car. When I took the kids’ jackets out of the cart I found some groceries that I hadn’t paid for. I would love to tell you I instantly embraced the right choice; the truth is I actually had a little debate with myself about returning the stuff to the store; after all, it wasn’t a lot of stuff and I was pretty sure the store employees never wanted to see us again. I did the right thing (grudgingly) and tried to put the whole incident out of my mind until about five years ago when my son asked me if I remembered that day. (Unfortunately, I did). It was all worth the trouble when he told me that that one act of honesty had a huge impact on him as he was growing up.
When our kids were born my husband and I made a commitment to always answer our kids’ questions about life openly and honestly. We have had that pledge challenged a few times over the years; like when our twelve year asked one morning at breakfast what oral sex was. Or when our eight year old wanted to know what Viagra did. These are tough questions but they are the kind of questions kids who grow up in the 21st century ask. If we don’t answer them, someone else will and they may not give the answers we would like. Truthfully answering hard questions (in an age- appropriate way) has given us countless opportunities to shape the worldview of our kids
Keeping our kids in the faith is one of the greatest spiritual battles of our time. Churches can turn the tide in this battle by being intentional about equipping parents to do the job that God has called them to. Most modern churches have segregated their members by age; youth and children often have their own services completely separate from adults. Many children do not even enter the church sanctuary until they have reached adulthood and we wonder why they feel uncomfortable there. Occasional “family services” could help solve this problem as would incorporating family activities (family skate nights, barbeques etc.) into youth and children’s’ programs.
The key to keeping our kids Christian is for churches and parents to work together to teach and train our kids. Both are needed if we are going to help our kids successfully navigate our culture in a way that keeps our kids in the faith. The parents of the thirty percent tend to view parenting as a discipleship opportunity. They instill discipline and faith in their kids at every opportunity using Deuteronomy 6:6-8 as a model. These parents know that the most important thing they can do for their kids is to love them enough to nurture faith in them.
These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates~ Deuteronomy 6:6-9
Copyright Lisa Price 2013