One of the most distressing experiences any Christian parent can have is to watch as their child abandons the faith of their youth. These tragedies are not far from any of us – names and faces immediately come to mind. The experience may be so common as to seem that this is the norm, something to be expected. Some ministries have raised alarm bells about such loss, decrying the apparent flood of young people exiting the faith. Yet at the same time we see some young people raised in Christian homes who carry on for God as faithful disciples of Christ, in their turn raising their own children to love and live for the Lord.
Is it possible to predict which outcome will occur? Is it possible to prevent the loss of faith or, even better, to guarantee the persistence of faith? Or is reality somewhere in between? Is it possible to at least create an environment where the persistence of faith is more likely than not?
At the outset, we should acknowledge that we don’t believe anyone can really lose faith. One either has it or one doesn’t and if it exists it persists because of the reality of the living Holy Spirit indwelling the believer, granting eternal life and working in the heart. We use the language of loss of faith because of human perspective. This is the way it looks on the outside — a young person exhibits, seemingly, enough traits of Christianity while growing up in a good church and home, yet abandons that faith soon after leaving the home — sometimes even before leaving home.
One other thing to note: we have no wish to increase the guilt, despair, and anguish of parents who are hurting over the loss of their children to the world. We sympathize with that agony. Still, can anything be done, humanly speaking, to help prevent that loss from occurring?
“The idea that young adults are abandoning their faith in droves may be widely accepted but isn’t fully accurate. So says a Focus on the Family study that casts light on trends among young adults that may contradict doomsday predictions for the Christian faith.”
Some points from the study:
- While close to one fifth of young adults (18%) who were raised in homes with some measure of religious influence are now unaffiliated with any particular faith, only 11% of those “said they had a strong faith as a child and lived in a home where a vibrant faith was practiced and taught.”
- “Parents who provide a home where faith is vibrantly practiced — even imperfectly — are remarkably likely to create young adults who remain serious Christians, even as they sometimes go through bumpy spots in the road. … not surprisingly, homes modeling lukewarm faith do not create enduring faith in children.”
- “Religious outcomes in emerging adulthood are not random happenstance about which all bets are off after age 18. Instead, they often flow quite predictably from formative religious in influences that shape persons’ lives in earlier years. . . . [The] religious commitments, practices and investments made during childhood and the teenage years, by parents and others in families and religious communities, matter — they make a difference.”
If this analysis is correct, churches and homes need to focus on providing an environment of serious Christian life – more of the ‘hothouse’, not less. What makes up a “vibrant faith” in church and home? There are several categories to think about. Our list will not be exhaustive! But let’s think about these four at least:
- Active Church Life
- Devoted Personal Life
- Disciplined Parental Life
- Intentional Theological Life
Active Church Life
What is an active church life? It means faithful participation in the ministry of your local Bible-believing Baptist church. All of those terms are important, if you don’t have such a church in reach of your family, you should either be instrumental in starting one or move. But as important as attending a strong Bible-believing Baptist church is to your family, mere passive attendance is not enough. Please notice the first phrase above, “faithful participation in the ministry…” The local church ministry depends on the active involvement of dedicated Christians.
A vibrant faith is seen in the life of a man who leads his family in participation in every capacity he can. Churches of every size have opportunities for service, from teaching classes to sweeping floors. Your involvement, with your children in tow (and assisting) communicates a love for God and the things of God by making service to others through the church your delight.
You should be prepared to serve even if you “don’t have a gift for that,” at least until the Lord brings someone else along. You should love the Lord’s church. You should be willing to do anything your local church needs to further the mission of God in your local church. Children who see that kind of love in action will learn to love the same things. By the way, children who have parents who view church as a chore and a burden have something to replicate as well.
Devoted Personal Life
Read your Bible! Pray every day! How often have you heard those exhortations? How often to you perform them? Do you see them as Christian duties or do you really make your time with God a time of meaningful spiritual relationship? There is no magic in reading your Bible or praying, but if you give yourself to knowing God through his Word and prayer, your communion with the Spirit inevitably produces a life that radiates that relationship. There is power in the Word. God gives you spiritual power the closer you get to him: “Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you.” (James 4.8)
But more than simply setting aside time in your life for an active relationship with God, let me ask this. Is your life permeated with your relationship with God? Does your relationship with God affect the rest of your day, or is it just that half hour in the morning? Your devotional life is just the start.
What do your children see of the impact your life with God has on your whole day? When you come home from work, are they aware of your burden for your co-worker’s souls? Do they know about the challenges you face at work and how you have tried to meet them as a Christian?
Involve your family in your whole life – invite a co-worker over for a meal, exposing them to a Christian home and way of life. Challenge your children to be burdened for the people you are concerned for. Minister together to the souls and needs of others — your children will see what a vibrant faith looks like in daily life.
Disciplined Parental Life
We must think about child discipline and training. By child discipline and training, we don’t mean simply the imposing of constraints on your children (although we do mean that). We mean that you as a parent need to be disciplined unto godliness yourself. You need to be self-disciplined (or, better, Spirit-disciplined). To be a consistent, just, godly disciplinarian, you need a consistent, faithful, godly life.
When we talk about discipline, we must say more than “be disciplined.” How are we to be disciplined? When Christians flirt with the world, hold reservations about church standards, indulge the flesh, feed the appetites — “in moderation,” of course, we’re Christians — they find themselves considered hypocritical when they attempt to discipline children. I once knew a woman whose children she indulged, all the while thinking of herself as the “strict one” in her home. Her children didn’t respect her, turned away from her God, lived for the world and couldn’t wait to escape the church culture. One thing that disgusted the children is that while she preached discipline and would set her kids at work in their home school, she would spend hours at a time watching television and letting her own responsibilities suffer.
How can you discipline children if you fail to be disciplined yourself? When you are disciplined, you have earned the right to discipline. Perhaps better to say you have gained credibility and indeed authority to discipline.
And from a platform of credibility, you need the courage to put principles of discipline in practice. A recent article by John Piper speaks very straightforwardly to this. (We often strongly disagrees with Piper on many matters, but on this one he speaks the truth.) We are not after turning children into robots, but they must learn to be obedient servants. The only way to do that is through a disciplined life, and the way that applying discipline is most effective is if the authority is disciplined himself. It is not a place for pride or demagoguery. It is a life of submission and humility. Such a life displays a “vibrant faith.”
There is much more that could be said about this, and many more applications to be made. This is offered to give you some direction, some idea of what a vigorous (“vibrant”) Christian life must involve.
Intentional Theological Life
In this last category, I’d like to urge something on you that is more than mere zealous devotion (as important as that is!). I’d like you to consider making the things of God (theology) a matter of personal pursuit. I have noticed that those who make devotion the end of their spiritual life are much less effective in their influence than those who add strong theological understanding as part of their testimony. Those who are zealous are necessary (see my remarks on a devoted personal life above). It is necessary to be devoted, but what we are after isn’t merely the fruit of Bible reading and prayer, of shaping the affections to follow God.
I have watched men and women who have influence with others (especially their own children) and observe that those who know what they believe and why are often more able to communicate that faith to their children than those who are satisfied with merely personal devotion. Perhaps the soul that wrestles with theological issues is more able to give an answer for the hope that lies within them. Often these matters come up in their lives because of external challenges: family members with aberrant beliefs, personal tragedies that raise difficult questions, a challenging workplace where faith is mocked. There are many challenges that will force the believer to be able to give an answer, if the challenge is met head on.
The fruit of such a life is spiritual strength and spiritual influence. I don’t expect the folks in my congregation to all become walking, talking systematic theology textbooks, but when I watch them wrestle with theological themes, come to theological conclusions, and speak of them to others, I see people who have spiritual influence over others.
This does require a certain commitment of time and interest to the things of God. I would urge you to learn to love this kind of knowledge of God. I would urge you to lay aside other interests that are besetting weights, pulling your attention away from God. Many pursuits are entirely lawful for a Christian, but they may also so occupy the mind and heart that God is an acquaintance instead of a close companion.
These matters are no guarantee that if you follow my advice, every one of your children will be faithful followers of Christ. I offer these suggestions to you with the observation that the less devoted Christian testimony has almost always failed to influence children to follow the faith of Christ. You can’t guarantee your children’s faith by your own faithfulness, but you can almost guarantee their faithlessness if you are less then faithful.
And one more thing, one last exhortation: How much of my advice do you need to apply in your life in order to have a “vibrant faith?” After all, as one of my initial quotes said, “Parents who provide a home where faith is vibrantly practiced — even imperfectly — are remarkably likely to create young adults who remain serious Christians.” How imperfectly may you practice faith vibrantly and still be “vibrant?” The question sounds a little foolish, doesn’t it?
That’s because it is foolish. It is a legalistic way of looking at Christian living. It is the opposite of vibrant faith. If you reduce my advice above to a series of bullet points and then you put into practice, say, 80 percent of them, would you have a “vibrant faith?” Would you be able to guarantee that you had vibrated enough to lead your children to a like kind of faith? That’s legalism – reducing spiritual life to a list of behaviours.
How much of your life does God want, after all? The answer is very simple:
All of it.
All of it! All of it! (Romans 12.1-2).
Don Johnson is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada.