In five years, I will have a teenager.
That’s a dramatic way of saying I have an eight-year-old, but it’s the perspective on my mind these days, as I pack away too-small clothes and watch grown-up traits catch me by surprise. She understands sarcasm now; something I discovered one day as I muttered under my breath and heard a knowing giggle. She appears to be inheriting our sense of humor. Uh oh.
Soon, my daughter – and then my son – will begin to collect their own opinions, choose their own pursuits, decide who they want to be. It thrills and terrifies me.
Research tells us that we are losing 80% of our young people to spiritual disengagement before the age of 29. Barna Group president David Kinnaman describes it this way:
“Imagine a group photo of all the students who come to your church (or live within your community of believers) in a typical year. Take a big fat marker and cross out three out of every four faces. That’s the probable toll of spiritual disengagement as students navigate through their faith during the next two decades.”
Surely not my kids, I think. Then I remember how very close I was to being part of that statistic myself. How many others I’ve seen walk away.
Parenting was difficult, certainly, when I was nourishing tiny baby-bodies. Now, though, the responsibility of nurturing their souls leaves me floundering for right answers.
I could lecture them on which behaviors to avoid, establish copious household rules, be at church whenever the doors are open. I could sanitize them within a bubble, and then pray they self-bubble again once they’ve left home.
Or I could offer a smooth-sailing Christianity: Pray a prayer, avoid the big deal sins, give a tithe, vote correctly, and live a cushy life. Done!
The trouble is that following Christ is not a prescribed list of actions and inactions, nor is comfort its intended trademark. Isn’t the Christian life dangerous to every bit of self we hold dear? We’re called to go and get our hands dirty with Kingdom work in a messed-up world, dying to ourselves. And it’s worth it because His love is better than life. (Psalm 63:3) This, I believe. But am I living it out? Is this what they see?
I book expensive vacations, and wonder what I’m modeling. Go far too long without writing to our sponsored child, and wonder more. They see me with my laptop open far more than my Bible. They see me frustrated and apathetic. Yet my life is supposed to reflect Christ.
My fear is that I’m not showing them Jesus.
Our church is making major changes, prayerfully reevaluating how best to serve God, one another, and our community. What’s biblical, and what is simply modern church culture? These are some of the most challenging and encouraging conversations I’ve ever experienced. One of our focus areas these days: how to handle children’s ministry. Launch more programs? More fun and games? More ways to serve up Christianity in a colorful, shiny way? The statistics would suggest no.
Yet as exciting as it’s been to re-imagine a community where kids grow up living shoulder-to-shoulder with the rest of us in a way that honors their maturity level, but doesn’t water down the Christian life, the temptation is strong to maintain status quo. This is how children’s church is done. There is a formula. But while the formulas are full of great energy and intention, they are failing at an alarming rate to nurture lasting faith. I want to ignore this. Surely, not our kids. But I see the growing youth exodus and can’t shake the question. Why?
My fear is that we’re not showing them Jesus.
There is no magic checklist to guarantee children who sail into a Christian adulthood unscathed by disillusionment. Having co-authored a book about parenting by the Holy Spirit’s leading in the infant months, I believe that the best thing I can do is to carry that mindset through these next years. To lean wholly on the wisdom offered (James 1:5) as I lay down my own plans and seek His. I don’t pretend to know the answers. But as my babies have entered childhood, I’m collecting clues:
I’m starting to suspect that authenticity is crucial. Letting my kids see me live and bleed, struggle and regain my footing. God is good, and life can be hard. Offering spiritual pat answers, discouraging doubts and avoiding uncomfortable conversations – those are not recipes for true disciple-making.
I’m starting to suspect that a hyper-focus on sin management is not the answer. Nor is avoiding the topic. If my children know life in Christ as primarily a dos and don’ts list, I’ve missed the point. If I gloss over the effects of sin, I’ve done them a grave disservice. I want to encourage not simply an ability to toe-the-line and exhibit the right behaviors (because the Bible says so, that’s why!), but a passionate love for God that longs to follow Him… and then get back up and follow again.
I’m starting to suspect that grace is key. We’re afraid, sometimes, to lavish grace on our kids. What if that gives them license to act out? When young people cite ‘feeling judged’ as one reason they leave their faith, though, I wonder if we’ve forgotten that His kindness is what leads to repentance. (Romans 2:4) I want my kids to hear from me and the church that yes, choices have consequences, but darling – you are priceless. You are wanted. He simply does not run out of “Welcome Home” banners.
I’m starting to suspect that this all may involve some un-doing. God, undo me. Undo us.
Certainly, living enslaved to guilt is not the posture from which I’m intended to parent. Fun family trips are not wrong, and slips into selfishness and bad attitudes neither condemn me nor spell certain spiritual failure for these kids. I just want to do better. And as I daily lean forward into the pursuit of better, I will hope.
I hope my church community keeps asking hard questions. That we resist building Sunday School habits simply because they’re familiar. That we never stop doing our best to nurture our children in a faith family – flaws and all – that will walk alongside them toward closer communion with Christ.
I hope I will keep asking the questions myself. That I will examine each focus and parenting choice by asking whether it reflects Christ or culture (or church culture). My desires for them or His.
I hope I am a safe place. That I might swallow hard at certain questions, but will never dismiss them. That I will let them see my weaknesses, and not fear that my authenticity will diminish my authority.
I hope I will pray without ceasing. Not pray that they will do all the right things, but that they will find Him no matter what. Not that they would have perfect lives, but that they would give them up. Not that they would be superior, but that they would be servants. Not that their walk with God would look exactly like mine, but that their faith would be their own.
Our children are in His able hands, and I must trust that. I will often fall short and the Church will often fall short because we are human. The grace thing? It is for me – for all of us – too.
Our best bet – our strong hope, in this and in everything, is Jesus.
I just want them to see Him.
I’m always so encouraged to hear new perspectives and ideas about how to nurture a strong, authentic faith in children. What are some things you do – or plan to do – to help point your kids toward Christ?
Image credit: Flickr
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