We are in danger of not passing on biblical principles. What might this mean for the future of the Christian church? Current research indicates we are realistically in danger of not passing the Christian doctrine to the next generation. Both an overexposure to worldly philosophy and an over-dependence on church programs has caused us to fail in our task to hand off a vibrant, kingdom-focused faith.
What Do We Want From and For Our Children?
First, we need a clear definition of what we’re looking for in our children. Do we want nice kids who don’t get in trouble, or passionate followers of Christ? Second, we must adopt a multi-generational perspective, providing opportunities for those older and more mature in the faith to impart a spiritual legacy to the next generation—essentially to be mentors. Third, following the example in Deuteronomy 6, parents must fully grasp and live their faith in order to possess and pass it on to their children. This includes making the most of teachable moments in everyday life. Fourth, fathers must take the lead, recognizing that they are the spiritual thermostat of the home—the head of the household, even as Christ is the head of the church—and are obligated to raise their children in the training and instruction of the Lord.
It’s All in How We Raise Them
Proverbs 22:6 says, “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it” (NIV). Both the home and the church must educate in sound doctrine, equip in apologetics, and explain moral principles. Raising confident teens with a desire to serve God does not happen by accident. Nor can our children learn it by osmosis! Instead, it requires parents to recognize teachable moments, and to use those moments to pass on their faith. This is truly a matter of apologetics.
As parents, we want our children to grow up in a world where belief in God is said to be reasonable and desirable. Unfortunately, there are many who shout loudly from the rooftops—especially militant atheists like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris—who think belief in God is on the same level as belief in Santa Claus, fairies, leprechauns, and the like. Faith in God, however, is a reasonable faith. Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (NKJV). We want our kids to see that Christianity is true to the way things are—that it corresponds to reality. We also want them to see Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, Who can satisfy all their needs in a way that nothing else can.
Tough But Important Questions
As our children grow older, the dialog about God becomes more complex. Suddenly, they’re coming home from science class asking how Darwinian survival of the fittest fits into the story of creation. Their teacher told them nature, not God, painted the stripes on a zebra. We ask them to consider that although evolution might account for the zebra’s stripes (and the variety of stripes among zebras), it can’t account for the evolution of one species into another, or the origin and existence of zebras, or other living organisms. In other words, where did life come from? Darwin did not postulate a theory as to the origin of life or the universe. Of course, the title of his seminal work is about the origin of species, not life. Are we being hoodwinked into believing Darwin meant to explain how the whole of existence came into being?
When Darwinism is paired with materialism, as it often is, a more complicated picture emerges concerning the intelligibility of what J.P. Moreland calls “the Grand Story” of materialistic evolution. This issue was astutely explained by C.S. Lewis in Miracles. Lewis wrote, “Thus, a strict materialism refutes itself for the reason given long ago by Professor Haldane: ‘If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motion of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true… and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.'” Lewis notes a deep conflict between the Grand Story of materialism and the reliability of our cognitive faculties.
We must begin where our children are and nudge them toward a deeper understanding as they learn about God, themselves, and the world in which they live. It is important to poke and prod our kids to see the world in its proper light: Everything is sacred. It’s all from God, for God. A great tactic for engaging children on questions about God is to point out the transcendence of things like the scent of vanilla reminding us of home, or tasting boardwalk fries at the county fair and being transported to the beach. Remarkably, such ruminations can lead to contemplating the first cause of the universe (the cosmological argument). Further to this, we can open a discussion with our children about how the beneficial order in the world points to a Designer (the teleological argument). And how does the reality of moral obligations and values point to a moral Lawgiver (the moral argument).
Answering Their Questions
When my son Christopher was in 4th grade, he lost one of his classmates to a tragic and freakish accident. Several of them were playing flashlight tag in the dark. Christopher’s friend was running away, looking for a place to hide, when he crashed through a huge piece of plate glass. Sadly, the friend bled out as a result of his injuries and did not survive. As parents, my wife and I were faced with explaining why bad things happen, especially to children. Why would God kill a young boy? As my son grappled with the evil that befell that young lad, I was struck by the realization that my response to his struggle would lay the foundation for how he would process the concept of suffering.
Peter Kreeft argues in his book Making Sense of Suffering, God’s answer to the problem of evil is Christ on the cross. When our kids experience times of pain and suffering, we want to recognize these moments as opportunities. They allow us to explore God’s loving care and help us to learn to trust his goodness. We first need to listen to our children’s pain and allow them to express any feelings of disappointment before we try to correct their ideas about God. After our kids feel heard and their emotions and doubts validated, we can remind them—and ourselves—that God alone offers hope.
As Frederick Buechner explains, “It is a world where the battle goes ultimately to the good, who live happily ever after, and where in the long run everybody, good and evil alike, becomes known by his true name.” Perseverance is a little easier when we’re reminded of the ending. That’s the promise of the cross—one day all tears will be wiped away by our Savior. The experience of angst is a classroom to teach kids how to turn to Christ and point others to Him as the only hope in the face of evil.
Cultivate the Imagination of Our Children
We must encourage our children to love stories. This can be accomplished by reading to them from an early age. Tim Keller, in his book King’s Cross, quotes theologian Robert W. Jensen, who argued that our culture is in crisis because the modern world has lost its story. How often do you hear about families camping together, sharing stories around the fire, or recounting family history? How many children do you know that choose to read instead of play endless hours of video games or watch TV shows and movies? Of course, the Gospel is the ultimate story that shows victory coming out of defeat, strength coming out of weakness, life coming out of death, rescue from abandonment. And because it’s a true story—take that Sam Harris—it gives us hope. When our children fall in love with story, their hearts are prepared to recognize the best and truest story of all, which is the Gospel.
C.S. Lewis said this: “In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with myriad eyes, but it is still I who see.” Through stories, our kids expand their horizons, imagining what it’s like to walk on the moon, or visit a Mayan ruin, or climb Mt. Everest. The same is true about the many stories of faith and triumph, failure and regret, obedience and rebellion told in Scripture.
We are called upon to give personal testimony to the difference God has made in our lives. This includes telling our children. Typically, parents tend to keep their struggles a secret from their kids. Certainly, a great deal of what parents deal with on a daily basis is not necessarily suited for sharing with their kids. However, it is important that we look for teaching moments we can share with our children—situations where God brought us out of bondage and into freedom. We wrongly assume that if we simply instruct our children in Christian doctrine, shelter them from immoral behavior, and involve them in church and religious organizations then we’ve done all we can.
We must be consistent in our behavior, wise about reality, and genuinely personal about our faith. Today, most Christians rely on institutions and formal instruction to pass on the faith. It is painfully obvious that the influence of parents in teaching the faith is waning. Cultural forces—especially relativism and pluralism—are overwhelming the good intentions of mothers and fathers and challenging the efforts of our church leaders to build faith among believers. Sadly, we’re loosing ground. It is critical that we don’t panic or become disillusioned. Rather, we need to take a long-range view. We need to live our lives sharing God with our children and others.
Taking an active role in sharing and passing on our faith is about a lot more than just “doing church” together as a family. While it is clearly important to do that—worship, pray, serve, learn, and fellowship together—what we do outside of formal worship services and Sunday school class time is where the real opportunities happen. I squandered the chance to lead by example. Embroiled in active addiction for nearly forty years, I pulled every scam, told every lie, forgot every birthday, missed important events, lost jobs, failed at budgeting, broke hearts, disappointed friends and family, and lived a truly hypocritical life. This is clearly not an appropriate legacy for a father to leave behind.
Passing on our faith to the next generation isn’t just about making sure our children can name all the books in the Bible. Instead, it involves living a life that exudes the love and character of Jesus in such a way that those watching will imitate us. Every Christian has a baton, a spiritual inheritance in Christ, which is worth passing on. Our baton is the sum of all the lessons, insights, wisdom, counsel, character, and spiritual anointing we have gained. Our baton is the spiritual legacy God wants us to impart to others. Indeed, to the next generation.
Our children are watching.