Yusuf thinks some of God’s commands must be crazy. Kyle says the facts of science and evolution prove there’s no God. Melissa can’t understand what’s wrong with homosexuality. Rigoberto was raised in a religious home, but his father drank a lot, and his family was wracked with painful tragedies. Lizz thinks the most important thing is to make sure she gives meaning to this life, not the next. Miriam finds it enough to be alone with her thoughts.
They are all young Americans, 23 to 30 years old, who shared their stories in a recent NPR report on why young people are moving away from religion.
It’s enough to bring a parent to tears.
A recent Pew Center survey reveals that more Americans are disconnecting themselves from religion than ever before. The increase in these so-called spiritual “nones” has been especially dramatic among young people. NPR quotes Greg Smith of the Pew Center on the subject:
Young people today are not only more religiously unaffiliated than their elders; they are also more religiously unaffiliated than previous generations of young people ever have been as far back as we can tell. This really is something new.
Explanations for the “rise of the nones” can be found everywhere. Some say it’s not so much a deep spiritual shift as it is the end of nominal Christianity—that, whereas in an earlier generation the religiously uninterested would have claimed connection to some body of worship for cultural reasons, today’s young people find no compelling reason to do so. Others (as in the NPR report where we met these six) associate the trend with distaste for the “culture wars.”
Macro-level explanations of that sort are helpful in their way, but as I read these stories, I wasn’t thinking about culture-wide social movements. Rather I was haunted by images of these men and women’s parents. Not all of their families were Christian, yet I could easily see stories just like theirs being repeated in Christian contexts. And in my mind’s eye, I can see parents everywhere wondering, “With so many young people turning away, what can I do to help keep my child in the faith?”
I have two college-age children, so I’m asking that very question myself. And it seems to me we can learn a lot from the reasons these six have rejected their parents’ beliefs.
Rigoberto’s story reminds us that the way we parents live has an immeasurable impact on our children. Research supports what common sense has always known: When parents live authentically in Christ, their children are much more likely to follow Christ too. I wouldn’t presume to know what lay behind Rigoberto’s family’s struggles, but it’s not hard to see why he chose not to follow in his parents’ religious footsteps.
Strikingly, though, next to the importance of their parents’ example, what seems to have most affected these six men and women was the mixed-up teaching they had received.
Yusuf, a Muslim, wondered how Isaac could have turned into a goat when God called on Abraham to sacrifice him. I really doubt that’s taught anywhere in Islam. But don’t think errors like that are unique to other religions! Some Christians believe men have one less rib than women—and they think that’s taught in Genesis 1:21-22. It’s nonsense, of course.
Other questions are harder to handle. Our Christian children are bound to wonder how God could have asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, for example. Pat answers to hard questions might hold them through their early teenage years, but in the long run they’re no help at all. I’ll come back to that in a moment.
Kyle turned away from Christianity because of “the facts of science and evolution.” Indeed, the rumor is afoot, in most universities and many high schools, that science and Christianity are at odds with each other—which is astonishing, for nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, as British historian of science James Hannam convincingly shows, science was born out of Christianity.
That seems to be a well-kept secret, unfortunately. I was talking about this topic once with a fellow believer. He said I ought to keep in mind how Christians had oppressed scientists like Galileo. I answered, “Okay, if Galileo was one, please name the other one.” He couldn’t do it. In fact, the Galileo story is one of a kind. (The true story of Galileo isn’t quite what we’ve been led to believe, either.)
But there’s a feeling out there—it’s hard to pin down, since it’s more like a mood than anything else, and yet it’s almost everywhere—that science is well on the way to disproving and displacing Christianity. It’s thoroughly false, but our children’s schools are not averse to advancing it anyway.
Maybe Kyle was breathing in that mood as part of the atmosphere at middle school and high school. Maybe his college taught it more overtly. I don’t know. However he imbibed it, it wasn’t true—but who will teach that to our children? Parents, is it not our responsibility? We could, and should, ask our churches to do it, but will they? If not, who will encourage them to do so? Don’t our children need it? Didn’t Kyle?
There’s nothing easy about this. In fact I haven’t even mentioned the hardest contemporary topic, homosexuality. That’s what seems to have turned Melissa away from her parents’ religion.
These are real adult children of real parents. They could just as easily be our children. And although nothing we do could ever guarantee our children’s spiritual future, clearly our example matters. What we teach matters. It matters for our children. It matters forever.
So what does a parent do? We follow Christ, of course. We urge our churches to teach Christ well, and to teach Christ in context of questions like these. We study and we teach along with our churches. Maybe we band together with other Christian parents to help each other.
In an age wherein it is confessed and lamented that infidelity abounds, do we observe in [Christian parents] any remarkable care to instruct their children in the principles of the faith which they profess, and to furnish them with arguments for the defence of it? They would blush, on their child’s coming out into the world, to think him defective in any branch of that knowledge, or of those accomplishments which belong to his station in life, and accordingly these are cultivated with becoming assiduity. But he is left to collect his religion as he may.
Here’s what he’s saying, translated into 21st-century American English: His world was not friendly to Christ; neither is ours. We are ever so careful to make sure our children are trained for their vocations, but have we really instructed our children in the principles of Christianity? Have we taught them reasons to be confident it’s true? Or do we let them collect their religion as they may?
Our teaching cannot be in the form of this-is-what-we-believe-because-we-believe-it. That’s the easy way, but it doesn’t last. Beliefs formed that way won’t stand against the challenge of a teacher or friend who disagrees. Young people who have had the chance to explore their doubts and questions, and who have encountered respectful discussion and thoughtful answers, are the ones most likely to stay with their faith as adults.
I’m well aware of how challenging this is for parents. Most of us feel like we have our hands full already. Our children’s spiritual future depends on it, though. None of us wants any of our children to become become a Miriam, a Yusuf, a Kyle, a Melissa, a Rigoberto, or a Lizz.
Tom Gilson is a writer, ministry strategist, and speaker, and author/host of the Thinking Christianblog. He’s closely involved in developing curriculum for global discipleship use through Campus Crusade for Christ, and in co-founding a new Life Leader Institute at King’s Domain near Cincinnati.
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