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Will Our Children Have Faith?
If we don't teach our children a holistic Gospel, they will end up with a watered down faith that can only promote personal well-being and teaches them to be nice to one another.


Will our children have faith? That was the question posed by John Westerhof in a book of the same title in 1976. It's a question that still challenges the Church today.

… teens who belong to religious groups have extremely weak spiritual understandings about their faith

In fact, there may be more cause for concern and alarm now. Recent studies on teenagers in the U.S. and Canada suggest that if teens have faith at all, it is a generic, shallow kind of belief—a faith that will not enable them to deal with the challenges of our increasingly secular age.

A recent U.S. National Study on Teenagers and Religion found that teens who belong to religious groups have extremely weak spiritual understandings about their faith; the majority do not even know the basics of what their religion teaches.

As reported by author Christian Smith in Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, the study describes the belief system of many teens as "moralistic therapeutic deism." Its basic tenets are:

• God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
• The central goal in life is to be happy and feel good about oneself.
• God does not need to be involved in my life except when I need God to resolve a problem.
• Good people go to heaven when they die.

A similar study has not been conducted in Canada, but I suspect that we might discover that things are not so different in this country.

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How did church-going teens end up this way? The study suggests that the single most important influence and predictor of the spiritual lives of adolescents is their parents. Far from seeking their own spiritual paths, teenagers follow their parents' footsteps when it comes to religion.

Our values, attitudes and beliefs about things like God, the divinity of Jesus, life after death, love, sexuality, values and ethics will be picked up by them. According to Reginald Bibby, the University of Lethbridge, Alberta, sociologist who has been surveying Canadian teenagers' attitudes toward religion since the 1970s, "Teenagers will become eventually pretty much like the rest of us."

Another major influence in causing teens to have a shallow faith has been the teaching they have received in some churches. Wendell Loewen, associate professor of youth, church and culture at Tabor College (a Mennonite Brethren college in Hillsboro, Kansas), suggests that many teens have been taught that "salvation is, in essence, a one-time transaction with God to escape damnation. Christians simply have to read the Bible more, pray more, and occasionally save souls."

The result, he says, is a faith that is "virtually indistinguishable from its surrounding culture," that is "primarily privatized," and that "demonstrates a radical disconnect between belief and lifestyle."

He goes on to say that what is needed today is a "biblical presentation of the Church" as an "alternative culture that invites others to participate in the reality of God's reign. Understanding this can help more students beyond a privatized faith toward a strong desire to influence the world."

For Loewen, this reign is most helpfully illustrated by the image of the kingdom of God. By emphasizing the "reign of God," he says teens will "better be able to see their way out of their individualized, privatized faith bubbles. They will be able to wrestle with tangible ways in which they can impact their world. This discovery can move students beyond an individual and personal faith emphasis toward one that seeks to tangibly impact the world."

The message is clear: If the Church doesn't live and teach a holistic Gospel to our children, they will end up with a watered down faith—one that simply promotes personal well-being and teaches teens to be nice to one another. It will be a faith that keeps God on retainer, just in case they run into trouble, but not one that promotes that importance of deepening the presence of God in their lives.

As churches and Christian schools, our goal must be to help youths care equally about evangelism and social action; inner peace with God and peacemaking; personal spirituality and community; abundant life and simple living; serving God and serving the poor; praying and doing justice. We must help them avoid becoming moralistic therapeutic deists. We should help them to learn to know the one who created them, and who watches over all of life—and help them deepen that relationship in such a way that they will constantly feel God's presence as they commit themselves to serving God in all of life.

Abe Bergen is assistant professor of practical theology at Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg, specializing in youth ministry.

Originally published in Canadian Mennonite, April 16, 2007.

 

 
 
 
 

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