During a three-year longitudinal study launched by the Fuller Youth Institute, a parent with three post–high school kids reflected on the changes she’s witnessed over the years: “I think if I were to go back and re-parent, I actually would allow my kids more freedom in their high school years to explore and express their questions about faith.”
Her instincts align with what teenagers need. According to our study, which looked at 500 youth group graduates, over 70 percent of churchgoing high schoolers report having serious doubts about faith. Sadly, less than half of those young people shared their doubts and struggles with an adult or friend. Yet these students’ opportunities to express and explore their doubts were actually correlated with greater faith maturity. In other words, it’s not doubt that’s toxic to faith; it’s silence.
Researchers for the National Study for Youth and Religion discovered that young people have become inarticulate about their faith, often lacking the language to express their beliefs and convictions. Further exploration revealed another telling part of this story: so have their parents.
Somehow, young people and their parents have lost the ability to speak of faith in real life. Like learning Mandarin as a young person then forgetting it as an adult, Christian adolescents and emerging adults often become less fluent in faith over time. But faith needs to be talked about and processed, and if these conversations diminish as our kids get older, we miss opportunities to help them remain fluent. What we call “faithing,” or the ongoing act of faith, depends on practice and use for it to become deeply part of us. It is through faithing that language, behaviors, beliefs, and values are internalized.
As we interact with parents nationwide, they confess that when it comes to discussing spirituality, they’re worried about saying the wrong thing and either messing up or revealing their ignorance. The good news for parents is we don’t need to be theologians or super-Christians to talk with our kids about our faith or theirs. We only need to be willing to go there.
Faith in many families has become a lost language, but parents can bring faithing language back into everyday life by finding small ways to speak it again. Like any language, it will seem awkward at first, but consistency will bring fluency.
First, create spaces for faithing to happen.
When my (Steve’s) daughters were in their late teens and early 20s, I made a point to use coffee outings to talk about meaningful topics. It was hard at first. As a parent, you
want your kids to come to you and ask you about the meaning of life, but that rarely happens. Instead, they often expected me to bring up important topics, so I learned to take some risks with them by asking them about friends, politics, current events, and God.
One question that I regularly brought up with them was, “What is something you don’t believe that you think I still believe?” I also turned the question around: “What is something you believe that you don’t think I believe?” Sometimes the answer would be, “I can’t think of anything,” and sometimes they had a list. I held my breath each time wondering what they might say, but what gave me courage was knowing that faithing is a process best fueled by honest, regular conversation.
Every once in a while, I (Kara) ask my kids this question: “When do you feel closest to God?” My son, Nathan’s answer: “During worship.” He has felt close to God through worship music since fourth grade. He now plays guitar and regularly leads worship at our high school ministry. Krista tells me she feels closest to God when she’s at church with her friends. She’s always been social, and she comes alive when she’s with people who get her. For Jessica, our most introverted child, it’s in our backyard by herself. She loves nature and experiencing God’s creation.
If I really thought about it, I could probably guess my kids’ answer based on what I observe about them. But having the conversation provides one more way to practice faith as a family.
Second, bring faithing to their big questions and dilemmas.
Encourage your teenager or young adult to articulate their doubts so that both of you can better understand what they might be working through. For example, when your kid says, “I don’t believe in God anymore,” you might respond, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in anymore.” Acknowledge that their confession is courageous. You might even say, “I don’t believe in that kind of God, either” and then articulate what you believe. Compliment them for noticing the contradictions and ask them how they would live differently.
Recognize, too, that intellectual dissent or questions often are evoked because of new and broadening relationships and experiences. Simplistic faith responses to issues of equality, science, and politics now feel unsatisfying. Acknowledge these new complexities. Invite other adults to join your family conversation who will listen, honor, and respond well to your kids’ questions. Avoid offering either-or solutions that constrain them to only two options when there may be more. And work toward considering new, creative ways that honor their experiences and faith journeys.
Third, tell your own faithing story. (It’s part of their story, too).
Somewhere along my parenting journey, I (Steve) realized that even though I was in ministry and our family shared many faith rituals, I had not told my girls my spiritual story. So with each of them, I tried to find moments to ask, “Have you ever wondered why or how I found a connection with Jesus and his story?” When I asked them if I could share my story, each one graciously responded, “Yes.”
In the same spirit, tell your story to your young adult kids. It doesn’t have to be told perfectly. And if you told them once long ago, don’t assume they remember. Tell it again. Tell them about times when God’s grace has sustained you. Share how you are experiencing God in your daily living. Our kids need a starting point for their spiritual journeys, and articulating our own stories is a great way to begin.
Finally, support your kids in their unique faith stage.
To best grow in faith with our families, we need to develop unique postures that match the key struggles and questions of what we call the learner, explorer, and focuser stages. As high school students, learners make sense of their faith through the modeling of others. Parents, operating as teachers, can help their learner kids’ faithing by:
- Recognizing that learners highly value what adults and peers think. For them, being faithful often means fitting in. Doubting can challenge their sense of belonging in their church, leaving them asking, “What’s wrong with me?” Assure them that they belong and that their questions can help, not hurt them.
- Teaching them how to seek helpful answers that encourage their maturity. Encourage them to talk with an expert, read an article, or listen to a podcast. Follow up with them and ask them to teach you what they’ve discovered and what new questions have now surfaced for them.
Since explorers are journeying through the first half of emerging adulthood, they make sense of their relationship with God by asking more critical questions, often comparing and contrasting what they have been taught by their families and faith communities with their new encounters with diverse people, experiences, and worldviews. Parents as guides can help their explorer kids’ faithing by:
- Creating room for them to critique their families and their faith. They need adults who will be patient with their underdeveloped and sometimes harsh judgments and who can resist becoming defensive.
- Gently encouraging them not only to voice the problems in their families or home churches but also to reflect on what they may have appreciated.
- Receiving their spiritual quests as part of their journey, encouraging them to move beyond doubt, and coaching them to search for new answers to their new questions.
As focusers move from emerging adulthood toward adulthood, they are likely gaining clarity in their careers, relationships, and beliefs. They are becoming more comfortable with their own relationship with God and searching to find common ground—even with those who hold differing perspectives. Parents as resourcers can help their focuser kids’ faithing by:
- Recognizing that focusers are starting to consider the fingerprint they want to leave on our world. Their doubts are an expression of their longing to make a difference and their fear about whether they will live up to their aspirations. They ask, “What’s wrong with the world and what can I do about it?”
- Creating space to talk with them about their relationships, vocations, and spirituality. They need a mutual conversation, not a teaching session.
- Connecting them with other adults who may have similar vocations, passions, or aspirations.
As we seek to communicate openly with our kids about matters of the heart, we sometimes assume that their faith journeys are so influenced by our attitudes and actions that we have to do it all. What we do matters, yes, but nonetheless there is no formula that can perfectly predict our kids’ relationship with Jesus.
Instead, we need the peace and strength that come from knowing that God loves each of us, is pursuing us, and desires to give us a full life. We can rest in knowing that, while we want our kids to believe in God, God always believes in them. And in us.
Kara Powell, PhD, is the executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) and a faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary. Steven Argue, PhD, is the applied research strategist for the Fuller Youth Institute and associate professor of youth, family, and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary.
This excerpt was adapted from Growing With by Kara Powell and Steven Argue. Published by Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group. Copyright 2019. Used by permission. BakerPublishingGroup.com