On passing our faith to the next generation…

In the future, when your son asks you, “What is the meaning of the stipulations, decrees and laws the Lord our God has commanded you?” tell him: “We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.”

— Deuteronomy 6:20-21

I think we’re overdue for a grown-up conversation about how we pass our faith to the next generation. Because, let’s face it… we’re not very good at it.

In The King Jesus Gospel, Scot McKnight (citing research from David Kinnaman) says around 60 percent of Americans make a commitment to Christ, most when they’re still very young. Yet by conservative estimates, fewer than half of these decisions stick.

So why do we put all this energy into getting our kids to make some kind of “decision” for Christ as early as possible? Maybe it’s because we fear the worst if something terrible should happen to them. Maybe it’s because of studies that say people are more likely to “accept Christ” as children. So we try to extract a profession of faith before it’s too late — before they cross that threshold after which they are statistically less likely to make such a decision.

But it’s also because we hear Jesus extol the virtues of childlike faith. It’s not hard to see why. A child, not yet jaded by the world, has this extraordinary capacity to trust without holding back. I was reminded of this when some friends came over the other night. My 2-year-old has seen this couple maybe two or three times before; yet she climbed into one of their laps and snuggled in as if she’d known them for ages.

We all know how hard it is to maintain this capacity for trust the older we get. So we try to persuade our kids to put their trust in God when they’re little, before they lose the ability to trust those they can see, much less someone they can’t.

Yet we all know something’s not right. There are many of us who feel like Sarah Bessey when she writes:

I worry sometimes about how I’m passing this whole life-in-Christ, God, and faith thing down. I worry about whether I’m doing enough and then I worry about whether I’m doing too much. I don’t like competitions and scores and games for Jesus stuff. I don’t like formulas and gold stars. I worry about turning the Bible into a children’s story book, about helping the tinies to engage with Scripture and wrestle and ask questions…

As badly as all we want our kids to inherit our faith — and as much as we all know that faith, if it is anything, must be childlike — there is also a very grown-up side to this whole business of faith.

Because faith is more than belief. We can’t just trick our kids into saying a few magic words to secure their eternal destiny. We don’t want them to grow up and discover there’s more to following Jesus than saying a prayer, only to think, “This isn’t what I signed up for.”

The same Jesus who begged his disciples to cultivate a childlike faith also preached the importance of making an informed decision — of counting the cost, lest we ask Jesus into our hearts so we can go do heaven when we die, only to learn much later that what he really wants us to do is pick up a cross.

What if, instead of trying so hard to get our kids to “make a decision” (before they become too smart for their own good, presumably) — what if all we’re really supposed to do is tell them the story, and then try as best we can to model it for them?

Because as Sarah writes, it has to be caught, not taught:

I’m pretty sure that I need to be the person now that I want them to be someday, and so if I want them to care about justice and mercy and compassion, then I have to live it out. And if I want them to be fearless and bold and courageous, well, guess what? And if I want them to pray, I must pray, and if I want them to know God as love and Abba, and I want them to know that He is very fond of each of them, and I want them to forgive and offer grace and second chances and love tougher, well, then, here we go, I’m about to live a better truth with my life.

This was how the Israelites were told to do it. Not by reducing their covenant to four spiritual laws or a color-coded wordless book.

Instead, God gave them signs, symbols, and rituals — liturgical reenactments of their story. One of the main reasons for celebrating Passover was so their kids would ask, “What is this all about?” One of the main reasons for all the bizarre laws and customs was to get their kids to ask, “Why?”

And when they did, well, that was a parent’s cue to tell the story: “We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out with a mighty hand.”

It seems to me we’re given the same opportunity every time we kneel at the altar and receive bread and wine, body and blood. As my daughter watches my wife and me perform this sacred ritual, someday the wheels in her head will turn and she will ask why. And on that day, we’ll sit down with her and tell her a story. Then we’ll try as best we can to live out the implications of that story. We’ll try to show her that it can be her story, too.

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