In the course of doing some research for my book recently, I came across the following “most helpful customer review” on Amazon for Jerry Coyne’s book Why Evolution is True:
I was raised in a very conservative Christian environment and taught Young-Earth Creationism (anti-evolution, anti-Big Bang, etc.). I bought into it for a long time. In college, I finally began to investigate some of the claims for myself – reading what was really being said by ‘the other side,’ rather than what I was being told was being said. The disparity I discovered can hardly be exaggerated: what I had been taught bore essentially zero resemblance to the real thing. Genuine evolutionary theory was virtually unrecognizable in the creationists’ caricatures of it. I learned that I had been lied to – intentionally, or not, I do not know – and that the quantity, diversity, and quality of evidence in support of evolution was simply crushing.
I felt so disheartened reading about this person’s experience. You can just feel the sense of shame she had when she discovered her understanding of evolution had been oversimplified by the Christians in her life (this is not to suggest that the young-Earth view itself is oversimplified; it was her understanding of evolution that had been oversimplified).
That feeling of shame is all too common amongst adults who turn away from Christianity. There are numerous comments on ex-Christian sites that read to the effect of, “Once I grew up and started encountering arguments from non-believers, I felt like a fool for being a Christian all that time.”
If we raise our kids with an oversimplified faith, we’re building a ramp to eventual shame when difficult questions arise.
Here are six ways you may be raising your kids with an oversimplified faith.
1. You make faith a Sunday phenomenon.
The cold, hard truth is that going to church once a week is never going to give kids (or adults!) a deep understanding of Christianity. Church is not a replacement for conversations about faith, Bible study and prayer at home. In fact, research conducted for the book Already Gone showed Sunday school had either a zero or negative impact on the eventual faith of kids who attended regularly!
Faith was never meant to be lived out once a week at church. But even more so today, kids have a significant need for deeper engagement on faith topics that can really only come from proactive Christian parenting at home.
2. You make sure your kids know a lot about what’s in the Bible, but not a lot about the Bible.
After 18 years of going to church, I left home with approximately the following understanding of the Bible: Jesus is the son of God and died for my sins, I need to believe in Him in order to be saved and spend eternity in heaven, God created the world, Moses parted the Red Sea, Daniel was saved from a lion’s den, and somewhere along the way Jonah was swallowed by a whale.
Oh, don’t worry, I could tell you all the books of the Bible in order too, and recite many isolated verses I had dutifully memorized in years of Sunday school. But who wrote the books of the Bible? Why should I believe what the New Testament writers said about Jesus? How do I know what they originally said is what is in the Bible I read today? How do I know the translations we have accurately convey the original meaning? Why should I trust the Bible at all?
These questions never even crossed my mind. I simply knew the stories in the Bible, but nothing about the Bible. Today Christians are regularly challenged by such questions online and in the media. Knowing what’s in the Bible is necessary but not sufficient. Kids need to know about the Bible too.
3. You mischaracterize the nature of faith.
I heard it over and over again growing up in my church, and I see other Christians say it all the time today: Just have faith. The predictable context is usually a difficult conversation about Christianity or the nature of God – for example, after a tragedy in the news. Unfortunately, “just have faith” is often the catch-all response Christians use when we can’t answer difficult questions. To be sure, we don’t have all the answers, and we should be honest with our kids about what the Bible does and does not tell us. But, oh, how dangerous it is for kids to believe that the primary answer to most difficult Christian questions is “just have faith.” Those three words, too carelessly tossed about, can leave a permanent impression on your kids that Christianity can’t answer tough questions and that blind faith is the answer (see this post from Michael Patton for an excellent overview of what biblical faith really is).
4. You spend more time emphasizing the importance of Christian values than the importance of Christianity.
In the book Sticky Faith, the author discussed a research study that asked college juniors who were youth group graduates, “What would you say being a Christian is all about?” More than two-thirds gave answers related to “doing” the faith, such as “loving others” and “following Jesus’ example.” More than one-third didn’t mention Jesus at all, and of those, 35 percent didn’t mention Jesus or God!
Jesus didn’t come to give us nice values. He came to provide the way for sinful humans to be reconciled with a perfect God and have eternal life (John 3:16). Anyone can have “Christian values” – there are plenty of atheists who behave more morally than professing Christians! Having good values is not what being a Christian is all about.
The fact is, it’s far easier for us as parents to teach kids Christian values, like doing and being “good,” than it is for us to teach them Christian theology; grounding my kids for hitting each other fits into my day more naturally than raising and discussing deep questions like, “Why do you think Jesus actually had to die for our sins?” When we’re not intentional, we end up focusing on our kids’ character and behavior without connecting those things to the Christian belief root of why it even matters. Those good values in and of themselves start looking to kids like the essence of Christianity. The connection to Jesus slowly loses out to a simplified faith of nice behavior.
5. You don’t proactively present your kids with tough questions.
Earlier this year, I wrote that the number one sign your kids are just borrowing your faith and not developing their own is that they’re not asking questions. As I discussed in that post, there are a lot of reasons why they might not be bringing their faith questions to your attention. But one of the most glaring possibilities is that they just aren’t spending much time thinking about faith at all; they may see Christianity as another “thing” they’re learning about, like math. They’ll just borrow your faith for a while because they don’t think it’s important enough to think more deeply about; it’s a simplified faith that is ripe for crushing later.
When our kids aren’t asking tough questions because they aren’t already being challenged by others and/or don’t care enough to think deeply about faith, we have a parental responsibility to confront them with tough questions and engage in conversations to take their faith deeper.
(Need help learning about the challenges nonbelievers pose to Christians today? Check out my new book, Keeping Your Kids on God’s Side: 40 Conversations to Help Them Build a Lasting Faith.)
6. You misrepresent what non-Christians believe.
Returning now to the quote at the beginning of this post, we have to be careful in how we talk to our kids about what other people believe. Our whole spiritual credibility is on the line. If our kids come to find out we totally got it wrong when it comes to the (fill in the blank) worldview, they’re going to question everything else we told them.
What would you add to this list? Have you ever felt like you grew up with an oversimplified faith? I’d love to hear your experiences!