Almost Christian 6 – Parents Matter Most

Two weeks ago my daughter, Junia Elizabeth, was born. Other parents know what the last two weeks have been like for Emily and I. In a word, CRAZY! By the way, I am typing this while holding Junia. I don’t think there is anything more beautiful than holding your baby daughter in your arms!

What it means to be a parent has not hit me yet. I spend a lot of time looking forward to teaching her to read, helping her with homework, going on bike rides and all kinds of other things like that. I wonder what kind of person she will grow up to be, what kind of foods she will like, what career she will pursue (as for what college, there is no question – Penn State!). I have also spent time praying for her, as I hold her asleep in my arms. I pray she will come to know Jesus one day and seek to live as a child of God.

For that, I am challenged because books like Almost Christian based on studies like the National Study for Youth and Religion constantly say that when it comes to faith commitment of young people, parents matter most. That is the title of chapter six in Kenda Creasy Dean’s book Almost Christian. She writes:

Research is nearly unanimous on this point: parents matter most in shaping the religious lives of their children This is not to say that parents determine their children’s spiritual destinies. Even the Bible has apostate parents with spiritual children, and vice versa, which only underscores the importance of supplementing teenagers’ religious formation within congregational education – consistently the second most important variable on adolescent religiosity. Yet there is no doubt that teenagers’ appreciation of a life-orienting God-story, and their ability to discern God’s ongoing movement in their lives and their communities are heavily influenced by adults’ appreciation of such a story, and adults’ way of discerning and responding to the Holy Spirit’s presence in their lives. Proximity matters. Teenagers’ ability to imitate Christ depends on a daunting degree, on whether we do (112).

When she moves on to speak of Christian formation she uses the story of the Assyrian besiegers talking to the Israelites on the wall in Jerusalem (2 Kings 18-19). Her point is that the church needs to have “behind-the-wall” conversations with young people which provides them with resources to interact with the dominant culture, talking with those on the wall.

We can safely assume that the modern-day Assyrians (media, marketers, and other culture-makers of global postmodernity) are immersing American teenagers in the official language of the commercial empire. The empire’s language dismisses Yahweh, offers tantalizing but ultimately empty promises of salvation, and hands out scripts that the empire expects teenagers to follow. Unless the church cultivates a behind-the-wall conversation that reminds young people who they are, who they belong to, why they are here, and where their future hope lies – unless we hand on a tradition that gives them cultural tools to help them lay claim to this alternate vision of reality – then the empire’s conversation is the only view they have (114-115).

The question then is, how do we do this? She argues that the solution is not just to create a curriculum in an attempt to pass on the necessary information. Rather, mature Christians must walk alongside younger Christians in discipleship, passing on the tradition as they go.

I see this in campus ministry. Every year I make an effort to meet with students one-on-one throughout my week. Some students I meet with formally, week after week at the same time (except when they forget or have too much work!). Other students I set up meetings with on an occasional basis, while still others informally sit with me in my “office” in the library and chat. I believe that these times do more for my relationship with students and for their spiritual growth than the teachings at our large group meetings each week.

It is not just sitting and talking though, there is a large emphasis on action here. Dean compares it to music: “Young people do not research a band, and then decide on the basis of their research to enjoy the band’s music. First, they are swept away by a song, and then because they love the music, they start to learn about the band” (122). I think of Jesus and the disciples – he called on them to follow him and they spent time with him as he did ministry. They did not first attend a seminar by Jesus on why he was the Messiah! Further, he sent them out to do ministry (Matthew 10) before they even fully understood who he was.

Each year CSF takes a spring break mission trip. I always encourage the Christian students to invite their friends, emphasizing the trip is open to the whole campus. Usually a few students who are not part of CSF and have no Christian faith commitment end up joining us for the trip. On such trips, these students experience Christian community and the mission of Jesus in the world. My hope is, as Dean says, they would be “swept away” by the Spirit and be moved to further motivated to investigate Jesus.

The truth is, the same thing goes for Christian students. More faith formation and spiritual growth occurs on that one week trip then in in the rest of the year. It is one thing to sing songs and study scripture, it is another to sing songs and study scripture after a long day of serving those in need. All of a sudden, the scripture takes on a whole new meaning.

When this happens, watch out:

Translating the gospel for young people amounts to entrusting them with matches, for it gives them access to holy fire, which puts the church at risk: what if young people ignite the church? Then where would we be? Indeed. Translating the gospel with teenagers in mind throws open the doors of the church to young people whose perspective on Jesus, if less informed, is also less jaded than our own. Newcomers to Christian faith are prone to believing that Jesus is who he says he is, and they are apt to negotiate risks on the wall that the more seasoned among us would like to avoid (130).

One thing I have learned in working with college students is that when they catch the vision of Jesus sometimes the best thing to do is just get out of the way!

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