Building lasting faith in kids: Proven ideas from Sticky Faith researchWritten by Catherine Wilson
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The research results have been rolling in, study after study, for over ten years now, and the story they tell is a disconcerting one: nearly half of all teens who attend a church or youth group today will abandon their faith in college.
As worrisome as those statistics may be, they suggest some kind of safeguard is working for the other kids, despite the pressures of college. And that raises a crucial question for parents: What makes the other 50 per cent of kids stay true to Christ?
The answer is at once both reassuring and intimidating. When it comes to raising kids with a secure faith, the single most decisive influence is us, the parents.
That’s the clear conclusion Drs. Kara Powell and Chap Clark from the Fuller Youth Institute arrived at following a three-year survey of over 500 U.S. college students – a finding they made public in their 2011 book Sticky Faith.
How parents can make a difference in their child's faith development
On the one hand, this information is reassuring, because it suggests we have much more influence over our children than we thought. On the other hand, however, the responsibility is unnerving. What if all we are doing to share our faith with our kids isn’t enough? How do we know if the methods we are using will produce lasting love for Christ?
Fortunately for us, the Fuller Youth Institute hasn’t left parents to wonder. Dr. Powell’s latest work, building on her original student survey, has identified proven parenting strategies that really make a difference in the faith development of kids.
This time, through 2012 and 2013, Dr. Powell and her colleagues interviewed 50 sets of parents from across the U.S. – parents recommended by church leaders for having raised young adults with a thriving faith. In essence, the researchers were asking these parents the same questions you or I would want to ask: How did you do it? What’s the secret to building lasting faith in children?
Common principles in faith-building families
Not everything Dr. Powell’s team discovered is easy to hear. And no single strategy she reports is guaranteed to produce robust faith in all kids. But time and again, the FYI researchers found the same general principles at play in "successful" faith-building families.
Those common principles, as well as over 100 faith-boosting ideas gleaned from the parents who were interviewed, are now available to all parents through Dr. Powell’s book The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family. Here’s just a small sample of the striking truths and practical ideas she presents there.
You must be what you hope to see in your child
On distilling all the advice volunteered by the group of "faith-building pros," Dr. Powell’s team found a telling correlation that points to exactly how parents can successfully fan the flames of faith in their child.
As a rule, the quality of the parents' faith is reproduced in their child. A vibrant faith in the parents tends to produce a vibrant faith in the child. Likewise, a half-hearted faith in the parents tends to produce a half-hearted faith in the child.
It’s not necessarily what the sincerity of the parents’ faith is really like that matters, but how their child perceives their faith. That means, for parents, a personal faith can’t be too personal. Parents need to let their excitement about their faith adventure show and be talking about it with their child.
Notably for the FYI researchers, one practice stood out as being nearly universal among the "faith-building pros" interviewed: these were all parents who made their own walk with Christ a priority, carving out daily or almost-daily time to nurture their spiritual well-being.
Need a little help in this area? Here are a few ideas practiced by expert faith-building parents, as described in The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family:
- Consistent time with the Lord is key. Dr. Powell’s faith-building parents had discovered a time and place that worked best for them, and kept up a near-daily routine. If 20 early-morning minutes in the kitchen doesn’t work for you, try a prayerful daily commute or a walk with the Lord after dinner. Try listening to worship music or a sermon snippet first to focus your thoughts.
- Start a babysitting swap with friends, so you’re free every week or so to attend Bible study, or to date your spouse and discuss your spiritual journeys.
- Make a habit of naturally sharing a little with your kids about what you’re learning in your own faith walk – just a few sentences at a time.
Emphasize relationship with Christ, forgiveness and grace
During their early survey of college students raised in Christian homes, Dr. Powell’s team uncovered a disturbingly high number who defined Christianity as adherence to a code of behaviour, rather than a relationship with a loving Saviour.
Equally tragically, it seems many students had never internalized Jesus’ parable of The Prodigal Son. Having "blown it" as a Christian by indulging in far-from-perfect behaviour, they considered themselves irredeemable. Consequently, they shied away from the Christian community and even God Himself, certain of facing judgment and condemnation rather than grace and forgiveness.
In contrast, Dr. Powell’s group of faith-building parents very intentionally taught their children that no one is perfect. Many made a point of being quick to ask forgiveness of their kids for their own mistakes as a parent. In coaching their kids to love Christ, these parents emphasized trust in God, unconditional love, and grace, rather than expecting always-exemplary behaviour. Discipline was administered when required, but balanced with grace.
Ideas from faith-building pros:
- Have everyone share their "mistake of the day" – whether big or small – during dinnertime discussions. This simple habit helps build awareness that everyone is imperfect, and offers an opportunity to seek and find forgiveness.
- Don’t let discipline or conflict break your relationship with your child. Always initiate reconnection. For example, after a time out or an angry exchange, enter the child’s room, offering them a face-saving way to re-join the family.
Use life events to make faith relevant to your child
The vast majority of the faith-building parents Dr. Powell’s team interviewed had held regular family devotions or Bible discussions, particularly when their children were in elementary school. They regarded this habit as important and foundational. At the same time, however, these parents also recognized – through experience – that the conversations that much more significantly swayed their children were those that arose naturally when their kids faced a personal challenge or crisis.
Ideas from faith-building pros:
- Look for opportunities of immediate relevance to the child. Tears over mean texts received from a friend, for example, might serve as a springboard to heart-felt discussions about Christ as our unfailing friend.
- Routinely ask your child, How can I pray for you today?
Welcome doubts and difficult questions
In their discussions with college students, the FYI researchers observed that how doubts were handled could have a potent effect on faith. A student accustomed to openly expressing and wrestling with their doubts tended to have a mature faith. Conversely, doubts kept secret and never addressed tended to erode a student’s faith.
As Dr. Powell herself puts it, ". . . doubt in and of itself isn’t necessarily dangerous. It’s unexpressed doubt that is most toxic."
And many students did admit to secret doubts – more than half of those interviewed, in fact. What’s more, the four most common themes among those doubts revealed struggles with some pretty fundamental concepts, such as:
Does God exist?
Is Christianity true and the only way to God?
Does God love me?
Am I living the life God wants?
But even as parents recognize the importance of welcoming our kids’ doubts and bringing questions like these out into the open, we need to also take care how we deal with them. Dr. Powell warns that teens, in particular, do not respond well to a lecture from parents, or being told what to believe.
Parents who are "faith-building pros" tend to share their opinion, but then leave room for their children to formulate their own conclusions. They understand that issues don’t need to be resolved in one make-or-break conversation, but might require a respectful exchange of opposing views that extends over months or years.
Ideas from faith-building pros:
- To help break old habits of lecturing and instead ignite conversation, try asking older kids questions like, I've been wondering/praying about this. What do you think?
- At the dinner table, casually ask your kids if they’d like to hear your faith story. For older kids, you could expand your testimony, adding doubts you’ve struggled with.
- On a Focus on the Family broadcast, Dr. Powell suggested responding to tough questions with, "I don’t know, but . . ." and then extending an invitation to learn together. For example, "I don’t know, but I would love to study God’s Word with you and try to understand that." Another helpful response could be, "I don’t know, but here’s what I do know about God . . .”
Go all out to win the heart of your child
Not unexpectedly, Dr. Powell reports that a close, affectionate relationship between parents and child is strongly linked to lasting faith in the child. What was surprising, however, was the dramatic impact of dads. In Protestant families, a close bond with dad hugely increased the odds of a son or daughter sticking with their faith – an increase of 17 to 25 percent.
Here’s something else worth noting too: Dr. Powell cautions parents that kids are extremely sensitive to favouritism. Whether it’s real or purely imagined by the child, preferential treatment can do lasting damage. In one study of 25 families, kids most commonly identified favouritism on the part of parents as the reason for abandoning their faith.
That’s an astute warning for all parents, since we’re at risk of (quite unconsciously) spending proportionately more time with the child who shares our own passions and interests, potentially leaving our other child feeling rejected.
To build relationship with our kids – a vital step to securing their faith – we need to limit our own selfish pursuits and regularly step into each child’s preferred world, whether we feel at home there or not.
Ideas from faith-building pros:
- At bedtime, start a habit of asking, How's your heart?
- Dads in particular might want to schedule a monthly "birthday date" with each child for some precious one-on-one time. (A "birthday date" occurs on the same day of the month as the child’s birthday.) Let your child choose an activity you can do together on your date.
- Choose something your child loves, and always meet them there. If it’s sports, go to their games. If it’s drama, go to their rehearsals. If it’s music, start to at least tolerate the music they love. Even if you have no interest in that arena yourself, do it for your child or your teen.
Catherine Wilson is an associate editor at Focus on the Family Canada.
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