We’ve all heard the story before. A child grows up in a Christian home and seems completely committed to the faith. When the child grows up and leaves home, however, he leaves his faith behind. This, of course, is devastating to his parents, and they wonder what they did wrong. Should they have spent more time at church? Should they have emphasized apologetics (reasoned arguments in support of the Christian faith) more? Should they have limited his circle of friends more? Should they have sent him to a Bible college before letting him go off into the real world? What could they have done to make him realize that faith is important throughout the course of his life?
This is a real fear for many parents. They understand how important faith is in a person’s day-to-day life, and they want to spend eternity with their children. How can they avoid the heartache of seeing their children leave the faith? Not surprisingly, there are people who offer answers to that question. Some groups insist that children must be firmly grounded in a Christian worldview. As a result, they offer courses that they claim will help young adults keep their faith in a hostile world. Others insist that the problem lies in the fact that most young adults don’t know how to defend their faith against attacks. Thus, you need to firmly ground them in apologetics in order for them to keep their faith.
The core assumption involved with both of these “answers” is that young Christians just don’t know enough. They don’t know how to analyze the presuppositions that people use in forming their worldviews. They don’t know how to answer the objections that those who are skeptical of the Christian faith raise. They don’t know what parts of the Bible to read for guidance. If we could just teach them all the things they need to know, they will be firm in their faith for the rest of their lives.
Unfortunately, that core assumption is wrong. As a result, while things like worldview classes and apologetics books might be useful and helpful, they will do little to keep a young adult in the faith. What actually keeps a young adult active in the Christian faith? The answer might surprise you, but it really shouldn’t.
A book entitled Souls in Transition: The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, published by Oxford University Press, discusses results from The National Study of Youth and Religion. This study interviewed 2,400 subjects at three different stages in their lives: ages 13-17, ages 15-19, and ages 18-23. Based on their interviews, the sociologists in the study ranked subjects as nonreligious, moderately religious, or highly religious. They found four factors that contributed to a subject staying highly religious throughout all of the interviews. Before I share those four factors with you, let me give you the effect that they produce:1
…a teenager who among his or her peers scored in the top one-quarter of a scale measuring these four factors…stands an 85 percent chance of landing in the Highest category of religion as an emerging adult; but one who scores in the Lowest one-quarter on that scale stands only a miniscule chance (0.4 percent) of landing at the high end of religion when he or she is 18-23 years old.
Does that grab your attention? According to the research, there are four factors in a teen’s spiritual life that, when emphasized, will make him or her 85% likely to still be seriously practicing his or her faith as a young adult. Without those four factors, the teen is less than 1% likely to be serious about the faith in early adulthood. Would you like to know those four factors? Here they are:
1. Parents who were deeply committed to their faith and practiced it on a regular basis
2. A belief that their faith was extremely important in the day-to-day aspects of life
3. Frequent personal prayer
4. Frequent reading of the Scriptures
Notice what’s not on the list. Understanding a Christian worldview isn’t there. The ability to answer the objections of skeptics isn’t there. A specific set of knowledge isn’t there. Being taught the right things isn’t there.
The fact is that intellectual knowledge doesn’t keep us in the faith. It can certainly help, but it is not the driving force. What’s the driving force for keeping the faith? Look at the four factors. They all help to make a person’s faith real. When you see your parents living a Christian life from day to day, you see how real it is. When you believe that faith is important in the day-to-day aspects of life, you use it frequently, which makes it more real. When you pray frequently, you enter into God’s presence regularly and come to understand that He is real. When you read the Scriptures frequently, you are internalizing God’s Word and making it real in your life.
A real faith is an abiding faith.
Now don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that teaching your child about different worldviews and apologetics is bad. Indeed, I was argued into the kingdom. If it weren’t for apologetics, I seriously doubt that I would be a Christian today. Even though apologetics led me to my faith, however, it’s not what keeps me in my faith. I am firm in my faith because it is real to me. It is not some abstract, intellectual thing. It’s not something someone taught me. It’s something that became real to me because I practiced it.
If you want your child to keep the faith after he or she leaves home, make it real to him or her. Emphasizing the four factors listed above is a good start.
1. Christian Smith and Patricia Snell, Souls in Transition: The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, Oxford University Press 2009, p. 220
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