Years ago when our daughters were young, I ran across a book by Dr. Donald Sloat entitled The Dangers of Growing Up in a Christian Home. The title intrigued me, especially since our oldest had entered the pre-adolescent stage, which can be described as a season of parental desperation and insecurities. Having been raised in a Christian home, and raising my own kids in one as well, I was especially interested in the message of this book. As it turned out, I’ve used it as a teaching resource for over thirty years and still find much of the content to be spot on. It is not an exposee by an unhappy adult, but rather an honest look at the complex issues that go along with parenting in a Christian context. This book’s premise is that a vibrant faith must be experienced individually, and is not automatically passed on by a parent or grandparent. Thus, God has no grandchildren, only children.
(Let me say, however, that clearly it is much more dangerous for your children to NOT be brought up in a believing home, as opposed to an unbelieving one.)
So what exactly is the “danger” referred to in the book’s title? The danger is that rather than passing on the baton of a strong, living faith, we pass on to our children a lifestyle of church culture and/or legalistic rules and thinking. As in a relay, as the runners strive for a smooth passing of the baton. It is crucial in the race. So how can we best pass the baton of faith to the next generation?
This is not a new challenge. Every generation of believing parents has had the same dilemma. In Judges 2:7-10, we see this very situation. Joshua was approaching death and gathered the Israelites to address them. He challenged them to serve God and not follow the gods of the Amorites. But verse 10 says that, “....the next generation did not worship Jehovah as their God and did not care about the mighty miracles he had done for Israel.”
You could say that Joshua and his generation, were like first generation Christians. They had seen God’s miraculous works first hand, experienced God’s provisions in the wilderness. But this new generation was different, that was not their story. Obviously growing up in the presence of godly parents did not automatically guarantee that the children would have the same degree of faith as that generation. God may have been real to their parents, but He wasn’t to their children. They had dropped the baton. Obviously God knew of this challenge and would teach this younger generation obedience and faith differently than he taught their parents (see Judges 3:1-2). Don’t miss this - personal spiritual experiences cannot be handed off. Each person has to find their own walk with God. God intended another process to teach the younger generation obedience and faith, as they conquered the land. Each generation must find their own spiritual way.
As we pass off the baton of faith, here are three things to remember:
We need to have a clear definition of sin, according to the Bible. As Dr. Sloat says, “...when sin is defined ... primarily in terms of behavior to be avoided instead of an inner state of being, the stage is set for a variety of negative and unhealthy responses to take place.”
External behavior may demonstrate a sinful choice but the root problem is inner rebellion, disobedience or faithlessness. If sin is defined as a “Master List of Do’s and Don’ts” the understanding of sin is distorted. We all know plenty of people, including ourselves, who conformed to an outward standard of conduct but were in total rebellion spiritually. As parents, we need to be aware of this truth and teach our kids to be aware of it also.
Another important factor in encouraging our children’s faith is to be willing to discuss their doubts and spiritual struggles. The Fuller Youth Institute recently launched a three year study that looked at 500 youth group graduates. Over 70% of churchgoing high schoolers reported having serious doubts about their faith. The students’ opportunities to express and explore their doubts with adults correlated with a greater spiritual maturity in time. Often parents are afraid of conversations about faith because they don’t know the answer to difficult questions or worry they might say the wrong thing. But often kids just need the opportunity to express themselves and simply need their parent to be willing to go there with them. It’s even better if the parent agrees to seek out answers with their child and explore their questions. And, when parents share their own journeys of faith and struggles, it opens the door to faith conversations. And that is healthy.
Finally it is important to remember that children are not robots. The passing of the baton process is not guaranteed success due to some formula. Often we think that if we provide a Christian home environment, and a Christian school, and keep them active in a church ministry then our children with automatically be committed Christians. But that discounts human nature - the choices our children make regarding their faith and their desire (or lack of) to know God. Of course parents will make mistakes, but the bottom line is that those blunders do not determine a child’s authentic faith. Ultimately the child must make those choices. So we are back where we started - God has no grandchildren.
Our desire is that our children develop a genuine and viable faith, and our prayer is that we will lead them to do it well. Whatever unintentional mistakes parents and children make, God’s grace sustains us all. Pass the baton with wisdom and grace, and watch God work in your children’s lives.