Trading in picture-perfect faith for authentic experience with Jesus
Patrick grew up in the perfect Christian family. His dad was on the elders’ board, his mom ran all the fundraisers, and the kids volunteered to help with summer camp community programs. They led small groups in their home, sent their children to youth conferences and did family devotions together at dinner.
When Patrick went off to university, he got involved in drinking, drugs, sex and even vandalism.
Then there’s Shiloh. Shiloh’s parents were dedicated to making sure their children grew up to be good Christian men and women. They chauffeured their kids to youth groups, prayed together as a family every day and all read their Bibles together every morning before breakfast.
And Shiloh, throughout high school, struggled with her faith, resented her parents and got involved with underage drinking.
Why did these perfect Christian families have kids who rebelled?
AUTHENTIC VERSUS "PERFECT" FAITH
Three years ago I wrote a blog post on my mother’s blog about why I didn’t rebel as a teenager. It went viral. A quarter of a million people read it in the first three weeks alone. I even landed a book contract. Parents were really scared about the teenage years, and they wanted to hear from a Millennial’s perspective about how in this social media age to raise kids who would still love God. I may not have much experience parenting, but I do understand my generation (those born around the 1980s and 1990s, who are now in their 20s and 30s). So I stepped into the gap.
Obviously, there’s never any guarantee a child will not rebel, even if you do everything right. Just look at the parable of the Prodigal Son – the son still turned his back on his loving and gracious father, who did everything right.
Recently, I interviewed 25 young adults, a mix of kids who rebelled and those who didn’t, and studied all their stories. Shiloh and Patrick were two of those stories. I noticed some trends among families with kids who did or did not rebel. What they demonstrated was that authentic faith and picture-perfect faith are often very different things.
AUTHENTIC FAITH REQUIRES TRUST – "PERFECT" FAITH ENSURES CONTROL
To raise their children to be good Christians, Shiloh’s parents created a plethora of rules. "We had to be downstairs by a certain time every morning to do devotions. We had to read a certain number of chapters from the Bible every day. And we even had rules about who had to pray before each meal," Shiloh remembers. Breaking any of the rules came with consequences. If Shiloh read too few Bible chapters one day, she could lose her phone for an entire week. As Shiloh puts it, "God became part of the rules I hated."
At the same time, Shiloh met a friend who came from a large non-Christian family that was joyful, loving and warm. "I saw their family and thought, ‘I wish I could have that with my family!’" So when they served wine with dinner, she drank to feel included, beginning a pattern of moderate underage drinking.
Shiloh’s parents were scared their children wouldn’t grow up to know God, so they cracked down on the rules to try to control the outcome. My parents didn’t do that.
Instead of making devotions or prayer into rules, they gave us study Bibles and prayer journals, and let us explore our faiths for ourselves. My mom used to tell me, "You have the same Holy Spirit inside you as I do. So why shouldn’t I believe that God can speak to you just as much as He can speak to your dad or me?"
Authentic faith requires absolute trust in God, even when it would be easier to clamp down with rules to try to control someone’s faith. My family believed God could speak to me, a teenager, and gave me room to explore that relationship myself.
AUTHENTIC FAITH REQUIRES YOU SPEAK TRUTH – A "PERFECT" FAITH CAN BE ABOUT PROVING YOU ARE RIGHT
Perhaps an even greater difference between "perfect" and authentic faith is the emphasis on speaking truthversus being right. In Patrick’s family disagreeing with his father was seen as disrespectful. When Patrick was in high school, the gay marriage debate was hitting the news. One night Patrick piped up, "I just don’t see why it’s so wrong if two people love each other – why can’t they get married?"
Patrick’s father shook a finger in his son’s face and insisted, "No son of mine will ever support gay marriage!" Patrick remembers thinking, "But I just asked a question." He kept questions to himself after that.
My family was the complete opposite. Not only was debate allowed, it was encouraged. Some of my favourite childhood moments revolve around times I finally stumped my dad in a theological debate. If I had a good reason for believing something different than my parents, we talked about it and they never took it as a personal slight.
When I got too cocky about my theological prowess, I remember my dad reminding me, "Becca, people have been debating this for hundreds if not thousands of years. Let’s not assume we know all the answers."
AUTHENTIC FAITH IS ABOUT BEING A TEAM, NOT JUST A CLUB
But what about the families whose parents had authentic faith, but their kids still rebelled? While I was studying the stories I collected, I discovered kids who rebelled tended to see church as a club, while kids who remained strong had more of a team mentality.
In a club people feel they belong and share common interests, but it doesn’t go further than that. When church is a club, it may become shallow since all your hard work simply helps to improve your club.
To teens constantly exposed to the horrors of war or natural disasters on the news, club-type churches seem to have a lot of real-world significance. So when the teens grow up and move out, God becomes just a nice thing to believe in.
However, seeing the church as a team demands more from us. It offers that same community, but also requires training, focus and the tireless pursuit of a common goal – in this case furthering God’s Kingdom.
The club mentality can produce apathy in faith. The team approach produces endurance.
I loved youth group growing up, but my faith extended beyond the four walls of the church. Every year at Christmas my sister and I would choose gifts to send from the Harvest of Hope catalogue. When I was 11 we went on our first of three mission trips to Kenya, and my sister and I were heavily involved in organizing and gathering donations for a children’s home throughout our teenage years.
Our faith cost us – it demanded some of our time, it meant we didn’t fit in very well with a lot of kids, and it required our focus to not only be on ourselves.
When being part of church or the Christian faith feels like it’s just another fun club, it’s easy to take it lightly. But when faith requires training, discipline and dedication to take on a task greater than yourself – the way a team does – it takes on new meaning.
SHIFTING OUR FOCUS BACK ONTO JESUS
It really comes down to focus. In some families the focus is on appearance. Doing the right thing. Checking off all the boxes. In others the focus is on making church a great place to be, inadvertently making church more into a clubhouse than a place to refine faith. For all these the focus is off.
In my family, and the families of others I interviewed for my book, the focus was on authentic relationship with Jesus that should have real-world significance. And in the end, for the Christian Millennials like me, it made all the difference.
Rebecca Gregoire Lindenbach is a writer and blogger from Ottawa.