Sticky Faith 3: What can we do?
For those just joining this series, I'm writing about my thoughts and reactions after reading Powell and Clark's book Sticky Faith: Everyday Ideas to Build Lasting Faith in your Kids. Specifically, I'm looking for insight into the way adolescents these days hold onto their faith as they mature. What I've talked about so far (read part 1 and part 2) has been mostly about the nature of adolescent development from a childish, concrete way of looking at the world to a mature, adult view with all the nuances and abstractions that comes with it.
Rather than ask why kids fall away from their childhood faith, Sticky Faith takes the obvious approach of asking what is different about kids who retain their faith and kids who don't. One important discovery they found was that teens who have contact with Christian adults outside of their parents or youth workers are more likely to retain their faith as they mature.
I think that's pretty significant, since we so often send kids away to school when they hit 18. Their development into adults has barely begun, and we isolate them at college. Now I don't want to suggest that parents should become overly attached and prevent kids from going to college but that we need to balance that isolation of college with adult contact.
It can't start in college, either. You know what would happen if a church who ignored their teens suddenly started paying attention to them in college. Kids would smell a phony a mile away. Teens need Christian adults who are invested in their lives beyond just their family members. Sticky Faith suggests having a group of adult friends form a "sticky web" of intergenerational relationships. I can think of several of these relationships I've observed over the years, but I never knew just how powerful they could be.
So if relationships between teens and adults helps retain faith in the teens, what do they talk about? I mean beyond just sports and weather and movies. One of the more startling findings reported in Sticky Faith was the frequency of conversations about faith and the Bible. A survey of 11,000 teens from six different denominations reported around 10% regularly talked to their parents about faith or the Bible. Here's an idea: You wonder why 50% of teens grow into adults who think faith isn't worth bothering with? Maybe it's partly because their parents didn't think it was important enough to talk about.
Doubt's another important thing to talk about. In the world of creationism, doubt is kind of a dirty word. After all, apologetics like young-age creationism or creation evangelism is supposed to answer all the questions and remove doubt so a person can have faith, right? Not so fast, says Sticky Faith. As counterintuitive as it may sound, "students who feel the freedom and have opportunities to express their doubts tend to have more Sticky Faith" (p. 72).
This is something I've wondered about for a long time. I've known for years that the frenzy to answer every question and solve every mystery doesn't work. Too often the answers are shallow and superficial. If we teach kids that their faith is based on having answers, eventually they're going to either figure out that we don't have all the answers or encounter a question that no one's really thought about before. Uncovering new questions to ask is especially common in the world of science. I've made a career of emphasizing the uncertainty and ignorance of modern creationism, not because I hate it but because it's the truth. We don't know as much as I wish we did.
According to Sticky Faith, that's the approach that will help the next generation retain their faith. Not trying to overwhelm them with answers or eliminate their doubt with certainty. If you want to preserve faith through doubt, teach (and model) having honest questions even while you retain your faith. As long as we breathe, questions (and potentially doubt) never go away. Learn to believe what you know to be true in spite of these questions, and encourage young people to do the same.
Making room for doubt means letting them ask hard questions without immediate negative reactions. Making room for doubt means saying "I don't know" sometimes. Making room for doubt also means not pushing too hard what you think the truth is. Give them room to think it over and even resist it if they need to. Don't treat every issue as if it must be settled immediately. Give them time. Making room for doubt also means making room for young people, and that's the most important thing. If they feel like they matter and their questions are important, they'll be more likely to want to follow your example as they mature.
Those are two big things that stuck out in my mind as I read Sticky Faith. There is much more, of course, but a lot of it has to do with parenting and isn't so useful for an educational ministry. Next time, I want to think very deliberately about how these ideas might influence creationism and creation ministries (like Core Academy).
Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com. If you enjoyed this article, please consider a contribution to Core Academy of Science. Thank you.
Have you read my book? You should check that out too!