I had just finished speaking at the fourth service (of five services) at a church in California. Any morning energy I’d had from coffee had worn off, and my stomach kept sending fierce reminders that I should have eaten that morning. Following every service, I would sign books in the lobby and talk to people who were wrestling with their faith. Honestly, authentic God wrestlers give me energy. Or maybe it’s that we have similar energies. Whatever it is, I feel connected to people who have doubts and uncertainties. But that’s not the case for everyone.
“Excuse me!” exclaimed a lady from the middle of the line. Her tone felt urgent. She was persistent as she inched her way to the front. I lipped a “sorry” to the people she was cutting in front of.
“How can I help you?” I asked, now noticing that she had a younger girl with her, who I would guess to be somewhere around 15 years old.
“Can you prove to my daughter that God is real?” She was obviously frustrated at her daughter’s disbelief.
I didn’t mean to laugh as loud as I did. “No, ma’am, I can’t. I can’t prove to anyone that God exists.”
“What do you mean? I thought you did this for a living!”
I asked the woman and her daughter to give me a few minutes as I talked with those who were patiently waiting their turn. When I returned to them, I looked her daughter in the eyes and said, “It seems like you have questions. Would you like to talk about any of them?”
She talked with me about how the Bible is an ancient book that seems to have contradictions. About how her mom doesn’t think she can be a Christian if she questions the Bible. In just a few short minutes, we dug through layers and layers of her mom’s faith to get to this 15-year-old’s foundation! Her mom’s faith was getting in the way, and we didn’t have a lot of time.
“What do you think about Jesus?” I asked. “I know you have really good questions for the faith that your parents have been trying to teach you, but what do you think about the person of Jesus?”
She had never been given permission to deconstruct her parent’s beliefs in order to get to her own foundation. In fact, our conversation around the reliability of the Gospels and the story of Jesus ended with her looking at her mom saying, “Jesus’ story makes more sense than all the other stuff.”
“Jesus’ story makes sense of all the other stuff,” I told her. “And you have permission to hold loosely the stuff that doesn’t line up with a Jesus-looking God.” That last part was more for her mother than for her. I’m not sure she will ever embrace the faith of her parents if they don’t allow her to deconstruct it in order to establish a real, trustworthy foundation for herself.
It’s a hard lesson to learn, but we know it to be true: If we hold our preferences, biases, and interpretations tighter than the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, it’s likely that our children won’t be interested in Christianity.
The ethics of Jesus.
The commitment of Jesus.
The incredible impact of Jesus.
All of it has the attention of the next generation.
And what else has their attention?
The scandals within the church and the disillusionment it is causing those who are affected. There is an ongoing “deconstruction” happening from podcasts and documentaries that are spotlighting the potential dangers of many evangelical practices. From The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill to Amazon Prime’s Happy, Shiny People, evangelicals are reaping what we have sown. That is, a faith built on controlling what others believe and how they behave. A foundation unrecognizable for those who are looking to build upon the words and ways of Jesus.
I’m not interested in passing on a faith that isn’t built on God as He has revealed Himself in Christ.
My mentor and friend, Daniel Serdahl, helped me put words to this new apologetic for the next generation. For the faith to be passed on to our kids, we might find ourselves saying these two phrases more often: That reminds me of something Jesus did and That reminds me of something Jesus said. However, both phrases are only as meaningful as they are uttered by someone who strives to love like Jesus loved.
That reminds me of something Jesus did is a phrase that tethers our children to the works of Jesus. It points out their goodness, not their bad. Additionally, it puts Jesus at the forefront of why they do what they do. We have to remember that faith is all about introducing our children to a person, not presenting them with religious rules. We all want our children to be moral people, but that isn’t why we teach them about God and the Bible. We teach them about God and the Bible so that they may have a life-giving relationship with Jesus and so that morality (acting for the good of humanity) is an outworking of their faith.
That reminds me of something Jesus said teaches our children that the standard of how we speak to each other is based on Jesus’ ethic of love for ourselves and others. Of course, you could say this in a variety of ways, but make the language of the house feel like Heaven by affirming the laughter, the sorrow, and the insight that come from our little ones. Put down the phone and listen. Look them in the eyes as if they have something important to say. Because they do have something important to say! The way we talk to one another is a direct reflection of how we feel about that person in the moment.
Loving like Jesus loved is the most crucial task in passing on our faith. It’s how Jesus said people will know Him (John 13:34), and it’s what makes people want to know Him. As I was writing this article, I had someone interrupt me to let me know that their 25-year-old had just come out as transgender.
“What do I do?” they asked.
“They already know you have different values around sexuality than they do. That’s why it has taken them so long to tell you. What you do now is love them. Be curious about how difficult this has been for them. What do they need from you as a parent? And keep your fishing trip with them this weekend. In fact, tell them how excited you are to go on the trip and how you can’t wait to see them again.”
Love rarely draws lines in the sand. And when it does, it’s to bring people in, not to keep them out. As difficult as it is, this is the work of loving like Jesus.
The challenge for all of us with children is to be the parents who are committed to loosening our grip on certainty and tightening our grip on relationship. Hold your values and your convictions. Just never hold them tighter than you do your child.
Preston Ulmer is the founder and director of the Doubters’ Club, an organization that teaches Christians and atheists to model friendship and pursue truth together. Additionally, he serves as a Pastor at North Point Church in Springfield, MO. Before joining North Point Church, Preston served in the role of network development director with the Church Multiplication Network (CMN), as well as various ministry roles as a youth pastor, young adult pastor and church planter. Preston has two master’s degrees, one in religion and one in divinity. His experience and education led him and his family to plant a church in Denver, CO, where he also founded the Doubters’ Club. Preston is the author of The Doubters’ Club and Deconstruct Faith, Discover Jesus.