By Kara Powell and Steven Argue
During a three-year longitudinal study launched by the Fuller Youth Institute, a parent with three post-high school kids reflected on the changes she’s witnessed over the years: “I think if I were to go back and re-parent, I actually would allow my kids more freedom in their high school years to explore and express their questions about faith.”
Her instincts align with what teenagers need. According to our study, which looked at 500 youth group graduates, over 70 percent of churchgoing high schoolers report having serious doubts about faith. Sadly, less than half of those young people shared their doubts and struggles with an adult or friend. Yet these students’ opportunities to express and explore their doubts were actually correlated with greater faith maturity. In other words, it’s not doubt that’s toxic to faith; it’s silence.
Researchers for the National Study for Youth and Religion discovered that young people have become inarticulate about their faith, often lacking the language to express their beliefs and convictions. Further exploration revealed another telling part of this story: so have their parents.
Somehow, young people and their parents have lost the ability to speak of faith in real life. Like learning Mandarin as a young person then forgetting it as an adult, Christian adolescents and emerging adults often become less fluent in faith over time. But faith needs to be talked about and processed, and if these conversations diminish as our kids get older, we miss opportunities to help them remain fluent. What we call “faithing,” or the ongoing act of faith, depends on practice and use for it to become deeply part of us. It is through faithing that language, behaviors, beliefs, and values are internalized.
As we interact with parents nationwide, they confess that when it comes to discussing spirituality, they’re worried about saying the wrong thing and either messing up or revealing their ignorance. The good news for parents is we don’t need to be theologians or super-Christians to talk with our kids about our faith or theirs. We only need to be willing to go there.
Faith in many families has become a lost language, but parents can bring faithing language back into everyday life by finding small ways to speak it again. Like any language, it will seem awkward at first, but consistency will bring fluency.
First, create spaces for faithing to happen.
When my (Steve’s) daughters were in their late teens and early 20s, I made a point to use coffee outings to talk about meaningful topics. It was hard at first. As a parent, you want your kids to come to you and ask you about the meaning of life, but that rarely happens. Instead, they often expected me to bring up important topics, so I learned to take some risks with them by asking them about friends, politics, current events, and God.
One question that I regularly brought up with them was, “What is something you don’t believe that you think I still believe?” I also turned the question around: “What is something you believe that you don’t think I believe?” Sometimes the answer would be, “I can’t think of anything,” and sometimes they had a list. I held my breath each time wondering what they might say, but what gave me courage was knowing that faithing is a process best fueled by honest, regular conversation.
Every once in a while, I (Kara) ask my kids this question: “When do you feel closest to God?” My son, Nathan’s answer: “During worship.” He has felt close to God through worship music since fourth grade. He now plays guitar and regularly leads worship at our high school ministry. Krista tells me she feels closest to God when she’s at church with her friends. She’s always been social, and she comes alive when she’s with people who get her. For Jessica, our most introverted child, it’s in our backyard by herself. She loves nature and experiencing God’s creation.