Most of us make up our minds on worldview matters when we are relatively young. The process of worldview formation itself begins as early as one starts to form thoughts about the world. When we are young, we absorb (as if by a process of osmosis) categories and concepts from the influencers around us (parents, siblings, friends, school, media, etc.), which constitute our worldview. This is not to say that we cannot change our worldview when we are older, but all the statistics support the notion that doing so happens much more rarely after a particular point in our lives: the college years. So the college years are that pivotal moment when our thoughts on how to understand the world in its most basic categories crystallize.
How are we doing in preparing children for this watershed moment?
As a matter of general evaluation, things do not look particularly good. According to recent studies, religion and spirituality are very important to many of our youth. Sounds good, right? The problem is this doesn’t necessarily mean that they are engaging in rich and meaningful worship of anything resembling the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus. Many of your typical church-going students cannot describe even one of the core doctrines of Christianity and think of God as more of an automatic forgiveness dispenser, who will allow virtually any and all infelicities always poised with forthcoming forgiveness, so long as we ask for it. When a student with this sort of skin-deep spirituality gets to the college setting, he or she will likely realize very quickly that these beliefs are a mere wishful thinking, not unlike hoping that Santa Claus delivers some goodies when we are nice. A great number of these lose all interest in matters of religious belief and practice, many of which never return to the faith.
Since my space is limited, I want to reflect on some ways in which we can help address this very present problem among our youth.
First, (you knew this was coming) it starts with the adults. We need to model for our children a deep and abiding faith with clarity about our Christian distinctives. The most obvious reason why our children are biblically and theologically illiterate is precisely because our adults are biblically and theologically illiterate. Many of our adults in the church cannot articulate the basic Christian doctrines with any kind of orthodoxy. They may know some platitudinous Christian slogans, but they could not possibly spell out a coherent and orthodox doctrine of the Trinity or the Incarnation or even state the gospel itself. And many of our adults, at least in practice, seem to think that God is there for nothing more than to forgive us when we misstep and give us our best life now.
Okay, on to the kids (though everything I say here has to come from a place of modelling or your kids may walk away on the basis of your hypocrisy!). Though it’s of course never too late, we need to start early. Now I don’t recommend discussing the problem of pervasive and gratuitous evil with your 3 year old quite yet. We need to move in age-appropriate ways, but we also need to expose our children to the world “out there.” Should we, in a variety of ways, shelter our kids? Absolutely! My wife and I tend to be very conservative about the things to which we expose our kids. So we are big fans of thinking carefully about what we allow them to experience and at what age it would be appropriate. However, it seems clear that we can shelter our kids in an unhealthy way too. Now, it’s worth pointing out that when we think about how we should appropriately expose our kids to the broader culture, I’m not primarily thinking of just what movies, TV, and music we should allow them to experience. Rather what I have in mind is the ideas that dominate our broader culture. To completely shelter a student from these ideas doesn’t make any sense if we are then going to then turn them loose onto a secular college campus … or, at some point or other, allow them out of the house at all!
So we need to expose our students to ideas that they will likely encounter at some point in their lives. How can we do this appropriately?
- Lead your children into a vital relationship with Christ, which includes teaching them a robust Christian worldview. Without this, the rest of what I’m going to say is simply not worth it. There’s of course a lot to say about just how to lead our children to Christ and provide a Christian worldview; however, I’m going to assume (perhaps unsafely) that we already know something about this.
- Teach your kids how to grasp and evaluate the beliefs of others. They need to be given tools to navigate the ideas that will inevitably come at them. Again, some shelter their children to an unhealthy extreme, but it seems to me more of us allow them to be exposed regularly and without the tools of critical evaluation. How do we do this? We let them watch every Disney movie and every other popular kids programing that is served up and let them simply soak it all in and absorb whatever nonsensical worldview is being delivered. Is it any wonder that God as automatic forgiveness dispenser is dominant among our youth? This is Disney “theology” applied! Again, the point is not primarily about movies and TV but is about navigating the ideas embedded in the movies and TV.
Here are a few practical suggestions.
- Have discussions with your children about the media they consume. Help them to consume critically rather than passively.
- More generally, begin to expose your children to the ideas that are dominant in the culture. This can be difficult to do, but you should do your best to put these ideas in their most charitable light as you discuss them. Offering a caricature of a view does not, at the end of the day, help anyone.
- Allow your children the space to ask any questions that they may have, and take their ideas seriously. Push them to clarify their ideas and to come up with reasons for thinking they are true.
- Allow your kids to see you ministering to unbelievers. Most of us get the occasional knock on the door from someone with a desire to talk about an alternative faith. I have a friend who will invite Mormon and Jehovah Witness missionaries in, grab the kids, and have a discussion around the kitchen table. He models how to thoughtfully and respectfully engage someone of a different faith. What better training could there possibly be in these matters than actually being there while one’s parent is sharing the gospel?
Sometimes we fear ideas and feel like we need to rig the system for our children so that they will see certain ideas as true. I don’t think Truth needs this sort of help from us. We are all interested, as parents, in teaching our children what to think. The best way to accomplish this is to teach them how to think, and then we have to trust that the truth will stand on its own.