How to engage with the faith of your child
Making the time
"Each generation has different questions and...change is happening so quickly these days, that we...need to see our communication with our own children as if we're [doing] cross-cultural missions, you know, in the sense that they are coming up with a completely different set of ideas, values, societal norms and so on, than we knew. And so, we're the missionaries. It's up to us to learn their language. It's up to us to learn their thought forms, just as if you were going to another culture, another country."
Professor Nancy Pearson
Before you begin...
It is important to stress that your child should not be coerced in any way to adopt the Christian faith. Your child has the right, as you do, to reject Christianity and decide it is not for them. Our God has gone to enormous lengths to leave this option open to all of us, so you should actively encourage your child to make up their own mind, and respect their decision.
Encouraging faith is founded on the idea that Christianity should at least get a fair hearing within a Christian home. This is to say that a huge proportion of the tropes and attitudes about the faith prevalent in our popular culture are distortions, caricatures and very tendentious approaches to understanding what we believe as Christians.
We think the Christian parent has a moral right to expose them as such, as well as providing positive evidences for Christianity, if their child is willing to listen.
1) Be committed
You need to ‘make this a thing’
At the heart of what we are recommending is that you as a parent commit to spending a period of time each week talking about God.
It may be that you are already doing this to some extent, or at the other end of the spectrum, it may feel that the life of your family is too crazy for this to be viable.
Actually, the hardest step is often just making the commitment. What this means in practice is working in a half hour slot (or however long) into your diary each week.
Think carefully about all the thoughts that arise to prevent you from doing this; it may really be the case that you cannot make time for this right now, but then again if you’re anything like me, you’re a past master at making excuses, rationalising and generally letting yourself off the hook!
Remember, from eating to sleeping we always make time for the things that are most important to us and engaging with the faith of your child is not only important for them, it’s also important for you. I can tell you that if conducted properly, encouragement sessions reinforce the bond between you and your child, deepening your relationship and sense of intimacy with each other. In that way, it meets a need within us as well as invests in your child’s future.
The amount of time you should set aside depends on several factors, not least which topic you are looking at, the level of development of your child and your assessment of their ability to concentrate. The older your child, more generally it will be easier to hold their attention for longer periods. In my family, our sessions last between 15 to 20 mins each Sunday morning over breakfast.
2) Be Semi-Structured
Find the balance between following a plan and facilitating your child's spontaneity
Teachers plan their lessons, giving their interactions with children a structure. This helps to achieve definable goals.
At Encouraging Faith, we have designed a way of approaching core topics in Christian apologetics, and we hope these are simple enough to be useful. However, you also want to give your child free-rein to express themselves (we are encouraging them to think for themselves about the faith after all) and this will mean finding a balance between structure and spontaneity, ‘order and chaos’.
3) Be Socratic
By this, we mean that ideally, your encouragement sessions should focus on fostering critical thinking in your children, about what they believe.
Broadly speaking, the Socratic Method involves asking questions to examine a set of beliefs. It can be used to draw out what your children think, and help them articulate, define and develop their thoughts in a way that engages them. In this way it avoids putting easy answers into their mouths, or ‘spoon-feeding’ them: You’re getting them to really think.
Let me give you an example. My daughter stopped believing in Santa Claus a couple of years ago, and it occasioned a mini-crisis of faith in God. Not unreasonably, she asked why if Santa was just a quaint fiction, she shouldn’t put God in the same category.
Me: So that’s an interesting question. How do we know when something is real or when it isn’t?
D: Well I just don’t know about Christianity, because I can’t see God and I can’t see Santa.
Me: Are there any differences between God and Santa?
D: Well God is really powerful.
Me: Good. What else?
D: Santa wears a red suit.
Me: And what is he wearing that on?
D: His body.
Me: Does God have a body?
D: Err. No.
Me: So how can you see something that doesn’t have a body?
D: I don’t know. You can see it move things like the wind? It’s really difficult. I just don’t know what to think.
Me: So even things you can’t see can be discovered from their effects, Like the wind moving the trees for example?
D: Well yes. But I just don’t know what God does.
Which led into a discussion about reasons to think God exists, primarily using the cosmological argument (inferring the existence of God from one of his effects: the universe). This encounter encouraged my daughter at a difficult time, and subsequently, she used elements of this discussion when challenged about her beliefs by her sceptical classmates.
4) Be a storyteller
Narratives are the way humanity has interpreted reality, and represented meaning for untold millennia. Properly told, stories engage people in a holistic way, reaching into our intellectual, moral and emotional psychology. Jesus told simple stories (parables) with explosive meanings, many of them deeply subversive to his political milieu.
Given that meaning is still apprehended in narrative form, consider the following story.
Once upon a time, our society was mired in ignorance and oppression. Religion held sway over people's lives, filling their existence with fantastic superstitions, propping up regressive social systems of oppression and causing war.
Then we discovered science. We found out that the world around us runs according to certain laws. The more we learned, we discovered that we didn’t need the supernatural to explain what we observed in the world around us. Darwin showed us that we were not specially created but evolved. Freud showed us that our religious impulses stemmed from the desire for ‘wish-fulfilment’. Slowly but surely the forces of progress undermined religions’ hold on society and people were freed from its’ evil tyranny. Now we live in a golden secular age where the darkness of ignorance has been all but banished by the light of science.
Sound familiar? It should do! Whilst a caricature, this is the narrative implicit in much of the discussion around Christianity in western popular culture. In fact, much of the force of this mode of criticism, as it will be experienced by your children in the playground or at college, comes from the fact it is a narrative, rather than a set of propositions or axioms that can be discussed and assessed.
For example, one of my daughters’ friends said to her: “We don’t believe in God, we believe in science…”. The idea that science and Christianity are locked in a struggle to the death, in which only science can win, is a very popular one. My daughter's friend has evoked the narrative above (or something like it) with just a simple one line put down.
Now consider the following story:-
Once upon a time, scientists thought that the universe was eternal (had existed forever, never had a beginning). When they read in the Bible that the universe had been created out of nothing, all the intellectuals scoffed. This was precisely the sort of nonsense that science was sweeping away.
Then, at the beginning of the twentieth century, a man called Albert Einstein came up with a powerful new scientific theory. When applied to the universe, it became very hard to see how the universe could stay eternally still; it had to be either expanding or contracting.
Other scientists took his theory and suggested that the universe was growing rather than shrinking, and then they finally discovered that this was actually true by looking at the galaxies that surround our own; they’re moving away from us! The universe really is expanding!
Now a lot of people really didn’t like this at all. They knew that it meant that if you looked backwards into the past, you could see the universe had expanded out of an very tiny point. Every thing came out of this point; time, space, energy, matter -everything! This point, which they called ‘The Big Bang’ looked like the creation the Bible spoke of.
Now there’s much more you could say about this, about how people have tried to avoid the implications of the universe having an absolute beginning using all sorts of different theories, and how they have all failed to stack up. For our purposes, the second story is actually quite subversive. It undermines the first story by showing that the advances in science do not automatically further the aims of secularism, for example.
So remember the power of narratives. Many of the forces distorting people's lives in our contemporary culture are such stories, and knowing how to subvert them will be key in helping our children thrive as Christians. We should be telling the best stories!
5) Be encouraging
Be powered by positivity
Get the tone right; be convincing, show that you are interested in what you are talking about. Show that you welcome what your child has to say. If you get the impression they’re not enjoying the session, then something’s wrong. Change tack, use humour, try an audiovisual resource to stimulate their minds, or it might be wise to just call it a day, and try again next week. Their wholehearted engagement with the subject matter is not an optional extra, it’s the whole point. More of this when we talk about incentives.
Speak their language
When engaging with their questions, try to use their own terminology where possible. There’s a balance to be struck between correcting a misapprehension, and making them lose the thread completely. If you use their terms, in part you validate their experience, giving them the confidence to explore, and the means to understand.
6) Be brief
It’s important not to outstay your welcome. Our philosophy is that in your encouragement sessions, you are a partner with your child, and you need to be sensitive to when they do not want to continue. Keep your encouragement sessions reasonably short, and don’t try to achieve too much. That said, if you sense you have a following wind, see where it will take you!
Encouragement sessions should be enjoyable and voluntary for all parties. Now it may be that your child is willing enough to have these meetings without any mentions of reward. I would suggest this is unusual though. That is why we recommend thinking about how you are going to incentivise your child to take part.
Perhaps this makes you slightly uncomfortable? Some people like the notion of their children doing what is right and helpful simply because it is good for them. There is some mileage in this; we don’t reward our children just for going to school, or doing their homework, it’s just expected that this is how they will behave.
But encouraging them to engage with the Christian faith is going to be different. In the UK, going to school is a legal requirement, but developing one’s faith is voluntary. Faith is a door that can only be opened from the inside, and it’s absolutely vital that your child brings their good will to the session. If you sense resentment, you should back off.
So how can you foster active engagement? Well, tell your children the reward they will get if they take part. There are no hard and fast rules here, and you know your children better than anyone. Perhaps the offer of a treat such as tasty snack, or a contribution to their allowance. Maybe you should negotiate it with your child.
In our house, we operate an internal currency in pieces of pasta. My children can earn pastas for completing chores such as emptying the dishwasher which they can then spend these on various things, including screen-time.
I reward them with a pasta for attending an encouragement session, then another pasta for each bible verse they remember, and one for each argument or reason for believing in God. These sessions are very lucrative compared to their other activities, and as a result they are very keen to have these sessions each week.