Passing on the Faith
A Faith of Their Own
We have much to teach our kids; we have the advantage of experience and facility for reflection. Of course, we get lots of things wrong, too—we should pray that the Holy Spirit would protect our kids from the harmful things that we will teach them. But, having said that, we ought to be intentional about passing on our faith to our kids in such a way that it will at once be the authentic faith of their community while also being their own. How can my wife and I pass our faith on to them while also allowing that they may follow Jesus in ways different and—hopefully!—better than we do? Let me suggest three questions, or sorts of questions, we can ask ourselves.
First, do we recognize the role of the community in passing on the faith? Usually, in raising their kids, parents tweak the teachings of their faith community to fit their own perspectives. This is inevitable. However, this can also undermine the fact that, despite our Modernistic individualism, while faith is certainly personal, it is also communal. In Christ, we are part of a larger Body, thanks be to God. The fact that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses should help inoculate us against shortsightedness and parochialism. We should ask ourselves: Are we including other voices to inform our kids? Are we drawing other members of our community into our children's spiritual development? Are we allowing our sons and daughters to hear perspectives within our faith community that are different than our own?
Second, do we put our kids in positions to exercise their faith? Again, thanks to Modernity, faith is often seen as merely a cognitive phenomenon. A body of knowledge. A few doctrines to affirm. Yet, historically and biblically speaking, faith is far more than that. Faith is a posture of commitment. It is a relationship with something in which we are bound to it. It is wholly self-involving, including our will. This means that if we do not use it, we lose it. If we do not live out the implications of what we believe, we will not be bound to it (if we ever were at all). Cognitive psychologists, not to mention existentialists, have always affirmed the formative power of practice. Loving others with the love of God is as critical for faith formation as learning catechesis, perhaps more so. Therefore, we should ask ourselves: Are we giving our kids opportunities to practice what they believe? As role-models, are we joining them in that? Are we helping them connect the dots between belief and action?
Third, do we trust the Holy Spirit? Ultimately, it is not parents who teach our youth. It isn't the community or its practices, either. It is the movement of God's Spirit. In faith formation, God's Spirit uses lots of things. And it is one of the characteristics of God's Spirit that those things are unpredictable. We do not know how or when or where the Holy Spirit will influence our kids, and that can be frustrating to those of us who want to control their development. But we cannot control it. And we shouldn't. Because, though we have some, we do not have all the answers. But we believe in a God who does, and who will not fail to pursue our sons and daughters more doggedly and effectively (and affectively) than we ever will. The key is that we keep faith in that, and encourage our kids into spaces where they might be touched by the Holy Spirit. We should continue to ask ourselves: Do I believe that God can lead my kids on the journey of faith better than I can? If I do, do I help put my kids in places where they can be touched by that Spirit?
If passing our faith to our kids is not the most important vocation that we have, it is one of them. A commandment (the fifth) was reserved for recognition of that fact. But we must remember that we are not trying to reproduce a mode of thinking in them. We are trying to help them to be disciples, and not our own. I love my kids, and my faith tradition believes that the best thing I can do for them is encourage them (strongly, even) to follow Jesus, and help them understand what that means and what it might look like. That is where life is. But that discipleship will look different than mine and, hopefully, it will be much better. So as I struggle to entrust God with my kids, I also look forward to the ways that the Holy Spirit will use them—unexpectedly!—to help me be a better disciple, too.
Michael D. Langford is Assistant Professor of Theology, Discipleship, and Ministry and Coordinator of Youth Ministry Education and Training at the School of Theology & Seattle Pacific Seminary, Seattle Pacific University.