Note: This article is part of a special Patheos Symposium, Passing on the Faith: Teaching the Next Generation. Read more perspectives here.
Let me be as honest as I can be about the subject of just how we Christian oldsters (I qualify; I am now sixty-seven) can, should, or are able to pass on to our offspring the faith that has nurtured us for many of our years. I thought I was doing that for my own kids in at least two ways: first, my wife and I lived the life and professed aloud and lived the values that we heard our Christianity calling us to live, and second, I began when our son was small to tell him stories of the Bible. Surely, those two acts would serve to transmit the traditions of our faith to the next generation, the primary responsibility of any parent concerned about such things.
Well, we failed, I guess. Or at least if the measure of success is happy, believing, church-going kiddos, we clearly failed. Neither of our adult children attends church or believes our faith in anything like a traditional way. In fact, one of them claims to be an atheist, though I imagine agnostic might more closely describe what he thinks he is. As for the other, she says nothing about it much at all. And their spouses follow suit. And even with the birth of a grandchild—oh blessed event!—I see no change coming. The old "wait until they have children; they'll get back to church then" is not going to happen as far as I can see.
These things occurred in spite of our fervent efforts. After all, both my wife and I are clergy, she a pastor and I a professor in a theological school. We went to church, for God's sake (literally, I hope), and our children went with us. Before my wife was ordained, she directed children's choirs in church, choirs of which our children were members. They played handbells, they went to youth group on Sundays, to camps in the summer, on choir tours, to Appalachian service projects. They were church kids without doubt, or perhaps I should say with healthy doubt that we always encouraged. Ask questions, we said. Take nothing at face value, we urged. We never wanted to cram religion down their growing throats. We were enlightened Christians, open to the diversity of belief and practice.
They both eagerly took our openness seriously and eagerly rebelled against the church. When we finally gave them the choice whether to go or not in their final year of high school, they chose not and slept in of a Sunday. And when they went off to college, the church played no role for them. My wife feels this as real failure on our part as Christian parents. She spent twenty years in the pastorate urging her members to obey Deuteronomy 6:4-8, to "recite the commandments of God to your children, to talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise." We did, but somehow it did not take. We have many friends here in the heart of the Bible Belt whose children dutifully continue to attend church regularly, their parents being lawyers and teachers and tax men and business women, not a clergyperson in sight. Where did we go wrong? Did we go wrong?
I said earlier that I told my son, at least (I did not do this for my daughter to my shame), stories of the Bible as he grew, and so I did. He loved old powerful Samson best, the dumb brute, possessing far more physical strength than brains. But my four-year-old son loved to imagine himself as Samson, ripping lions up with his bare hands and bringing the pagan temple down on the heads of all those nasty Philistines. He hardly considered it memorable at four that Samson dropped a few pagan stones on his own head at the same time! The point was he was strong—I mean strong like Superman and Batman and Luke Skywalker. I kept telling him the story as he grew older, and soon he began to ask some questions about the whole thing. "Why did Samson kill all those guys to pay off his debts," he asked me? "It hardly seemed fair to kill them so he could steal their clothes and pay off the debt he owed. Don't you tell us not to act like that, Daddy? Wouldn't you get mad if I did something like that?" Well...yes, son, I suppose I would.
And then the questions got harder, as if those were not hard enough. He was about nine now. "Daddy, doesn't it say that God gave Samson the spirit so that he could go out and kill those guys to pay off his debt? Why would God do that? Is that what God does, Dad?" "And doesn't it say that Samson just wanted revenge for one of his two eyes that the Philistines gouged out, and that God made him strong so he could kill them all, along with himself?" Yes, it does say that. That did lead to some very interesting and memorable conversations about God, what God is doing in the world, what roles that we humans have in that world. But all those Bible stories and all our conversations led my son not to believe and also to wonder aloud more than once just why I continued to believe what I did.