As I grew up through my twenties, I realized that I had lived through what had become a massive statistic. It turns out that most kids raised in American Christian churches drop their faith by college graduation.
Plenty of leaders, thinkers and writers have pontificated over this statistic. Most of them look at the “millennial” generation from afar, decades separating them from the people they claim to analyze.
But now that I’m a parent, this is no longer a remote or abstract exercise in analytics. It’s terrifying.
As a parent, I want my child to embrace my most personal and deeply held beliefs. I cannot imagine what it will do to my wife and I if he should reject the faith we are trying to teach him.
And yet, the numbers aren’t good. The odds are stacked against us. It seems that we will more than likely fail.
But I think I know how to beat the odds. Because I think I finally have an answer to why our kids, raised in church-going homes, have largely discarded their faith.
What Are We Doing, Parents?
It seems that a lot of us, when it comes to the most important parts of our kids’ lives, we don’t know what we are doing. We know how to coach their little league teams, but we don’t know how to do things like talk to them about sex, relationships, or Jesus.
Recently, I was talking with a pastor friend, and I asked him about this very problem and how he approaches spiritual formation with his own children.
He gave me the illustration of a scaffolding.
As parents, we are building a scaffolding with our children. The scaffolding is made of Bible stories, prayers, rituals, and other planks that make up a child’s conception of the world and their faith.
If your parents did this for you, then you know what happened when you were a teenager…
…You started to tear down the scaffolding.
Plank by plank, by the spirit of teenage rebellion, you started to pull and pry at the scaffolding, to see what could be removed. Most of the boards could be safely pulled away and discarded. Some took more effort to pull away. These boards were childish notions of God and the world, the same kind of childish faith that believes in Santa or the Tooth Fairy.
Discarding this scaffolding is not the end of the world and it isn’t the end of faith, because all the while your parents were building this scaffolding, God himself was building a permanent structure, a faith that was strong, flexible, and mature enough to last a lifetime.
The thing about the permanent structure is that the scaffolding must be dismantled in order to be revealed.
The Reason the Church Always Fails
So where did we go wrong with all these church kids who become adults, completely removed from the church?
In short, the church, the parents, built the scaffolding…
…But that’s all that was built.
There are times in the church’s history when it confuses the scaffolding and the structure. The scaffolding, which is supposed to be a temporary, man-made thing becomes the main thing, the only thing.
Think about just prior to the Protestant Reformation. The scaffolding that the church was building had become so bloated and unruly with extra planks, that there was no space for permanent, spiritual faith to be built. The scaffolding was made of institutions. The scaffolding was rules. The scaffolding was money and fear and power.
And eventually the scaffolding became so untenable, that it had to come down.
And that is what the evangelical church did.
It confused the scaffolding for the structure.
Why the Evangelical Church Has Failed This Generation
So what was the evangelical church’s scaffolding?
It started with Jesus.
But then we started teaching kids that Jesus wasn’t enough.
We started telling them that in order to follow Jesus, they had to believe and behave in all these other ways.
We told them that following Jesus was about supporting ineffective institutions.
We told them that following Jesus was about befriending the right people and avoiding the wrong people.
We told them that following Jesus meant voting a certain way.
We told them that following Jesus meant waging a culture war.
And when the scaffolding becomes so unruly, so wobbly and shaky, it is inevitable. When a few planks are removed, the whole thing comes down and nothing is left. Kids went to college and they ran into the people their churches told them to avoid. They found out they weren’t at all the way they had been told. They found that the way they had been told to vote or the culture war they had been enlisted in as child soldiers no longer aligned with their consciences and they wanted no part of it.
And so, they felt they had no choice but to leave. There was no permanent structure. The scaffolding had left no room for permanent construction to take place. There was just a pile of boards and nails.
Our Jobs as Parents
So where does that leave us, parents?
Know your place. Know that we are building a temporary structure. Our children will have a faith that will look different from our own. The more we add to the scaffolding and tell our children this is the way following Jesus must be, the more they will doubt us when they start tearing down the scaffolding.
If we are holding our faith with true humility as parents, then we will not be scared. We will not be offended when our children begin tugging at the boards in the scaffolding we have built.
We will be right there with them, handing them a saw or a hammer, lending a thoughtful, gentle hand, to help them tear it down.