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FIRST-PERSON: Attn. parents: Look in the mirror

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Each child is unique. American children and teenagers are all over the map in terms of religious experience. A few are devoid of anything that looks like personal faith while others have passionate devotion. Trying to lump them all together is simply a mistake.

Parents’ greatest fear may be that their children will enter some awful rebellious period and reject the faith. That fear is mostly unfounded. Contrary to popular thinking, children generally do not become teenagers who are alienated from the church or its ministers and members.

Researchers report that more than 80 percent of teens say they believe in God, and two-thirds describe Him as involved in people’s lives; 71 percent of teens say they feel “very close” or “somewhat close” to Him. Among teens who describe themselves as religious, only 5 percent report having had a number of doubts about their faith in the previous year, while 70 percent of church-going teens say their congregations are a “very good” or “fairly good” place to talk about serious life issues.

Popular media portrays older children and teenagers as people who reject parents and faith as fast as they pierce body parts. Teenagers in movies view the church as a dinosaur and the faith of their parents as an emotional crutch. The only religious children and teenagers on the small or large screen are strange and unpleasant people.

This unfortunate portrayal flies in the face of the facts. Most U.S. children become teens who embrace fairly conventional, traditional beliefs about religion and the supernatural. They are not stampeding to abandon the church or the faith they grew up with.

By the time they reach young adulthood, the great majority of children will have a faith very similar to their parents. Of course there are exceptions, but not many. Most parents who want to know where their kids are headed religiously just need to look in the mirror. According to one study, only 6 percent of teens regard their religious beliefs as very different from their mothers’ and 11 percent different from their fathers’.

The question is, is this good news or bad news?

Nearly all children become teenagers who are profoundly individualistic. They simply do not realize the influence their parents and their church have in shaping their faith. They really do believe they are crafting a faith all on their own.

Actually, children and teens are just exhibiting typical American individualism, that they are distinct from all others and must freely choose their own religion.

Parents grew up with Frank Sinatra singing, “I did it my way.” Now their children have come to believe the same thing.

They tend to believe the central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about oneself. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when He is needed to resolve a problem.

If children grow up to believe that God primarily exists to make them happy and if children usually adopt the faith of their parents, then parents need to ask hard questions about their own convictions.

Parents’ greatest fear should not be that children will enter some awful, rebellious period and reject the faith.

The greatest danger is that they will imitate that large body of adult Christians whose faith stays in the background of their lives and who believe God exists primarily to make them happy.
Adapted from the new book, “Parenting with Kingdom Purpose” by Ken Hemphill and Richard Ross and published by Broadman & Holman trade books division of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention. Hemphill is the national strategist for the SBC’s Empowering Kingdom Growth emphasis; Ross is professor of student ministry at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Texas and one of the founders of the True Love Waits movement for sexual abstinence until marriage.

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  • Ken Hemphill & Richard Ross