“Eighty to ninety percent of Christian young people leave the church after graduation from high school.”
– Dr. Brad Widstrom (1)
Finding Faith – or Losing It?
At this point, it would be unfair of us to leave the issue of faith development without addressing the current phenomenon that has sent many teachers, parents, and youth leaders scrambling for answers: The majority of youth leave the church after graduating from high school. Statistics vary according to who you listen to, but the numbers are well over 75%. I’ve dealt in depth with this in another book, so I won’t repeat myself here. But I do want to point out the thread we have followed as we’ve gone through the developmental stages.
- Preschoolers take beliefs for granted
- Six – eight generally believe, but may ask astute questions
- Nine – ten ask questions, see inconsistencies
- Eleven may challenge beliefs
- Twelve may argue with beliefs
- Thirteen and up may rebel against beliefs, not in the sense of revolting, but in the sense of refusing to “buy in”
You may say that your child or even most of the kids in your ‘tween or youth group are not challenging, arguing, or rebelling. That doesn’t mean they don’t have questions or concerns. It may mean they are afraid to express those concerns. Or it may mean it hasn’t occurred to them yet to truly personalize their faith. Or they may equate mental assent to their parents’ beliefs with a personal faith. But in order for a teen to personalize faith, he or she must drop the taken-for-grantedness of it.
In this regard, I see three options for the adolescent:
- Don’t question the taken-for-grantedness.
In this case, the answer to “Why do you believe?” is “Because my mom and dad (or pastor or youth leader) told me it was so.”
- Let go of taken-for-granted belief and pick up personal faith.
In this case, the expression of your young person’s faith may or may not look like yours. But it will be her own personal faith, and she will be able to explain from her heart-felt conviction why she is a Christian, and not just say by rote what she has been taught to say. .
- Drop the taken-for-grantedness of faith and leave it behind.
This seems to be what a lot of young people are doing. At least they are leaving the church behind. (Which might put them in a new category: having a personal faith in Jesus that is expressed outside the traditional church.)
The question is: Why would kids not personalize the Christian faith as part of their developing identity? Or why would they personalize faith yet leave the church, if indeed that’s what some of them are doing? That, of course, is a broad subject and one I cover in another book. If you are interested in exploring these issues, I invite you to join me in the book I Want to Believe But I Can’t.
What If the Scale was Tipped to the Negative?
Another question about stages: What if a person didn’t develop the positive? What if she didn’t gain a sense of trust in infancy? What if she didn’t develop a sense of industry and competence in her school years? Does she get stuck at that stage?
The answer is no. A person progresses through all the stages. We can compare it again to building a house. All the floors will be added on, one by one. If the negative side of a stage develops instead of the positive side, the person will move on, carrying with her the negative sense that she received from that stage. As an adult, she may have an underlying sense of shame or undue guilt. She may feel inferior. Or she may not have a strong sense of identity. There’s a crack in the foundation that may cause problems in the house later on.
What can we do if someone has developed the negative instead of the positive? Here are some things to remember:
- Children are very resilient. They bounce back and usually forgive easily. Just because there’s a crack somewhere doesn’t mean the house will fall down. Everyone has “issues,” and the way we respond to them can make us stronger and wiser.
- God is in control. None of us is perfect. At one time or other, we all add weight to the negative side of the child’s development. As we work with children at home or in the classroom, we need to pray, “Father, make up for my deficiencies as a parent or teacher.” In Joel 2:25, God promises his people, “I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten.” God can patch the cracks, though He may not do so miraculously, and there may be some healing pain involved.
- You can help repair the damage. If the damage is causing serious problems, the person should see a Christian counselor to help her work through the pain of the past so that it no longer has a stranglehold on her present or future. However, let’s say you know or suspect that a child you are working with has experienced abandonment and never developed a sense of trust. In that case, you show her that you are trustworthy and your love and respect for her are unconditional. She will probably test you to see if that’s true. So you stay the course. Show you’re trustworthy by loving her no matter what.
Whether a person missed out on trust or autonomy or initiative or industry or identity, your role is the same. Accept and encourage by giving the person doses of the positive input that she missed at that earlier stage in life.
–from Child Sensitive Teaching, by Karyn Henley, Chapter 10
© Karyn Henley. All rights reserved. Exclusively administered by Child Sensitive Communication, LLC.