This is from the Beyond Teachable Moments blog – a great blog for Christian parents who want to raise effective, influential children.
I recently had the opportunity to meet an intelligent young Christian woman who is proactively learning how to discuss her faith in a secular society.
Why is she so dedicated to doing this? Because her Christian upbringing had completely failed to prepare her for the challenges of secularism, religious pluralism and atheism at university.
This young woman grew up in close-knit, loving Christian home. She faithfully attended church. She was enrolled in a Christian school that taught subjects such as apologetics, hermeneutics, inductive Bible study and managing relationships. Her parents cared about her spiritual formation.
And yet, this is how she describes her university experience:
“Although I was still living at home during the beginning of my freshman year, university was traumatic at best. I went from a class of 15 in a small Christian school, to 30,000 people at a public university.
The most troubling thing was the amount of differing beliefs and worldviews I encountered, from professors and other students. At the time I thought they had much better arguments than I did for the validity of their views.”
Added to her challenge was the fact that her faith was borrowed, not her own.
“I can honestly and sadly say that as I started my freshman year at age 19, my faith was very much borrowed. It was a set of rules to adhere too. Although I was well aware of the concept of a relationship with Jesus Christ, I did not have it. I was entrenched in the notion of conforming to what people wanted me to do in order to escape condemnation and judgment.”
“My faith at the university was non-existent. If you asked me what I believed I would say Christian, but I did not back that up with any action whatsoever.”
As a mom of two young boys, the top-of-mind question I had for her was: what did she wish she’d known before she went to university?
The rest of the post is her response, but I wanted to quote this part, because it reminds me of what Pastor Matt Rawlings posted about his own loss of faith a while back.
The mysterious Christian woman says this:
Don’t use me to make you look good in front of other people at church, I can see straight through that. It does not feel good and drives me far away. What matters is what is going on inside, not what is projected. Looking perfect and going through the motions does nothing. The very basis for Christianity is what is going on in the heart. Only by letting Jesus work in your heart can actions follow with true authenticity.
And here’s what Pastor Matt said:
Looking back, I had a very fuzzy understanding of the Gospel. I (and I think many people who call themselves Christians) are what theologians call “semi-Pelagians.” I believed anyone could come to the altar but if they wanted to continue to be welcomed in the pews, they had to clean up their act and do so almost overnight. The culture of Christianity at large appeared to me to be that if you came to faith and continued to struggle with lust, a foul mouth or whatnot then there was just something wrong with you. I felt the church was more about behavior modification than grace.
I needed someone who I knew loved me to sit down with me long before all of these problems arose, look me in the eye and tell me how easy and how difficult it is to be a Christian. I needed someone cared for me to unpack 2 Corinthians 5:21 and point out that by being “in Christ” I would be judged by Christ’s perfect life instead of my own. I needed to know that the faith is not about “keeping the rules” but about doing things and not doing certain things to show my love and gratitude to God for what He did for me. I needed to be able to read the Bible, especially the Old Testament, in a way that always pointed to Jesus Christ. I needed to understand that God has graciously given us the spiritual disciplines of fasting, prayer, serving the poor, worship, etc. to help me grow. I needed to hear that all Christians struggle with sin and will, to a certain degree, until they go to be with the Lord or He returns to be with us.
I needed good theology, good spiritual practices, good apologetics and good relationships. I needed knowledge and it needed to come from someone who I knew loved me even though I was thoroughly unlovable. You can’t just leave this to the church staff because they do not have to time to meet with everyone and people with a chip on their shoulder about the church (like I had) feel like they are just doing it as part of their job. All young people in the church, especially the “troubled kids” need this. It is a lot of work but anyone’s eternity is worth it, isn’t it?
As J.P. Moreland has pointed out, your beliefs are not something that you form by sheer acts of will. You cannot will to believe things. Your beliefs form naturally through study, and then outward actions come from those beliefs. You cannot focus on the outward actions of your children – you have to focus on the beliefs inside. And know that those beliefs are not formed by habit, singing, church attendance or any other non-cognitive approaches. Beliefs form through a careful study of the evidence on BOTH SIDES. The first thing that Christian parents should be showing their kids is debates with both sides represented. That shows them that there is more to a worldview than just being bullied into it by raising your voice at them.
Christian parents, take note. Don’t be focused on making your child behave nicely on the outside and making it impossible for them to talk about temptations and doubts. Christianity comes from the inside – from the mind. You need to be helping them form a worldview that has been tested and approved by them, before they ever set foot on a university campus. The Christian faith is not adopted by habit or tradition, it is adopted by transferring knowledge and discussing opposing views openly and honestly.
Don’t be like this mother who is only focused on externals – what family and friends think of her:
The good news is that atheism is not generally adopted because of logic or evidence. That means that a little bit evidence for God’s existence goes a long way against no evidence. A little bit evidence for the reliability of the Bible goes a long way against no evidence. A little bit of the minimal facts case for the resurrection of Jesus goes a long way against no evidence. It’s very important that when your children get to university that they find a conflict between some evidence and no evidence. At that point, it becomes their choice to decide what to do, and it could go either way. You don’t have to make them William Lane Craig before they get to university, for example. But they should have at least read his popular-level essays and books, heard his podcasts, and seen him debate.
Peer pressure on a secular university is powerful – but if you’ve taught your children to value truth over popularity, vanity, selfishness and immorality, then you’ve done your job. Lots of people fall away from Christianity in university because of the hostile environment. Some fall away because they want to be approved of by their peers, some because they just want to be seen as tolerant or smart, some because they want to get good grades from liberal professors, some because they want to have a good time, etc. That’s not your concern. Your concern is to demonstrate your love of truth, and communicate to them a sober assessment of the evidence pro and con on ultimate issues. After that, it’s up to them.