Current research reveals that we are realistically in danger of not passing on biblicalChristianity to the next generation. Both an overexposure to worldly philosophy and anoverdependence on church programs have caused us to fail in our task to hand off a vibrant, kingdom-focused faith. To counteract this dangerous direction, five pivotal factors are needed.
First, we need a clear definition of what we’re looking for—do we want nice kids who don’t get in trouble, or passionate followers of Christ? Second, we must adopt a multigenerational perspective, providing opportunities for those older and wiser in the faith to impart a spiritual legacy to the next generation. Third, following the Deuteronomy 6 model, parents must possess and pass their faith on to their children, making the most of teachable moments and everyday life. Fourth, dads must take the lead, recognizing that they are the spiritual thermostat of the home and are commanded to raise their children in the training and instruction of the Lord. Finally, both the home and the church must educate in sound doctrine, equip in apologetics, and explainmoral principles. Raising confident teens with a desire to make an impact for God’s glory doesn’t happen by itself. This requires eyes to see teachable moments and the determination tointentionally pass on our faith in daily living.
In the futuristic novel Brave New World, Aldous Huxley portrays a society whose scientific advancements have produced complete stability and happiness, but only by eliminatingvirtue, truth, family, and religious belief. His closing chapters offer a fascinating dialoguebetween the Controller and John, who was raised outside of modern civilization. At one pointJohn asks:
“How does [God] manifest himself now?”
“Well, he manifests himself as an absence; as though he weren’t there at all.”
“That’s your fault.”
“Call it the fault of civilization. God isn’t compatible with machinery and scientificmedicine and universal happiness. You must make your choice. Our civilization has chosenmachinery and medicine and happiness. That’s why I have to keep these books locked up in thesafe.”1
Although written as fiction, Huxley’s vision of a world blissfully ignorant of its religiousheritage is actually not as odd as it used to be. Imagine a future church historian writing that“another generation grew up, who didn’t know the Lord or what He had done for America.” Tooextreme? Or could we be in danger of losing an entire generation, as Israel did (Judges 2:10)? Thesobering statistics indicate that we are failing to pass on the essential beliefs and values ofChristianity:
• Eighty-five percent of youth from Christian homes attending public schools do not hold abiblical worldview.2
• About eight million twentysomethings who were active churchgoers as teenagers will no longerbe active in church by their thirtieth birthdays.3
The National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR), the most extensive research on the religious lives of U.S. teenagers to date, found:4
• The majority of teenagers are incredibly inarticulate about their faith and its meaning in their lives. They find it almost impossible to put basic beliefs into words.
• Teens are “functional deists”—they believe God exists, created the world, and set life in motion, but that He only becomes involved with them personally to make their lives happier or to solve problems.
• Many teens (including conservative Protestants) reject the essential doctrine of salvation by grace; three out of five believe people can earn a place in heaven if they are generally good, or do enough good things for others.
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• When deciding right from wrong in difficult situations, only thirty-one percent of Southern Baptist teens said they turned to God or the Scriptures. Almost an identical percent said they decided based on whether it made them feel happy or helped them get ahead in life.
In light of these findings, Ken Hemphill wrote, “If we fail to hand to the next generation a vibrant, kingdom-focused faith, we could see the tragedy of churches that become a respected part of the landscape of American culture, a sort of historic relic of the past, but with little vitality or relevance for the modern-day America [sic].”5
Josh McDowell’sconcern for today’s young people is so great that he wrote The Last Christian Generation,explaining his title: “I realize the title of this book may be shocking. But the decision to call thisThe Last Christian Generation was not made lightly nor was it done for sensationalism. I sincerelybelieve unless something is done now to change the spiritual state of our young people—you willbecome the last Christian generation!”6
Why are our youth, with seemingly all the tools needed to thrive, failing to filter their life choices through God’s Word? Why is there a disconnect between Christianity and the world they face every day? Hasn’t there been enough training on morality, worldviews, and evangelism to produce a stronger emerging generation?
In track and field, the four-person relay is centered on successfully passing a baton fromone runner to the next. A handoff outside the passing zone disqualifies the team, while a fumbledbaton leaves the team far behind in the race. The handoff of God’s truth to the next generationmust also occur during a specific window of time and must not be dropped in the exchange. Afterworking with youth and families for twenty years, I have observed two common causes for afumbled faith: overexposure to worldly philosophy and overdependence on church programs.
Overexposure to Worldly Philosophy
If teenagers’ perceptions of religion are primarily influenced by media, peers, and mancentered education, they will naturally have a distorted view of Christianity. When we don’taggressively counter the lies of the world with biblical truth, youth are easily taken captive bydeceptive philosophies (Col. 2:8). When teens are not equipped to combat false ideas with soundanswers (2 Cor. 10:5), they are dazzled and consumed by our godless culture. We reap what wesow. if our kids are saturated with humanistic ideas from entertainment and the Internet, weshouldn’t expect a harvest of truth and righteousness (Gal. 6:7–8). Far too many parents watchtheir kids sow seeds of destruction, but then somehow hope for a crop of righteousness.
Overdependence on Church Programs
Even in the twenty-first century, parents are the single most important influenceon the spiritual lives of adolescents, not church leaders or programs.7When asked whoor what shapes their attitudes and actions, seventy-eight percent of teens named theirparents.8The NSYR explained that “many teenagers use the youth group more as asource of social gatherings rather than spiritual growth….Once the teenager graduatesand moves beyond the social ‘bubble’ of the youth group, his or her attitude aboutreligion likely will swing back toward the basic values of his [sic] elders.”9
Parents must embrace the fact that the home is where actual learning occurs and that theirfaith is essential for a successful handoff. Children don’t want to just hear what mom and dadthink about Christianity; they want to see that these beliefs make a difference in daily livingwithin the context of a heart-level relationship. When a parent’s faith is not lived out at all times,it is perceived as merely a hobby unrelated to reality. This inconsistency causes kids tocompartmentalize their spiritual lives and eventually outgrow beliefs they have never seenmodeled.
BUILDING NEXT-GENERATION CHRISTIANS
Five pivotal factors are needed to counteract the dangerous direction of the nextgeneration:
1. A clear definition of what we’re looking for. While this might sound obvious, wemust honestly ask, “What constitutes a healthy Christian teenager?” Too often wedefine such teens as those who believe in God, act nicely, and aren’t pregnant, on drugs,or in jail. Tim Kimmel defines true greatness as “a passionate love for Jesus Christ thatshows itself in an unquenchable love and concern for others.”10The question is, do wetruly communicate this? What we spend our energy, time, and money on is our actualmessage. Are we as concerned with Scripture memorization as we are about academics?As fired up about Christ as about sporting events? Do our children know that noaccomplishment would be more meaningful to us than seeing them make an impact forGod’s kingdom? We must communicate that sports, the arts, and academics are allavenues to minister and be salt and light.
A clear vision for our children’s future faith is critical because secularphilosophers and professors have their own agenda for families. Atheist RichardDawkins openly challenges a parent’s right to raise a child from a religious viewpoint:“It’s one thing to say people should be free to believe whatever they like, but shouldthey be free to impose their beliefs on their children? Is there something to be said forsociety stepping in?”11In his book, What’s So Great About Christianity? Dinesh D’Souzacites philosopher Richard Rorty’s message to parents about the role of professors: “Weare going to go right on trying to discredit you in the eyes of your children, trying tostrip your fundamentalist religious community of dignity, trying to make your viewsseem silly rather than discussable.”12Do Christian parents have as detailed a plan fortheir children’s faith as the secular humanists?
2. A multigenerational perspective. A friend recently commented to me about hisgrandfather, saying, “His prayer is that all of his descendants until Jesus returns willbecome Christians.” I immediately thought, nobody uses the word “descendants”anymore. We don’t think like that. But we should. Psalms 78:1–8 describes fathers andgrandfathers making a successful handoff to succeeding generations by declaringGod’s praiseworthy deeds and ensuring that His moral principles are followed.
This leads to some important questions: If we grow wise by walking with thewise (Prov. 13:20), do our churches provide opportunities for those older and wiser inthe faith to pass a spiritual legacy to the next generation? Are we intentionallysurrounding teens with Bible-saturated saints? How often do we arrange structuredactivities for the entire family? While Scripture often shows families worshiping andstudying God’s Word together (Exod. 10:8–11; Deut. 29:10–13; 31:12–13; Josh. 8:35; 2Kings 23:2; 2 Chron. 20:13; Neh. 8:2–3; 12:43), virtually every church program splits upfamilies.
A radical yet needed step is to rethink the way we view young people and youthministry. Our modern concepts of adolescence are based on humanistic philosophy.Since the beginning of history until about one hundred years ago, teenagers werealways regarded as adults in the early years of adulthood, not children in the final phaseof childhood. In the early 1900s, Dr. G. Stanley Hall, an avid Darwinist, implementedevolutionary concepts into his field of psychology, believing that humans continue tofollow evolutionary development after birth and that the adolescent years were the finalstep in the process of becoming fully human, moving evolution to the next stage.Therefore, teenagers should be separated from other age groups and, since eachgeneration is superior to the previous, rebellion is their destiny.
As this idea of isolating adolescents caught on in schools and churches, weessentially created a new class of people: teenagers. Note that this method of splittingup by age was an application of evolutionary principles, not the biblical pattern ofyounger generations gleaning from older. Youth groups sometimes even detract frommaturity because the emphasis is mostly on fun, reinforcing the mindset that they arestill children and feeding an attitude of self-indulgence during these supposed limboyears. We must therefore diligently build into our young people the understanding thatthey are called to make an impact now (Eph. 5:15–16).
3. Parents who possess and pass their faith. The expression “more is caught thantaught” means that we communicate what we actually believe through choices, not justwords. As already mentioned, parents often send unintended messages to their kids:When dad lets nothing get in the way of game day preparations and yells at the referee,yet won’t carve out time for a fifteen-minute family devotion or express himself inworship, he is communicating what he truly believes is important. When mom canafford a weekly pedicure, the latest beauty products, and fashionable clothes, but won’tgive a penny to the local crisis pregnancy center, the message about what matters isloud and clear.
With this in mind, could parents confidently say to their kids, “Follow ourexample as we follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1)? My wife often reminds othermoms to “be a super model” (i.e., a model of Christ). There is no neutral homeenvironment; either our children see Christ as one part of a compartmentalized life orthey see that Christ is our life (Phil. 1:21).
The principle to remember is that parents cannot impart what they do not possess. ByGod’s design, the lived-out beliefs of parents are the key ingredient to imparting theirfaith to the next generation. The clearest description of this is Deuteronomy 6:4–9,which instructs parents to first possess a wholehearted relationship with God, holdingHis commands in their hearts, and then intentionally pass a godly legacy on to theirchildren. This lifestyle of modeling and communicating is the intertwining of biblicalprinciples and a Christian worldview within the context of life: pointing out the beautyof God’s creation, explaining the principles behind family standards, critiquing thephilosophy of a movie together, praying for lost friends, and cultivating an atmospherewhere kids feel unconditionally loved and safe to share struggles and dreams.
4. Dads who take the lead. Dads are the spiritual thermostats of the home. According toboth Malachi 4:6 and Luke 1:16–17, when a father’s heart turns toward his children, thisaffects the children’s attitude toward their father, and prepares them for God’s work.Furthermore, Ephesians 6:4 commands dad deliberately to train and instruct hischildren. This doesn’t mean dads have to know it all—if a child asks something theydon’t know, they should search Scripture and ask God for wisdom. If a father is notsure how to lead spiritually, he should talk to mature believers and find helpfulresources. Satan’s lie is that parents are not qualified to train their children, but God hasalready provided all the grace required (2 Cor. 9:8; 2 Pet. 3:3–4).
5. Homes and churches that educate, equip, and explain. Undergirding all of thesecrucial relationships must be the presence of clearly communicated truth. Whenteenagers were asked the open-ended question, “Why did you fall away from the faithin which you were raised?” the number one answer was “intellectual skepticism.”13
Children often think they‘re sinning if they have doubts (I call it Thomasphobia—the fear of doubting). If not encouraged to express these doubts, they will either suppress all questions and adopt a blind faith, or they will be easily swayed by fine-sounding yet false arguments and end up with a dead faith. Wrestling with tough issues in aloving yet truth-centered environment is a great way for a child’s faith to actually become his or her faith.
With these five elements in mind, both the home and church must:
1. Educate in sound doctrine. When News week and Beliefnet asked the question, “Cana good person who doesn’t share your religious beliefs attain salvation or go toheaven?” Sixty-eight percent of evangelical Protestants said yes.14This underscoresthe importance of accurately teaching what Christianity is about and why it is true.Many teens are oblivious to what their faith traditions say they are supposed tobelieve. Their vague perceptions of religion often contradict the actual teachings oftheir own religious tradition.15
2. Equip in apologetics. Though apologetics provides the basis of a well-placed faith(1 Cor. 15:14–17), young people don’t often appreciate this until a crisis arises (e.g., achallenging teacher, a personal calamity, a Buddhist roommate, etc.). They mustunderstand that faith is not belief despite the evidence, that believing does not makesomething true, and that sincerity is not all that counts. Rather, biblical faith istrusting in truth that is reasonable to believe. When properly equipped, studentswill confidently live, defend, and share their faith. (Col. 4:5–6)
3. Explain moral principles. Because we want so badly for our young people to livepure lives, we often bypass the foundational step of explaining the moral principlesbehind God’s commands and how these reflect His perfect character. In addition toright answers or Bible verses in their heads, they must have the wisdom anddiscernment to transfer biblical principles to diverse situations. Just as essential is theunderstanding that moral choices reveal what we truly believe about God, His Word, and Hisplan for our lives (Titus 1:16).
Having a map is very helpful if travelers need to get somewhere. Before they canbegin, however, they must know where they are and where they intend to go. As we turn topractical ways to equip and disciple those coming after us, it might be tempting to thinkthere is insufficient time for such a major task. However, we make time for what isimportant to us (hobbies, reading, TV). If an employee got a promotion at work thatrequired learning new material or skills, would the employee tell the boss that he or shedid not have the time to get up to speed? No, that employee would put in the effort toread, ask questions, and plan how to fulfill his or her new role. Likewise, taking on theGod-given responsibility to pass on our faith and make necessary changes might feelinconvenient, but remember what’s at stake: we are already on the verge of losing thenext generation.
Where Are You?
Allow these questions16to help determine where you currently are in the next-generation handoff (if you don’t have children, you can still disciple those younger inthe faith): What is the quality of your relationship with God? Is it at such a level that youwould be happy if your child never rises above it? Is your greatest desire that yourchildren live for God’s glory? How have you communicated this in words andpriorities? If you were to ask them, “What is most important to me?” what would theyhonestly say? Do your children know what you believe? Have you told them? Do youknow what they believe? Have you asked them? Have you shared your testimony withthem? Have you ever asked them to share theirs? Have they ever seen you witness to orpray for a lost person? How often do you use encouraging and affirming words withyour children? Do you ever spend time as a family in prayer or Bible reading? Haveyou ever shared strategies for spiritual growth with them?
Where Are You Going?
Having a healthy Christian family is a choice, and raising confident teens with adesire to make an impact for God’s glory doesn’t happen by itself. When you pictureyour child in the future, what do you see? A passionate love for Jesus shown in anunquenchable love for others? The truth is, the current choices of most parents are notleading to the future result they desire for their children. To put it bluntly, your futurepicture of them may only be a fantasy. This is why we must be intentional about what ismost important in life. If I pass on to my children the skills to succeed in this world butdon’t train them how to chase what matters, I am not fulfilling my role as a parent. Idon’t want to meet Christ face to face and discover that how we spent our time, energy,and treasure was insignificant to His kingdom (1 Cor. 3:12–15).
So how serious are you that your children possess both orthodoxy (right belief)and orthopraxy (right action)? Do you desire that they see academics, sports, hobbies,and work as a springboard for Kingdom impact? Do you want them equipped toarticulate and defend their faith with boldness, gentleness, and respect? (1 Pet. 3:15).Should they not only survive college, but also thrive?17As Voddie Baucham reminds us,“there is a big difference between sending fully trained disciples into enemy territoryand sending recruits to our enemy’s training camp. If we do the latter, we shouldn’t besurprised when they come home wearing the enemy’s uniform and charging the hill ofour home while waving an enemy flag.”18
How Will You Get There?
As a final step, plan how to begin moving in the right direction with realisticactions. The Deuteronomy 6 model describes these as a natural part of your everydaylife (as you walk, lie down, get up, etc.). This requires eyes to see teachable momentsand the determination to intentionally pass on your faith.
There are various ways to impart Bible-centered values, a Christian worldview, andChrist-honoring character. Overall, your kids need and want time with you. In a 2007 MTV survey,thirteen– to twenty-four-year-olds were asked the open-ended question, “What makes youhappy?” The top answer was spending time with family.19
Be purposeful in using words of affirmation and encouragement. Frequently hugthem and tell them they are loved and appreciated. Use mealtimes to discuss fun orthought-provoking questions.20Tell your kids how they are being prayed for, and askfor prayer requests, and pray together.
Have regular one-on-ones—go grab a soft drink or snack and talk about life.Have a Family Fun Night: one evening each week set aside for family bonding and fun(play a game, plan a brief Bible lesson, worship together, go to a park, stop for icecream).21Build a family memorial: a shelf lined with items to remember stories of God’sfaithfulness, protection, provision, and answered prayer (Deut. 4:9, Josh. 4:4–7); share astory each week at mealtime.
Train children how to study the Bible, draw out the meaning, and apply it. If thegoal is for children to learn something, learn together. Don’t just give them a book onadolescence or an mp3 on evolution; read or listen to it together, discuss it, do moreresearch. Have them share what they believe about salvation; explain to them why Jesusis our only hope. Clarify what evolution and Intelligent Design are and then make itpractical: visit Web sites or a natural history museum, watch Expelled: No IntelligenceAllowed, discuss God’s revelation to man in Romans 1:18–21. To test what they think,play devil’s advocate. Challenge them with age-appropriate subjects: Where does theBible say that? Why do you think God hears your prayers? How come you don’t think theuniverse came from nothing? Why does God allow evil? How can you say Jesus is the only way?
Create family service opportunities: help an elderly neighbor move, go on amission trip, invite someone (or a whole family) over for a meal. When theydemonstrate godly character, make a big deal of it.
Talk about the power of words by illustrating Proverbs 12:18 with a sword (orbig knife) and a first aid kit. Encourage them when they ask questions (“That is such agreat question! I’m glad you asked”) and take the time to answer.
For daughters, have a Daddy Date Night. Choose a time to talk about purity andmodesty. For sons, pick manly Bible heroes and discuss their character qualities.22
Talkhonestly and seriously about sex, lust, pornography, and strategies to combattemptation. Have a Rite Night ceremony for a son or daughter’s passage intoadulthood.
Go through an age-appropriate catechism to reinforce foundational Christianbeliefs. Look up all the celebrities who have committed suicide, have eating disorders,or need rehabilitation for substance abuse, and discuss the deceitfulness and emptinessof fame. For dads, ask to be mentored about how to lead a family by a respected father.
What will the next generation look like? The statistics are undeniable: we cannotmaintain the status quo, relying on church programs alone to equip our children.Scripture makes it clear that evangelism begins with the souls that live under one’s roofand that parents are to raise them in the training and instruction of the Lord. Do youview your offspring as gifts, rewards, and arrows (Ps. 127:3–4), and your young peopleas warriors (1 John 2:14)? The bottom line is, it is not someone else’s job to disciple yourchildren; it is your awesome privilege and solemn responsibility. The role of a parent isto fulfill the biblical command, live a life worthy of the calling he or she has received(Eph. 4:1), and entrust the outcome to a sovereign God.
Chris Sherrod is a speaker, author, and father of six, and works with Pine CoveChristian Camps as director of The Bluffs family camp in Tyler, Texas.
1 Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), 240.
2 Nehemiah Institute, Inc. PEERS Trend Chart and Explanation (Lexington, KY: Nehemiah Institute, 2004).
3 “Twentysomethings Struggle to Find Their Place in Christian Churches,” Barna Research Online, September 24, 2003,http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/5-barna-update/127-twentysomethings-struggle-to-find-their-place-in-christianchurches.
4 NSYR data cited in Richard Ross, gen. ed., Transforming Student Ministry: Research Calling for Change (Nashville: LifeWayPress,2005), 6–8, 46, 114.
5 Ross, 14.
6 Josh McDowell and David H. Bellis, The Last Christian Generation (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2006)
7 Ross, 82.
8 McDowell and Bellis, 59–60.
9 Ross, 63.
10 Tim Kimmel, Raising Truly Great Kids conference workbook (Family Matters, 2007), 46.
11 Richard Dawkins, the God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 315.
12 Richard Rorty, “Universality and Truth,” in Rorty and His Critics, ed. Robert Brandom (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2000), 22.
13 McDowell and Bellis, 79.
14 Jerry Adler, “In Search of the Spiritual,” Newsweek, September 5, 2005, 48–49, cited in McDowell and Bellis, 34.
15 McDowell and Bellis, 43–44.
16 Many of these practical questions are scattered throughout Transforming Student Ministry.
17 I recommend How to Stay Christian in College by J. Budziszewski (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1999,), and the StudentSurvivalKit audio series by Greg Koukl (available through Stand to Reason, http://www.str.org).
18 Voddie T. Baucham, Jr., Family Driven Faith: What It Takes to Raise Sons and Daughters Who Walk with God (Wheaton, IL:Crossway Books, 2007), 126.
19 “MTV and the Associated Press Release Landmark Study of Young People and Happiness,” August 20, 2007, http://www.mtv.com/thinkmtv/research/.
20 A helpful resource for this purpose is Gary Chapman and Ramon Presson, Love Talks for Families (Chicago: NorthfieldPublishing,2002).
21 Heritage Builders offers excellent resources for family night ideas (http://www.heritagebuilders. com).
22 I recommend The Gauntlet: A Study of Some of the Most Challenging Men in the Bible That Even Works for Busy Fathers andSons(to order, contact Chris Legg at Chris.firstname.lastname@example.org).