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Help Teens to Own Their Faith

The first time I attended church without ­my parents, I was a high school senior. On this particular Sunday morning, one parent wasn’t feeling well and the other was out of town. Since I’d recently become a Christian, I thought, I have a car and a driver’s license. What’s stopping me? I can go myself.

And that’s exactly what happened. It felt strange interacting with all those adults on my own, but I kept thinking, I’m doing this because I want to.

Every parent attempting to raise children in the faith longs for this. We take them to Sunday school, then to the service, then to a separate youth group meeting. We say grace before meals, do family devotions as often as we can, and carefully watch their media intake.

But we may worry that our kids will rebel. We may notice that for every boundary we set up, they find a way around it. They may lie about how much they’re praying or reading the Bible. When they get to college, they may eschew everything we taught them and move in a different direction.

We’re called to raise our children in the training and instruction of the Lord (Eph. 6:4). How can we do this in such a way that their faith becomes their own?

While there are no guarantees or formulas, the apostle Paul laid out a good pattern for the role parents can play: “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow” (1 Cor. 3:6, NIV). Here are four ways we can do the work of cultivating.

Know Your Role

My son plays basketball, and at some games, I see parents berate their kids publicly with expectations beyond the children’s skill level or natural abilities. It never works.

In the same way, we can’t force our child’s faith to grow. Our purpose as parents is the planting and watering—nothing more. While this may appear fatalistic on the surface, it’s a liberating truth.

Our purpose as parents is the planting and watering—nothing more.

When we understand our role, we’re freed from frustration when our efforts to control—yelling, punishing, rewarding, forcing, restricting, and criticizing—don’t bear fruit or, worse, lead to rebellion. I’m not saying you shouldn’t discipline or set limits for your teens. You should. And as you do, remember you cannot manufacture heart change.

Instead, our role is to point our children to Christ, teach them about his grace and mercy, and trust the Spirit to do his work. Responding to the mercy and grace of our Lord will always be a stronger motivator for our children than any measure we can impose.

Own Your Faith

When I was serving in youth ministry, I met with a mother who lamented that her daughter never seemed passionate about her faith or the church. She didn’t express interest in attending the small group Bible studies we had for middle and high school students.

I asked the mother if she was involved in any of the adult small groups. She said no and gave the reasons I expected—her work schedule was too busy; she was juggling responsibilities; it was too hard to find time. As gently as I could, I asked, “Can you see why your daughter has no interest?” I think we both knew the answer to her complaint was obvious.

How can you expect your children to take ownership of their faith if you don’t take full ownership of yours? Remember the adage “Behavior is caught, not taught.” So much of parenting isn’t figuring out how to cajole our kids into doing what we want them to do. It’s figuring out how to live a life we’d want our kids to copy.

Much has been made of the harmful effects of constant phone use for kids, but have we parents learned to put our phones down? We want our kids to have a daily Bible-reading habit, but do we? We want them to submit to their teachers and us as authorities, but do we do the same with our bosses and ministry leaders? How can we train our kids to own their faith if we don’t own it ourselves?

Teach Them to Think

It’s easier to tell our kids what to think than to teach them to think for themselves. It’s hard and messy to work through different and often errant views on life. It’s cleaner and simpler to tell our kids to do what we think is right and shut down any discussion.

This is especially true in areas of faith. Kids need space to wrestle with differing viewpoints, especially when groups of Christians hold differing perspectives on the same subject.

How can we train our kids to own their faith if we don’t own it ourselves?

When my kids ask third-tier questions related to faith, I often tell them, “There are Christians who think this way and others who think that way. Here’s how they arrived at their conclusions.” And then I allow my kids to work through the differing points of view on their own. I find this gives them more ownership of their opinions.

There are times when the gospel is clear on a subject and we need to be firm in our answers. But even then, help your children understand other arguments and think through the messy process so they can be more confident in affirming their faith. Don’t fear opposing viewpoints to the gospel—they can’t hurt us—but rather see them as an opportunity to patiently teach your kids to interact with them in the Spirit’s wisdom.

Trust the Process

We want our children to travel a straight line. We don’t know if we have the confidence to manage a wilderness of doubt and testing. Periods of uncertainty in our kids’ lives can make us feel anxious and frustrated.

Instead, expect these testing seasons and face them head-on, walking patiently alongside your children. If your teen asks you a hard question, don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know”—but don’t leave it there. Take the time to research difficult issues alongside him or her. Don’t dismiss wrestling, as this may be a step on the road to faith ownership.

Jesus’s death and resurrection wasn’t a victory only over the consequences of sin but over its power as well. That same power from the Holy Spirit changes hearts and brings us from death to life.

It can be a daunting task to relinquish control of our children’s lives and trust they’ll follow the God who made them. But we could never make that happen anyway—no matter how we tried. Our role is to trust God’s power for our own lives first and then for the help we need in guiding our children to him. We plant and water, but God makes our children’s faith grow.

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