Children and Adults Coming to Faith
This is an extract from a Roundtable Discussion involving some of the faculty of Calvin Seminary: Darwin Glassford – professor of Church Education, Howard Vanderwell – Adjunct Professor of Worship, and John Witvliet – Professor of Worship.
Parents may be wondering, ‘Will our children have faith?’ What encouragement would you give to parents in response to that question?
We can’t know what kind of faith our children may have. And we do not have the capacity on our own to engineer faith in our children. But it is altogether good to entrust our children to a sovereign and loving God. And there is much we can do with and for our children: pray for them, testify about our faith, love them, engage with them in life-giving acts of service, share hospitality, care enough about them to discipline them well, and teach them lovingly.
It is important to grieve together about children (of all ages) who reject faith, and to lament places where spiritual malaise seems commonplace. But we also need to marvel together in wonder at the persistence of the church over the centuries, the number of professions of faith in all kinds of congregations each year, the number of people who re-engage the faith after decades of resisting it, the way that renewed faith has come in so many different generations, the explosion of Christian belief worldwide in the past century, and much more.
Being a Christian parent is a rich and exciting task. But being a Christian parent today is also a risky and dangerous task. So my word to parents is, ‘resist fear and pessimism, yet retain a healthy realism.’ The formation of faith is a delicately fragile process, and is always carried out in the face of significant competition in a culture that is not generally friendly to the formation of vital Christian faith. We live and serve in the midst of seeming opposites — these children belong to God and must be taught to love him, and these children possess a sinful nature, ‘corrupt from conception on’ (Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 7). When we are realistic about the difficulties of this process, we can be better motivated to commit ourselves to making the spiritual formation of our children the highest priority in our lives, and evaluate all other pursuits in the light of this one task.
So, on the negative side, we have the depravity of the human heart that cannot come to faith of itself, and a cultural context that often competes with faith. On the positive side, we have the powerful working of the Holy Spirit, the promises of God to be faithful and true to his work and Word, parents who make the biggest investment of their entire lives into the spiritual formation of their children, and a church that forms itself to be a nurturing community. With all of that in place we then stand back and trust and pray and wait. But we do so with great confidence, for the success or failure of this venture does not rest entirely with us. Faith is a gift of God (Eph. 2:8), stirred within us by the Holy Spirit, who uses even our inadequate parental efforts to accomplish his task, and who continues his work once he begins it (Phil. 1:6).
Such a venture must, of course, involve patience. Sometimes we do not see the fruit of our efforts for many years. While we may be concerned, we do not lose heart. Finally, after periods of seeming barrenness, we see new growth come, sometimes quite by surprise. I’ve spent time with many Christian parents, even in my own family, who have spent many painful years waiting and waiting to find the results they expected would come quickly.
Parents are right to be deeply concerned about their children’s faith development. Children ‘catch’ their parents’ understanding of the faith early on. Reading the Bible as a family and praying together are important. But there is another important element that is often overlooked. And that is talking to your child about your faith, sharing with your child appropriate parts of your spiritual journey and how God is at work in your life through the Holy Spirit. This opens the door to conversations with your child about how faith informs one’s daily life. Also, since children ‘catch’ an understanding of the faith, it is essential for parents never to speak ill of the church and its ministries in front of their children. Such talk could lead children to become cynical about the church over time. Ultimately parents must trust God and resist assuming absolute responsibility for their children’s faith formation. Parents are called to faithfulness; it is God who makes things grow.
What about an adult who comes to faith? What does ‘faith formation’ look like for adults who become the first generation of believers in their family?
Those who come to faith in adulthood often have some special challenges to deal with. They soon realize that they have much to make up for, lost ground to regain, for there is so much that needs to be re-thought and restructured. Consequently, careful, considerate, and patient mentoring and encouragement will be necessary within the church community. This will involve a re-examination of many dimensions of life and bringing all of life under the umbrella of the new-found awareness of the sovereign rule of God. So there will be learning, unlearning and relearning.
The Christian community must encourage, capture and channel the new-found enthusiasm of those who have come to faith in adulthood. Such folks are in a unique position to realize the ‘breadth and length and height and depth’ (Eph. 3:18) of the love that has captured them. We need such folks as an inspiration to all of the rest of us in the community. But we must acknowledge that those who come to faith in adulthood may have impatience, and perhaps even frustration, with those of us who have come to faith in early years and have lost some of the wonder and ‘wow’ of it by now.
My father came to faith late in his life and so this question strikes very close to home. As Howard mentioned, when people come to faith later in life, they come with a way of being that must be unlearned. This includes knowledge, attitude, values, morals, demeanour, etc. Such unlearning takes time. It is far more difficult to unlearn something than to learn something new — especially when we’re talking about an entire way of being. It’s easier in times of stress to revert to the old ways than to employ the new ways one is learning. Drawing on the ancient practice of catechesis, the church ought to mentor these new believers through lessons on the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments and the Apostles’ Creed. In this mentoring, the emphasis must be on both the content and its relevance for life. The mentor must be willing to share how these teachings have impacted and continue to shape his/her life. In addition, the new believer must be socialized into the life of the community. The church must not assume that new believers will know the terms we use or why we do things. What is the purpose of a benediction? Finally, we must be aware that how we relate to each other has a direct effect on the faith of a new believer. My father had left the church because of how a pastor responded to a simple request regarding the annual Men’s Wild Game Barbecue. It was a silly situation, but the faith of an adult convert is often fragile.
Praise God for adults who come to faith! Every journey is different. But every journey, ultimately, involves learning new knowledge (about God, salvation, the Bible), new practices (prayer, giving, service), and new relationships (God and others). Beneath that there is also learning about new ways to perceive or imagine the world and to perceive God’s beauty and glory. One fascinating thing to notice across centuries and continents is that Christian churches often give new believers quite a different picture of what growing in the life of faith looks like. Everyone emphasizes certain practices, rules, and mores – but while some emphasize prayer and giving, others emphasize learning and service. Some emphasize some doctrine. Some emphasize personal piety, some congregational worship. Some are quite casual, others quite rigorous. Throughout church history the most enduring forms of faith include a balance sheet of these concerns, but the one thing they never short-change is helping people grow in their perception of wonder for God’s triune glory and beauty, crystallized in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus.
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