Published in Connections Magazine (July/August 2013)
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faith and family
Dealing with Difficult Issues
by Marcus J. Carlson
Recently, I attended and spoke at an Early Childhood Educator conference. As I listened to a keynote speaker, something she said struck me—especially as I thought about life issues, the church, our children, youth and families. She said, “If you just teach kids the facts, they don’t own them and don’t understand them.” It was a succinct way to communicate a truth I have long believed and observed when working with children and youth.
There are many difficult life issues we face in our culture today: euthanasia, abortion, gay marriage, war, poverty, racism and much more. As Christ-followers and as the church, we have a responsibility to wrestle with these issues. In fact, regardless of position, the church should be a leader in creating healthy dialogue around these difficult issues. The challenge is that when the church does choose to respond, it is often late, and the dialogue is rarely healthy. As one of my undergraduate professors, Tony Campolo noted: “The church is the taillight of every social movement.” This is unfortunate, as the church should be a leader in these areas; instead, we have become as reactive and divisive as the secular institutions of our society.
One of the realities we face in the American church is that more than half of our regular active youth in our churches and youth groups will walk away from their faith after graduation. There are many reasons for this. I have seen many youth walk away from faith as they enter college or the workforce. As they face some of these difficult life issues, what they have been taught comes into tension with the reality they are facing.
For example, we might teach our children that abortion is wrong, and share with them the reasons from Scripture and our own spiritual, philosophical and political viewpoint. While there is nothing wrong with doing this, we do not often help our kids wrestle with these issues in light of these perspectives. Instead, we teach them the correct viewpoint and anticipate that they will accept it. It’s a normal temptation
that I face as a parent. I would rather tell my children what is right than have them learn it on their own. It seems quicker, easier and less painful for all involved. The challenge here is that if our children and youth do not wrestle with issues, they often do not own the resulting beliefs.
If I do all I can to teach my daughter that abortion is wrong in the eyes of God, her parents and the church, but don’t let her wrestle with the issue, she is less likely to hold on to the view. Not only that, she is also more likely to walk away from her faith when her view on abortion is challenged.
Imagine this scenario: my daughter goes off to college. Her roommate goes to a party. Someone slips a drug into one of her drinks that alters her judgment and control, and she engages in sexual intercourse that results in pregnancy. Her roommate cannot tell her parents about the baby because they will stop paying for college if they find out she is pregnant. She cannot afford to keep the baby, nor can she raise the child well as a college student. My daughter sees the pain of her roommate and has not wrestled with the difficulty of the issue of abortion itself. She tries to apply the view she has been taught to the situation, but being away from home, caring for her roommate and not knowing how to handle the situation, she abandons her view. She then begins to question all of her faith views, and wonders why God would allow this situation to happen. Whether quickly or slowly, she is at risk to walk away from God altogether.
I am not suggesting that my daughter accept abortion in this case, nor am I suggesting that every child and youth in our homes, ministries and churches experiences this. What I am suggesting is that if we do not allow our children and youth to wrestle with these difficult issues in the safety of our homes and churches, we are taking a significant risk. If we do not help them to wrestle with the Scripture, theology, philosophy, reality and humanity around each of these issues, then we are building a house on the sand and not on the rock.
It is easy to see these issues as matters of social justice or simple morality, but they are in fact issues of faith. The essence of faith is trust. Our one act is to trust God, to trust God’s salvation and then to grow in trust as we seek to trust Him in each area of our lives. If we focus on imparting doctrine instead of helping our children and youth wrestle and learn to trust God, then we are creating a faith that may not stand up to the pressures of culture and these difficult life issues that they will face.
As a parent, I often worry about how my children will turn out. As a result, I try to force them to act, believe and become a certain ideal. I admit that sometimes I try to convince them of a viewpoint that I hold (some very Biblical, some selfish), instead of providing them with good information and a safe place to wrestle with the issue. Many times this is simply an expression of my lack of trust in God and God’s truth. Truth can stand on its own. We need to recognize—as families and as the church—that it is much healthier for our children and youth to wrestle with us in our homes, churches and communities than it is to force them to wrestle when they are on their own.
My view is not a conventional one, yet it is also not contrary to my best understanding of Scripture. As parents and as the church, we do need to raise our children and youth in the ways of God and point them to truth. However, that does not mean we must teach them solely through convincing them of our viewpoint, even if it is good theology.
We can trust God. We can trust truth. We can help our children and youth wrestle with these difficult issues now, so that when they face them in life, their own view will be strong enough to stand up against the wind and waves that life will bring.