Christian parents in today’s cultural mess no longer simply have to convince their maturing children that they are not wrong, but that they are not bad.
Up until now parents who loved Jesus would bring up their children in the fear and admonition of the Lord. They nudged and bumped them in the right directions, putting up with their straying, praying for and with them, and committing them to God. If they were wise they did not succumb to the parental fears of clamping down too much, or giving too much rope. It was balancing act.
Doing that is, of course, no guarantee your child/ren will also love Jesus – that’s a work of the Spirit. But the goal is that even if your child walked away from the faith, he or she would do so despite the way you brought them up rather than because of it.
And now? Parents need to keep doing all of the above, only with a huge curve ball thrown in. Whereas in the past, being seen as wrong was part of the role of parent, a badge of honour almost, the stakes have been raised, and significantly so. Now there is the distinct possibility that Christian parents could not simply be viewed as wrong by their children, but as bad.
Let me explain:
In the past, a blossoming teen who was reading, watching, reacting, soaking in things from the wider culture, would bump up against perspectives that told them that their parents were wrong.
Wrong about religion. Wrong about sex. Wrong about family and relationships. Wrong about goals and ideals in life. Wrong about institution and community. “It ain’t necessarily so”, as we are reminded in the 1930’s song from Porgy and Bess, that has had subsequent staying power – not surprisingly – given it’s rejection of Scriptural authority.
If parents were wrong about these fundamentals, who might be right? Where could one go to find truth now that the parental foundations looked crumbly and unfitted for the future? That was part of the youthful search, a search that often ended with a begrudging acceptance over the course of years that the parents may not be so stupid after all.
The hope for the parents watching this all is summed up by the quip, erroneously attributed to Mark Twain:
When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.
Just sit and wait them out. They’ll be back!
Yet as I drive my daughter to school, listening to the news, listening to music, listening to talk back; as we watch TV, or read articles together or point out things on Youtube, the stakes have been raised to a giddy level.
I realise that she still espouses the views we hold on these things, indeed she is taking these on for herself, but she is having to do so in the context of a peer group that not only rejects it, but is deeply hostile to it, especially in the areas of sexual ethics.
And not only a peer group, but a popular, legal and political culture. In other words for her, and many teens like her who profess Christ, the gap between their intellectual gospel assent and their accompanying emotional response has grown wider.
In short, although my daughter does not believe I am bad because of what I believe (apart from in the total depravity sense!), the cultural markers that line her particular teenage road say otherwise. And they constantly warn her not to be bad like her parents.
I don’t need to go through the list of “phobe” words and their semantic fields here, but our children are imbibing the narrative that the gospel story is not simply on the wrong side of history, it is on the bad side of history. If you hang onto this you’re aligning with the slave owners, the racists, the bigots. History will expose you, most likely in your children’s generation. And that makes for a tricky time in the here and now.
Parents who hold to, and espouse in their homes and churches what Christianity believes marriage to be, have children who will grow up in a culture that not only rejects this perspective as less than useful, but will prosecute it as unwelcome and unwarranted. Dangerous to discuss, deadly to imbibe.
What is one to do? What are Christian parents to do? Well, probably what they have been doing up until now (if they have been doing that in the first place, that is), with some extras thrown in.
Parents will need to reinforce a number of things to their teens and children as they grow, that will prepare them for a future far more probing and unforgiving than they themselves faced.
They will need to remind them that being viewed as “bad” is part of the territory for Christians all over the world. Has been for centuries in many places. Our easy ride was an aberration. The good thing about our internet age is that it doesn’t take too much to prove that to your children. Just google “Christians in the Middle East” for example.
Parents will have to remind them that the cost of being a follower of Jesus is actually the same for them as it was for themselves, just that it presents itself in different ways.
They will have to remind them that there is no “off-switch” in the battle, and that the gospel is a “suffer now, glory later” system, because that’s what it was like for Jesus. And that Jesus was not simply seen as being on the wrong side of history, but as on the bad side of history too, for “cursed is anyone who is hung on a tree.”
Parents will also need not to panic. Their children are going to hold emotional views about sexuality based on the great wave of sentiment going in the opposite direction to the gospel. Clamping down hard, or biting back at a comment they make that makes you suspicious about how they view sexual ethics will be singularly unhelpful. It will be more likely to shut conversations down than open them up.
And finally, parents will have to commit to modelling an alternate plausibility to the culture through godly marriages in the context of long-term church commitments. Sorry to be so boring, but that’s a fact.
And from where I stand I have concerns. Such long-term church commitments are less pronounced than they once were. When I meet fifty year olds, who with late teens, have done the round of three to six churches over the course of a decade, I wonder what gospel social fabric could have been modelled at all. It’s time for parents to push the consumer project to one side and commit to long term gospel community.
Such communities will be places where public forgiveness is frequent; marital faithfulness espoused, practiced and honoured; celibate, single life valued and embraced; and a clear distinction made between what the church expects of the church in terms of holy living (hint: everything), and what the church expects of the world in terms of holy living (hint: nothing).
As I said this all assumes parents are turning up regularly to church, and being integral members of the Christian community, in the first place.
Because if that isn’t even part of the equation, or if it is sporadic at best depending on what better offer presents itself on the day, then the enervated expression of Christianity they espouse to their children won’t need to be bad, or even merely wrong, for it to become history to them.