Why are young people leaving the Church as they reach adulthood? Is it because as children they are being taught a version of Jesus and God that has more to do with Disney than Saint Thomas Aquinas?
I remember, at certain intervals of my youth, that the thing my peers and I were all interested in would suddenly become obsolete and in such dramatic fashion that if you didn’t quickly catch up and denounce that silly thing for younger kids too, you’d also become the object of that contempt.
It could be a toy we all liked, or a movie, or a style of music, but once the early adopters of the herd had decided that we were too old for that kind of thing, you didn’t have much time to jump on the bandwagon before you were left behind.
Like my oldest daughters, for as long as they’ve been aware of it, have been in love with the movie Frozen. The number of Frozen emblazoned items in our household would make you think that we were preparing for a post apocalyptic world in which Frozen memorabilia is the only acceptable currency of trade.
Then, suddenly, about a week ago, my oldest daughter announces to me that she and her cousin have decided that they no longer like Frozen. And this, clearly, has nothing to do with whether or not they actually like it, but instead some adolescent revelation about being too old for Frozen. And so, over night, she’s become someone who wouldn’t be caught dead watching that movie. And now I’m using the Frozen branded electric toothbrush so that it doesn’t go to waste.
And, I think something like this happens with the faith that so many people inherit as children but don’t hold onto as they transition into young adulthood. This is the point my friend Hudson made in a conversation about it recently.
When we’re little we’re taught a version of Christianity that is fit for bedtime stories. Something simple, easy to understand, often heretical, but comforting. We paint a portrait of God and Jesus that has more in common with Santa Clause or the Easter Bunny than the incarnation of truth, goodness, and beauty.
And when I listen to pop atheist thinkers make comparisons of God to flying spaghetti monsters or claims that we worship an old man in the clouds, I’m reminded that they’re not really confronting or wrestling with the God of Thomas Aquinas or CS Lewis. Their denouncing a straw man Sunday school portrait of God.
And this is the risk we run when we blur the lines between Disney, the tooth fairy, and Jesus. When our kids are learning about their Christian heritage in a style that trivializes it by reducing it to that same level of sophistication.
When we make Christianity childish for the sake of children, we run the risk that they will reject it as a childish thing as they get older in the same way that they discard all those other things that they think themselves too mature for.
When I was a kid I had an illustrated children’s bible, but it had something that most of the stuff I’ve seen on my kid’s bookshelf didn’t. It had an illustration of the crucifixion that didn’t shy away from including blood. I remember as a kid just staring at that page and wondering what it meant.
I remember thinking, this is different. This isn’t the same as the Easter bunny. This is mature, this is chilling. This is important. It’s not silly or trivial and I will never outgrow whatever this means. St. Paul said, “We preach Christ crucified.” And I think it’s important that something of that quality is preserved in the way we hand on the faith to our children. We should never water down the parts that are troubling. They can handle it and it is, after all, an essential part of the gospel.
The other thing we have to do as a Church and as parents is ensure that when they are ready, they will encounter a mature presentation of our faith. They need to discover the faith of Lewis and Chesterton; of Paschal and Aquinas; of William of Ockham and Augustine.
And if you feel inadequate in transmitting that caliber of understanding, then I’d say it’s time to grow up in your own faith. You can’t ride the crest of Sunday school formation your entire life. At some point, you need to go deeper yourself.
When kids grow into adulthood, they’re going to discover opposition to their faith, and that’s probably a good thing. But if that is the first time they encounter a sophisticated treatment of the topic and it’s exclusively in favor of an atheistic conclusion, then their juvenile faith isn’t going to survive. They need to have inherited something with some meat on it and it’s up to us to make sure that happens.