My parents didn’t raise me religiously.
Part of it was because we largely kept to ourselves, and part of it was because my parents grew up in Maoist China, a society that was heavily atheist and squashed popular religious movements in the countryside with violence. As such, my parents weren’t necessarily Christian, Buddhist, or any religion — they were just atheists, and religion was never a large part of their lives.
I’d heard stories from my friends of parents who forced them to go to church every Sunday. When they revealed to their parents that they didn’t believe in God, their parents broke down or got angry at them. I have heard so many stories of kids who have grown up in the Church that no longer believe in God, and it begs the age-old question for me as I get older:
How will I raise my kids with faith?
My situation is unique in the sense that I didn’t believe in God until I was 20 years old. I was a staunch atheist who thought I was above all these dumb religious people who believed in make-believe. I used to hate over-the-top, fundamentalist Christians who imposed their faith on others. I realized how wrong I was by meeting a lot of Christians who treated people, including myself, with a kindness and grace I didn’t think possible. I realize now that real Christians don’t act like Pharisees who judge in the way I’d internally caricaturized the imposing, over-the-top Christians.
But still, how am I supposed to raise my kids with faith? As a Christian now, am I supposed to inundate my kids with Scripture and Christian beliefs? Am I supposed to give them freedom like I was given? What am I supposed to do?
Since I obviously don’t know what my answer is, I looked up research, literature and Scripture on the issue. Mark Holmen at Focus on the Family talks about his reluctance to be the “one-hour-at-church-only-Christians.” For me, a lot of people I grew up with had a lukewarm relationship with faith — they called themselves “Creasters,” Christians who only went to church on Christmas and Easter. Holmen asks us Christians to devote ourselves to a relationship with God rather than to ritual.
“If all we do is spend an hour with God at church each week, that doesn’t demonstrate a loving relationship — it actually leads our children to think that Christianity is hypocritical, because it’s something we only do at church and not at home.”
So no, I’m not always going to force my kids to go to church, but acting according to my faith and beliefs is essential. Above all, as Galatians 5:14 notes, the biggest law in Christianity is that “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
So yes, I’ll bring my kids to church, and I’ll do my best to act like a Christian in front of them, too. But what about that piece of me that figured things out on my own? God has a plan for everyone, and since I’m not God, I have to walk a very thin gray area where I’m open by my beliefs, but not trying to overly force my kids to adopt them as well. Being cognizant of my upbringing and history with faith makes me more sensitive and understanding to non-Christians because I get why it’s so hard to believe sometimes. A series of very personal and emotional experiences, with which Christians gave me a lot of help, led me to Christ even though I was so resistant against Christianity when I was younger.
Zuva once wrote that “I don’t think it is my place to shepherd people into non-faith, it is something people need to come into on their own.” She wrote about how even though she is an atheist, she would still educate her kids on all religions and teach them the good, the bad, and the ugly of them, telling them why she’s not a believer but also giving her kids a choice.
How much of what my kids believe is actually in my control?
A lot of the question is just recognizing how much is outside my control. It is God who is in control in my mind, and not myself, and if my kid decides he or she doesn’t believe in God, there’s nothing I can do. God has a specific plan for everyone, and I’m not God. My pastor once shared a story about how he worked very hard to bring his brother to Christ, and nothing budged. He left the situation alone. However, his brother would come to Christ later in his life — meaning that God didn’t even use him.
Intentionality would be extremely important. I can show my kids how I live, but not tell them how they should live. I would want to instill at a normal age that it’s normal to suffer, because Paul tells us in Romans 5 that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” At my family’s dinner table, we rarely talked about faith, but I have to acknowledge that I have to be a shepherd, not try to be a God. My time in the classroom has shown to me how utterly helpless I can be to the lives of my students, but for my actual kids, I would want to provide them with the resources and tools to figure out what they believe on their own.
Even though I’d bring my kids to church, I’d teach them that it’s okay to doubt. I was taught that very early on as a Christian that it’s okay to ask questions — even Thomas doubts Jesus’s resurrection in John 20. Ann C. Sullivan, the author of Permission to Doubt reminds us that learning to think for ourselves is an important sign in child development. It is our own journey with faith and our personal journeys with God, and doubt is part of that journey. As someone who may qualify as a cultural Gentile in this day and age, I have a lot of questions about my faith, all the time.
1 Peter 3:15 tells us that to “honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and respect.”
It’s doubt, exploration, and asking the hard questions about faith that grows us in our faith and closer to God. Again, I can be a shepherd, teacher, and dad, and that means I can’t be God. The best answer I have for how I’m going to raise my children with faith is “I don’t know.” I know that if my wife and I are going to church, as young parents, we’re probably going to have to bring our kids to church as well.
No one grows in Christ without the presence of other believers, but everyone needs people that are going to challenge them and make them find evidence for what they believe. I have those people in my life, from atheists to Jews to Buddhists to devout Christians.
I pray the question frequently, but the truth is that there is no right answer. A lot of people do it in different ways, but I want to do it in the way God wants me to. God will work things out for my particular situation. I will trust in God for guidance on how to raise my kids with faith.