Today I’m excited to welcome Daniel Darling, pastor of Gages Lake Bible Church, to the blog for a conversation about his most recent book Real: Owning Your Christian Faith. Dan has done extensive work in chronicling the benefits and drawbacks to “growing up in church.”
Last month, I posted the interview Dan did with me for his book. Today, we’re talking about the particular challenges faced by second generation Christians.
Trevin Wax: We hear lots of stats thrown around about how we’re losing the younger generation of churchgoers – what you call “second-generation Christians.” You talk to people who interpret these stats differently – some who are more positive (Brad Wright) and others who are more negative (Drew Dyck). Where do you land on this discussion?
Dan Darling: I fall somewhere in between Brad Wright and Drew Dyck–who I think both make good use of the data. I’m a bit skeptical, like Brad, that it’s a once-in-a-lifetime epidemic. And if there is a trend, I like Drew’s analysis of categories: Leavers, Drifters, Neo-Pagan, etc.
Most importantly, I don’t like how the same data points are used for wildly different prescriptions. As I say in the book, I’ve seen the “epidemic” used as a catalyst for or against youth group, for or against creationism, for or against certain church paradigms.
And I think this analysis gets it all wrong. I think the reason kids leave the faith is because they, like every generation, possess a sin nature. Original sin doesn’t exempt church kids. This is where I again, agree with Drew Dyck’s simple prescription for fresh gospel presentation, substantive doctrine, and critical thinking.
Trevin Wax: Walk us through what that looks like – “fresh gospel presentation.” What are some common mistakes we make when thinking about our kids growing up in the church? What are some common themes you observed in interviewing people (like me) who grew up in church?
Daniel Darling: The biggest mistake we make, I think, is the assumption that if we simply “get the right system”, we’ll produce perfect kids. Nobody quite says it like that, but we behave this way. We punish ourselves with guilt when a kid walks away from the faith. And every year there are new methods of recovery promising to stem the decline. These can be good, but ultimately we have to come to grips with the idea that every child born inherits a sin nature. Even Christian kids, especially Christian kids, will wrestle with sin and must have an encounter with Jesus that is fresh and original.
In my own experience and in interviewing 2nd Generation Christians, I found the same story: high expectations of perfection. Kids in the church are often told, “After all you’ve been taught, how could you do this?” The answer is that those kids sin because they are sinners.
So a gospel culture accepts, as a reality, the inevitability of sin in the next generation and therefore helps kids growing up embraces their own brokeness. It teaches the same message of salvation, regeneration, and sanctification as if is news. This is a culture that gives it’s people the tools to deal with sin when it comes, not guilt that tries to bury it when it happens.
The bottom line, I think, is that in our churches we need to create healthy cultures where faith can thrive. I think specifically of the “not insincere faith” of Timothy that Paul illustrates in his last letter (2 Timothy). This was passed from Grandma to Mother to Son. It tells me that the only contagious faith is a faith that is pure, real. Quite often we clutter up the faith with our preferences so that what we celebrate in our churches and families is something other than the gospel. But we want to pass the baton of “the faith” (Jude 1), that beautiful, never-stale message of our human brokeness, God’s divine and glorious rescue through Christ, and the regeneration and power granted through the Spirit. Preferences, distintictives, etc matter, but they can’t ever matter more than the gospel. And we can’t ever celebrate them higher than the gospel.
Trevin Wax: What are the greatest dangers of being a second generation Christian?
Daniel Darling: The greatest danger is to to institutionalize and compartmentalize the gospel message. I remember sitting in church, week after week, day after day, year after year thinking to myself: I’ve heard this before. This is not for good guys like me. This is for that recovering alcoholic in the third row. And yet, the truth is that me, a lifelong Christian, is just as desperate for grace as the man with the really cool testimony of deliverance.
Trevin Wax: What’s the greatest blessing?
Daniel Darling: The greatest blessing of a good, Christian upbringing is that you are introduced to the life-changing message of salvation in Christ at an early age. Even if your environment was imbalanced or slightly unhealthy, if you were given the gospel message as a child, this is a treasure beyond words.
Though I spell out some of the unique struggles in Real, I’m deeply grateful for my Christian heritage. Not only was I given the grace to escape some of the poor choices of those who grew up without Christ, I was immersed in the Scriptures and some of the richest hymns of the faith.
This is a book for all sorts of 2nd Generation Christians, whether you’ve stayed true, but find a faith cold and stale, if you’ve been hurt by your church experience, or if you’re a rebel coming home to find grace. And if you’re a parent, I think you’ll be encouraged by the chapters that discuss building healthy gospel cultures.
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