As Promised: Teaching Faith Not Baggage

I was inspired to write this post based on two posts elsewhere in the blogosphere: Adam's post on the See You at the Pole phenomenon, and Julie's post on children and Biblical literacy. These two posts have to do with completely different topics, and yet they have something very important in common. They both wrestle (explicitly and implicitly) with the complexities of teaching the faith in light of individual "faith baggage."

My faith story is probably quite similar to their stories, all of us having come from backgrounds where faith and life intersected in black and white, simple ways, and all of us now feeling strongly that the interplay of faith and life is grayer and more complicated that we had originally wanted to believe. Our spiritual comings-of-age are undoubtedly a product not only of our theological explorations, but also of our post-adolescent coming-of-age. That is to say, our worldviews are more complex in part because we have simply "grown up," and in part because we have decided to put thought into the matter.

The question for us, then, is how do we best teach the faith to our children and to our churches? One answer would be to protect them from what we might consider to be the dangers of one-sided faith; to sheild them from oversimplicity or from what we have discerned to be problematic ideologies, whether this be the reduction of Biblical stories to glorified morality tales or a popular Christian event that appears to blur the lines between faith and patriotism.

I am concerned with this approach, however. First of all, it tends to ignore or overlook the basical developmental differences between children, adolescents, and adults. We may have the mental, emotional, and spiritual capability to wrestle with the complexities of scriptural hermeneutics, political and social issues, gender issues, etc., but children and youth are not necessarily capable of this same sort of complex reasoning from a purely developmental standpoint.

Second, I have to admit that some of the pieces of my faith worldview that I have come to challenge are the very same pieces that gave me a strong foundation from which to ask questions. My faith, therefore, is strengthened by my questions because I am working from a strong foundation. I worry that if we are too afraid to teach the basics of faith to our children and youth - fearing that we are thus encouraging a one-sided, simplistic, or naive worldview - then we don't give them anything solid to lean on when the questions become overwhelming.

Finally, I look back at my faith life thus far and realize that my faith has been strengthened by its being challenged. The strength of my faith is not due to complexity itself; rather, my faith is strong due to the process of becoming complex. The strength of my faith is not due to the shape of its end result, but rather the strength of my faith arises from the journey. The temptation is to believe that since we have struggled with many issues, it is our duty to protect those in our care from those same struggles. We remember the bumps in the road as our faiths "grew up," and feel compelled to protect others from those bumps. Unfortunately, if we do that, we don't let our charges come into their own, and worse yet, we impose our personal baggage on their faith journeys.

My challenge to us all would be to take a deep look at the faith we teach and to discern what of that faith is foundational/essential, and what of that faith is our own concerns, complexities, and biases. I think we need to be honest and self-aware about our faith journeys, and I think we need to create some healthy space in which to allow others the benefit and privilege of having a faith journey of their own. We so want to protect the ones we love and mentor from the bumps along the road, but we have to be careful not to get so caught up in our own biases that we rush them, unprepared, into our own questions, concerns, and complexities.


  1. Melissa, I think you have some great points here. If, as you say, we should teach faith according to developmental stages, when do we start introducing the greyer areas of the faith?

  2. Yes! Yes! Yes!

    This is a very well-thought out pedagogy. It's interesting how we have come from roughly the same tradition but then spent significant time away from it. This provides an opportunity to evaluate the values and detriments of it. I think the tendency of many is to throw baby and bathwater out.

    A reasonable faith must take account of developmental stages. I forget this all the time with the girls. I probably introduce complexities too early.

    Anyway, very stimulating stuff here. I look forward to seeing you and the family over the holidays.