A Question of Faith: A Reflection on the Nature of Faith in Children

By Timothy May, MLitt (St. Andrews)

I will admit I was struggling to think what a theologian could add to this blog. Then it struck me, what about faith? We all have to decide what we believe in, even an atheist believes that there is no God. There comes a day for all of us when we must decide what we believe and hopefully understand why.

Questioning and discovering our beliefs can be difficult and is something I believe is heavily influenced by our experiences in childhood. The people who have a direct impact on our lives will shape what we think, how we act and ultimately what we come to believe. That is not to say that as a person grows their beliefs and world views cannot or will not change. But arguably what we are exposed to in our formative years will have a profound effect on us all. It is, however, vital that a person’s beliefs become their own. We have to take ownership of what we believe, otherwise these beliefs have no authenticity.

Have you ever sat down and mapped out exactly where your beliefs come from? I have, it’s a process that can be lengthy, yet it is wonderfully helpful in aiding us to understand why we believe the things we do. I would encourage you to try this yourself; write down the beliefs that you hold and work back from them, to see who or where they may have come from.

Let me give you an example:
I believe in God, no surprise there, that belief goes back like this…An experience I had as a teenager in Church – growing up in a Christian family – Mum and Dad both having a strong faith.

My parent’s faith may have been the catalyst that resulted in my own, them believing and bringing myself and brother up in the faith is what inspired me to go to church. Without that, I would not have had the experiences in church that I did. Yet, I had to make the decision to believe, by myself. Nobody could make me believe, I had to take ownership of that decision.

This is just one example of how you might map back some of the beliefs that you hold. But, it’s also an example of how the people who surround us in our formative years will play a role in what we come to believe later on in life, as an adult. My parents influence helped start me on a lifelong journey, of discovery and faith. Arguably, without my parents input my life might look very different right now. In a recent study, 5 out of 7 young people said their parents were the main influence on their faith, with the other 2 naming life events or a youth pastor (Tighe, 2019). This just goes to show the importance of the people around us, in those formative years, on our later faith life.

Dr Warren Farrell, a prominent sociologist, writes in his book The Boy Crisis (2019), “your mission to help your son discover his mission begins with helping him to discover himself as human being first, and then helping him find a way of a being a human doing – of making a living – that supports him as a human being.” While Farrell is talking about a different problem, his model for helping young boys find their purpose in life, could also be applied here to our conversation. Some may argue that it is not the task of a parent to dictate to their child what they must believe but instead help them find their own way. For those of any faith, or none, one may stress the importance of not dictating to children what their ‘human being’ should be. To put it another way, we should encourage children to seek their own state of ‘human being’. Once that has been accomplished, we can then encourage them to find the means to support that belief, the ‘human doing’.

Something that is of greater interest to me, is how faith may be transferred from clergy parents to clergy children. Soon to be entering Christian ministry, one of the things I think about is how will I act as both a parent and ordained minister. How much should one inform the other or maybe importantly where do the distinctions lie?

Coming from a background in youth ministry, I know that there is often considerable pressure on the child but also the clergy person, that their child find faith. This pressure can at times also fall squarely on the shoulders of those in charge of young people’s formation within the Church. My wife, the daughter of a clergy person, has spoken of the pressure she felt growing up to be the ‘model Christian child’. This pressure is something I wish to protect my future children from, and I believe is something that many clergy also feel.

A lot of effort goes into children’s and youth ministry and Tighe lists a few of these things as being, “the Church herself, her children’s and youth programs, para-church ministries, Christian schools, and, of course, parents” (Tighe, 2019). The amount of time and effort that go into these programmes is immense. I spent countless hours as a youth pastor; planning and executing mission plans, Sunday school teaching, school assemblies, Christian unions, youth bible studies, young people’s summer camps, to name just a few. These things are great, they enable young people to explore their faith but there is one glaringly obvious problem, they separate child from adult. Inter-generational contact, I think, is one of the most important ways we can allow children to explore a vast array of beliefs and ideas. The ideas that they encounter will help them to forge their own paths, which we as adults can help provide the tools to support them.

One thing I noticed as a youth pastor is that children do not need to be pressured into believing something. In fact, the harder you try to get them to believe, often the harder they push away. This is where I like Farrell’s approach to helping children find their ‘human being’, before their ‘human doing’.

This short addition to the blog, I hope, will help to spark a conversation on how we think about faith in children. Children are remarkable, they approach new ideas in a wonderfully inquisitive way. We need to allow them to take greater responsibility for their beliefs and the paths they take to find them. Belief in God is a wonderful thing, it should never be hampered.

If we are serious about promoting healthy growth in children, we need to create a safe space for them to develop their own belief systems. We need to view this area of their life as just as important as any other.