How to Instill Faith that Endures: John Marriott
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- Read John Marriott's article on how to help you kids avoid a crisis of faith.
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John MarriottJohn Marriott is the coordinator of the Biola University Center for Christian Thought and teaches in the department of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, and the Intercultural Studies Department at Biola University. He speaks at camps and churches throughout the United States and Canada addressing issues related to Christianity, culture, and religion. John is a leading expert of deconversion, having authored five books on the subject, including The Anatomy of Deconversion: Keys to Lifelong...more
The statistics on deconversion can be downright scary for parents. Dr. John Marriott offers research-based tips for shaping a faith that endures.
How to Instill Faith that Endures: John Marriott
Dave: I had this thought last night thinking about our interview today with John Marriott, who’s sitting in the studio, of “What would it be like if parents had a deconversion detector that would go off, ding, ding, ding, whenever a parent did something that would cause their child to stumble later in life or lose their faith?”
Ann: Oh, mine would go off every ten seconds. Ding, ding, ding. Oh she failed. Ding, ding. Oh she said that wrong. Ding, ding, ding.
Dave: I don’t know. I just thought isn’t that an interesting concept—
Ann: That would be terrible.
Dave: —that we would know in the moment, “Oh, what I just said,” or “What I just did is not helpful for my child, which my dream and my hope and my prayer is that my child when they are an adult man or woman are going to be walking with God. You just did something that—ding, ding, ding—don’t do that next time.” I know it’s a crazy idea, but we would know in the moment.
Ann: Honey, I lived with that ding like every moment of the day. Like, “Ope, shouldn’t have said that. Ope, shouldn’t have done that.”
Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: Yes, you are, and I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on the FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
Dave: We have the deconversion detector sitting right across from us.
Ann: He is.
Dave: He has the wisdom, the knowledge. He’s written books on this.
Ann: John, I bet you’ve never been called that.
John: Wow. No, I haven’t. It’s a very ominous title, actually.
Dave: Yes, I don’t think you like that title. And there is no such thing, but—
Ann: John, welcome back to FamilyLife Today.
John: Thank you. Thank you.
Dave: We’ve been having multiple conversations about raising our children to not walk away from the faith, but to stay. That’s our dream. It’s every parent’s hope and prayer, and again, if you’ve missed any of these conversations, go back and listen to them. We’re sort of diving in today—your book, Recipe for Disaster, where you look at—we’ve already covered one, but at least three or four things that we do as parents that are not helpful. They’re actually harmful to our children growing up and continuing in the faith.
Ann: Well, Dave, I’m wondering if we can start—we did this with our first day with John, but even to just talk about what is deconversion, what is deconstruction?
Dave: Yes, remind us real quick.
Ann: Take us back just a little bit on what that is.
John: Deconstruction and deconversion are two terms that sound very similar, but are significantly different. To deconvert means to leave your faith, to reject it. You reject the intellectual claims that it makes. You then leave the community that you’re a part of. In a way, not in a spiritual way, but at least in a sociological kind of way, you are undoing the conversion experience that you had, saying “I don’t believe it, and I’m no longer a part of it.”
Deconstruction can end in deconversion, but it doesn’t have to start that way and it doesn’t have to end that way. It can start by saying, “I have received from my parents, my church community, a take on Christianity. They handed me this faith, and they’ve told me that this is the truth of the matter, and I’ve started to wonder about whether or not everything I’ve been told really reflects what the Bible teaches. So I’m going to deconstruct, which has two components: the part where you take it apart and analyze it, and then the part where you put it back together.”
Sometimes as you take it apart, you say, “You know, I don’t think that this belief that I’ve inherited really matches what the Bible teaches, and I’m going to put that aside,” or “I’m going to put another belief in it’s place.” You rebuild a faith that hopefully is anchored in the historical, orthodox Christian tradition that believes the essential important things, and then is one that you think better reflects what the Bible teaches.
That would be the reconstructing kind of a phase. The problem is, and that sometimes happens, is when the deconstructive part doesn’t just take the roof off, the house of faith off, then take the siding off of the walls, but it goes all the way down and it ends up destroying the entire foundation and blows it all up. Then you end up deconverting because you say, “I just don’t think any of this is for me anymore.”
Ann: In 2001 the Southern Baptist Convention reported they were losing between 70 and 88 percent of their youth after their freshman year in college. That’s back in 2001.
Ann: So this is something that is happening every day with our kids, with our grandkids.
Dave: Yes. We talked previously. We think it’s all our fault. We did bad things as parents. It isn’t all our fault. We aren’t totally to blame, and we shouldn’t take all the blame. There are other factors.
Ann: All I can remember is ding, ding, ding, ding, ding.
Dave: That’s all you can remember? The deconversion detector. Sold online for—
No. Yesterday we were talking about one of—you have four of them—things parents do. One was we over prepare; in other words we build this house of cards where every single tenet of this belief has this, and if you take one of these out, it’s all going to fall.
Some of those are essential; we said that yesterday. Some are nonessentials, a burden we lay on our kids, right? Or lay on the next generation. But we can do that as parents. We over-prepare them.
Your next one is you say you under-prepare them.
Dave: What does that mean?
John: In context for the Recipe for Disaster, I try and cash out deconversions by saying that we can best think of them as a recipe. When you have a recipe, you have ingredients. Then you prepare those ingredients, and then those ingredients are cooked somewhere. We can’t control the ingredients. That’s the personality traits and values and the temperaments, dispositions that our children or those who we are shepherding, they have those. They’re born with them; we don’t change them.
We can’t change the cooking environment, which is our culture, which is increasingly secular, and making it a little bit more difficult to live out an authentic, public Christian life. But what we can do is impact how those ingredients are prepared and sent out into the world. One of the ways that we just talked about was being overprepared, as you just mentioned. Underprepared is when we don’t do a good enough job of helping young people have a faith that is relevant to and speaks to and make sense in the current cultural milieu that we live in.
For example, if I live out in Southern California and I know students who are at USC, UCLA, Berkeley—these very prestigious schools—and every class that they go to they are increasing their knowledge, becoming more nuanced, more sophisticated in each discipline that they go to. By the time they graduate, and if they’re a math major or a physics major, they have enough information and understanding of the natural world that they could, if they had the money, they could create a rocket and launch it into space.
And unfortunately, when you talk to them about what the Bible teaches, they’re struggling because they say, “And I’m supposed to believe that a talking snake and two naked people ate a piece of fruit, and that’s why the world is so messed up?” Their theological and biblical understanding has not grown since Sunday school, and yet every other aspect of their intellectual life has.
That gap becomes farther and farther and farther apart, when you recognize that the book that I believe, that I teach, that I think is true in everything that it affirms, talks about talking donkeys. There are these sort of giant figures in the book of Genesis. Now we also live in a culture where we’ve sent a rover to Mars, we’ve mapped the human genome, we have self-driving cars.
How does somebody hold both of those things together, living in a modern world, and holding on to truth claims that come out of an ancient book? There has to be some way that we can bridge that so that we are not sending young people out into the world completely underprepared in how their faith interacts with—
Dave: John, there are parents listening going, “I had that conversation last night with my son at college, or at the dinner table, and I did not know what to say.” So help a parent know how do we prepare them? How do we help? How do we prepare ourselves?
John: That’s a great question. One of the things that causes people to feel this real disconnect between the world that they live in and the biblical world, is the influence that culture has on us, and how culture shapes and molds and forms us. Culture shapes us in ways that we’re not even aware of, and what is out there in the world seems to shape and impinge on us at a gut level, and then what we feel at the gut level often influences what we think at the intellectual level.
Unless we’re aware of the formative power of culture, then we will maybe be susceptible to thinking that some of the things that the Bible teaches are outdated, some of the moral sensibilities that we have we think might just be self-evident and clear and true, and then you go to the Bible, and you read, “Oh, the Bible says that this is inappropriate or this is wrong, or this practice is sinful.”
I think being able to step back and say, “Hey, you have some serious criticisms of the Bible, particularly these moral ones. Some of those are implanted in you by the culture that you have, and you need to step back and maybe analyze that.” I think just even pointing out the formative power of culture can be helpful.
Dave: And you hinted at something that you spent a good half of your book talking about the recipe for success in helping your kids stay in the faith, and that’s how we teach them, how they understand the Bible. What are the things we can do right so the deconversion detector doesn’t go off, but the conversion detector goes off and says, “Nice move, Dad. Nice move, Mom. This is a good thing to do for your child to help them stay in the faith as they become an adult.”
One of them is about how you understand and teach the Bible.
John: Yes, and I think this comes down to discerning the needs of your children. So I’m thinking of my own two children. I can think of one of them, who talking to them about the Bible, where it came from, how we know who wrote it, the context that it was written in, will be really meaningful for one of my children growing up. I need to, but I don’t think everyone needs to be able to sit down with one of my children and go through the history of the Bible.
Did Constantine really cobble it together for political purposes, and are all these other books out there that should be in it but aren’t because they don’t line up with the official story? How do we know that Matthew is the author of the Gospel of Matthew? Did he really write it? Because when they find out things like that are debated from sources outside of their Christian community, it can be really, really devastating.
And if I have some of those answers and some of that knowledge, then I need to be able to inoculate my son, my daughter with that, by introducing those problems to them, and being able then to respond and answer them. If I don’t have that knowledge, then I can easily acquire it, because there are lots of really great Christian apologetics books out there that deal with that.
More and more and more young people are coming across these ideas like we said, because of the internet. I think that’s really important, to be able to touch on the historicity of the Bible; where it came from, who wrote it, why it was written. Give a really good, clear picture of the big story of the Bible, cashing that out in terms that are meaningful to kids and painting it with strokes of beauty and showing the goodness of God throughout it. I think all of that contributes to making it an attractive story to want to be part of.
Dave: I remember when, talking about culture, you will remember this. I don’t know what year it was. Somebody might know. The movie, The DaVinci Code, came out.
Dave: I think Tom Hanks.
Dave: Didn’t he play in it?
Dave: I remember as that movie came out, again, entertainment culture, there were a lot of discussions about what’s in the Bible, what books didn’t make it in, and we sat down as a church staff and said, “We need to do a series apologetics-based, on the Canon of the Scripture.” We did a three or four-week series based on the movie. I think we called it “The DaVinci Decode,” or some crazy thing.
Here’s what I remember about that series: young people were the ones that came rushing up to me after each sermon and said, “Thank you. I’ve never heard any of this before.” I think their parents didn’t know either, but it was interesting that they wanted this information because every day they’re in school; they’re with classmates; and they’re hearing different things; and they needed somebody to teach them the truth. So it was a way to say, “Here’s why our faith is reasonable. It is grounded in something that you can trust.”
Ann: And also, Dave, as parents it’s just easy to have the demands of life rule every part of our world and life and our kids, because our kids are busy, we’re busy. It just reminds me of the importance of being intentional with our kids, and to have these conversations. Also, not to get lazy, because it’s easy to think, “Shouldn’t the church be doing that?” or “Shouldn’t their Christian school be doing that?” I’m guessing you would say, “Maybe, but as a parent we have a part of that as well.”
John: Yes. My kids go to a great Christian school. I really love it. Did an outstanding job, but I would check in with my kids and say, “So what did you learn today?” I had a great conversation with my son who was struggling because he said, “Well, my Bible teacher said that I have to believe this view.” I’d say, “Oh, that’s interesting. What do you think about that?”
He’d say, “Well, I don’t know. That doesn’t make sense to me, but she said that’s just the right view. You can’t believe a different view on this; otherwise you’re not really being a Christian.” And it was really helpful for him to hear that there’s a whole bunch of Christians out there who hold three or four different views on this one specific issue.
To your point, we need to be involved in having those conversations even if we don’t feel equipped. There are so many resources out there today, whether it’s online or in a book store or a podcast or YouTube video, that you don’t have to be an expert on these things. You just have to be somebody who knows where to go and find them.
Dave: It’s interesting. We had a gentleman on FamilyLife Today, a year or so ago, Don Everts. He’s a writer, speaker, researcher. He made an interesting comment about a study about impacting our children’s faith by the number of people that we have in our home. I’m going to play you a clip, and I want to hear your expert analysis of what you think of what he said, because it’s really interesting. This is backed up by research, what he discovered. So we’ll play the clip.
Don: So in the New Testament it turns out, we’re called again and again, and in the Old Testament, “Love the stranger. Love the alien. Be hospitable.” The New Testament word, the Greek word for “show hospitality,” is philoxenia, which means “love of the stranger.” I would say xenophobia, fear of the stranger, is more what we can be tempted by. I’m going to close off my kids, I’m going to close off my household from the evil world out there.
I’m not saying don’t be mindful, obviously, about how you interact with culture. That’s not what I’m saying. But what the research says is that the more insular a household is, the more there’s a risk factor for not having vibrant faith. The more you have people in and out of your household, the more vibrant the faith is of the people living there, and it’s not necessarily that you have Christians coming in and out of your household. It could be non-Christians who are coming in.
It could be people who are coming in because they’re a tutor. You could be paying them to come in and tutor your kid. It could be grandparents coming in. It could be boyfriends and girlfriends. The more open your doors, the more hospitality there is, the more vibrant the faith is. What shocked me in this, because the researchers at Barna, they never talk about causality. They’ll never say “A causes B.” They’ll just say, “There’s a correlation between A and B.”
Don: This one, they talk differently.
Dave: Really? Why?
Don: This one, because they said it causes it. There’s something about having more people in and out of your household that actually doesn’t just correspond with, but it affects and increases faith formation.
Dave: What do you think, John?
John: Very interesting, and maybe it shows an openness, a welcoming, especially to the stranger and those who are in need, because that’s really a reflection of the gospel. When the gospel is lived out, that’s powerful, whether or not people believe in God, whether or not people believe that Jesus is Lord. If they are made in God’s image, and if God has created this world, there should be some harmony that occurs when people recognize, “Hey, that person over there is living in a certain kind of a way. I find that very appealing. I find that very attractive.”
I think that is the case, right? Which is why we live out the gospel and are hospitable and we open our homes to people, there’s something there that reaffirms the words that we’re saying, and that is incredibly important when it comes to young people holding on to faith, is that they see parents living out a faith that is vibrant, meaningful, and actually has cost them something sometimes.
Dave: I think research would back this up: When a parent over protects and we start trying to isolate and insulate our kids from culture, from the world—and again, there’s a balance to that. You don’t just throw them out to the wolves, but when you are just super protective, generally when that child finally gets out, whether it’s to go to college or whatever, often they rebel, because they were never allowed to question, to experience, to see anything.
John: Oh, yes. Yes.
Dave: They were taught, “You think this way. You act this way.” And then it’s like the worst parenting model ever is dominant control. You have to give your child some freedom to do everything you’ve been saying, John. You have to question. You have to ask questions. You have to dig in there. That’s healthy. If you don’t allow that to happen when they’re under your roof, it might not always go well when they’re now out from under your roof.
John: I’ve mentioned Vern Bengtson’s study before at USC, this long-term study he did about passing on the faith. Parents who were successful in passing on the faith were characterized by being warm relationally, but having certain expectations of their children. You can switch those around where you can say well, if you were cold relationally, but you have low standards, that’s not a good combination.
So the combinations are that parents who are warm relationally and have expectations and standards for their children are ones who do the better job of passing on their faith, as opposed to those who have really high expectations and want their children to toe the line, and have rules for them and the home is well-ordered, but there’s no warmth and relationship. Then there is a lack of an ability for the children to continue on in the faith.
You can come up with different ways of combining those, but the one that was most successful in passing on the faith was that kind of a relationship—expectations but warm relationship.
Dave: What I hear you saying, and maybe I’m wrong, maybe I’m pushing this too far, but I’m thinking if a person is struggling with their faith and maybe even deconverted, they’ve walked away, but they get around a genuine, authentic Christ-follower who really does love God with all his heart, soul, and mind, and does love his neighbor as himself, which is what Jesus said is the most important.
Think of it, John. When you say a warm, caring person. When you’re around that person and you see it consistently—and I’m not saying any of us live it perfectly—it always comes down to a relationship. It really does. All the other stuff, the evidence and all that matters. It does come down to it, don’t you think?
Dave: When I can’t deny somebody’s true life, they really do love God; they really do love people; it’s not a fake thing; it’s not just—they live that. It’s hard to walk away. You start going, “Maybe what I thought wasn’t true is true,” and you dive in and go, “Yes, wait.” Am I right?
Dave: It just feels like it always comes down to relationship.
Ann: It reminds me of a very, very well-known pastor that we had on, author, very well-known, but one of his kids had deconstructed out. He’s out of the faith. He’s done, turned his back on God, and his parents were devastated, praying every day, loving that son, hoping and praying he’d come back. One day, years and years later, he came back. They said, “What brought you back to Jesus?”
He said, “I can’t deny two things: your love for me and your lives. I’ve watched your lives, and the way you love people, the way you’ve loved me, and the way that Jesus is so important to you. I can’t deny what I see in front of me. It makes me realize it’s true,” which is powerful.
Shelby: You’re listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with John Marriott on FamilyLife Today. If you feel overwhelmed by the pressures of raising godly kids in today’s culture, stick around, because Dave has some final words of encouragement just for you.
But first, I’ve been thinking a lot about our mission at FamilyLife and the reason why I specifically joined. We exist at FamilyLife to give biblical truth to today’s families, which is arguably important now more than ever. So if you feel the same way, would you consider partnering with us? When you give any amount this week, we want to send you a copy of our guest this week, John Marriott’s book, A Recipe for Disaster: Four Ways Churches and Parents Prepare Individuals to Lose Their Faith, and How They Can Instill a Faith that Endures.
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Alright, here’s Dave with some words of encouragement for parents.
Dave: It reminds us as parents that we said you can do everything right and they walk away. You do everything wrong, they stay. It really is getting on your knees, saying “God, help me to live an authentic Christian life, and I’m going to pray for my boy and my girl every single day. Would you keep them?”
John: You’re welcome.
Dave: This has been very, very good, very helpful.
Shelby: You may be anticipating, or frankly, dreading the point where your child is going to ask you, “Where do babies come from?” I think we can all agree that telling the old adage of the stork and the egg probably isn’t the best route to go. So, what do you say? That’s a good question. Well, join us next week where Dave and Ann talk with Justin Holcomb about the when’s and the how’s to talking about this big question with your kids. That’s next week. We hope you’ll join us.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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