Reviewed by Micah McCormick
As a church staff member who directs the youth program in my church, I have something of a love-hate relationship with literature on youth and the church. On the one hand, I love the youth in our church. I want desperately to see them continue on with the Lord, and so I’m thankful for writers who seek to apply Scripture to training the next generation. On the other hand, I receive regular phone calls and emails from youth organizations promoting their latest product. And often a cursory glance at their website or a casual question or two reveals an approach that seems gimmicky and fluffy. So I’m left with a bewildering array of resources, but it’s hard to find motivation to sift through all the kitsch in hopes of finding something more substantial.
Recently another member of my church pointed me to a book, and since he was also a church leader, I felt an extra measure of obligation to read it. I’m thankful I did. The book is called Faith That Lasts, by Jon Nielson, and the subtitle spells out the subject matter: Raising Kids That Don’t Leave the Church. He begins the book by pointing to surveys that show an alarming number of young people leaving the faith, and then he asks some searching questions: how have parents failed to teach children in the home, how can parents nurture a faith that lasts, and how have churches fallen short of living out the gospel?
He helpfully qualifies all of these concerns by reminding readers that God is sovereign and there is no perfect formula for discipleship—ultimately we depend on the Holy Spirit to quicken hearts. Yet he does want to bring attention to patterns that he has observed, patterns in the home and in the church that lend to either disillusionment or discipleship. The bulk of the book focuses more on parenting, while he turns attention to the church in the last few chapters.
A reader may wonder: what makes this guy the expert? Has he written a commentary on Proverbs or raised 29 kids or done significant sociological research on this topic or what? Nielson does have young children, and he has also been a student pastor in a church. In addition, he currently serves as the director of campus ministry at an Ivy League University. So although he in no way claims to be the guru, he has had countless conversations with college students who are often at a crucial juncture of assessing the faith of their youth amidst greater freedom to make life decisions on their own.
Nielson draws attention to five positive patterns in Christian parents whose children seem to persevere in the faith as adults—patterns he calls balance, modeling, gospel, sharing, friendship. By “balance,” Nielson refers to parents who are neither helicopter parents or anything goes parents. They demonstrate pro-active care and clear discipline without a stifling militarism that tends to exasperate children unnecessarily. “Modeling” happens best when a parent’s everyday life matches their Sunday church persona. “Gospel” is a culture of rich grace which isn’t content to raise children who are merely moral. “Sharing” occurs when parents invite many godly voices to speak to their children and influence their children throughout the growing up years. And finally, when Nielson stresses the “friendship” relationship that parents ought to have with children, he clarifies that he is not minimizing proper authority; rather, parents help their children when parents also show that they truly like spending time with them.
After a chapter where Nielson seeks to apply those parental principles in various stages of a child’s life (toddler, jr high, etc.), he turns toward local churches and the role that they play. In this final section of the book, he focuses on young adults—those who are college age or twenty something graduates who are working and single. He encourages churches, amidst emphases on youth ministries and children’s ministries and family ministries, not to neglect this demographic. After some brief suggestions on starting up a young adult program in a church, Nielson moves on to identify some of the most common frustrations that millennials have in relation to churches (lack of authenticity, lack of community service, lack of relevance). Perhaps more surprising are the issues that are sometimes assumed to be stumbling blocks for young adults, issues that Nielson says are actually not stumbling blocks for most millennials: 1) the otherness of the church (as opposed to a more attractional church model); 2) the offense of the gospel; 3) deep theological teaching; 4) Christian fellowship among a thoroughly diverse group of believers.
Although Faith That Lasts isn’t a long book, it feels more like two books. There’s the parenting book (the “Raising Kids” part of the subtitle?), and then there’s the connecting with millennials book (the “that don’t leave the church” part of the subtitle?). Along with these two major themes, there’s a chapter directly addressing young adults and a chapter directly addressing parents of grown children who have strayed. The material is good, but the book would be better served to have a sharper focus. One danger of the layout is that a reader could get the impression that parents raise their children until they get to college, and then parents pass the baton off to the “church.” There is a sense in which young adults relate more directly to the church when they are living outside of the home and away from the direct and daily authority of their parents. But who is the “church” who is supposed to enfold these young adults? It is the people of the church. It is not first the obligation of a program in the abstract, it is the obligation of the senior citizens and the families who themselves may have young children. The principle of “sharing” extends beyond childhood throughout the course of our lives as disciples.
And that leads to a way the parenting section of the book could be bolstered. Nielson helpfully suggests that parents “share” their children with others in the church. But who in the church do they share their parenting practices with? In other words, it’s one thing for parents to encourage godly Senior Sam to spend more time with their Johnny Jr. It’s another thing for parents to ask godly Senior Sam to speak into their own lives as parents, offering his biblical wisdom and assuming that they may need just as much help in their parenting practices as Johnny Jr does in his young faith. We all have blind spots, which is one reason why there is safety in a multitude of counselors. Nielson offers five patterns of faithful parents, but what about parents who assume they have checked all those boxes? I’ve heard parents confess in later years that they were too lax or too heavy handed, but it’s rarer to hear parents confess those things while they are in the process of raising children. They think they are striking the right balance, though they probably quietly shake their heads at all the other parents in the church who they view as helicopter parents or as anything goes parents. The body metaphors in Scripture remind us that the church community should be thoroughly integrated into the lives and practices of all Christians in all stages of their lives, children and parents and singles alike.
If Nielson had more space to focus on one major area (either parenting advice or young adult engagement), perhaps he would have been able to include even more Scripture. The Bible is what ultimately pries open the proud heart and gives comfort to the doubting heart and establishes the young heart. Nielson does bring Scripture to bear, but I would have loved to see even more examples from Scripture that confirm and illustrate Nielson’s useful practical advice.
Nielson himself writes in a way that helpfully strikes other types of “balance” as he navigates sensitive issues. He balances absolute dependence on the Holy Spirit with our duty to employ the normal means God has given. He also balances his response to the concerns of young adults—acknowledging their generalizations and critical spirit while at the same time seeking to listen to aspects of their critique that need to be heard. While Nielson firmly exhorts both parents and churches to step up to the plate, he speaks with deep compassion and care, acknowledging the heaviness that comes with wayward children and church departures. Above all, Nielson’s insistence on a thorough-going gospel culture in home and church pushes this book ahead of many other books that give similar pieces of practical advice while forgetting the one needful thing.
Micah McCormick is Assistant Pastor at New Hyde Baptist Church, New Hyde Park, NY.
Buy the books
Faith that Lasts: Raising Kids that Don’t Leave the Church