This article was originally published on ca.thegospelcoalition.org, 3 Ways to Pass on Faith to the Next Generation, written by Tim Keller.
It is impossible to lay blame neatly when one generation fails to pass its faith on to the next one. Did the first generation fail to reach out, or did the second generation just harden their hearts? The answer is usually both. Mistakes made by one Christian generation are often magnified in the next, nominal one.
Commitment is replaced by complacency—and then by compromise.
An interesting example is early New England. Nearly all the first settlers in 1620 to 1640 were vital, biblical Christians. But by 1662, the first generation realized that many of their children and grandchildren were only nominal—believers in name only. They ended up instituting a “Halfway Covenant,” allowing people to vote who were baptized as infants but who as adults were not church members.
Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 6:20–25 are instructive here. They show us what must be done in order to pass on our faith.
1. Love God Passionately
We love God wholeheartedly, having these commandments on our hearts (v. 6). This means we are not hypocritical or inconsistent in our behaviour. The commandments are not only kept mechanically or partially; rather, God has an effect on all of us, through and through.
Young people are sensitive to any inconsistency. That is the first reason a younger generation can turn from the faith of an older one. One example is how Baby Boomer youth turned away from mainstream Christianity after seeing churches tacitly or even actively support racist policies and practices, and many established churches oppose the civil-rights movement.
2. Impress Truths Practically
We are to apply the gospel practically, not only academically or abstractly. Deuteronomy 6:7 is not promoting regular family lectures. The references to “sit . . . walk along . . . lie down and . . . get up” refer to the routines of daily life.
Instruction in God’s truth, then, is not so much a series of lectures and classes; rather, we are to “impress” truths about God by showing how he relates to daily, concrete living. This is a call to be wise and thoughtful about how the values and virtues of the gospel distinctively influence our decisions and priorities.
3. Give Testimony Personally
Verses 20–25 tell us we are to link the doctrines of the faith to God’s saving actions in our lives. We are to give personal testimony to the difference God has made to us, how he’s brought us from bondage into freedom: “We were slaves . . . but the LORD brought us out.” We are not only to speak of beliefs and behaviour, but also of our own experience of God. We must be open about our struggles to grow, and transparent about how repentance works in our lives. We are not to be overly formal and impersonal in the expressions of our faith.
In summary, we must be consistent in our behaviour, wise about reality, and warmly personal in our faith. History and experience both show us that these three things are hard to carry out on a broad scale. Most Christians rely on institutions and formal instruction to “pass on the faith.” We assume that if we instruct our children in true doctrine, shelter them from immoral behaviour, and involve them in church and religious organizations, then we have done all we can. But youth are turned off not only by bad examples, but also by parents who are not savvy about the lives and world their children are living in, or who cannot be open about their own interior spiritual lives.