Why does a person’s faith sometimes drastically change as they become an adult? I have become increasingly aware of people in their 20s who are turning away from Christ. Many grew up in God-fearing families, but as adults have walked away from that faith. How does this happen? Is it the result of parenting, the Church, peers or something else entirely? While I understand that there are no clear answers and every situation is different, it makes me wonder why some never turn away from their “parent’s faith” and others completely deny it. These questions lead to even more questions, with very few solid answers. I’d like to suggest that the main issue at hand is the information these now-adults did not receive growing up.
I have found many Christian parents that believe the best thing to do for children is to protect them from the “world,” exposing them only to the faith the parents have in order to build a religious foundation in the child. However, there may be a time in the child’s life when they need more.
Isaiah 55 reads, “So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; it shall not return to Me void, but is shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it (55:11, NASB).” I want to believe a child raised in a family that values Scripture will be more likely to maintain a relationship with Jesus. Because Scripture is alive in the hearts of those who read it, how can one know the Scriptures and yet completely reject what they say?
Perhaps a person’s development has a role. James Fowler, a leader in the study of human development, has done work on faith development, which may give us some insight. He concluded that people’s faith goes through a development as they age. For example, a preschooler’s faith is a reflection of their parents; they relate God to their parents. At age six children are still following their parent’s faith, but believe justice always wins. As a child reaches adolescence, they are conforming to the Church; whatever the Church says goes. By the time a person is in their 20s, they are beginning to think for themselves; their faith is no longer their parents’. I see a connection here. These twentysomethings are now thinking for themselves, but frequently they are not choosing what their parents believed. Why?
There may not be a formula. And certainly no one can safeguard against another person rejecting any kind of faith. There are many theological issues swimming around in this discussion, but the thrust of the question continues to be: how do we help other twentysomethings stick to the faith they were taught? How do we, the Church, help make it real, help them understand? Is it even possible?
Perhaps the key is in what the Church teaches people as they develop in their faith. We should encourage people to explore what else is out there in a safe environment; encourage them to go out and test the waters by learning about other faiths while they will still be able to comfortably land in the Church’s parachute. What is wrong with the Church being honest with young people, teaching them about other religions in order to widen their worldview? Are we afraid something will seem more attractive to them than Christianity? If the Church does not teach people about other views, the world eventually will.
I fear the Church at times is not being honest. It does not always let people young in their faith make their own decisions about what those outside the Church think is true and right. Instead, it seems to be waiting for them to get out on their own and discover it for themselves. This may be leading the people to wonder why they did not know about these things in the first place. Suddenly as an adult, their world opens up with new ideas, beliefs and choices. People start hearing arguments for anti-Christian beliefs that make sense to them—they did not know these arguments existed. Perhaps if they heard these arguments in their early on, they would not be as awestruck by them later.
Returning to Fowler’s work with faith development, I propose it is of value to look at what he says about individuals in their younger years and on into becoming adults. At this point in life, people are able to think abstractly about hypothetical situations; they are developing their identity and understand that what they believe may be different from others. As they form an identity, they are open to what others are telling them and want to fit into a group. If the Church does not prepare them for this, then groups with different belief systems may become very attractive and accepting.
I propose the best thing we can do is to educate others and ourselfs to see why we believe what we believe. There is a lot to decide, and nothing will be better than helping others make decisions instead of giving them the only choice.