Jim Daly: Kara, today there are many researchers—it can be Barna or Gallop or you know, others—that talk about how many kids walk away from the faith. Paint that picture for us.
Kara Powell: As we at the Fuller Institute have looked at all the research that’s been done, our conclusion is, somewhere between 40 and 50 percent of kids from great families and some great churches drift from God and the church after they graduate from high school. So somewhere around 1 out of 2 will drift from the faith.
End of Teaser
John Fuller: Well, I hope that if you’re a parent or a grandparent that, that caught your attention and if it did, listen in some more for Dr. Kara Powell. She’s the executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute and joins us on today’s “Focus on the Family” to share some practical ways that you can build up your child’s interest in and faith in God. I’m John Fuller and your host is Focus president and author, Jim Daly.
Jim: John, this is an important topic for all of us as parents. And it’s not to exclude those that perhaps are grandparents. This is important for you, as well. But for those of us that have given birth to children and are fathering children, today’s topic is going to be critical, because it’s the most important thing we can do and that is, to pass our faith on to the next generation. And we’re gonna talk about some very practical ways and proven ways that we can do that with our guest today.
John: And I mentioned Dr. Kara Powell. She is, as we said, with the Fuller Youth Institute, which exists to equip kids, especially teens with a lifelong faith and she’s also a faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary. By the way, Jim, people ask if I’m related. I wish I were.
Kara: I wish you were, too, John.
John: I’m not—
Jim: Didn’t you—
John: –related to the—
Jim: –you didn’t create that—
John: No, I might’ve been (Laughter) able to go for free if I was related.
Jim: Yeah, wouldn’t that be nice. (Laughter) That’s the best part.
John: That would’ve been, so Dr. Powell is an author and speaker and recently released a follow-up book to the previous title, Sticky Faith. This one [is] called The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family. We should note that Kara is the mom of three, so she knows this topic, very, very well.
Jim: Yeah, she knows what she’s livin’. Kara, welcome back to Focus.
Kara: Oh, thank. It’s great to be here.
Jim: It’s always so good to have someone who has, you know, that Ph.D. and the research background. Talk about sticky faith. What do you mean by it?
Kara: Well, when I learned that almost half of youth group graduates drift from God and the church, as a mom and a leader and a follower of Jesus, I’m not satisfied with that. I know you two aren’t and I know your listeners certainly aren’t.
And so, we received a number of grants that allowed us to study over 500 high school seniors during their first three years in college, as well as conduct interviews with families nationwide who are doing amazing practical ideas every day that make a real difference.
Jim: When you look at that group that you have studied—
Jim: –and I’m sure that’s really the distillation of that–these are the practices that you have found that work well and that’s what’s in the book–give us one little glimpse of that. What’s one thing that families do well that help insure—it doesn’t promise—but helps insure that their children may fare better in sticking to their faith.
Kara: You know, one of the hearts of sticky faith is what the faith is itself. And what we’ve seen in our research is far too many young people graduate from high school and they think faith is about behaviors. Faith is what they do and sure, our faith should manifest itself in what we do. But ultimately, ultimately our faith is about relationship with Jesus and it’s about grace.
So, out of our sticky faith research, we’re inviting families to rethink how they model and talk about grace, which is ultimately what separates Christianity from every other religion.
Jim: And you know, the difficulty with that, Kara is, it’s dangerous ground, because it’s sensitive, those areas, how do we express grace to our children? I think particularly in the Christian faith, we can be rules oriented—
Jim: –which is important.
Jim: Don’t “mishear” me.
Jim: It’s important to have boundaries for your kids—
Jim: –and do those things. But if we live for that, if that’s the sole purpose, we’re probably missing the greater purpose.
Kara: Yeah. Well, it’s interesting, if you look at how Paul described obedience, it’s in the latter chapters of his epistles that he talks about the do’s and the don’ts. And it’s the earlier chapters of the epistles that focus on grace.
And I think that’s a wonderful paradigm for us as parents, that we make sure that we start with grace and as Dave, my husband and I, as we tell our kids that our obedience is a great big thank-you note back to God for God’s grace and what we experience every day.
Jim: And it tends to be when we overplay one or the other, we get into trouble, right?
Kara: Absolutely, absolutely and you know, often we get into trouble and our kids notice it. One of the themes in our research with the 50 families that we interviewed for our recent book is, how quick parents who have amazing relationships with their kids, are to apologize to their kids.
Jim: So, that’s one of the attributes.
Kara: Absolutely, to model grace even in the way they interact with their kids, to simply say, “I’m sorry” when they blow it, when they use the wrong tone of voice, when they misunderstand. And that’s one of the many ways that our sticky faith research has changed my parenting. I apologize to my kids multiple times in a week, because Dave and I, we want our family to be a place where we can talk about mistakes and forgive each other.
Jim: When you talk about that sticky faith, you know, we want that for our children. I think every God-fearing, faithful parent wants that.
Jim: It’s hard to look at our own behavior—
Jim: –and see where we’re being inconsistent. We see ourselves as being at the top of our game and doing everything reasonably well and if our kids are watching, they’re gonna catch it. But we have blind spots—
Jim: –to be blunt and we don’t see those times that we’re interacting in such a way that communicates the opposite of what we’re hoping to communicate. You had a story in your book with your daughter that really caught my attention, as she was mimicking you.
Jim: Talk about that.
Kara: Yeah. When our youngest, who’s now 8, when she was about 5 or 6, she used to love to dress up like me. She would put on my jacket, a scarf, put on my boots. She would drag my briefcase around and say, “I’m Kawa Powell; I’m Kawa Powell.” And I thought it was so adorable. I was honored as a mom. Here she was dressing up like me.
Well, it got a little bit less adorable when she started talking like me. She would line up her stuffed animals on the blue couch in our living room and she would give them lectures and—
Jim: Finger pointing.
Kara: –she would finger point, yes, exactly.
Jim: As you’re doing right now.
Kara: Exactly and that’s how she was being “Kawa Powell.” And then she had a friend over and they decided to do a drama, a little skit. And so, my daughter was Kawa Powell and her friend played her, played Jessica. And sure enough, Kawa Powell, once again, lectured, finger pointed, sent Jessica to her room. And I remember when that friend left and Jessica and I walked her out to her mom’s car and Jessica ran back into our house and I just sat on the red brick steps in front of our house and I thought, “Is this what my mother is seeing in me? Is this the tone of voice? Is this the ethos? Is this the emotion my daughter’s seen in me?” And I was really, really grieved and it was a wake-up call for me.
Jim: Now some parents will go right by that moment. They don’t see the distinction or what it’s communicating. Why do you think you caught it? And how could you help other parents just notice these little things?
Kara: Well, I often miss those moments, too. In this particular care it was so obvious (Laughter) and egregious.
Jim: “I’m Kawa Powell.”
Kara: Yeah, I’m Kawa Powell, when she’s literally saying she’s me and acting like that. You know, I … what I would urge parents to do is to just be aware of the research that points to how our children do tend to mimic us. Chris Mess, who’s don’t a massive research study of over 2,000 young people of various faiths, he said at a panel at Fuller Seminary, “When it comes to kids’ faith, parents get what they are.” When it comes to kids’ faith, parents get what they are.
Now there are all sorts of exceptions to this. I’m sure some of your listeners have different faith journeys than their own parents. I’m sure some of your listeners have multiple kids, some of whom have taken the narrow path, others of whom have taken the broad path. So, take this research with a lot of grains of salt, but in integrity as a researcher, I just gotta say, it’s hard to point to a factor more important in a young person’s faith development than the faith of their parents.
Jim: Now let me applaud that, because I agree with it. We are modeling and we learn so much as children in what’s modeled around us. And so often, someone will say, “You sound like your dad,” or “You sound like your mother.”
Jim: Sometimes that comes with great positives—
Jim: –and sometimes great negatives.
Jim: We react to that, but you’ve learned that phrase or that winsome expression because your parents did it typically, your mom or your dad.
Jim: And you do it now, too.But in that way with faith and the modeling, there is a line though that, it does become the responsibility of that child as they grow older—
Jim: –the teenager or 20-something—
Jim: –where they’ve got to embrace that for themselves.
Jim: So often, we as Christian parents can be very hard on ourselves when we have that prodigal son or daughter, because they’ve walked away and we start goin’ after each other and ourselves, saying, “Where did we blow it? What happened? Where did I fail as a father? Where did I fail as a mother? How come we weren’t the parents we thought we were? What role did we play in this child going the wrong way?”
Jim: And it gets really self-focused and it can actually tear marriages apart because of the recrimination that’s occurring between the husband and the wife.
Jim: Talk about that for a minute, because it’s not all modeling. A child does over time, begin to own their own faith journey. Tell us about that.
Kara: Well, you know, every week we talk to parents at the Fuller Youth Institute who are going through just what you said, Jim, who are heartbroken over the way that their children, often young-adult children, are drifting from the Lord and they feel guilty about that. And I understand that as a parent. It’s easy day to day to feel guilty for all that you don’t do and all the mistakes you’ve made. One of the first things we try to do, is we point parents back to the grace that we were just talking about a few minutes ago, that God’s grace is bigger than any mistakes that we’ve ever made, will ever make.
And then secondly, what I would say to parents is, that often we as parents are looking for a tip or a trick. If we can just say, get our child to come to church with us on Mother’s Day, that somehow that’s gonna be a fix. (Laughter) I mean, we literally have parents tell us that.
And of course, sometimes God works that way, but one of the big “ah-ha’s” for me out of this research was, in one of the interviews, a very wise dad said, “As long as you have relationship, you have influence.” As long as you have relationship, you have influence. So, for parents who are grieving over the choices that their children are making, I would say, keep building relationship with them, because you just never know when God’s gonna use that relationship for some ah-ha on your child’s end
Jim: Kara, I do want to talk about those practical ideas, ’cause your book right there, The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family and then you say there’s over 100 practical—
Kara: Way more than 100.
Jim: –practical ways, which I’m really interested in taking this home tonight and Jean and I are gonna get through it and find those things that will work for us. But when you talk about relationship for the family, talk about what that actually looks like. What is a healthy relationship family dynamic? Because today so few of us are coming from healthy families–
Jim: –as young people and then we get married and you know, that was certainly my background. I really wanted to learn how to be the best husband I could be and how to be a great dad.
Jim: I’ll leave it to Jean and the boys to give me my grade, but you have to have an appetite for it. And so often today, we’re not seeing it modeled.
Jim: But it’s not enough to simply say, “Well, my dad didn’t do it well and that’s where I learned it and that’s the way it is.” As a Christian, as a believer, you press forward to do better.
Jim: What does that “better” look like?
Kara: Yeah. You know, every day I parent differently and I think a whole lot better because of sticky faith. One of the ways that sticky faith has most impacted our family is the way that we talk about faith together. And we have a chapter in our book just on this, on family faith conversations.
And Jim, let’s say you’re my child. Here’s what our research shows, that as good as it is for me to ask you, Jim, as my son, questions about your faith, “How was church?” “How was youth group?” “What’d you learn?” “What did you talk about?” that is a good thing to do, but depending on your mood, your personality, my relationship with you, who knows what kind of answer or grunt or leave me alone, mama, eye roll I’m gonna get.
But what our research shows is, it is a good thing for parents to ask their kids questions about their kids’ faith. But what is as important and much, much less practiced is, that parents share about their own faith—
Jim: With their kids–
Kara: –with their kids. That’s what parents aren’t doing.
Jim: –so they hear it.
Kara: Yeah, it’s not only being an example, as we’ve just talked about, but it’s also just simply sharing what God is showing you. So, let me give a practical example from our family. Before our sticky faith research, when Nathan would come say into the living room where I like to pray and read the Bible in the morning and when Nathan, our oldest would come and say, “Mom, where are my tennis shoes?” I would say, “They’re down the hall by the laundry room.”
Now when Nathan comes in and says, “Mom, where are my tennis shoes?” I say, “Hey, Nathan, can I show you what I’m reading in Psalms?” Or “Hey, Nathan, can I show you the page in my prayer journal where I’m praying for you? And is there anything specifically that I can be praying about you? And if there anything specifically I can be praying about for you today?” And then, “Nathan, your shoes are down the hall by the laundry room.” So, we eventually get to where the shoes are, but I’ve realized that, you know, in some ways, I don’t have to quote “act more spiritual.” I just need to share with my kids the spirituality that I already have.
Jim: Just be.
Kara: Just be and share, share organically. When that worship song comes on that’s meaningful you … meaningful to you, then talk about it. When you are praying and you see God answer prayer requests, then talk about it. You know, every night at dinner, because of our research, our family answers this question: How did you see God at work today? How did you see God at work today?
Now when we first raised the question, our then 8-year-old said, “Well, mommy, daddy, I can’t answer that question.” And we said, “Really, why not?” She said, “Well, I don’t have a job. How did you see God at work today? (Laughter)
Jim: Oh. (Laughter)
Kara: Yeah, so then when we reframed it as, “How did you see God working?” then now that’s something that the Powell family talks about at dinner. So, last night, I talked about how I saw God answer prayers in a couple meetings. And I love that every night we’re all talking about how we see God at work.
Jim: Well, and it’s so important, because I think we can be so esoteric—
Jim: –if I can use that term.
Jim: You know, we’re so high-minded, our kids actually don’t see—
Jim: –how it’s practical—
Jim: –and what does it mean to believe?
Jim: And what does it mean to hear the voice of God?
Jim: I’ll often zero in on that with my kids, like they haven’t asked that question, “How do you know when you’re hearing from God?” But I’ve talked about their conscience—
Jim: –you know, if they do something that may be a little off, that they know it in their heart and I’ll say, “Do you know it in your heart?” They’ll go, “Yeah.”
Jim: I said, “Well, that’s God’s voice in you.”
Jim: “That’s Him speaking to you about whether or not you should do that thing—
Jim: –that isn’t quite right.”
Jim: That’s conscience; that’s Holy Spirit.
Jim: And for them to begin to make those practical applications about why do I have any hesitation and doubt? Those are good ways to build in the practical nature of God’s work in your life.
John: As Jim is speaking, Kara, I’m thinking about a conversation with my youngest not too long ago, where he … we were walking into church and why he chose this time, I don’t know. (Laughter) But we’re walkin’ up to church and he said in all earnestness, “Dad, how do we know God is real? And I mean, I don’t see Him. I don’t feel Him. I’m not sure He’s real.” How practically can we respond to that eventual day when our child expresses some doubt?
Kara: Such a good question, John and when I’m asked, “What’s the greatest surprise out of this sticky faith research, I often talk about the power of doubt. What we’ve shown in our research is that 70 percent of young people have significant questions about God and faith as they’re transitioning from high school to college. That means the vast majority have those questions.
And what we’ve also seen in our research is that when young people have the opportunity to express and explore their doubt, that’s actually more related to faith maturity. In other words, doubt isn’t toxic to faith; silence is.
So, I love that your son asked that tough, tough question. And when my kids ask me tough questions, when high school and college students ask me tough questions, I try to say four words that I think your listeners can start using today, “I don’t know, but …” I don’t know, but how about if you and me get together and let’s talk about it more over coffee.” “I don’t know, but I would love to study Scripture with you and try to understand that.”
‘Cause let’s be honest. There are some tough questions about our faith. There are some stumpers. And when our kids ask us tough questions, “I don’t know, but here’s what I do know about God.” What I long for is that children feel like they can ask those questions in their homes, in their Sunday school classes and in their congregations.
Jim: Kara, that is a good thing for us to do. I’m thinking of the power, in the book, you talk about the power of relationship, parental relationship.
Jim: I, obviously, being father, I was drawn toward the impact of dads.
Jim: There seemed to be something unique, like there is for moms.
Kara: Yeah, yeah.
Jim: And we’ll talk about that in a minute, but in terms of the dads and the influence they have over kids, I think in culture today, at least in Western culture, that has been so downplayed, the power of a father—
Jim: –in the role of the home—
Jim: –and what it means, because we think of us as being the vocational provider—
Jim: –and those kinds of things. We don’t think of a role in parenting as strongly as we would think [of] a mom. But research is showing differently, isn’t it?
Kara: Yeah and I have gotta say, I’m not the biggest believer in gender stereotypes, but when I see research that’s powerful, I feel like I need to share it. And sure enough, there is research showing a unique role that dads tend to have and that’s in family warmth, family warmth. When dads communicate their affection, their fondness and just plain that they like their kids, that’s actually more related to faith maturity than when moms do it.
So, I think that’s a wake-up call for dads who might be thinkin’, well, it’s okay that mom’s kinda the heart or soul of the family.
Jim: The tender side.
Kara: Mom’s the touchy-feely one.
Kara: I gotta say, research doesn’t support that, that for dads to take steps and just communicate their affection and fondness and love for their kids, that means a lot.
Jim: Now let’s talk about mom. Why is mom taken for granted in that way? And I’m not saying that’s a negative, but it’s almost like moms are expected to be that and it’s true.
Kara: Yeah, I think that’s part of it, but that’s where the mom has a particularly unique role also. And that’s when it comes to parent-child faith conversations, that what the research is seeming to suggest, that as wonderful as it is for dads to have conversations with kids, that it’s particularly powerful when moms talk about faith with their kids. So, the bottom line is, moms, dads, stepmoms, stepdads, they all have, we all have a role to play.
Jim: And warmth is the key that I’m hearing there. Make sure relationally that the kids feel comfortable. They feel that they can talk. You also mention in your book about the importance of talking about difficult issues—
Jim: –like sex—
Jim: –like drugs—
Jim: –like those things.
Jim: You know, it’s been interesting for me with my boys right now at that stage, to bring these things up spontaneously.
Jim: They’re almost now uncomfortable with it—
Jim: –but I could see that it’s like they’ve become rigid, you know. (Laughter)
Jim: Their back stiffens up. (Laughter)
John: Dad’s got another heavy for us.
Jim: Uh-oh, he wants to talk about that.
Jim: But it’s the right moment, it’s always, I think, with the right context and I’m talking about it, ’cause I’m trying to build into them incrementally—
Jim: –the importance of treating women correctly and girls correctly at school and having the right attitude toward them. But that can be a tough thing when you’re drivin’ down the road and I turn to one of them and I say, “Now are you thinking about girls?”
Jim: And they’ll look around. Their eyes are darting (Laughter) and they’re going, “How do I answer this question?”
Kara: How do I get out of this car? Yeah.
Jim: Yeah, how do I get out of the car?
Jim: But you know, thankfully they’re saying, “Well, yeah.” Then they tend to downplay it. “Yeah, but you know, it’s not that strong.” And I said, you know, to one of them, “Is there a particular girl that catches your eye?”
Jim: And they said, “Well, yeah.” And I said, “Well, why? What does she do?”
Jim: Or “What’s happening there?” Those are okay conversations to make them safe, right?
Kara: Absolutely, more than okay I would say they’re essential. You know, I’m certainly a fan of having a sex talk with our kids, the purity pledges and all of that. But what we’re seeing in research is as important is the ongoing conversations that we have with our kids.
And often current events can provide a catalyst for that. Valentine’s Day, you know, the way that you see your son or daughter in texting relationships with people of the opposite gender. Those are all catalysts to simply say, “Oh, it seems like you’re talkin’ more to so-and-so. And what do you like about him?” “What do you like about her?”
You know, my heart and soul is that those kinds of conversations about sex and dating, it’s not just one conversation we have once in our lifetime or once in a year, but they’re threads that weave through our family interactions.
Jim: Well, and I think a mistake that we make in the Christian community particularly and you know, a mirror is always good, so please don’t be offended by this, but what I see in my own behavior is it’s much easier to avoid these conversations.
Jim: You know, let’s talk about the lofty spiritual things.
Jim: But the practical things like, “Are you attracted to girls?” at 15, 16, 14, 12–
Jim: –those are important conversations, because it gives the children some context to understand these emotions that they’re having and hopefully, it helps them to feel safe that they can talk these things through. I always throw out a question or a statement to my kids to say, “Hey, you know you can talk about anything with me.” And they nod and say yes.
Jim: But I’m still, you know, I’m waiting when that question’s gonna arise. Now John, you have older kids. Have they opened up in that way to you?
John: You know, there’s a range there. (Laughter)
Kara: Yeah, sure, sure.
Jim: A range, they’re all different. (Laughter)
John: And so some are more private about these matters and others are more inviting and more interested in our responses. You know, I think what I’ve picked up throughout this whole program is the importance of having a really solid relationship where you can talk about almost anything at least with your kids—
John: –whether they want to talk with you about it or not. And Jim, that takes time. I mean, it’s all about being intentional and investing in the time so you can ask the hard questions, so you can have tough conversations with your kids that help set ’em on the right path.
Jim: Oh, without a doubt. And Kara, it’s so important. What I like again to the core of your message is relationship is critical.
Jim: There’s a lot more to cover and I’d like to come back next time if you can stick with us and let’s go into some more of those practical ways that we can, maybe at age-appropriate stages, the younger children—
Jim: –the elementary school ages, junior high. I definitely want to talk to you about junior high. (Laughter)
Kara: I’m right there with you, Jim.
Jim: And you know, high school and college and then how to launch our kids successfully, so that as we said at the top of the program ,that there is no guarantee, that it looks like about 1 in 2 kids can walk away from the faith for a while, but our goal is to plant the right seed, so that even if your child falls into that other half—
Jim: –that is struggling, that the Lord will use those seeds that have been planted and that He’ll water them and that He’ll bring fruit from that. So, let’s come back and give hope next time to the parents who are struggling. Can we do it?
Kara: [I] would love to. Sounds perfect.
Jim: All right.
John: I so appreciate programs like this one and I’m really grateful for Dr. Powell’s expertise in this area and it really do