Most religious teens in the United States appear to engage in few religious practices. But even basic practices like regular Bible reading and personal prayer seem clearly associated with stronger and deeper faith commitment among youth.
—Christian Smith with Melinda Denton
Setting the Stage
In this lesson we will explore how we pass on the faith to our children by translating the gospel through our lives. We’ll learn that translating God’s love in human form takes using every cultural tool—stories, songs, symbols, attitudes, language, practices, and patterns of life—at the gospel’s disposal. This is how the faith is ferried across generations.
From the Study
The NSYR testifies to young people’s willingness, even eagerness, to hang out with adults who support and encourage them.
The data from the NSYR suggests that American churches and families that attend church do not engage young people in faith conversations. The data also suggests that when these two groups do talk about faith issues with students, they’re not providing sufficient clarity for young people to be able to distinguish the faith conversation from other conversations. In other words, according to our students, the church sounds a lot like the world as we talk about issues, leaving youth without the language tools to infuse their conversations with their faith in God. What’s more, the similarities between the religious outlook of teenagers and their parents indicate that youth are not the only ones in need of faith forming conversation. Many parents feel inadequate and either abandon the religious instruction of their children altogether or turn the job over to church “experts.”
But faith is a way of life, not only information to be memorized. Attendance at youth groups and church education programs are important for establishing healthy social networks, religious formation, and opportunities for spiritual reflection. However, these programs are secondary elements in the transmission of faith. Passing faith on to students takes models, not theories. It takes mentoring, not programming. Faith transmission requires communities that embody the tradition in three-dimensional form and adults who can connect these traditions to daily life. God revealed God’s self-giving love in human form tells us that the faith conversations make no sense apart from a community of people who thoughtfully and faithfully follow the person of Jesus Christ.
Dean highlights the idea that God’s story shapes missional imaginations, which help us recognize God’s activity in Jesus Christ and in us, as Christ calls us to participate in his redemptive work in the world. Our God story tells us who God is, shapes our ability to participate in the Christian community, and provides the means for discerning our call as disciples and for claiming our hope in God’s future. Learning God’s story gives teenagers cultural tools that stake up young faith, improve teenagers’ exposure to the Son and therefore the likelihood that their faith will mature and bear fruit. Yet hearing God’s story does not guarantee that teenagers will follow Jesus. Only the Holy Spirit lights the match of faith, transforming human effort into holy fire that comes roaring into our lives at the first hint of welcome, insistent on igniting us, sharing us, and being shared.
For centuries, two strategies—telling God’s story and enacting it—comprised the heart of Christian formation, or catechesis, the “handing on” of a faith tradition from one generation to the next. Churches and families can (and must) help by plunging teenagers into Christianity’s peculiar God story, and by inviting young people to take part in practices that embody it.
Looking at Scripture: 2 Kings 18:26-36
Spend some time reading this passage together. If time allows look at the entire story told in chapters 18 and 19. As you read, keep the historical context of this passage in mind. This scripture serves as a model of community that converses with the broader culture, but also refuses to give in to the dominant culture’s demands. Here is the story:
The Assyrians have surrounded Jerusalem, and now all attention is on-the-wall of Jerusalem that stands between the Jews and the culture that seems destined to overwhelm them. The Assyrian negotiator stands at the wall, taunting Yahweh and shouting conditions for surrender. Israel responds with a tactical move of its own. While negotiations on-the-wall with the Assyrians are being conducted in Aramaic (the official imperial language of those who dismiss Yahweh), Israel’s leaders were immersed in a behind-the-wall conversation in Hebrew, the language of Judah, where Yahweh is addressed. Here is the conversation between the Assyrian leader and the Jewish field commander from 2 Kings 18:26-28
“Then Eliakim son of Hikiah, and Shebna and Joah said to the field commander, ‘Please speak to your servants in Aramaic, since we understand it. Don’t speak to us in Hebrew in the hearing of the people on the wall.’ But the commander replied, ‘Was it only to your master and you that my master sent me to say these things, and not to the people sitting on the wall – who like you, will have to eat their own excrement and drink their own urine?’
Then the commander stood and called out in Hebrew, ‘Hear the word of the great king, the king of Assyria! This is what the kings says: Do not let Hezekiah deceive you. He cannot deliver you from my hand. Do not let Hezekiah persuade you to trust in the LORD when he says, ‘The LORD will surely deliver us …”
The behind-the-wall conversation turns out to be pivotal. Within their own community, the people of Judah speak and grieve openly in Hebrew, the intimate language of family and friendship, of worship and prayer. Speaking Hebrew behind-the-wall, the people of Judah recount stories of God’s faithfulness to them, remembering that their salvation is in Yahweh’s hands. Behind-the-wall, the people of Judah remember who they are—a people whom Yahweh has promised to save, whom Yahweh has called to be a blessing to all nations. These behind-the-wall conversations are decisive for what happens on-the-wall. Remembering God’s faithfulness, Israel’s leaders enter the on-the-wall conversation with different assumptions about the world from those of the empire—which allows them to negotiate on-the-wall, using the language of the realm, emboldened by an alternative vision of their future. Without the behind-the-wall conversation, “the language of the Empire prevails.”
When you’re done reading the passage, reflect on these questions:
Why are “behind-the-wall” conversations so pivotal to Israel’s defense?
What is the significance of the behind-the-wall language happening in Hebrew? Why is that important?
How are “behind-the-wall” conversations important to your relationship to your student?
Exploring Our Response
The significance of both “behind-the-wall” and “on-the-wall” conversations is important to note. We might think that behind-the-wall conversations are the most important, because they’re formational and delve into deep spiritual issues. However, think of them like this: robust behind-the-wall conversations with our students about life and faith prepare them for on-the-wall conversations about life and faith while they are “in the world,” interacting with their peers.
In our scripture, the conversation on-the-wall shouts conditions for acceptance, but the discussion behind-the-wall refuses to give up. Behind-the-wall conversations supply youth with the tools—metaphors, stories, songs, and creeds—necessary to resist the world’s views. Without transformative, imaginative, religious language, youth have only the world’s conversations to describe the world. These worldly conversations present a view where Jesus does not make a difference. In a world without a loving God, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism makes perfect sense.
Dean notes: “The issue is not whether young people can read the Bible (they can). The real issue is…well, really, why would they want to? What have they seen in the church that would suggest that the Bible is a source of power and wonder? When have they seen their parents derive life and joy from reading scripture? ‘We have been duped into thinking that the issue is Bible drills instead of instilling a love of reading the Bible,’ Anne Florence claims. ‘We have been scared into sharing information about the text instead of our passion for it.’”
What behind-the-wall conversations have taken place at your home?
What are some things you do or can do to get your family talking about God? About the Bible? About essential elements of your faith?
How is prayer modeled for your youth? How is your church teaching youth to pray?
Where do your youth encounter people passionate about the word of God? At church? At home?
Do your students have opportunities to interact with adults who are struggling with their faith?
On-the-wall conversations are conversations that our children have every day. They happen at school, at soccer practice, when they turn on the TV or Internet, when they go to the movies, etc. The importance of our behind-the-wall conversations is to prepare our children to engage in on-the-wall conversations without losing their faith! But as Dean points out, the best way for our children youth to learn on-the-wall techniques is to watch adults engage in those conversations.
Where do your children have the opportunity to watch you or other adults engage in on-the-wall conversations?
How have you seen other parents model on-the-wall conversations at home?
What are the on-the-wall conversations taking place in your home? Which ones are the most challenging?
Words of Assurance
“Everything you need for your children’s faith formation, God had already given you. Awakening faith does not depend on how hard we press young people to love God, but on how much we show them that we do.”  —Dean
 Soul Searching, pg. 269
 Soul Searching, pg. 60
 Almost Christian, pg. 117
 Almost Christian, pg. 62
 Almost Christian, pg. 113-114
 Almost Christian, pg. 129
 Anna Carter Florence, Preaching as Testimony (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2007), 124.