My wife and I were both raised in the church, and we come from a long line of religious families. We count among our family members pastors, preachers, deacons, choir leaders, singers, elders, mothers of the church…you get the point. So for us, as we grew up, adopting the faith of our forefathers was almost a foregone conclusion. Except, it didn’t quite turn out that way. Don’t get me wrong, we both consider ourselves people of faith, however our path towards finding and solidifying our own faith expressions has felt more like a circle, rather than a straight line. For both of us we each choose to explore the faith that we’d been handed as children, on our own terms as adults. This personal exploration and testing of the precepts we’d learned, actually created for us a more rigorous foundation of our faith now later in life as adults and parents of our own children.
It’s often the case that for those who grow up in rigid religious traditions, they abandon their childhood faith for something else as adults. I have a number of friends and family members who grew up similarly who now profess to have “no faith” at all, or at least don’t ascribe to a particular set of religious beliefs. Our generation of millennials (of which Samantha and I are on the older end), is famous for being spiritual rather than religious. Much has been written about that elsewhere, so I won’t cover that here, but one topic that I’ve always been intrigued by is how do we successfully transition children who grow up in a faith tradition, to adults who actively choose to find and embrace their own faith?
A part of my answer may lie in our own experiences. As a teenager, I became particularly interested in Christianity. Growing up in a wide range of black protestant churches (Holiness, Pentecostal, Baptist, AME), I saw a variety of ways to engage spiritually as a kid. My wife grew up in mostly Apostolic churches in Baltimore, and for both of us, a similarity in our experiences was the charismatic nature of our faith expressions. There was often a lot of emphasis on emotion and feelings or tradition. By the time we became teenagers, we were both curious about the doctrine that lay underneath. I fed my curiosity by going through my church’s bible school, learning everything I could about the history, scriptures, and ultimately becoming a licensed minister. My wife, (whose father is a pastor, bishop and biblical scholar in his own right), started reading herself.
This led us both to college, where we met, each on our own personal journeys to better understand the faith that we’d inherited. For most college students, particularly those who move away from home, this is the first real test of transitioning that child-hood faith towards adulthood. For both of us, we were still pretty set in our ways and tied to our traditions, so we quickly found new local “church homes” where we became active. Within a few months of arriving on campus, I’d earned the nickname ministersam (also my AOL instant messenger name if you can remember back to the late 90s/early 2000s). I launched my first bible-study group that first semester, attracted students who were interested in simply talking. It was a low-key affair, just a few guys gathering to talk about how life was going. Sometimes we’d discuss a scripture, every time we’d at least end in prayer. It was more about the community than anything. We met Saturday mornings in the cafeteria (we called it Saturday Dudes). Over the next few years it grew into a staple, and by the end of our years in college, my wife (who had also launched her own bible study for women) and I had co-founded a campus ministry and apparently it still lives on to this day nearly 17 years later.
We continued to be active after getting married, joining various ministries in our church, constantly looking for ways to serve. All of that started to change when we became parents in 2010. We were entering a new phase of our adult lives, and one of the things we began to evaluate was the connection between our faith and how we wanted to parent. It wasn’t lost on us that there were more than a few areas of theology that we disagreed with. Our experience in ministry had taught us that what compelled people to find faith was less the religious doctrine, but the sense of community and the desire to be connected to something greater than themselves.
That’s what we were longing for more of ourselves, an opportunity to grow and practice our own shifting expression of faith in community. So, in 2015 we did something that both of us doubted we would ever do: we left our black mega-church where we attended, for albeit another mega-church, but a multi-racial one. We were immediately struck by the differences (and in truth, still struggle with the tension at times!). For one, everything was much less formal (attire, traditions, etc), it seemed that they went out of their way to make everyone feel comfortable. It reminded me of our days leading small groups in college, people came for the fellowship and community and we got to grow together on our journey. Secondly, there seemed to be an emphasis on partnering with families around this idea of helping your children establish a childhood faith that could also successfully transition into an adult one.
This intentionality with creating community connections (we immediately joined a small group of couples with large families and haven’t left) and this intentionality around examining your own faith, this is what has led to our own faith renaissance over the past few years. In many ways, we have come full circle. I don’t know how intentional our parents were in talking to us about what they believed and why (I can’t really recall many conversations like that growing up), but I do know that I saw their faith in action, and that is what made all the difference. We prayed together as a family, giving thanks in good times, and asking for help in difficult times. As a result, as I grew up, my first immediate response to any situation was to acknowledge a greater power than myself- and that taught me humility. Growing up, we would volunteer, serve at soup kitchens, donate to the church, things like that, and now as an adult I can see the through line between service and faith that helps you to see beyond yourself. Finally, the foundation of my faith, anchored in an expression of love, I saw modeled as the why behind my parents actions. That’s never left me, and now as an adult, it is the foundation of how I understand the gospels and how I express my own faith.
Though I have very strong convictions of my own around what I believe and why, I’m not really interested in convincing other people about any particular doctrine. I believe life has it’s own way of doing that, and besides, we learn what we learn best in community. My hope is that as my daughters continue to grow, we can be intentional about helping them make sense of some of the faith traditions we have, so that they’re able to make their own healthy choices about how to express their faith as they grow. Looking back, I’m thankful for the exposure that my parents provided me, because it definitely made me the father that I am today.