After a major poll reported shocking statistics that indicated that a third of Americans under thirty have no religious connections, many Christians began to ask how that could happen. Sadly, most Christians know from experience in their own families, or from the observation of other Christian families, that today’s young adults do not necessarily share the views of their parents and grandparents about religion in any form. They may have completely disconnected from the family faith. Since every generation of Christians expects that the impact of Christianity on the world will be increased by the next generation, this news is disconcerting. How does it happen that the torch is not passed from generation to generation? Perhaps some scientific studies about the way children learn will shed some light on the problem.
Scientific observers tell us that babies learn language by hearing words over and over. They hear and absorb a word and its meaning for a long time before they actually use the word. If you could see a diagram of what it looks like for a baby to learn a word, you would see the baby moving around in his world constantly brushing up against this word in his home and elsewhere. The baby is absorbing the sound and the context of this sound. The baby might play with some of the various sounds that make up this word. He observes what happens when other people use this word. Then one day his own context and his curiosity about the word come together, and he speaks the word. He doesn’t get the idea to say that word out of thin air. It has been brewing in his mind and body for a while.
My son’s first word was “cookie.” When he said it, I was in the process of tucking him into bed. I got very excited. I hugged him and ran to get him a cookie. I called out to his father and sister to tell them that he had said a word. Everybody praised him and hugged him. He enjoyed his cookie, and then finally I tucked him in and kissed him good-night. He learned a lot of things that night which he was able to use to help himself learn more new words. He certainly learned that he had rightly understood the word “cookie.” This is the way babies learn, and they learn this way because that is the way they are created to learn. Very recent video and audio recordings of babies demonstrate babies learning this way.
In the biblical book of Deuteronomy, the Israelites were given very powerful guidance from God himself about the way children learn. The Israelites had been in a forty-year religious retreat during which God had taught them about himself. God knew that it wasn’t going to be easy for them to maintain their own faith through coming generations without some help. God told them what it would take for them to transmit their faith to oncoming generations:
6 Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7 Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 8 Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, 9 and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, (Deuteronomy 6:6-9)
I may have been eleven or twelve years old when I first read this text. I had a fairly literal understanding of God’s command to Israel. I thought he meant they should take the time every day, morning and night, to tell the children how to know God and serve him. My literality was not quite the same as that of Jews who actually put texts from God’s Torah in little packets and tie them on their foreheads and hands with leather thongs, but I had the same fundamental idea. As an adult, I understood this instruction to mean that parents were to be intentional about teaching their children the faith. They should pray before meals, attend worship, and tell children to speak God’s name reverently.
However, God’s guidance takes into account the truth contemporary science is only now discovering in studies about the way babies learn language. More than three thousand years ago, God told parents that children need to be immersed in the faith in their daily lives. They need to slosh about in it the way clothing sloshes around in a washing machine. They need to encounter it everywhere so they have many, many opportunities to see what it means and how it works. The everyday life of the family needs to be a stew kettle in which the faith of the parents draws the children near to God, readying them for the moment when they will meet him and commit themselves in an adult way. That is the second level of meaning in this text, and it reflects the underlying truth about the way God created children to learn. God never intended it to be possible for children to learn the faith from a speech or being exposed once to a church service. If God told the ancient Israelites to immerse their children in their faith, then perhaps we should do the same.
I am trying to shine a light on a problem that disturbs me without having a facile solution ready for anyone to use. I can only suggest that parents give this issue thought and prayer. Statistics tell us that young adults are largely disconnected from any faith. Most parents surely care about this problem. How do you feel about this problem? What do you think parents can do?
Train children in the right way,and when old, they will not stray. Proverbs 22:6