01 September 2010
Help people along their faith journey
The Christian faith is a process that everyone experiences differently, as shown in a recent Christian Research study exploring faith journeys. Benita Hewitt and Phil Green find four ways in which the findings can equip churches...
1. Let people know it takes time to become a Christian
Of those surveyed, nearly two thirds said that becoming a Christian was a gradual process. People need to be prepared for it to take time to become a Christian; for most Christians it takes between one and four years, although for some it's much longer - a lifetime even. We must reassure them that this is normal and that it is unusual to have a Damascus Road-type experience like the Apostle Paul did. People should not expect to come to faith suddenly or to feel they are less of a Christian for not having had a remarkable experience.
To paraphrase one person's journey: "There have been gaps, but I've always been part of the Church. I've been part of the Christian family as long as I can remember, but really began to explore what this meant through the promises I made in Scouts. After getting married and leaving home the attachment to church was loosened. I still had faith, but God played a smaller part in my life. So my faith journey began gradually, but at the age of 25 there was a sudden call to discipleship."
It's probably wise for us to move away from the terms "sudden" or even "gradual" and instead acknowledge a mix of ongoing background activities sometimes punctuated by more dramatic moments.
2. Focus on the building blocks for children and young people
Christian faith is usually firmly established when young: a third of people claim they knew they were Christian before the age of 12; 40 per cent knew somewhere between 12 and 19; 16 per cent in their 20s; and just 9 per cent aged 30 and above. The Faith Journeys project has revealed that the foundation built during childhood and adolescence is highly significant.
"I started attending church at the age of 8 after being invited to a holiday Bible club," said another person. "Subsequently, I started attending Sunday school and Boys' Brigade - I enjoyed both. When I was 11 I went on a Christian camp and was introduced to reading the Bible on my own. Although I didn't read the Bible regularly, I did sporadically and began to grow in my understanding of God. Going to youth weekends away, which included intense times of learning and prayer, introduced me to the idea of spending time with God. I'd say that I actually became a Christian when I was 14, but I see these six years preparing me for that moment of conviction and commitment."
Investing in children and young people is essential. Building blocks include attending festivals, regular youth activities and equipping young people to engage with the Bible and prayer. The research has also highlighted that it's important for young people to feel part of the main body of the church and that parents and grandchildren play an influential role. Are we training parents and grandparents for the vital role they have in the faith journeys of their children and grandchildren?
3. Focus on transition times
Significant faith journey milestones can include starting a new school or new job, getting married, having children, moving house, getting involved with a new church, losing a loved one or falling ill. As one person said, "I was seriously ill and in hospital - not far from death. I cried out to God to save me. What occurred then was the most wonderful experience of my life. I gave my life to the Lord as I came round."
Another said, "I moved from a big mega-church to a much smaller one. I remember how refreshing and reassuring it was that the Spirit moved us as powerfully with 10 people and a broken piano as he had with a famous worship band and the latest technology. It felt like being part of the early Church as this small group met together and watched God unfold His plans for us. It was a really exciting time."
It is during times of transition that people need extra support; we should be looking at how we can provide this. However, transition times are also opportunities for growth. What are our churches doing to identify points of transition in the lives of our congregations and local communities? How can we offer support and nurture growth?
4. Be aware of negative family influences
While many are supported and encouraged in a Christian family, be aware that the immediate family can also be a source of strong discouragement. Of those surveyed, 16 per cent claimed to have been discouraged by parents when they were growing up, and 15 per cent were also discouraged by parents even though they were adults. Young people can be put off by siblings and adults by their spouse or partner. It is not just in far off lands that Christians are being persecuted.
Jesus said, "They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law" (Luke 12.53). The stories people recounted reveal something of why family members might discourage Christians. It is often to do with Christian relationships intruding into family relationships, but also to do with ignorance and fear.
"My mother had found her own religious upbringing very damaging and wanted us to avoid that," said one person. "She seemed uncomfortable at times with my own strong inclination to explore religion and spirituality."
Another said, "When I decided to start going to church, my wife was dead against the idea and fought hard to make me 'normal' again. I resisted, because I didn't want to lose what God has given me, but this caused a lot of tension."
And a third noted that "the tension my faith causes in my family relationships is one of the hardest thing about being a Christian".
We need to support and encourage those in our churches who may be living day-to-day with opposition to their faith from the people closest to them. Are our churches trying to sensitively build relationships with these families?
Whether you had a Damascus Road experience or came to faith slowly, your story can encourage others and add to a comprehensive collection of faith journeys. Recount your experience at: faith-journeys.com