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Diversity, Faith, and Family

January 17, 2015 4 comments

Beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints. — Jude 3

Only take heed to yourself, and diligently keep yourself, lest you forget the things your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. And teach them to your children and your grandchildren . . . “And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. 7You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. (Deuteronomy 4:9; 6:6–7, New King James Version, italics mine)

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I will be the first to admit that I am an outsider and antisocial when it comes to family gatherings and dinner parties during the holidays. After my parents died something in me died along with them. Their home had been the center of most of our family gatherings for so many years, and I couldn’t imagine things ever changing or being the same again. I selfishly clung to the past as my way of preserving a sacred site of memory sitting at the table having holiday dinners with my Dad and Mom. Those family times of love and stability for me can never be duplicated or replaced—and neither should anyone be expected too.

As hard as my brothers and sisters and I tried to stay connected, the nest that once kept us safe from social predators, is gone. We were like baby eaglets nurtured under the wings of loving and caring parents, and now Dad and Mom have flown away to be a rest leaving us to find and build nests of our own. We cannot return to the aerie perched securely and high on a cliff or mountain. We each have flown away in different directions to find ourselves, follow our dreams, and fulfill our destinies. The same is true for my relatives and their children.

Over the holidays I miss those conversations with my elders who spoke about family, faith, the saints, and Church—and about their lived experiences—and about how God brought them through hard trials. They spoke about how God kept the family safe from harm, and how He provided for them when there was no money to put food on the table. God was their healer when they couldn’t afford to see a doctor. They placed their complete trust in Him and He always made a way out of no way for them. I listened intently to those stories and was convinced like Ruth, that their God would be my God. (See Ruth 1:15-17.)

There is a deep and growing concern among my generation of Christian families about how to maintain religious continuity across generations, and how well parents transmit their faith to their children. There is also a disconnection between what my generation—and those before me—were taught about faith, the church, and Jesus and this generation’s non-religious perception and view of God, Church, religion, and spirituality.

Within each new generation begins new traditions, which shape our beliefs and the way in which we think and see the world. I thought to myself what have I taken from the nest from which I have flown? That is, what values, influences, and choices have I made that made a direct impact on my life? What religious teachings were transmitted to me by my parents that I have passed on to my children who live in today’s religious pluralism?

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Ulysses and son, Yasiin (pronounced Ya-SEEN), born January 4, 2015

In December, 2014, my son and his precious wife invited me over for Christmas Eve dinner, and to their surprise, I accepted their invitation. Ulysses and Rena have been married now for over two years and are expecting their first child sometime in early January, 2015.[1] I didn’t know who else was invited to the dinner, which meant I had to be prepared to be familial and sociable (something that I don’t do well). When I entered my son and daughter-in-law’s beautiful home I was surprised to see so many family members I hadn’t seen in a long while, and they were surprised to see me. My presence was something of an anomaly. I had been a “no-show” on so many other occasions that no one really expected me nor would they have been surprised if I hadn’t shown up.

The beginning of the evening started out with the usual pleasantries, greetings, and light conversations of personal interest about family, food, sports, and entertainment. We commented on how well everyone looked (and how much weight I had gained). My lovely daughter-in-law was the center of attention since she was expecting her first child. I must admit she looked beautiful and radiant. We each got caught up with whatever was happening—past and present—in each other’s lives. All-in-all, it was a very nice evening and gathering.

The display of food was a King’s delight (pun, intended). No turkey! Hallelujah! I had enough turkey and ham from Thanksgiving to last until the New Year! My son graciously gave me the honor of offering the Christmas blessing before we ate dinner. I felt a little apprehensive and hesitant at first because of whom I am and who I represented. Even among family everyone doesn’t see Jesus, faith, and Christianity in the same way. But these people were my family and relatives and I should have felt comfortable, however, but for some reason I didn’t. I realized for the very first time the faith of my father and father’s father no longer had a dominant presence in our family.

Dinner was winding down and the conversation around the table changed to topics of discussion on social issues, politics, religion, race, class, gender issues, and other current and world events. I looked around the table at a beautiful tapestry of multicultural, multiethnic, and multiracial experience. I was impressed and proud of every member of our families because of the diverse intellectual, religious/spiritual, and social contributions they each have made in their own way to society at large and to their communities—particularly those family members under the age of 40. We each shared our objective and subjective opinions and observations as independent thinkers from a worldview of perspectives and personal experiences. No one was offensive, disrespectful or intolerant of another’s views or opinions.

Actually, I am the weird one in the family. I’m not involved or know very much about what does or does not go on in the lives of my family members nor they, mine. While trying to be a part of the discussion I realized how much of our lives have changed. We are no longer the innocent and inexperienced little children living under the protective wings of our parents who took us to church on Sundays to learn about God. We are now adults whose lived experiences have shaped us into the persons we have independently become. We see the world differently through different lens—religiously, non-religiously, and spiritually.

I am the lone and lost one in the group, but it really doesn’t matter. Most Christian viewpoints are marginally tolerated in today’s society and have little, if any impact on popular culture and the way people think or believe.  In fact, “research by David Kinnaman reveals widespread antipathy toward Evangelical Christians, particularly by unaffiliated youth, who view Evangelicals as “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” “insensitive,” and “out of touch with reality.””[2]  Kinnaman concluded that “Christians are best known for what they are against.” Whether or not my family’s views reflect the views of society, I found myself desperately trying to portray and act in a way that would be considered consistent with Christ’s message of grace, peace, love, and compassion.

I am older now and the seasons of my life now reveal the passage of time. The conversations and topics of discussion are mostly foreign to me. I fumbled along and tried to share something with the group, but then I realized that I had very little to contribute to this generation who sees the Church, Christians, and religion as one of the principle reasons why the world is in the mess that it’s in. I will confess that Christians have not always been good examples of the message of Christ.

A recent study conducted by Barna Research Group of non-Christian Millennials’ views and beliefs about the Bible found,

Non-Christian Millennials, unlike their Christian counterparts, are much more likely to believe the Bible is just another book of teachings written by men that contains stories and advice (45%). Only a combined 27% of non-Christians say the Bible is the inspired or actual word of God. A significant disparity between Christian and non-Christian beliefs about the Bible is to be expected, of course; however, non-Christian views of the Bible often tip from benign indifference toward strong skepticism. While a plurality of non-Christian Millennials relegate the Bible to merely a “useful book of moral teachings” (30%), nearly half agree with more negative characterizations: About one in five say the Bible is “an outdated book with no relevance for today” (19%) and more than one-quarter go so far as to say the Bible is “a dangerous book of religious dogma used for centuries to oppress people” (27%).[3]

Millennials (also known as the Millennial Generation or Generation Y) are the demographic cohort following Generation X. According some social researchers there are no precise dates when the generation starts and ends. Researchers and commentators use birth years ranging from the early 1980s to the early 2000s.

Then there are also the “Nones,” who do not identify with any religion. According to Pew Research Center this group continues to grow at a rapid pace. “One-fifth of the U.S. public—and a third of adults under 30—are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever,” states Pew Research Center polling.

Vern L. Bengtson, gerontology and sociology emeritus and research professor of social work at the University of Southern California, conducted the largest-ever study of religion and family across generations to find out how religion is, or is not, passed down from one generation to the next. “Religious differences in families can create profound distress,” Bengtson states.[4] Some of Bengtson’s findings were surprising, however. Despite enormous changes in American society, a child is actually more likely to remain with the fold than leave it, and even the nonreligious are more likely to follow their parents’ example than to rebel. This gave me a little hope.

In a conversation I had with my son recently, I mentioned that September, 2015, our church will celebrate its ninetieth year anniversary since its founding in 1925, and this may likely be the last time someone in the King family will pastor this church. He asked me how I knew this for certain (as if to suggest the possibility of someone in the family God may call to serve in the future unknown to me). God may have a different plan in mind he thought.

I pondered this question after our conversation—and he is right. Our family is much larger than the few people who sat around the table at Christmas dinner in his home. I thought about our family history and the continuity of our Christian heritage across so many generations, and wondered if God already had someone in mind. Although family members may no longer practice the faith of their parents and grandparents, thankfully, many still hold onto the values and high morals taught them from birth.

I am all for present and future generations of independent thinkers who question what they believe. But it is also important that the Church and all Christians defend and contend for the faith and the continuity of their religious identities across generations. The failures of unfaithful, sinful, and flawed men and women do not represent all of the Christian Church. Jesus said, and made it quite clear, said, “. . . and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).

Bengtson says that one reason for this research “is parental behavior, such as role modeling and consistency. If the parents are not themselves involved in religious activities, if their actions are not consistent with what they preach, children are rarely motivated to follow in their parents’ religious footsteps.”[5] Sadly, I cannot claim to have been a good role model and example to my children after my divorce. But thankfully, their mother kept them grounded and connected to the church and their heritage.

One of the biggest steps churches can take is to help spark faith from generation to generation, and to encourage and equip parents in their discipleship. When a child sees and hears that faith actually makes a difference in their parents’ lives, they’re much more likely to follow their example.

I’m not sure if I’ll be invited to another family gathering after writing this essay; and if I am, I will be a little less talkative and more attentive and in tune to the community around me. But whenever asked what I believe, I will proudly answer: I am unashamedly and unapologetically Christian and proud of the faith of my father and father’s father. I will contend for the faith they taught me and do my best to transmit it to “whosoever will” receive the message of love and salvation through Jesus Christ, my Lord.

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[1] Rena gave birth to a healthy baby boy, January 4, 2015. His name is Yasiin Saunders King (pronounced, Ya-SEEN).

[2] Vern L. Bengtson. Families and Faith: How Religion Is Passed Down across Generations. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 178.

[3] Barna Group. “Millennials and the Bible: 3 Surprising Insights.” Barna Group, 2014. n. pag. Retrieved from: https://www.barna.org/barna-update/millennials/687-millennials-and-the-bible-3-surprising-insights

[4] Bengtson, Families and Faith, p. ix

[5] Bengtson, Families and Faith, p. 72