“These words that I am giving you today are to be in your heart. Repeat them to your children. Talk about them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road, and when you lie down and when you get up.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Here’s a nice, uncomfortable question to get you thinking on this lovely Friday morning: If you are a parent who professes Christ, what are you doing to make sure your children follow suit? Maybe you’re doing everything you can, maybe you’re not really giving it much thought, but either way, there’s probably at least something inside of you that considers the matter worthy of at least a bit of attention. I don’t have any great answers to that question for you this morning, but I do have a reflection on how not to do it. This occurred to me after watching an episode of the long-running CBS sitcom, Young Sheldon, a prequel series of the immensely popular The Big Bang Theory (of which I have never watched a single episode). Let’s talk this morning about something that doesn’t work when it comes to faith and the next generation.
As long as I’ve been watching Young Sheldon, I’ve never written on it. The show, now in its fifth season, follows the lead character from The Big Bang Theory as he grows up in the fictional East Texas town of Medford. The main characters throughout the series have been his parents, George and Mary, his older brother, Georgie, his twin sister, Missy, and his grandmother, Connie, who lives across the street. The first three seasons featured the super-smart Sheldon irritating his way through high school. The last couple of seasons have seen him transition to college as a remarkably naive and immature 13-year-old. I have really enjoyed the series which, in spite of Sheldon’s being the star, does a pretty good job of balancing his antics with stories about his family members.
While Sheldon is intellectual exceptional, the rest of his family is decidedly average. His sister, Missy, is about as normal a 13-year-old girl as you could imagine. While she grew up as a bit of a tomboy (she has two brothers and her dad is a football coach), she is becoming a young woman as puberty and that set of hormones have hit. Georgie, his older brother has never really been cut out for school and in the current season has dropped out of his senior year in high school to work instead. He helps his grandmother operate her laundry mat which doubles as a front for an illegal gambling room that’s not nearly as big of a secret as it probably should be. George, his dad, is a stereotypical Boomer who is committed to working hard to provide for his family, but who isn’t really all that in touch with his emotional life resulting in not a little bit of frustration and resignment to his fate. In spite of that, though, he really does love his wife and kids. He just doesn’t really know how to show it in ways that connect with their love language very often. Mary, Sheldon’s mom, is the secretary at their local Baptist church and is deeply committed to her faith.
That last point is what got me thinking as I watched this past week’s episode. As truly and genuinely passionate about her own faith as Mary is, the rest of her family could hardly care less than they do about it. In spite of her commitment, Sheldon is a thoroughly convinced atheist who thinks he’s too smart for religion, Missy is so busy being a typical middle school girl that she doesn’t have any time for it (much less interest), Georgie is making choices that are taking him down a path of pain and frustration including, as was revealed at the end of the episode this week, getting a woman in her 30s pregnant after lying about his age to start a relationship with her (did I mention he’s 17?), and George doesn’t really do much other than work (now at a local sporting goods store when the football boosters torpedoed his coaching career after being mediocre for several seasons), hang out at the local bar, or sit in his chair watching sports on TV. Oh, and Mary’s mom, is a pretty committed hedonist who is mostly just looking to have fun in life.
In other words, for all of Mary’s dedication to her faith, she’s the only one who has it. I’ll say that it’s not for a lack of trying on her part. She guilts the family into going to church most Sundays. Sheldon and Missy are made to participate in the youth activities. This is made slightly easier on Missy’s part when the church hires a good-looking (for the early 90s) youth minister who is almost too hip for his own good. But the church has never been portrayed as offering anything more than moralistic, therapeutic deism instead of real, Gospel Christianity. While that worked in the still religiously conscious and haunted culture of the early 1990s, it laid much of the groundwork for the abandonment of the faith we are seeing coming to fruition today. And, Mary’s own faith is so legalistic that her kids have never really seen any kind of a relationship worth mimicking.
The sum total of all of this is that Sheldon’s family looks like a whole lot of families did in that generation. On that score, the writers have done a really good job of capturing the cultural context of day. But as well-written as the show is, the whole thing comes across as essentially hopeless. With the possible exception of Sheldon’s intellectual ambitions, no one else in the family has any kind of real drive or vision for the future. They’re just all…there. And it’s not that they have some sort of intentionality to their lack of purpose, they just don’t have one. Nothing about their lives is going anywhere. There’s no real sense that there could be more to life than the hamster wheel they’re all spinning on. Yes, they experience things and have some limited hopes and dreams, but there’s nothing outside of their own hearts that is pushing them to do any of the things that they do. There’s no Gospel anywhere in the show.
Here’s the point to all of this: If you are a parent who professes to follow Jesus, if there’s no Gospel in your house, your kids are more than likely not going to give their lives to it. Mary may be a committed Jesus follower, but she’s never really shown the Gospel to her kids. All they’ve ever seen is Law. All they’ve gotten is behavioral modification (and occasionally a heaping dose of guilt). She’s nagged them for doing things she’s declared to be wrong, but hasn’t given them a reason beyond some version of, “God said so.” And, she’s doing all of this by herself. Her husband, George, does not share her faith in any meaningful sense. Or, if he does, he keeps it so close to his heart that no one else can see it.
So then, how can we make sure to have the Gospel in our houses? Well, the first and most important part is that both parents have to be fully on board with it. Kids will consistently take on the religious identity of their moms but give that identity the devotion of their dads. Dads, if you want to see your kids adopt the faith for themselves, they have to see that you care about it. You absolutely cannot drop them off at church and not go yourself. Ever. That sends a message you don’t want them to receive but which they will receive with great volume and clarity. Dads, the only way you are going to raise kids who love Jesus is if you love Jesus and they know it.
The second way to make sure the Gospel is present in the home is to actually offer your kids the Gospel and mere legalism. Worse still is moralistic therapeutic deism. MTD is a false version of the faith first identified defined by sociologist Christian Smith. It holds that “Christianity” is mostly about doing good and feeling good and God is watching over you from somewhere “up there.”
Think about the ways the Christian faith is talked about and featured in your household. Is it mostly used for a kind of nagging behavioral modification? That is, does the faith mostly only come up when you are telling your kids that God wouldn’t want them to do this or that or that they shouldn’t do this or that because the Bible says so? Do that too often and they’ll resist the behavioral modification and resent both you and God.
On the same token, does the faith just appear when you’re trying to offer comfort of some sort. In my neck of the woods, the Christian faith is often used as a kind of talisman against trouble and not much else. We give a lot of attention to the “God will protect you from trouble” part, but conveniently ignore the “do what He says” part (unless, of course, it’s a cultural norm being violated and then He’s a convenient moralizing club). Other than these two things, though, if God doesn’t make much of an appearance, the Gospel isn’t really present in your home.
The Gospel is not simply a part of life for those who have embraced it. At least, it shouldn’t be. Instead, it is life. It defines how we are to live at every point in our lives. It takes us as we are – which means it can be pretty messy at times – and shapes us from there into who God has created us in Christ to be. It is far more comforting than we think, but also far more demanding than we expect. It won’t ever tolerate excuses for anything, but it never wavers in its commitment to us in even the slightest amount. It celebrates things the world generally ignores and ignores things the world often celebrates. Embracing it will make you weird, but it will also make you the kind of person everyone wants to have around. It is earthy, more than a little salty, and loves to have a good time, but it holds to a moral commitment that even the most severe legalist can’t meet. It appears to be a mess of contradictions, but manages to settle everything into harmony without really trying very hard. It is everything we’ve ever wanted and more than we’ve dared to hope. If we set all of this before our kids through the window of our lives, they won’t be able to resist it. They’ll want nothing more than to embrace it.
George and Mary Cooper don’t ever do anything like this, and their life and the lives of their kids reflect it. They’re not bad people the way we might define such a thing. If anything, they’re normal. But the Gospel isn’t normal. Households in which it is present won’t be either. They’ll be just a little different than all the rest. Their priorities will be different. Their activities will be different both in kind and in number. The way they interact with their neighbors will be different. And sometimes this difference will come with a cost. But the rewards for that household will more than make up for it. After all, God promised blessing to a thousand generations for those who feared Him in Israel. That promise wasn’t for us, but in Christ, the promise is even stronger. Embrace the Gospel in your home and in your life. The results will be well worth it. Or perhaps to put it another way, your grandkids will be glad you did.