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Christian Parenting & Culture

A new book advises parents how to help their children navigate life in post-Christian America
How do you stand your ground when the earth is moving beneath your feet? (Amanda Carden/Shutterstock)

I write a good bit in this space about the challenges contemporary culture poses to parenting as conservatives, especially Christian conservatives. John Stonestreet and Brett Kunkle recently published one of the best and most accessible parenting guides I’ve ever seen. A Practical Guide To Culture is exactly what the title says it is, but don’t be deceived by its plainness: this is a serious book for parents who are serious about raising faithful Christian kids in post-Christian America.

Stonestreet is the president of the Colson Center and co-host of the daily BreakPoint commentary founded by the late Chuck Colson. Kunkle, ia founder and CEO of Maven. The other day, Stonestreet gave me an interview about the book. Transcript follows:

RD: When people hear the term “culture war,” they think of political fights over abortion, gay marriage, and a fairly narrow set of issues. But culture is a lot more complicated than that — and so is the culture war. What is culture, and how does it cultivate us?

JS: “Culture” is one of those often-used, rarely defined words. For many Christians, culture is a synonym for everything wrong with the world. They talk of culture as if it’s external to them, or “out there.”  In reality, culture refers to the “worlds” humans make of the world. One of the ways that humans are distinct from animals is in how we express and embody our deepest beliefs about life, morality, God, and one another in the institutions, norms, structures, and expressions that collectively make up our culture.

The power of culture is in how it catechizes us. We create culture and, in a very real sense, culture then creates – or at least powerfully shapes – us. This is a reason Christians care (and should care) about different practices, beliefs, or directions culture takes – because it directly impacts those made in the image of God. Cultures can be life-giving, or cultures can be profoundly dehumanizing.

Our difficulty in understanding and properly interacting with culture is in its subtlety. Culture normalizes, and that’s where culture is most powerful – not where it’s the loudest, but in those places it presents ideas, behaviors, relationships and structures as normal. So, it could often be said that culture is whatever is considered normal for a group of people.

What do most conservative Christian parents not understand about today’s culture and the challenges it poses to forming the hearts and minds of Christian kids? 

There’s a long, strange history of Christians misunderstanding culture, and “the culture” misunderstanding Christians (like when the New York Times talked about the “crows’ ear” instead of the crosier).  But I think conservative Christians fundamentally misunderstand today’s culture due to a primary allegiance to safety, rather than faithfulness.

Many of us look our culture with what we call in our book, “the line approach.” What we mean is an approach to culture where the only questions to be asked about culture have to do with the artifacts of culture – like movies, songs, schools, books, etc – and whether those artifacts cross our moral lines. Of course, there are many times that being faithful to Christ will mean to say “no” to something popular or widely embraced, but there’s more to Christian cultural engagement than counting sex scenes and cuss words to see if something “crosses the line.”

For example, I remember as a teenager hearing that “Christian” music was good, and rock music was bad. But that’s only judging one aspect of music as a cultural good. There are plenty of “Christian” songs that are silly, trivial, theologically inaccurate and musically deficient. On the other hand, there are rock musicians (even in the 80’s) who were musically excellent and lyrically creative. Drawing these lines across culture was simply inaccurate.

Even more, this approach completely misses the fact that it’s not merely the morality of something that catechizes us. Disconnecting from other people and deep thought through entertainment because of what Aldous Huxley called “our infinite capacity for distraction,” is a problem whether we are at a rock concert or a megachurch worship service.

In part two of the book, we address what we call the “cultural undercurrents,” those significant shifts in culture over the last few decades that dramatically shape emerging generations, but largely operate and influence us under the service. One the most powerful undercurrent is the phenomena of “perpetual adolescence.” In most cultures, at least until quite recently, kids grew up to become adults. Now, they become teenagers, and many don’t want to grow up at all. The cultural casualties of perpetual adolescence are significant.

In the book, we also discuss three other cultural undercurrents—overwhelming information, the loss of identity and ever-present technology—and in part four, we address eight “cultural waves,” the more visible cultural challenges and issues pounding away at our kids. Christian parents need to understand the magnitude and pervasiveness of current cultural opposition to the Christian worldview. If we think the solution is to put them in “a safe, positive environment,” we are fooling ourselves. Youth groups, Christian schools, and parents that are swept up by the undercurrents or give in to the pounding pressure of the waves are part of the problem. And if Christians think the “line approach” to cultural engagement is sufficient alone, we’ll end up cultivating more young people who simply imbibe moralistic therapeutic deism.

I hear from a number of Christian educators, and even some pastors, who say that parents are the greatest obstacle to the work of formation that they (the educators and pastors) are trying to do with their kids. The complaint is usually that parents aren’t doing their part, either by omission (not doing what they ought to be doing), or by commission (doing the wrong thing). How should parents be working with the church and the school, not against them?

One of the aspects of what you’ve called The Benedict Option that we clearly embrace in the book is the significance of thickening and deepening institutions that catechize. Evangelicals in particular tend to see the Christian experience as primarily a personal affair. And it is. But it is not isolated, nor is it privatized. So, institutions matter, a lot. Without them, the next generation will never embrace – especially in this cultural moment – the identity and loyalties of Christ. Parents must come to understand the institutional side of Christian discipleship, especially in preparation for the realities of our culture.

The fundamental catechizing institutions are, of course, the home and the church (and schools as an expression of the Christian vocation to educate). Parents top priority shouldn’t be to find a youth group that their kids “like” but to connect their kids to those institutions who are serious and effective in cultivating those deep Christian loyalties and identity. So, first things first, they should choose wisely.

Second, they should be more loyal to these institutions that are catechizing their kids for Christ than those cultural institutions that often cultivate competing loyalties. We have to prioritize our time, energy, and investments because Little League, theatres, stadium events, and on-demand entertainment are always available to fill the empty seconds and brain space. This is why we spend so much time in the book offering ways for parents and teachers to evaluate the habits kids are forming and the rhythms of time they’ve embraced.

Along those lines, I hear from parents who are trying to be serious about their kids’ formation, but feel that the get little or no help from their Christian school and/or their church. The idea is that these institutional leaders don’t take formation seriously — for example, youth groups that are all about having fun. What advice would you give to Christian school and church leaders on this front?

We would argue that parents are the primary disciplers of their own kids. However, parents need strong allies and there are no better candidates than the church and Christian schools.

Rod, you’ve written extensively on Christian Smith’s diagnosis of the spiritual condition of young adults, what he called moralistic therapeutic deism. In youth pastor years, his book Soul Searching is actually quite old – over ten years old. But there’s still simply no better description of the deeply cultivated worldview of most teens and twenty-somethings in the church.

But that should make us ask – where do moralistic therapeutic deists come from? They aren’t born, they are made. And frankly, many youth groups and Christian schools are guilty.

If every sermon or Bible lesson they’ve ever heard has offered them a moral nugget to apply to their lives or an encouraging thought about how much God thinks of them, then we shouldn’t be surprised to find that their fundamental worldview is thoroughly secular with a deistic twist, and they see God primarily as a tool to help them behave or feel better. Those who teach the Scriptures must teach it primarily as that which tells us the Story of the World, the grand redemption narrative centered on the Son of God, the background map by which we may properly discover the contours of reality and the truth about ourselves.

Unfortunately, that sort of teaching doesn’t fit well in the typical superstructure of youth ministries who are first and foremost committed to something other than discipleship. I was once a candidate for a youth pastor position at a large church. In the interview process, an elder of the church asked me what I thought of “technology-driven youth ministry.” I told him I didn’t know that was an official term, but was adamantly  opposed to it. I didn’t get the job.

The irony of that church’s philosophy as well as those that are entertainment-driven in structure and form is that they’ve staked their kids’ souls on the idea that they must be “relevant.” I get the impulse, but technology is now a barrier for real relationships and entertainment makes us silly and distracted. In other words, by embracing the pursuit of relevance, churches and youth groups and schools actually risk becoming irrelevant to the real needs students have. Should we directly confront the big issues of contemporary culture with students? You bet – that’s what the book is about. But we must be very, very wary of embracing the forms and habits of our culture under the guise of being “relevant.” Culturally speaking, the medium is the message.

Finally, no church, youth group, or school should ever see itself as replacing the home. That’s one of the bigger complaints I hear. One way to ensure that’s not happening is to avoid the age-segregation absolutism that we see so often. Mix the generations, I say. I love that when my kids go to church on Sunday morning, I will see them hug no less than 5 surrogate grandparents each week.

The British environmentalist and novelist Paul Kingsnorth says that our civilization is in crisis because we have been telling ourselves the wrong stories, stories that are untrue, and that it will only begin to recover when we begin to live by the right stories. In your book, you and Brett talk about the importance of living by the Biblical narrative, the Story. Why is the Story so important? Can you name a few narratives that American Christians live by that run counter to the Story, in ways that compromise the mission to raise Christian kids?

Moralistic therapeutic deism is the dominant myth for young adults in the church, but it is profoundly anti-Gospel. Fundamentally, moralistic therapeutic deists believe that they can invite God into their world whenever they want, but He doesn’t ask anything of them. But it’s not their world. God doesn’t exist for them. This is the story that happens when Jesus is decontextualized from the pages of Scripture and superimposed on the consumerists, individualistic, and narcissistic story of our larger western culture.

There’s also a good bit of Gnosticism embedded in American Christianity as well. That heresy pops up in every generation it seems, and it’s making hay in ours. The prioritization of the inner experience with God becomes a huge problem when divorced from historical Christian teaching, Biblical knowledge, and church authority. This is among the reasons that so many Christians will continue to struggle on issues of sexuality, marriage, and identity. We spend significant time on those issues in the book, but there’s much ground to be recovered here and now we have to do it at a time that will mean great social costs.

The Christian Story is vital because it is the true story about reality. Christianity is objectively true and thus, provides us with knowledge—not merely faith or religious belief—of reality. It tells us the true story of the world and how we should live and move and have our being in that reality. We need to restore our kids’ confidence in the objective truth of the gospel story,

Our relationship to our devices — computers, tablets, smartphones — poses massive problems to Christian formation, both for parents and children. When I speak at Christian colleges, professors and campus ministers tell me how devastating this has been. For one, overwhelming numbers of young men (and a few young women) have become addicted to pornography through these devices. More broadly, their capacity to focus, to pay attention, to concentrate, has been fragmented by overuse of these devices. What do you see? What do you recommend?

I see the same thing – glowing rectangles everywhere. I often think about T.S. Eliot’s line from 1934, “where is the wisdom we have lost in learning, where is the knowledge we have lost in information,” and wonder what he would think of the modern world. If someone transported him to Times Square today, I think his head would just explode.

In the book, we rely heavily on two writers when it comes to helping students navigate this world. The first is Sherry Turkle, the MIT psychologist who has been writing on technology and our humanity for 30 years. Her book Alone Together is as important as it gets in understanding what our tech does to us. Specifically, she advocates the simple step of “sacred space,” or creating and enforcing no-screen zones. In particular, she suggests that the car, the bedroom, the dinner table, and specific days/times weekly be designated “sacred spaces.”

The bedroom should be a no-brainer for students, of course. It’s insane, simply insane, to allow students unfiltered, unaccountable internet access in the privacy of their bedrooms. We might as well put them in a pit of vipers and tell them to sleep well! Even if they aren’t looking for porn, it’s looking for them. And it will find them. Or as Josh McDowell told me in an airport when my daughters were just 5, 3, and 1: “John, the question isn’t ‘will my kids see porn?’ It’s ‘what will they do when they see porn.’”

The other writer I’ve really appreciated on this topic is Kathy Koch, the author of Screens and Teens. Specifically, she talks about the lies technology tells us and our kids – that we are in control, that we deserve immediate gratification, that we are the center of reality, etc. She offers great insights, which we’ve repeated in A Practical Guide to Culture, about how to confront and counter those lies.

Several chapters in the book’s second half deal with aspects of sexuality in our culture. A theologian friend of mine recently worked with high schoolers at a conservative Christian school, giving talks on Christian sexual ethics. He was shocked to discover that very few of these kids — again, this was a conservative Christian school — had anything more than a rudimentary idea of what marriage is, what sex means, and why Christians hold the standards that we do. It shocked the theologian to his core, and revealed to him why so many Christian teenagers are readily absorbing the broader culture’s sexual ethos. If you could speak to parents and educators of those high school students, what would you say? What about if you could speak to the parents and educators of elementary schoolers there? 

I’ve had the same experience repeatedly. Christian kids – even the most conservative ones – may have a vague idea of Biblical sexual morality, but have no idea about what marriage and sexuality are in God’s design, and therefore, what they are for. For example, the very idea that marriage, sex, and babies are a package deal in God’s design sounds absurd to them.

But that’s our fault. We’ve had decades of marriage seminars in churches about how to do marriage better – how to have happier marriages, better sex lives, and improved finances. All well and good. But the entire time we’ve been discussing how to do marriage, the culture has dramatically shifted on what marriage is. So, our students have grown up in a context of absorbing the cultural definition of marriage (that it’s all about personal happiness and companionship) decorated with a bit of Christian morality (don’t have sex until you’re married, etc).

When I speak to high schoolers and young adults on marriage, I always tell them we are out to answer a question: is marriage a thing (like gravity) or is marriage a label (that we stick on anything we want and *poof* it becomes marriage? The beautiful thing about that approach is that you can then answer the question by looking at history and science and you can answer it by looking at the Bible.

For example, see Matthew 19. When Jesus is asked about whether it was lawful to do something with marriage (divorce), he replied by taking his questioners back to God’s created intent for marriage. He took them back to the Garden, and along the way pointed to the reality of male and female as well as procreative intent in order to establish God’s expectation of permanence.  Jesus clearly understood marriage as something that existed in reality, that it was part of the created order. Students need to understand that’s how the Bible describes marriage, as well as what it describes as the purposes of marriage.

With younger kids, maybe using simpler terms, we recommend doing the same thing. Two days after the dreadful Obergefell decision, my wife and I sat my daughters down and used it as an opportunity to make that distinction for them. Justice Kennedy clearly thinks marriage is a label, but God created it in reality. And they got it. Of course, that was the first of what will be many conversations.

Along those lines, we really want parents to realize that they won’t always be able to determine the timing of these types of conversations. At times, the culture will. I never planned (or imagined) that I would have a conversation with my daughter when she was six years old about same-sex marriage. But we did. And if we don’t get ahead of our culture, our kids will still be having these conversations, but we won’t be involved.

What is “the right kind of pluralism”?

What we mean by the right kind of pluralism is, first, the right definition of pluralism. Throughout A Practical Guide to Culture, we emphasize the importance of definitions. The battle for the hearts and minds of the next generation depends on rightly defining words like truth, love, freedom, choice, tolerance, etc.

It is fully accurate (and obvious) to say we live in a pluralistic society if we are using that term in a descriptive sense. We clearly live in a cultural context of religious, moral, cultural, and ethnic diversity. Today, however, when kids are told that we live in a pluralistic society, the word is used not only descriptively but prescriptively. In other words, because there is a diversity of worldview, opinion, and moral conviction, no one can claim to have the truth. All, of course, in the name of tolerance and inclusion.

Whenever you untether universal concepts – like human dignity or truth or morality – “tolerance” quickly becomes intolerance. There are so many stories of this in our culture, it has become a cliché. We absolutely should be “tolerant” of LGBTQ individuals, if that means respecting them as human beings and ensuring equal treatment in society and under the law. But that’s not the game they are playing. Being “tolerant” means agreeing, endorsing, and even being forced to participate in the celebration of a lifestyle, and eventually, fully re-ordering all of society so that all who refuse are purged from both polite company and public life.

Being the right sort of pluralist means, in our understanding, being deeply committed to what is true in both our thinking and in our interaction with others. That includes embracing what is true even if culturally unpopular, and relating to others in light of the truth about them – that they are made in the image of God and worthy of respect. Or, to quote Fr. Sirico, “We must be ruthless with ideas and gentle with people.”

Ross Douthat had a column recently in The New York Times talking about how we Americans don’t know how to bear suffering. We don’t prepare for it, and we don’t know how to deal with it when it comes, as it will to all of us. You can see now in middle-class Christian families an expectation that their kids will succeed in life by the world’s standards. Parents go all out to buffer their kids from suffering. It seems to me that if what C.S. Lewis called “the problem of pain” is not dealt with forthrightly in Christian formation, that we have done wrong by our kids. Do you agree? If so, what can we Christian parents do about it?

Absolutely. We’ve moved on from being a culture of hovering “helicopter” parents to being a culture of “lawnmower” parents – we go in front of our kids removing any and all obstacles to their happiness and success. Christian parents struggle with this too – I do as a dad. The idol of safety looms large across American culture, as well as in the church.

There are two sides to what this will cost us. The problem of pain is the problem of reality. It’s that inevitable part of life that has the capacity to shake us to the core. Steve Garber talks about the necessity of having a “big enough” worldview – in other words, a worldview that is able to deal with the big questions and challenges of life in the real world.

On the other hand, students who have been kept “safe” will not only struggle to keep their faith in light of the intellectual or emotional dissonance suffering brings. They also will struggle to choose their faith when they inevitably run afoul of the new social orthodoxies. We are seeing more and more situations where people of faith are having to choose between their careers and their convictions, between employment and their faith. This will only increase, especially if there is a political backlash under the next administration. Speaking to a group of Christian college students recently, I challenged them that they may be spending thousands to train in a particular field of study for a career so that, in order to be faithful to Christ, they will be fired. Kids who have been protected from all struggle may lose their faith not as a matter of intellect or emotion, but of will – the inability to do the right thing when it needs to be done, despite the social cost.

One way to counter this is not only through solid apologetic and worldview training, which we recommend and demonstrate throughout our book, but also by not victimizing our kids with low expectations. Skip adolescence, I say! Reward your child with responsibility and risk. Also, saturate them with stories of our brothers and sisters around the world and from church history who faced death and persecution for their convictions. Involve them in both political and prayerful advocacy for the persecuted in our world today, as well as for other vulnerable people groups.

(The book is A Practical Guide To Culture: Helping The Next Generation Navigate Today’s World, by John Stonestreet & Brett Kunkle.)



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