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We know that faith formation is fueled by stories—when the story of Jesus is woven into our story, we find our identity in Him. So, in the church, we often talk about the power of stories for the development of faith. But how are we actually helping people experience God’s movement and influence in their own story?  

Did you know that the power of“developmental” stories of parents—the truth about their growing-up years—profoundly shapes the faith of their children? Last week, our Vibrant Faith team and coaches gathered on Zoom for a “learning lunch” with trauma counselor, theologian, and podcaster Adam Young. You can find his podcast at The Place We Find Ourselves. You will be so glad you did.  

We asked Adam to think with us about Attachment Theory and the formation of faith—since we KNOW (from our own ministry experience, and from Dr. Christian Smith’s work that led to his book Handing Down the Faith) that the faith of Christian parents is the #1 factor in the faith life of children. We also know that the pandemic has deeply changed family life, and how families relate to churches. “Going back” to the programs we did pre-pandemic really isn’t an option for effective formation of the next generation of Christians (we can do it, but it will bear little fruit).

Here’s a few snippets of what Adam Young said about the role of early trauma and attachment in the faith-forming relationships parents have with their kids…

1. The role of a parent’s vibrant faith. The un-lived life of the parent undermines the spiritual development of the child. What we know about attachment is that the single most important variable is an “earned, secure attachment”—the degree to which you’ve made sense of your own relational attachment, and how much you have engaged your own story in your family of origin. If we can provoke and invite Christian parents to pay attention to their own story of attachment, they will have what they need to raise their children as Jesus followers. Jesus says, “The truth will set you free.” Christian parents must come to terms with what was true for them as young boys and girls. All subsequent experiences are overshadowed by their developmental story.

2. Story-sharing is crucial work, but expect push-back. Young says pastors and ministry leaders face a challenge as they work to help young people and parents unlock the truth about their story: “If you start messing around in people’s stories,” he says, “asking young people to be vulnerable about their real story, they’ll feel vulnerable because their parents are in the church as well. People are often afraid that they can’t tell the truth about themselves. You know, ‘Don’t go messing around in my story.’ But 70 percent of the Bible is story—the stories of people in the past. This tells us that God honors family narratives. They are the soil in which Truth is planted. Thus, the way we currently do church (primarily a head-based transfer of information) is problematic if your goal is to grow disciples.” 

Let me repeat what Young said: “The way we do church is problematic if your goal is to grow disciples.” In Philippians 3, he continues, “Paul is saying that until I name the ways I have suffered because of the sin of others (mostly from my parents), I won’t be able to experience the rescue and soothing of God.”

3. What motivates people to share their true stories. The motivations people carry with them into the church are diverse and complex. Young says those motivations include “stuckness, fed up with the way my life is, addictions, compulsions, relationship dynamics that I can’t change, the themes in my story that I need to be honest about, and the debris of my relational style.” People, he says, only enter into the pain of their childhood story when the fear of their present reality is greater than their fear of vulnerability about their past. Brokenness and desperation and “psalmic need” open us to the truth about ourselves.

There is a lot of food for thought for us as ministry leaders here. I will follow up in a future post with Young’s ideas about spiritual practices that help us enter in with parents and their children.  

Dr. Nancy Going serves as the Director of Research & Resource Development for Vibrant Faith. Nancy lives in Nashville, Tennessee with her husband Art, an Anglican priest, and they have launched two new families from their children.

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