Raising Kids Who Keep the Faith: Dr. Collin Outerbridge
With the tidal waves of influence surrounding Gen Z, what can parents do to shape a faith that sticks with our kids? Dr. Collin Outerbridge offers practical ideas from extensive research.
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What can parents do to shape a faith that sticks with our kids? Dr. Collin Outerbridge offers practical ideas from extensive research.
Raising Kids Who Keep the Faith: Dr. Collin Outerbridge
Dave: Job one for every Christian parent is what?
Ann: Raise your kids to love Jesus.
Dave: Yes, I think every Christian parent—you lay in bed at night, you pray,—
Dave: —you fret, you worry, you’re anxious, especially in this day and world: “What do I need to do? How do I need to be to have a son or daughter who, when they’re 20, when they’re 18, when they’re 16, they’re standing for Christ?”
Ann: I think every parent longs for it and prays for it, so this is your segment today. You’re going to be really excited about our series coming up.
Shelby: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Shelby Abbott, and your hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson. You can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
Dave: We’ve got a doctor in the house: Dr. Collin Outerbridge.
Collin: Yes, “Outerbridge” - “Outer,” like space; “bridge,” like the Golden Gate.
Dave: You are a doctor in what we’re talking about today. Talk about your dissertation.
Collin: My wife and I planted a church a couple of years ago with a real passion and desire to reach the next generation. We wanted to learn what the research shows that the next generation is looking for in a community and church. So, we decided to focus that effort not just in planting a church, but also by understanding academically, “What does the next generation need?”
I wrote my dissertation on looking at unchurched and de-churched Gen Z. We identified some key characteristics that would be helpful in connecting them to the good news of Jesus.
Ann: When you were studying this—when you were going over the stats that were coming up, were you surprised at all, or were you thinking, “This is what I figured?”
Collin: I think in my pastoral work what we saw anecdotally was confirmed academically. When the research identified these clear points of disconnection, it created a dynamic where we could think strategically about creating the kind of community that people that are still spiritual and still interested in faith, but maybe disinterested in church, might be able to find the community that they’re looking for.
Ann: You and your wife; are you thinking about this for your kids? Because you’ve got four.
Dave: This is personal.
Collin: Yes, absolutely. I think having two daughters in middle school, a 13-year-old and 11-year-old, and then two boys that are on the way, a seven- and six-[year-old] heading in that direction, we feel like we’re right in the middle of it, trying to help our kids discern and navigate a new world and a culture that is very different than the one that we grew up in.
We’re trying to think about how to create the conditions where they can see and follow Jesus and know that it’s not only a courageous thing to do, but the best thing to do for their life.
Dave: As you think through—and I watched you give a series on this whole idea, but I’m guessing a lot of what you said in that series (and we’re going to talk through some of those ideas) came from what you learned in your dissertation. What are some of the things that jumped out of that?
Collin: Yes, absolutely. I think there’s a lot of research right now on why young people are disconnecting from church, maybe deconstructing their faith, and perhaps even de-converting; but I don’t find that there is a great theological framework for how parents can understand the playbook that’s being utilized to lead to those types of undermining moments in faith for kids.
Parents need a framework that allows them to be able to understand and discern and put language to “What’s actually happening to their kids?” It can be so disorienting—
Collin: —when their kid comes home and says, “I’m not sure I believe in this anymore,” and they were the youth group superstar.
Collin: Or they go to college and they say, “I think I’m out on faith,” and you went on a mission trip with them when they were kids.
Ann: You remember [when[ they were seven, and they gave their life to Jesus. Now they’re saying, “I don’t even know.”
Collin: Yes, and you had the privilege of being a part of that story. I think what can happen sometimes is that parents can feel like they’re getting hit by a ton of bricks with this news and with this information.
The question that I’ve been asking is, “What does it look like for us to identify what’s happening in the lives of our kids?” That way, as parents, we can help them navigate that in a way that’s proactive as opposed to reactive.
Dave: That’s where the idea for this series came?
Dave: Walk us a little bit through. You’re back in the Old Testament; you’re looking at a king called Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon. Tell us where that came from.
Collin: One of the key things that we were discovering is, as parents are responding with fear about the news that they’re getting about their kid walking away from faith, we began to evaluate the Scriptures and say, “Okay, is this new or is this old?”
There’s a belief that we have: that our enemy is not a creator. Our enemy is a copycat. As we thought about that, the question then became, “Okay, does God give us a clue, or a framework, or a playbook, or an insight into the strategy that the enemy is using to undermine faith?” When we came to Daniel, Chapter One, what we found is [that] the story of Babylon and the story of Daniel really is the game plan that the enemy has been using for generations to undermine faith in young people.
Being able to clarify that and know that allowed us to begin to think about, “How can we put this in a practical way for families so that they have language to discern what was going on in their own home?”
Dave: Give us a little background on Daniel.
Collin: Daniel is a Hebrew boy; he’s a teenager. King Nebuchadnezzar has raided Jerusalem. They have taken all of the high talent, high capacity, high potential Hebrew people and relocated them to Babylon.
King Nebuchadnezzar is an expert at ending civilizations and making people Babylonian. What we find in Daniel, chapter one, is the game plan that he used is to make people that used to be one culture, his culture. I think there’s a one-to-one correlation here where, if you look at the Old Testament, oftentimes Old Testament characters are archetypes for New Testament or spiritual realities.
As an example, Israel is a sign of God’s people, and in the New Testament we find that we are still the people of God. Hosea is another Old Testament example of a relationship that God has with those who are unfaithful to Him, and He’s still faithful.
What we find in Revelation 14 is, Babylon is used to describe the culture of the kingdom of the enemy; our enemy. So, when we look at Babylon in the Old Testament, we’re getting a picture into the spiritual realities of how the enemy tries to accomplish his works and purposes in every generation.
Dave: Yes. The title, if I’m right, was “New Days, Same Old Plays.”
Collin: Right, “New Days, Old Plays,” right? That’s exactly what it is. [Laughter] “New Days, Same Plays.”
Dave: What happens in Daniel is still happening.
Collin: One hundred percent.
Dave: Walk us through it.
Collin: What we see in Daniel, Chapter One, in seven verses, are five key elements that our enemy uses to create a new kind of culture in the life of our kids that is antithetical to the culture of the kingdom.
Imagine for a moment: These Hebrew boys are taken out of the language that they know, the community that they know, the God that they had worshiped; and they are now placed in a new city. The goal is for Babylon to rule the entire world. That’s what they want to do. They know that they can’t start a war with every single culture to pull that off. So, the best way to win the world is to just make everyone Babylonian.
Nebuchadnezzar’s game plan is to take these Hebrew boys and, over time, basically kill their faith one generation at a time. We see this work itself out in Daniel, Chapter One. Step number one: fictionalize the faith. Nebuchadnezzar takes a couple of articles from Israel, and he places them in the place of worship that’s in Babylon.
I think it’s such an interesting picture that Nebuchadnezzar doesn’t try to end the faith by destroying all the figures and points of reference for the Jewish people. He knows that that would spark outrage. Instead, what he tries to do is create a dynamic where the faith of the Israelites is like the faith of any other community or part of the population.
Ann: He took things out of the temple and brought them into Babylon.
Collin: Exactly. The goal there is: “If I create a world where you don’t have to lose all of your faith, then I put you into a position where you just have to forget it.” D. A. Carson has this great quote where he says, “What one generation believes, the next generation forgets, and the third generation denies.”
Collin: Babylon has a long-term view here. The goal is just to get you to forget, and by the time your next kin, your next generation is raised up, they’ll deny the faith that once your family believed.
Ann: What do you think that looks like today?
Collin: I think it looks like minimizing the faith, fictionalizing the faith.
I think we need to be careful when we see culture telling Old Testament stories, as an example, and spending a lot of money to make popular movies that don’t actually tell the Biblical story. What ends up happening in the cultural imagination is that those stories that we hold to be true become fictional. Because we live in such a biblically illiterate culture, our young people begin to connect their imagination, not to the stories of Scripture, but to whatever version the media has put out there for what that story is actually about.
That’s step one, because what Grandma and Grandpa used to believe, the next generation forgets. They don’t know the true story of Scripture, right? Then we’re just one generation away from people denying that story ever being true or having any relevance.
Dave: If I’m a parent and I’m trying to understand this with my own kids, what do I—what’s my strategy?
Collin: The strategy here is to open up conversation with your kids about what is happening.
I think as we look at all of the elements that are involved in undermining faith in our kids, the key element is, “What kind of question can I ask that helps a young person understand what is happening to them?” As an example, if you see a story being told about the faith that’s halfway true, but not all the way true, instead of just saying, “Well, I guess they’re telling the story. That’s good enough,” we should lean in as parents and say, “What about that story is true? And what about that story is untrue? And what’s the message that the media is trying to get into your heart that might be counter to the message that God wants you to have?”
Ann: Have you had to do that with your kids?
Collin: Yes, absolutely. One of the things that we love to do with our kids is watch their shows or watch content that is connected to the world that they’re in. One of the primary things we do after we’re done is we say, “What is the message that was being conveyed there?”
Ann: You’re not saying, “We’re never watching anything!”
Collin: No. We have the opposite approach. With my oldest daughter, we actually give her the “aux cord.” (it’s kind of the way that we talk about it). We let her play all of the music in the car. If I’m driving to and from practice with her, she puts on her music. I do my best to not be judgmental about it. [Laughter] That’s how I know I’m getting older, because it’s a little bit harder for me. I walk out, and it’s a headache and the same repetitive tune over and over again.
But what I want to do is create the environment where I can ask my daughter: “What’s the message that that lyric is trying to communicate to you? What does that tell you about your identity? Is that aligned with what God says you are?”
Creating a framework where my daughter can discern what the message is, is more important than trying to create a world that she’s going to inevitably step into that has a message for her. If I haven’t given her the tools to discern what is true and what is right and what is good and what is beautiful, I think I’m setting her up for failure.
Dave: In some ways—you probably know this—if you did the opposite, which some parents, especially Christian parents will say, “You’re never listening to that because it’s evil,” what are they going to do? They’re going to listen to it in secret. It’s a prescription for “Okay, I won’t listen to it, Mom. I won’t listen to it, Dad.” And they’re going to run off, because there’s something in there.
You’re saying, “I’m going to step into your world with you and have a conversation.” That’s key.
Ann: Especially as teenagers, because if they say, “But why? Why can’t I see the movie? Why can’t I listen to that music?”
If you say, “Because I’m the parent and because I said so,” you’re missing this great season where you’re conversing about God’s Word, what it means, and you’re right, you’re creating biblical thinkers in your home.
Collin: The research verifies that young people that hold on to faith grow up in environments where that’s the very thing that happens.
It’s not just a picture that we have, even in the Old Testament, teachings about how we’re supposed to relate to our kids, which is to integrate faith into every aspect of life, to connect God to everything that we’re a part of and that we’re doing; but it’s also what academic research points to as an incredibly important part of young people keeping their faith.
Ann: Let me add: if I have a 15-year-old that wants to see an R-rated movie, and they say, “I need to see it! This is going to be great,” I know that I’m going to say, “No.” But I will not start off with my “no” off the bat. I’ll say, “Tell me about the movie. What are you thinking about it?” Because if I’m coming in there saying, “No. This is so bad”—just to have the conversation is really important. I know that I’m going to say, “No,” in the long run. [Laughter]
Collin: Of course, but did we keep the conversation going?
Collin: That’s the most important piece.
Dave: We wrote about it in this wonderful book that’s sitting right in front of you. [Laughter] “When they’re teenagers, live in the question.” It’s the time—again, we’re not experts—but that’s what you’re doing.
Here’s what I think: I don’t know who we were talking to earlier this week, and we brought up the example [that] we did the opposite early. When you pulled out their cassette tapes—they were cassettes back then—it was Blink 182 or somebody.
Ann: They were CDs.
Dave: We had the hammer, and we were like, “You are never listening.”
Ann: This is me. He’s talking about me. I overreacted many times. Yes, but I learned the hard way.
Dave: I did the same thing. There were times I [said], “This is evil. This is of the devil,” and we were burning it.
Ann: Which can be true, but the way we approach it is really important.
Collin: Yes, I think you can get the same outcome.
Collin: Right, but the question is, “What was the process to get there?”
Collin: The research consistently shows that, as parents, we are the primary influence in the spiritual direction of the life of our child. That’s what every data point clearly suggests. But the second piece is also just as valuable. The moment our kids stop talking to us because they feel like our response is not going to be one of grace, kindness, compassion, or curiosity, they don’t stop thinking or questioning or wondering about faith; they just redirect those questions to someone other than you.
There’s a whole entire world; there’s a whole entire internet that is willing to give them answers that might direct them away from the very thing that you would have told them as parents. The question is not, “Will the culture influence your kid?” The question is, “When will the culture influence your kid?” and “Will you have a relationship with your child that allows them to know that when this is happening, they can go to you for advice and wisdom and trust that you have their best interest in mind?” which is what we see even in the story of Babylon.
Step one is “Fictionalize the Faith.” If I can get the faith to be not the core value, the most important thing, but just a part of your life, then eventually, as generations progress, we’re not going to have to even fight that battle anymore, because that faith will be forgotten and then the next generations will deny it.
The second step is “Gather the Influencers.” This is Nebuchadnezzar’s play. He takes all the handsome, young, smart men that are Jewish and says, “Bring them into my court; give them my food, dress them in my robes, and get them away from their families and from the rest of their community; because if I can get the influencers to become Babylonian, then everyone will follow them.”
Malcolm Gladwell points this out exquisitely in his book, The Tipping Point. He said, “The way in which you shape culture is you don’t have to get everybody to buy in, you just need to get ten percent of the culture to buy in. If you get the right ten percent, the right leaders, the right influencers, you win the game.”
In many ways, that’s what’s happening in the 21st century. We have an actual job called “Influencer” that exists in the culture. [Laughter] It’s creating a dynamic where what people are doing on social media has a profound effect on what young people believe to be true, what young people believe to be good, what young people believe to be beautiful.
When we think about where our kids are being influenced, we’ve got to recognize that the loudest voice in their head may not be ours. If we’ve made choices to make it difficult for them to believe that we can be trusted with their questions, they will scroll, and they will find an answer somewhere else.
Ann: Yes, and we usually say—and you probably heard this, too, Collin—that your window of opportunity and influence in your child’s life is wide open until they’re around 12 to 13.
They’re still listening to you, but now they’re listening to a lot of other voices. So, to keep that relationship open is critical, but also to know, around that age where your daughters are—your two oldest daughters, they’re starting to hear other things and think about other things now. They probably respect you and your wife and love you guys so much, but not they’re looking around deciding, “What do I believe? What is my faith?”
Collin: Yes, that’s why having people that are not us that are in their life, that they think are cool, that they want to hang out with is so important, because sometimes the most important voice in the life of my child becomes the 24-year-old small group leader who my daughters think is so awesome and so cool. [Laughter]
What we want is that 24-year-old small group leader to be saying the same thing that Mom and Dad would say. I’m seeing this happen right now. My daughter will come home and say, “Dad, you’ll never guess what my small group leader said this week. I definitely think this is something I need to implement in my life.”
In my mind, It’s, “Your mother and I have been saying this now for—"
Ann: “—ten years.”
Collin: “—ten years.” We’ve learned to just smile and nod.
I do also want to say, “Kids need physical, real-life friendships with people that are their age that they’re following Jesus with, and some mentors that are investing and engaging in their life.” And I think, also, we need to take responsibility as parents here to recognize that we still have influence over who influences our kids.
I’ll give you an example: our daughter’s 13 years old; she plays high school sports, so she’s around girls who are 16 and 17 on her team. She’s the only girl in her grade who does not have a smart phone. She doesn’t have a phone. She has navigated that exceptionally well.
At the time that’s appropriate, she’ll get a dumb phone, which allows her to stay connected to us. At 16, she’ll be able to have access to a phone that has maps and things like that when she’s ready to drive. But we’re not going to allow our daughter have her own social media account until she’s 18, and after we’ve coached her and talked through the implications of what that means.
Ann: What would you say to the parents who are saying, “What are you talking about? My kid is on me over and over! And I finally gave in.” Their kid—their 11-year-old—
has a smart phone.
Collin: I think that every parent has to make the decision that they think is best for their kids.
Collin: We have made that decision because we see the research. Handing [a phone to], especially an adolescent girl, not only is addictive, but it’s also terrible for self-image.
I mean, we know of stories of families who, their children were nudged into self-harm, and some have even lost their children. When they go back and look at why, it was because of what the algorithm was telling their kids to do.
Our daughter doesn’t have access to a smartphone. But in many ways, the reason why she participates with this is because we’re trying to create the environment where we say “yes” as much as possible to her around the things that don’t really have that big of an impact on her life, so that when we say “no,” she knows that it’s really for her good.
As an example, her friends think it’s ridiculous that she can’t have a cell phone, but we allowed her to pierce the top end of her ear at 13. But here’s the reason why: her piercing the top end of her ear at 13 has no real bearing on her emotional and mental and spiritual health. But handing her a phone does.
We want to create the kind of culture, especially with teenagers, where we are allowing the doors to be open for conversation, we’re saying “yes” as much as possible, so that when they’re hearing “no,” they really do believe that the reason why they’re hearing “no” is because Mom and Dad can be trusted.
Dave: Obviously, you developed, over decades now, a relationship with your daughters and sons where they’re—I guarantee, there’s pushback, but they’re—trusting Mom and Dad because they know you have the best for them. The goal is not that they know the greatest influencer. The goal is bigger than that.
I just want to say, parents: that’s your job. That is your job. Make the hard but loving calls to raise—we started the show saying, “I want a son who’s a man of God. I want a daughter who’s a woman of God someday.” You have to make some calls right now.
Ann: It’s not too late. I know that we can feel discouraged, like, “It’s too late. I’ve already failed.” It’s never too late. God’s always in it, and He can always come through.
Shelby: I’m Shelby Abbott. You’ve been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Collin Outerbridge on FamilyLife Today.
I have to tell you. I’m feeling this. I personally am a dad of a preteen who’s in seventh grade. She’s literally only one of a handful of kids in the school who does not have a cell phone. The pressure is real. I feel it all the time.
Conversations like this are so important for me to hear; literally, for me to hear. I’m very interested in how Dave and Ann are going to respond.
First, let me tell you that Collin Outerbridge has a three-part YouTube series that you can watch called Kids these Days. It goes through all these topics and so much more, talking about what it’s like to be a parent of kids in our modern culture. You can learn more about that by clicking on the link in today’s show notes over at FamilyLifeToday.com.
While you’re at FamilyLifeToday.com, I want to remind you that Weekend to Remember® gift cards are now 50 percent off. One of the things we say here at FamilyLife is, “Great marriages don’t just happen. They’re built with intentionality.” We’re either drifting in marriage or intentionally moving toward each other and together toward God.
Here’s the great news for your relationship: FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember gift cards are 50 percent off now through November 27th. By buying a gift card now, you can figure out where you want to go later. There are tons of these Weekend to Remember getaways happening all over the country. You can visit FamilyLifeToday.com, look for the banner on the screen when you log on, and then get a Weekend to Remember gift card there.
What are some more practical tips for navigating your child’s education and spiritual growth? Collin Outerbridge is back again tomorrow with Dave and Ann Wilson to talk about just that. I hope you’ll join us.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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