Embracing Your Kids’ Hard Questions
About the Guest
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Rebecca McLaughlinRebecca McLaughlin holds a Ph.D. in Renaissance Literature from Cambridge University and a theology degree from Oak Hill College in London. She is the author of Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World's Largest Religion (2019), which was named book of the year by Christianity Today, and of 10 Questions Every Teen Should Ask (and Answer) about Christianity (2021), The Secular Creed: Engaging 5 Contemporary Claims (2021), and Is Christmas Unbelievable? Four Questions Everyone Sho...more
Not having all the answers can be intimidating to parents, but Rebecca McLaughlin encourages us that the closer our kids look into the truth, the brighter Jesus shines.
Embracing Your Kids’ Hard Questions
Dave: I think one of the hardest things—I want to know if you agree—as a parent, is when your son or daughter starts the teen years—usually it’s around there—and they start questioning, or pushing back, or maybe rejecting the faith of their parents.
Ann: Yes, I think that creates a lot of fear in parents because we’re afraid of where they will go with their doubts/with their thoughts. I think it’s easy for some parents to avoid it. But I really believe the greatest thing we can do for our kids is to have discussion about it.
Dave: And I’m so glad our kids were perfect, so they never questioned or doubted. [Laughter] No, they pushed back.
Ann: Yes, they asked a lot of questions.
Dave: —and it was really healthy.
Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on our FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
Dave: I remember reading a book, early in my parenting years—because I wasn’t raised in a Christian home—called The Dangers of Growing Up in a Christian Home. I thought, “I better read this because, I didn’t grow up in one, but I’m trying to lead one now.” The biggest lesson I took away from of it was: “Your children’s faith has to be their faith; not the parents. You have to let them push back; you have to let them question and doubt, and come alongside them on the journey.”
Ann: I think that’s really true, Dave. But I also think we’re in an era where the questions kids are asking are different from the ones our kids were asking as they were growing up.
Dave: All I know is we need help, as parents, coming alongside. We have help in the studio with us today.
Dave: I’m not laughing. I’m really—
Dave: —excited because Rebecca McLaughlin has written a book for parents and for teenagers.
First of all, let me say, welcome to FamilyLife Today, Rebecca.
Rebecca: Thanks for having me.
Dave: Glad you’re here. You wrote a book, how many years ago? —called Confronting Christianity.
Rebecca: Yes, I think that was 2018.
Dave: That was really sort of written to adults to wrestle with, you said, 12 questions.
Rebecca: The idea with my first book was to write—not to Christians, saying, “Hey, this is how you can talk to your non-Christian friend,”—but actually to everybody’s non-Christian friend. A Christian could buy the book, read it for themselves, hopefully be encouraged as they wrestle with their own questions, but also have something to give to a friend or family member, who is skeptical or confused about Christianity and have them talk about it afterwards.
Ann: And to even know and be able to answer some of these questions themselves.
Rebecca: Exactly, yes. The idea with the teen book was exactly the same/to say: “I want to write something that you could give to a non-Christian teenager or you could give to your kid, who’s either a teen or even a preteen.” My daughter who’s just turned 11—I’ve pretty much wrote it with her in mind, as well—this is a book they could read; hopefully, it would help them. They could also give to a non-Christian friend, or Christian parents or grandparents could give this book to their kids. It’s very much aimed at the teenagers themselves.
Dave: Yes; and I’ll tell you—even as I read it—I read it, like, “I could hand this to a non-believer.”
Dave: There are a lot of books, you don’t always feel that way. I felt like you were writing to a believer; but you were writing to a non-believer, like, “I love you; I want you to be able to ask and answer these questions.” Here’s the title, by the way: 10 Questions Every Teen Should Ask (and Answer) about Christianity.
Here’s why Ann and I didn’t write it, because we don’t have these credentials. [Laughter] Rebecca holds a PhD in Renaissance Literature from Cambridge—alright; people that know Dave and Ann know Ball State University is not quite Cambridge [Laughter]—and a degree in theology from Oak Hill College, and you’re the cofounder of Vocable?
Rebecca: Vocable Communications; that’s right.
Dave: Yes; what is that?
Rebecca: It’s a communications firm that I started with a friend of mine, who’s a professor at UNC Chapel Hill. He’s a professor of communications there; he had been doing consulting sort of on the side of his professor job for a while. I wanted to start a company with some other professor friends, as well, to train people to be better communicators. I mostly coach pastors through that actually, not exclusively, but that’s kind of my favorite thing to do.
Dave: I’ll tell you—I was telling Ann as we were reading the book—it’s like: “This is so readable for an adult but, obviously, for a teenager.” Obviously, you’re tackling big questions that, like you say, a teen should ask and answer.
Let me ask you this though: “Is it good/is it something scary for parents as their teenagers, as we said earlier, start to reject, or maybe push back, or start to ask questions? Is that a good thing?—how do we respond?”
Rebecca: Yes; it’s funny, as you guys were sharing your experience, I was thinking about my kids, who are 11, 9 and nearly 3. My 11-year-old, from the first, just accepted what we said about Jesus. If she ever had a question, it was always to know more rather than like, “I’m not sure about this.” That’s just been her personality/her orientation toward the faith.
Our, now, nine-year-old—I remember when she was four—I was reading, before Christmas, the story of Gabriel telling Mary she was going to have a baby. My four-year-old goes, “Yes, I don’t think I believe that.” I was like, “Okay, so what is it?”
Rebecca: I asked her some questions to figure out what it was she didn’t believe. I was like, “Do you believe that God made us?” “Yes, yes; I believe that.”
“Well, do you believe that Jesus came and died for you?” “Yes, yes; I believe it.”
Turns out it was the angel; that was what she didn’t buy. She was like, “I don’t buy angels. I mean, I don’t believe in fairies; why would I believe in angels?”
I thought, “Okay, this is definitely a different feel to my first born.” But I actually like it, because she’s not just taking what I say on trust. She’s actually asking her questions and engaging enough to be skeptical.
My two-year-old, who’s just turning three—I was reading a little book with him a few weeks ago, which is called The God Contest—it’s a great book. It starts with the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal. It talks about Team Yahweh and Team Baal; then it transitions to Jesus and the resurrection. At the end, it says, “Now, you need to decide: ‘Do you want to be on Jesus’s team?’”
My two-year-old looks at me and goes [whispering], “Team Baal.”
Ann: Oh, no. [Laughter]
Rebecca: That wasn’t even an option!
Rebecca: He’s just the kind of kid who pushes every boundary he can find. He knew that was the thing not to say.
Rebecca: I think, what you guys went through with your teenagers, I’m already in the thick of—
Ann: —yes, with your two-year-old. [Laughter]
Rebecca: —with my two-year-old. [Laughter]
Ann: That kind of answer puts a fear in parents’ hearts, like, “Oh, no!” But it doesn’t for you; because honestly, you have answers, which is good. I think it’s important for us, as parents, not to have all the answers, but to be able to dialogue with our kids.
Tell me about your faith; like when did your faith become really important to you?
Dave: Yes, where’d you get that accent? [Laughter]
Rebecca: Well, I come from the UK, as you may imagine, from my dulcet tones. I grew up in a sort of mixed Christian family I would say. My mum’s family were Catholic, and my dad’s were Church of England. I grew up going to churches, which honestly, I probably wouldn’t recommend to a friend today to go to.
I was exposed to the Scriptures; I heard about Jesus. I don’t remember a time I didn’t believe. I remember, distinctly, when I was around about nine, and my family was going through a really hard time. My mum was hospitalized at the time; she was very sick. I had a clarity at that point that Jesus was the only certain thing in my life; anything else could just be taken away.
I think that’s still true; but I think it’s moments in our lives like that, when other things feel unsure, that we actually properly recognize the stronghold that Jesus is.
Dave: You were nine years old—
Dave: —at that point.
Dave: How did you find your calling to write on apologetics/to write on the defense of Christianity?
Rebecca: From childhood onwards, I was in very academic/very secular environments, even if they—I went to a school that was called St. Paul’s Girls’ School; it was dedicated to the Apostle Paul—but really extremely hostile to like actual Christianity. [Laughter]
Rebecca: I grew up around a bunch of people, who were very smart, and not impressed with Christianity at all. From early on, I was having conversations with friends, trying to persuade them to consider Jesus.
Ann: —even when you were younger?
Rebecca: Yes, yes. I was like the keen bean in the youth group, I guess—[Laughter]—yes, and engaging with teachers, as well; because it was the sort of school that was a lot of open conversation. It was okay to push back on ideas; I spent a number of years doing that. Went to college as an undergrad and got a whole other set of very smart, mostly non-Christian friends: same story; second verse in grad school.
After that, I went to seminary; because I just realized I loved studying Shakespeare, but I was never going to be passionate enough about it that I would make all the sacrifices you need to make to really succeed in academia, even if—I didn’t know if I even had the brain to do it—but even theoretically.
I thought, “What am I actually most passionate about?—what would I sacrifice things for?” I thought, “It’s definitely telling people about Jesus and helping people, especially who have good reasons to not consider Christianity,”—whether it’s because they think of Christianity as racist, or it’s discriminating against people, or whether they see it as oppressing women, or they see it as incompatible with real academic engagement. Those are really good reasons—
Rebecca: —to discredit potential belief.
As I’ve gone on in life, the more I’ve read/the more I’ve learned—whether from Christians or from non-Christians, actually—the more convinced I am that Jesus gives us the best answer to all those questions. There’s nothing disappointing about Jesus. Actually, the more that you ask the questions/the more that you actually look into things, the more brightly Jesus shines.
Dave: It’s interesting, as you look at your ten questions, you think, “Okay, these are ten questions every teen should ask and answer.” I’m expecting, “Well, it’s going to be about the Bible/about heaven and hell,”—and those are in there—“Is Jesus really the only way?”
But your first question I found so interesting in terms of like: “Wow, this is the first one.” I’m not saying it’s in order that way; maybe it is. But it was my question of—I didn’t come to Christ until my junior [year] in college, and this was one of the reasons—I didn’t think there was any life in Christ. I just thought, “I’ve been around church/I’ve been around Christians enough to know”—I actually developed a talk later, as I preached and different things—“that: “Here’s my perspective on Christianity: it’s no fun; it’s no freedom; and there’s no fulfillment.” That was what I saw; so I’m like, “Who would want to do that?!” And that’s your first question.
I’d love to hear your perspective why you started with this question; and then let’s talk about it, because I loved how you answered the question. I think every teen will go, “That is a great place to start.” You call it: “How can I live my best life now?” That’s the question: “How can I live my best life now?” Why did you start with that? And let’s talk about it.
Rebecca: A few years ago, the previous job that I did, one of the areas that we got interested in was modern psychology. As I started to read on the discoveries of modern psychology, and all of these different things, there was this eerie thing that would happen. I’d read a paper, and then I’d think, “Wait a minute; the Bible says that.” I’d read another one and be like, “Wait a minute; the Bible says that.” Or I’d read a book by a non-Christian social psychologist; and I’d be like, “Wait a minute; I know all of those things already, because of the Bible,”—not to say that the research is invalid and hasn’t sort of validated it in a different way.
But for example, even one of your points there—what was it?—“No fun, no freedom, and no fulfillment,”—we have this idea, as modern Western people, that: “If only I have enough freedom, I’ll be happy,” “Give me enough options, whether it’s chocolates in the chocolate box or potential spouses, just give me enough options; and I’ll optimize and I’ll find the exact right one.”
When actually, study after study, has shown that unlimited freedom is really bad for us; like we have a terrible crisis of decision-making if we have too many options. What’s actually good for us is to commit to something, which is not because the Bible doesn’t give us freedom—it gives us all sorts of freedom; it give us the most profound freedom in Christ—but it gives us freedom within real important constraints and boundaries. It’s that kind of balance is where we humans thrive, it turns out.
Ann: I remember reading John 10:10: “I came that you might have life and have it to the full [NIV].” I remember putting down the Bible and thinking, “Jesus said that?” Then it made me start to think: “What is full? What is fullness? What would that look like for me?”
I feel like we’ve lived that out. It feels like the opposite would happen, when you surrender your life; you feel like, “Oh, no; now my life is in the hands…I will be in bondage.” But the actual opposite happens; you are free.
Rebecca: Yes, yes.
Ann: There’s something great to that.
Rebecca: One of the verses that I keep coming back to, both in my life and also in my writing, is when Jesus says, “Anyone who wants to save his life will lose it. And whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. Anyone who wants to come after Me must deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me [Matthew 16:24-25].” It’s so countercultural—
Rebecca: —and against all of our immediate human instincts. Yet, even experientially, as I’ve grown older, I’ve more and more realized the truth in that—of course, for the long time of eternity—but also, for the realities of here and now. I think what I’ve tried to be careful about in that first chapter is not to, in any way, preach a prosperity gospel—you know: “Come to Jesus; and you will be healthy, and wealthy, and happy,”—and all the things.
Dave: —“no problems; no struggle.”
Rebecca: That’s absolutely not what Jesus promises us.
Dave: He actually says life’s going to be pretty hard.
Rebecca: Indeed; and yet, the teachings that He gives us really do promote human flourishing.
One of the fascinating areas of research for that is even just regular going to church. I think many in our society today have come to think of religion in general, and Christianity in particular, as being sort of psychologically bad for you.
Rebecca: It turns out that the opposite is true. Whether or not you believe in Christianity, there are atheist social psychologists, who will say, “Yes; actually, there’s a lot of data to support the idea that regular religious participation is good for you.” It’s fascinating how we seem to be designed, as beings, who need that specific kind of engagement/that community within the idea that we’re actually connecting with something so far beyond ourselves.
Ann: Yes; I found that interesting, too, with the study that was done for 75 years with professors at Harvard. You said that, when you were talking about how love is the most important thing, they found that good relationships with family and friends were what kept people happier and healthier rather than fame, wealth, and success.
Yet, when you talk to kids that are teenagers, and you ask them: “What do you think will bring you the greatest contentment in your life?” and they will probably say either fame, wealth, or success.
Ann: This is saying, “No, that’s not what brings it.”
Rebecca: Yes; and I think one of the things that’s interesting there is that there is an idolatry of romantic love that I think we see in our broader culture and, honestly, also in the church—
Rebecca: —to where a kid might say, “You know what? If I just grow up and get married, everything’s going to be great.” [Laughter]
There’s some truth in that in that, having a stable marriage is correlated with multiple mental and physical health benefits—like there are lots of good things about being in a good marriage—but actually, what we most need is close connection with a number of people. It’s not just all about finding that one person, who will fulfill all of my relational, and social, and sexual, and emotion needs.
Actually, that’s far too much pressure to put on one—
Rebecca: —human being. But as Christians, we are invited into this family and given this mission, together, to where actually things like friendships suddenly become beautiful, and missional, and important, and not just kind of nice to have if you don’t have anything better.
Dave: You know, the things that I thought, before I became a follower of Christ, is: “There’s no fun; there’s no freedom; there’s no fulfillment,” I now have found the opposite is true: “You want fun? You want real joy that’s not just a temporary high? It’s in: ‘The joy of the Lord is my strength’ [Nehemiah 8:10].”
It’s like I would have never understood that before—freedom—you know, you think, “freedom”—like you said earlier—“freedom’s being able to do what I want.” It’s like: “No, no, no; that’s not freedom at all. But freedom in Christ: you don’t know how free it is to be able to love one woman for your entire life; to be able to have self-control. It sounds like you are not free; you are absolutely free.”
Then fulfillment is like: “Oh, my goodness; the greatest depth of my life is found in relationship with Christ.” That’s what you kept saying in Chapter 1; I thought, “I didn’t expect this book to start there.” Yet, if I’m a non-believer, or I’m a new believer, or I’m a teenager, saying, “I need to ask this question: ‘Is the best life to live in Christ?’”—yes, that is a question that has to be answered before you can really take the next step; right?
Dave: I’ll never forget being at a staff training with Cru®, decades ago, at a training with three or four thousand staff. They had different speakers coming up. We were in our first or second year, married, and just out of college. They introduce a guy to speak to thousands of staff—some of us young—I was going to say, “all of us.” He’s—
Ann: —probably in his 80s.
Dave: —80/85 years old. His name’s Sidlow Baxter. I didn’t know who he was—but he’s an unbelievable author and thinker—wrote a book called Explore the Book, which is a commentary on the whole Bible. Long story short, I’m like—I literally turned to Ann, like, “We’re going to listen to an 80-year-old?”—you know, look at my judgement.
I’m a musician—and so I appreciate this—he walks up and starts jamming on the piano; I mean, jamming. I’m like, “Wow! This guy’s got spunk.” I’ll never forget—I don’t know what he talked about—he told this story; he said, “If you’re down, or you’re discouraged, or your Christian walk is just flat—it’s just empty; there’s just no fire and passion anymore in your walk—if you’ve ever been there/if you’re there, let me tell you what you do.”
I’m like: “Get in the Bible,” “Go to church,” “Sing a worship song.” You know what he said? He said, “Get off your couch, put on your coat, and go out and serve somebody.
Rebecca: Right; yes.
Dave: “Just go give your life away,”—what you said earlier—“You find life as you lose your life.” He said, “As you serve generously others, fire will come back to your soul.”
It’s not about: “I’ve got to go find myself,” “I’ve got to…”—he goes: “All those things are good: get in the Word…but just give your life away in service to others for the Lord. There will be a fire and a passion that comes back to your soul.”
Ann: I remember that, too, Dave. But I also remember crying, thinking—when you’re 21, you’re wondering, “What will my life be? What do I want?”—I remember looking at him thinking, “I want that!” He had this passion—he’s in his 80s—and he was powerful and passionate.
Dave: I think he ran onto the stage and ran off the stage. [Laughter]
Ann: He had this love for Jesus that radiated and compelled him. It made me think, “I’ve seen a lot of people at that age that are despondent, and weary,—
Ann: —depressed, and cynical. I thought, “If that’s what Jesus does, I want to follow Him my entire life and give my life away.”
I love that you started this book on that note; because you’re saying, “You may not believe this, but these are the scientific facts and data that’s been researched that you actually are better with following Jesus.”
Rebecca: Yes; and I think, even if we lay all the scientific studies aside, and we look at the kinds of stories we want to hear—
Ann: —the ones that we love.
Rebecca: —we’re drawn to stories, whether it’s a real adventure and there is real mission, and there is real sort of danger and sacrifice—and that’s because that’s really what we’re designed for; we’re given that.
If we don’t know Jesus, or if we know Jesus but we sort of aren’t’ actually listening to what He’s saying—then we think: “Well, what’s the point of my life? What do I have to contribute? Who am I?”—that’s not our job to figure out! We’ve been told who we are and what our job is, and we need to get on with it.
I think one of the things that I’m increasingly passionate about, even as we think about church, is like: “What are we doing on a Sunday morning? Are we going in there just to hear a sermon, and sing some songs, and sort of sit back? In which case—we’ve all had to do it through COVID—in which case, you can sit on your couch at home, and listen to the sermon, and sing the songs—like, ‘Why are you there?”—it for those reasons; but actually, it’s for doing those things together and: “What can I contribute to the people around me?” “How can I serve?” “Who can I welcome?” “Who can I care for?—who’s new, or distressed, or struggling for whatever reason?”
When we realize that we’re not there to just spectate; but we’re there to actually be the body of Christ in that place, it completely changes how we think about church; it changes even how we think about closeness and relationships. It’s that mission together that brings us into real closeness I think.
Dave: I’ve always said, “Church should be”—and I know this may not be an analogy that you would connect with, but—“it’s a football game.” [Laughter]
Rebecca: Right. [Laughter]
Dave: I mean, American football; right?
Rebecca: No, that’s where you’re totally wrong.
Dave: But think about this: church is the huddle. After you leave church, it’s the game. What I mean by that is church is where we come together; and we talk; and we study; and we sing; and we get excited. Then what happens, when we go out, is what God calls us to do: He calls us to live our best life now, which is to know Him and then go on the adventure of making Him known to our neighbors.
Ann: Parents, here’s something that’s really important: “Our kids are watching if we are doing that.”
Ann: They see that fire in us/that zeal. They see when we’re loving others—complementing them, serving them, looking out for them—they’re watching that. If it’s not real, they detect it. I hope that, as we sit in our churches, we will become “doers of the Word.”
Bob: I think all of us, as parents, understand that we live in a culture that wants to influence our children/wants to shape their thinking. In our homes and in our churches, as Dave and Ann Wilson were just saying, we need to be standing firm on what God’s Word teaches and making sure we are helping our children understand what the Bible says/be able to think, biblically, about the important issues of our day.
The book that Rebecca McLaughlin has been talking about today—her book:
10 Questions Every Teen Should Ask—is such a helpful resource. It helps all of us think more clearly about how the Bible speaks to the issues that are being presented in our culture today. We think this is such an important book for parents; we’d like to make it available to you, as our gift, when you support the ministry of FamilyLife with a donation of any amount. You can donate online at FamilyLifeToday.com or when you call 1-800-358-6329; 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY,” and make a donation to support the ministry of FamilyLife Today.
Now, tomorrow, Dave and Ann Wilson will continue their conversation with Rebecca McLaughlin, talking about some of the pressing issues of our day; specifically, the exclusivity of Christianity. How, in a pluralistic culture, do we defend the idea that Jesus is the only way of salvation? We’ll hear that conversation tomorrow. I hope you can join us.
On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We’ll see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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