The Primary 5 boy that Stephen Chan taught in Sunday school was brilliant. He understood the lessons, asked good questions, and could remember the Bible verses he was taught. He was also friendly, obedient, and good-tempered.
Stephen was sure he would be a good leader in the youth ministry.
Sadly, he found out a few years later that the boy had stopped coming to church because he didn’t believe in God any more.
“Jesus was an academic subject for him,” recounts Stephen sorrowfully. “He didn’t see the reality of the Christian faith, so when he encountered persuasive arguments for alternative ideas and worldviews, he just left. When you don’t have real faith, you’re just a short push off the edge of a cliff.”
This boy hasn’t been the first or last person Stephen has seen leave church.
Having spent some 10 to 15 years teaching in Sunday school, the itinerant Bible teacher has seen many children struggle with doubts in their faith.
“You can go to church out of habit, sing all the songs, but it may not mean anything. Secondhand faith is indistinguishable from real faith, until crunch time.”
Some even walked away from the church despite growing up in Christian families and attending church since young.
“It’s an outward obligation. You can go to church out of habit, sing all the songs, but it may not mean anything,” he notes. “Secondhand faith is indistinguishable from real faith, until crunch time.”
In trying to understand why people can walk away from the faith after spending years in Sunday school and church, Stephen has come to the conclusion that there are four “stages” of faith that children—and even adults—need to go through.
Stage 1: Knowing Jesus
The first stage of faith takes place when a child is taught about who Jesus is.
This basically involves learning about the person of Jesus—who He is, what He did, and what He was like—and hearing stories of His love, mercy, justice, and grace, as well as of His anger, frustration, and sadness.
Many children learn these basics at Sunday school or at home.
However, notes Stephen, this is just the beginning. Knowledge about Jesus is just the first step, and needs to be built upon if a child is to translate knowledge in his mind, into faith in his heart.
He needs to move to Stage 2, where this knowledge goes from the mind to the heart, and becomes a personal conviction.
Progressing in the journey also gives a person the opportunity to correct any misperceptions about Christianity that he might have picked up along the way, such as the idea that being a “good” Christian means being a good person.
Stage 2: Believing Jesus
Moving to the next stage of faith means going beyond simply knowing Jesus, to believing in Him.
For a child to take this personal step of faith, he needs to see how real Jesus is in his own life. And this is something that a Sunday school teacher often cannot teach.
Nurturing a child to know Jesus personally, Stephen says, requires a lifestyle change at home, with Christian parents showing how they apply their own faith in the way they live, behave, and relate to others.
Because children pick up and emulate whatever their parents do, they will learn to live in the same way—with Jesus in their lives.
Nurturing a child to know Jesus personally requires parents to show how they apply their own faith in the way they live, behave, and relate to others.
Stephen admits that he wasn’t a great example when he and his wife Cecilia became Christians over 20 years ago.
“Initially our priorities were not church,” he confesses. “I would skip service at the smallest excuse. If we were 10 minutes late, I’d say, ‘Late already, don’t go’.”
But the example of more mature Christians in church shaped the Chans’ spiritual growth, and they gradually learnt to put their newfound faith into practice.
“Our lives have to underline, not undermine the gospel. We cannot teach our kids Scripture and then live it out differently.”
This included serving faithfully in church and trying to live in a Christlike way at home.
This sends the right message to children, he adds. If parents excuse their child from church to finish their homework, for example, they may subtly be telling their children that worshipping God comes second.
“Our lives have to underline, not undermine the gospel. And we can do this only through our life choices and lifestyle. We cannot teach our kids Scripture and then live it out differently.”
By living out their faith, he adds, parents demonstrate that God is real and relevant.
Stage 3: Following Jesus
In the third stage of faith, a person moves from believing in Jesus and acknowledging that “Jesus is God”, to trusting and worshipping Him as his Lord.
This progression from knowing to believing to following, says Stephen, is a “quantum leap” that can ultimately be done only by the child, with the help of the Holy Spirit, because he needs to make that decision for himself—a decision that will come when he has a real encounter with God.
While such encounters are personal, parents and the Christian community can facilitate them by giving children the opportunity and space to meet God themselves.
For example, they can encourage their kids to spend time with God and His Word—such as with a children’s devotional, having regular family devotions, and by encouraging, teaching, and showing them how to pray in all situations.
Stage 4: Growing In Jesus
After knowing, believing in, and following Jesus, this last stage of growing in faith—discipleship—will come naturally if a child is able to move to Stage 3 (following Jesus), Stephen believes.
“What burdens me most is to see children stuck at Stage 1,” he says.
As a Sunday school teacher, he tries to teach children about Jesus and, if possible, to guide them to Stage 2 by influencing them through his own example.
But for children to keep growing in their faith—to progress to Stage 3 and 4—what helps is them being nurtured and supported by parents, friends, mentors, and the larger Christian community.
At the same time, he adds, spiritual growth requires not just intake, but also output.
Parents can help their children to grow spiritually through continued Bible study and, more importantly, by giving them opportunities to serve and live out their faith.
For children to keep growing in their faith, what helps is them being nurtured and supported by parents, friends, mentors, and the larger Christian community.
“When children are stuck at Stage 1,” he adds, “their faith remains ‘secondhand’—they are merely following what their parents do, without truly understanding what they believe.”
The Dangers of Secondhand Faith
To know whether a child has moved beyond the first stage of faith, parents, teachers, and mentors need to know the child well.
That means really talking and listening to him; Stephen observes that children are very good at hiding their feelings, but they are more likely to express their true feelings on social media.
The problem is, most children avoid connecting with their parents on social media.
Parents might thus want to find out how they can connect with their kids, such as by talking to Sunday school teachers to see what the trends are that their kids are interested in.
Family devotions also play an important role.
“Family devotion is not just coming together to study the Bible,” he says. “It’s way beyond that. It’s about sharing your life story with your kids and showing the relevance of Scripture in your life.”
For example, parents can discuss with their kids how they apply the truths of the Bible to their everyday decisions, and also use these discussions to discern what stage of faith their kids are at.
“Family devotion is not just coming together to study the Bible. It’s about sharing your life story with your kids, and showing the relevance of Scripture in your life.”
“It’s a great platform for family members to open up to each other,” he says.
Discipling: A Lifelong Job
While Proverbs 22:6 tells parents to “start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it”, Stephen notes that “starting right doesn’t mean you will always end right”.
Deuteronomy 6:6–7, he observes, offers a principle that must be put into practice as well: “These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.”
God’s instruction to teach children continually shows that discipleship is a continuous journey, stresses Stephen.
“Our job as parents, as disciples, is a lifelong job. We have to keep modelling a disciple’s life ourselves.”
“Kids don’t ‘catch’ our faith,” he says. “They can only get a glimpse of why we are passionate, and of how our faith is built on our own life experiences. Their own faith has to be built from the ground up, on a different set of life experiences. We can’t give this to them, we can only show them how to build it and pray that God will grant them saving faith.”
- Connect with your child to understand his true thoughts and feelings about his faith. Partner with the church, get on social media, talk to him, discuss it at family devotions.
- Share about how you live out your own faith, your own experiences with God and His Word, including your struggles and prayers.
- Watch your own behaviour at home, as you aim to live in a Christlike manner.
- Look for opportunities and “teachable moments” to talk about how you apply the truths of God’s Word to everyday situations.
- Encourage your child to do his quiet time and to spend time in prayer. Do this yourself and as a family to set an example.
- Start serving in church yourself.