Why are college students so prone to walking away from, or completely rejecting, the Christian faith? How can a teenager who was actively involved in youth group and ministry simply “shelve” the Christian faith for a time? Who is to blame for the pervasiveness of young people leaving the church? How can we instill within our children a lasting faith that perseveres against the tides of secularism, doubt, and fleeting temptations? These questions and more are what Kara Powell and Chap Clark seek to answer in their excellent work, Sticky Faith. Powell currently serves as the executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) and a faculty member of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, and Clark is an associate provost at Fuller in addition to teaching courses in the area of youth, family, and culture. Together, they have written a work that will be of immense help to pastors and parents in the task of instilling Sticky Faith in their children.
What exactly is Sticky Faith, according to Powell and Clark? Sticky Faith is the type of faith that is internal and external, personal and communal, and mature and maturing (22-23). According to the authors, the heart of Sticky Faith is “developing a clear and honest understanding of both the gospel and biblical faith. As our kids are led into an awareness of their significant role in the kingdom of God demonstrated throughout Scripture, they will have the best chance of discovering a faith that is compelling and life-giving” (32).
Powell and Clark reveal several statistics from their research that indicate how desperate the need truly is for parents and church leaders to take a more serious approach to nurturing lifelong faith in their children. Only about 40 to 50 percent of church youth group graduates continue with their faith into their college years (15). Only 20 percent of college students planned to abandon the faith in high school, while 80 percent intended to stick with their faith and later abandoned it (16). About 40% of new college students feel unpre- pared in finding a new church (152). The authors note that when asked about what it means to be a Christian, an unimpressive 35 percent of college juniors (who were youth group graduates) failed to mention anything about God or Jesus. Moreover, only 12 percent of the 11,000 teenagers surveyed spoke regularly with their mom about matters of faith, while only 5 percent spoke with their dads about such topics (71). There are several more alarming statistics described in this work, but the point is that parents and ministry leaders must discover new ways to help children and youth obtain a Sticky Faith.
Powell and Clark devote much of their text to suggesting practical tips for practitioners and anecdotes that prove their success. I found these practical suggestions to be useful and insightful, as they are grounded in both theory and real-world practice. The authors certainly have a grasp on how children learn, think, and grow, which aids in their ability to generate such keen ideas. For example, in helping children form their identities as Christians, the authors suggest teaching children of their inherent value to God, treating each child as an individual, using community relationships to develop personal identity, practicing rituals that reinforce identity (e.g., debriefing in the car after school, celebrating numerous occasions in lavish manner, and others), affirming character growth more than academic achievement, and modeling a right relationship with God (Chapter 3). An incredibly insightful chapter focusing on having spiritual conversations with children encourages parents to listen and ask questions of their children, tackle touchy subjects like sex, be transparent regarding spiritual doubt, and develop conversation rituals (Chapter 4). Perhaps the most difficult chapter to execute well deals with preparing teenagers to go off to college; the authors not only describe the realities of sending kids to college but also provide guidelines for preparing teenagers to make the spiritual, emotional, and relational step into college life. Parents with high school juniors and seniors will find this chapter especially helpful, as it provides a wealth of invaluable practices to make this transition to college easier on both students and parents.
Sticky Faith does not try to build a robust theology of spiritual parenting or critique modern styles of parenting, but these are not the intentions of the book. The book is meant to be practical and provide “everyday ideas to build lasting faith” in children, as its subtitle suggests. Though anyone can appreciate the insights of Powell and Clark, I am concerned that they generally (though not always) neglect to describe what Scripture and theology say about these “sticky findings.” They generally go from identifying the problem straight to suggesting what needs to be done. Instead, I would have liked the authors to understand these findings from a Scriptural perspective, and admonish both parents and children using Scripture as a guide. The book is meant to be practical and user-friendly, but the insight of Scripture cannot be neglected when dealing with a topic as serious as raising children in the faith.
Parents and ministry leaders looking for a theological foundation for raising children spiritually should look elsewhere. Those who crave practical advice about how best to raise children with a Sticky Faith might do well to read this book. At times, the authors’ suggestions seem to be commonsense, but their advice may provide a fresh reminder for parents. Children’s ministry leaders will find this work to be a resource for building onto already-successful ministry endeavors, or even starting from scratch.
[Editor's Note: This review originally appeared in The Journal of Discipleship and Family Ministry 3.1 (2012).]