I once heard someone talk about burning coals as a way to illustrate the importance of someone being part of a faith community. The point was that coals grouped together burn longer and a piece of coal separated cools faster. Christ-followers of every age need community to grow an independent faith. This may seem paradoxical, but for each of us to be strong in our individual commitment to Jesus, we have to be around people: flawed, caring people who are also on a lifelong pursuit of determining what it means to follow Jesus.
Since the teen and young adult years are so formative, it is pivotal that 13-29 year-olds have people in their lives who care about their spiritual vitality. But how does a parent who is incarcerated take an active role in their child’s spiritual life? That’s what this post and author interview is about. Feel free to print this and mail it to a loved one in prison.
As devoted teens and young adults grow in their spiritual commitment, they will likely hear a lot of emphasis on making their faith their own. Guiding voices will encourage them not to rely too heavily on the faith of a parent, mentor, etc. To some extent, this is very healthy. Each person has to make personal decisions about their life and level of commitment that no one else can make for them. Someone may be able to be forced into a commitment to religion, but no one can be forced into a healthy relationship and commitment to Christ. That’s up to God and the individual.
The Bible does, however, repeatedly model and teach that the healthiest way for one to grow spiritually is within community: church communities and families. So while teens and young adults definitely need their own space, time, and experiences to foster spiritual maturity, having parents who model a healthy spiritual life is especially beneficial. In Deuteronomy 6:5-9 we find a famous passage teaching parents to model and talk about their love for God during the ordinary parts of the day so that children will see how important that love is:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 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. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.Deuteronomy 6:5-9, NIV
That’s a beautiful passage and is one of the most famous from the Old Testament for good reason. But it can be difficult for us as parents to know how to start living that out. Kara Powell and Steve Argue’s book, Growing With, helps parents map out some practical plans for walking alongside their children in the pivotal years of faith development.
Growing With is organized into four main sections that contain two chapters each. The first section addresses our posture as parents. Powell and Argue encourage us to adopt an attitude of empathy toward our children. A “When I was your age” parenting approach rarely comes across as empathetic, the authors would say. To connect with our kids, we have to take time to appreciate how the experiences that shape their perspectives are different from our own experiences.
The next three sections deal with a young person’s family, faith, and future. Throughout these sections, Powell and Argue provide practical insight on fostering warmth in a family setting, an environment where a young person can grow in their personal faith, and setting them up for an adulthood with connection and meaning.
One of the attractive things about Growing With is that the authors aren’t going merely on their own hunches or experiences. Though they’re open about their own successes and failures as parents, what they present in the book is practical advice grounded in research and data. Powell and Argue are both in leadership positions at the Fuller Youth Institute at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA. But though their writing had academic grounding, they share their research findings in down-to-earth, relatable ways.
Q&A With Steve Argue, co-author of Growing With
Question: Growing With is a guide to helping parents helping their teen or young adult children grow in their faith. What practical things do you encourage parents who are away often because of business or deployment to do to grow spiritually alongside their teen/young adult from a distance? Which of these approaches could also apply to someone who is in prison?
Argue: Great question. Let me start by saying this– No matter who you are or where you are, you are a parent. And I assume that you love your kid(s). And nobody loves a kid like their parent. It doesn’t mean we don’t make mistakes, wish we could do things differently, or longed to be closer (in proximity or with our relationship), but that love you have is real, and that is a gift to you and your child.
For parents in prison, I can imagine that you feel an extra dose of distance from your kid. At some level, all parents can start feeling their relationship with their growing kids changing. The best thing you can do? Go first by taking a chance to step closer to them. This can be hard because you may have to break the ice in your relationship. It can feel awkward. You may not even know what to say. But our kids don’t know what to say either. So, you can help them by just reaching out and tell them what is true from your heart– that you love them, or miss them, or that you think about them all the time, that you’re praying for them, cheering for them, believing in them, no matter what. Kids usually want to hear from their parents these simple, assuring words. We live in a world where everybody puts so much pressure on our kids. They need to hear more than anything else- I’m on your side–no matter what.
Question: You write about parenting in the present and parenting in real-time. This is challenging to all parents but especially parents in prison. What can incarcerated parents do to maximize the limited interaction they have with their teen and young adult children?
Argue: I appreciate you asking this. You know, most parents feel like they have only small moments with their kids because they’re always on the move with school, clubs, friends, activities. For incarcerated parents, they may feel the same and even more so. On top of that, visiting may feel like extra pressure – like you have to have this fantastic experience because you only get a few moments like this. So, meeting can feel stressful. I’d suggest trying not to make it that way. Try to make it a good experience by just enjoying each other’s company. Here are some strategies that may help.
Before the visit:
- Write your kid and start to ask them about their life. You may even want to ask them if there’s something specific that they’d like to talk about when you meet. This can take the anxiety out of “what are we going to talk about” and give everyone time to prepare a little.
- For you, write down a few questions you might want to ask them. Sometimes our minds go blank in the moment, and it’s nice to have thought about a few questions ahead of time.
During the visit: Try to ask questions that don’t sound like you’re quizzing them.
- Instead of, “How’s school?” ask them, “Tell me something you’re learning about that you think’s cool.”
- Instead of, “Who are your friends these days?” ask them, “What do you love about your friends?
- Instead of, “Are you helping your mom/dad/grandparent out?” ask them, “Where do mom/dad/grandparent need help, and what do you think you could do to support them?” [then thank them for being there]
Remember that talking takes practice
I think we parents assume that we always need to get our conversations right with our kids or always have a happy experience. Remember that every conversation is a connection that’s filled with information and emotion. When hard words from our kids come out, or emotions arise, take that as a sign that they’re trying to express themselves to you and communicate with you. It doesn’t always feel great, but it is a small move toward connection. Thank them for their honesty. Show them that you’re willing to hang in there with them through the great and challenging conversations.
Question: What encouragement do you have for the incarcerated parent who wants to be a positive spiritual role model for their child but faces feelings of shame and unworthiness because of their imprisonment?
Argue: All parents feel like they have to be perfect to their kids. The reality is that, as our kids get older, they see the best and worst in us. To you incarcerated parents, I would say that your conviction does not define all of you are. One mistake is not to label you all bad any more than one good deed makes you perfect. You are a human being, made in the image of God, and loved deeply by God.
Every day, you and I have a choice to live to make this world better or worse. For our kids, we can try to model this to them by the way we live, share our lives, and treat others. So, at the appropriate times, tell your kids what you’re learning, share with them your regrets, ask them for forgiveness, remind them that each day, by the grace of God, you’re seeking to live the life that God wants for you. Deep down, I think kids want to make sense of your story. By you opening up and sharing it when you can, you’re inviting them into your spiritual story, as well. It will help them reflect on their own lives, too. In the end, grace, forgiveness, reconciliation, love, or healing isn’t merely a theoretical concept, it’s real life, and you can share that with them in small, consistent ways.
Question: If someone who is incarcerated plans to look for a church home to attend after release with his or her family, it can seem overwhelming because there are so many options. You work closely with many churches as part of your role at the Fuller Youth Institute. What are some tangible qualities someone should look for in a faith community when searching for a church home?
Argue: I hope you do plan to look for a church, and I pray that churches will be welcoming to you. Sometimes looking or a church can be tricky because churches are complicated! Honestly, I’d start by finding a few friends who are willing to share their faith journeys with you. Find that Christian friend or two. And then, together, seek out a church that you all feel is a good fit. A “good fit” is pretty subjective, but here are three questions you may want to consider:
To the pastor of the church, ask this: Other than other religious leaders, who do you work within our community to make our community better [this will tell you how invested the church is in the community and not just their own church]
To the people of the church: How do they talk about each other? Do you see diversity in the way people look, and the opinions people share? [this will give you a glimpse into how generous the church is toward each other]
To other leaders in the church, ask: How can I use my gifts and talents here? Talk with them about ways you can get connected to the community or serve. To belong means more than just to feel welcomed. Most want to feel like they can contribute, too.
To other businesses in the community, ask: What do you think of this church in town? What they say may give you an impression of what the community thinks of the church.
Also, check online and see what kinds of topics the church speaks to. Are they concerned with equality, justice, care for those in need, and do they value the dignity in every human being? You can learn a lot about a church by what they spend most of their time talking about.