Will the Faith of a 13 Year Old Sustain Us?

Are you trying to cope in a grown up world with the faith of a thirteen year old? James Fowler and other scholars of faith and personality development have indicated for years that a majority of Christians possess the spiritual maturity of a thirteen year old. A recent survey by the Pew Forum has found that atheists know more about  major religions than Protestants and Roman Catholics, many of whom do not know the basics tenets of their own faiths.

How well does the faith of a thirteen year old hold up in a grown up world?

Not very well according to a recent survey conducted by the Barna Institute. The survey revealed that though many people are discussing and debating religious beliefs and practices, all the talk has resulted in very little change in people’s faith. Just 7% of those surveyed could cite any change that their faith has made in their lives in the past five years.

On the one hand about one-third of adults who experienced any change at all mentioned an increase in some aspect of their faith commitment. Fourteen percent said they had stepped up their commitment to the Christian faith, in general; 12% cited an increase in their religious activity; and 9% indicated their commitment to God had grown.

On the other hand 16% said they had moved away from Christianity; 11% noted that their feelings about or perceptions toward churches had deteriorated; and 8% admitted to decreasing their religious activity. Another 8% claimed to have changed churches or denominations during the past five years. Among those whose appreciation of or respect for churches declined, a majority specified the sexual abuse scandals within the Catholic church as the dominant factor in their change of heart . Barna Research

Writers in the field of human personality and faith development have observed for some time that most people’s understanding of faith and beliefs are established by age thirteen and do not much change over their life.  If my faith and the faith of most of the people around me is that of a thirteen year old, it seems a natural evolution to drop out in my twenties. On the other hand, if I choose to stay, what sort of impact on the world does a church with the faith maturity of thirteen olds make? Not much, it would seem, if the steep declines in church membership, respect for religious leaders, and positive cultural regard are any measure.

Though Jesus challenged his disciples to have faith like a child, he also challenged them to grow beyond childish ways by bringing their faith to bear on the complex religious and social issues of his time. He challenged his followers with paradox and ambiguity. He taught that there was something life-giving in death itself. In addition he called for self-sacrifice beyond the cognitive ability of thirteen year olds.

I know a clergy person, who told me she had a program on her computer that checked the style and word choice of her sermons for grade level. She aimed to write sermons easily understood by a third grader. That explains a lot to me. If all we give people in our churches is third grade faith and understanding, it is a wonder they stay around through high school, let alone the rest of their lives.

The Christianity of the first century was more than palliative care or an agenda for social change. Mature faith, tried and refined in the fire of personal and communal life, results in deep understanding and compassion for the human condition and deep reverence for all of life.

I have heard the faith taught by some churches called “a mile wide and an inch deep.” A sound bite world that worships immediacy has little patience for anything other than Christianity Lite. Hence the media depiction of faith traditions is often distorted, diluted, sensationalized snippets of a tradition only truly known and appreciated through years of living and allowing oneself to be changed by its teachings.

G.K. Chesterton once observed that, “It is not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting, it is that it has never been tried.” Our perilous time of mounting crises, crumbling institutions, and polarization require of us a faith much deeper, broader, and more nuanced than that of most thirteen year olds.

I do see many positive signs— a young woman named Gina who is seeking to have her life radically changed by God as she lives out of a back pack, traveling the world helping the poor; the family who travels to third world countries offering love and medical care; the young college graduate who went to Haiti to help build an orphanage and hauled drinking water for the workers each day. Other people submit to the transforming power of the St.Ignatius thirty-day retreat, or sit down with someone regularly to examine their spiritual life and the call of God. Many people are taking responsibility for developing their faith in creative ways, and often these occur outside traditional church settings.

Spiritual maturity helps us to answer such questions as – How do we help ourselves live with paradox and ambiguity? How do we increase our tolerance for the stranger and the alien? How do we meet suffering and deprivation in ways, which carry us beyond sullen entitlement, bitterness, and retaliation? How do we integrate increasingly complex realities with faith and generosity?

As a thirteen year old I believed the promises of scripture:  that God is good and wants goodness for us. I believed that God also has expectations for us to live with reverence, forgiveness, compassion, and self-giving love.

As a knocked down, punched out, disillusioned adult I also believed that suffering, evil, sin, loss, and disappointment are real. For me the cross, no less a scandal and folly today than 2000 years ago, stands between the polarities of the goodness of God and the harsh realities of life in this world. Strung between childlike trust and adult confrontation with sin and evil is a tightrope called faith. In the center of that tightrope we find the cross. No one may pass by without a crucifixion. Mature spirituality has learned to walk that narrow wire with precision and grace.

Despite our advances in technology, health care, science, industry, and commerce, we remain in some respects spiritual children. I believe among the most important skill called for in our time is not our intellectual expertise, but rather, mature faith manifested in how we respond to deprivation and loss, how we respond to our own lust and greed, and how we discover the inner resources of wisdom, character, and love that make us worthy to be entrusted with the great power that is ours as a community and individuals.

I am writing this blog in the public library of a small town in Iowa. A group of middle school kids sat down at the table near by. They are discussing how old they are and who is mature and who is not. They are working on a school assignment, but so far have not opened their books. They just took a break and asked me to watch their notebooks. The kids are funny, exasperating, and when they suddenly apologized to me for making too much noise, I fell in love with them. As endearing as I find them, I would hate to bank the future of Christianity on the faith on these children, or have to count on their leadership and wisdom to lead us in these tumultuous times.

As a matter of fact, they make me want to be the very best grown up I can possibly be for them.


I know a large number of grown ups in the faith – including you, my dears. Many are members of churches, quite a few are not. Some have nothing good to say about Christianity. But all are bringing, deep, resonant, intelligent faith to bear on the challenges and sorrows of this world. Thank you all so very much!


Become a fan of the The Sanctuary Foundation for Prayer
Read more about prayer www.fromholyground.org,  Tracking Holiness – Newsletter
Contact the author lross@fromholyground.org, www.fbook.me/sanctuary
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