Will Our Children Have Faith?

This blogpost is in response to an assigned reading, Will Our Children Have Faith? by John H. Westerhoff, III.

            Westerhoff makes a startling assertion by saying that the way church education has been done for the last hundred years is broken. Particularly, he is referring to Sunday School. The underlying idea is that treating Christian education like secular classroom education does not lead children to grow up with a faith that sticks. There seems to be some truth to this line of thinking, because according to LifeWay Research, sixty-six percent of teens who attend church drop out as young adults.[1] As a part of his way to rethink the spiritual formation of our youngest members, Westerhoff helpfully names four “styles of faith” that read like stages.

Experienced Faith

            In Westerhoff’s view, “experienced faith” is the faith of children. As children learn through exploring, observing, copying, and other behaviors, this is the way they experience their faith. This would mean that children will start to develop faith by observing and imitating those around them, particularly parents who are living and expressing their faith in community with the children.

Affiliative Faith

            Westerhoff seems to describe affiliative faith as seeking to be accepted in a community of identity. He also describes a huge emotional component and asserts that participating in the arts is essential to faith in this stage. He asserts that it is important for the church to be aware of and tell her story so that the child feels connected with the community. One example he gave was when a youngster had been given the job of keeping attendance records. This gave him a sense of belonging.

Searching Faith

            Searching faith comes about when young people (and I would assert sometimes older people) begin thinking critically about their faith. This is a growing process when someone needs to take the community’s faith and make it his own. They may begin to learn about other faith traditions and try them out, or even reject faith. This is when it is natural to question what one has been taught. Importantly, about this stage, Westerhoff writes, “And surely they need to be encouraged to remain within the faith community during their intellectual struggle, experimentation, and first endeavors at commitment.”[2] Many of us have observed this phenomenon and watched sadly as someone in this stage pulls away from the church.

Owned Faith

            Owned faith is the strong, life-changing faith on the other side of the doubts of searching faith. The one who has owned faith is one whose thinking and behavior are transformed. Westerhoff asserts that this could happen either suddenly or gradually. I would describe the one with owned faith as a mature Christian, one whose conduct and witness is beyond reproach.

Application to Sappony

            Understanding these styles of faith as stages of spiritual development could help us in our disciple-making by helping us to understand the needs of each stage. Westerhoff asserts that needs must be met in each stage for the believer to grow into the next one. By helping our families to meet the needs in each of these stages, we better set people up to develop a faith that is, in fact, their own.

[1] Aaron Earls. “Most Teenagers Drop Out of Church When They Become Young Adults” LifeWay Research. Accessed April 25, 2021. https://lifewayresearch.com/2019/01/15/most-teenagers-drop-out-of-church-as-young-adults/


[2] John H. Westerhoff III. Will Our Children Have Faith? (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2012). Kindle Loc. 1536.