It's tough being a pastor's kid. I should know. I married a pastor's kid, and we now have four pastor's kids of our own. Nearly everyone assumes pastor's kids are either rule-following goody two-shoes or rebels, ready to run counter to their parents' beliefs. It's not just members of our church who look to them as pastor's kids—their "PK" identity extends to everyone they interact with, from their math teachers to baseball coaches.
Living under the shadow of these pressures and preconceptions can be incredibly discouraging, but there's a flip side to being a ministry kid that more than makes up for the tough stuff. Pastor's kids have an incredible opportunity; they get a front row seat to see God at work... if we let them.
Too often, though, we don't let them. One of the biggest mistakes my husband Kerry and I made when our oldest sons Ryan and Josh were growing up was our reluctance to share our struggles with them. A lot of parents know this feeling. We've seen the statistics, and the outlook for Christian kids doesn't seem good. Barna Research found that more than half of churchgoing teenagers will leave the church as young adults—some temporarily, some permanently.
I can remember Kerry and I being overwhelmed at times with situations at church when the kids were younger but somehow managing to pull it together and hide our frustration. It wasn't that we wanted Josh and Ryan to think we were perfect. We just assumed that the boys would interpret our struggles as a by-product of being in the ministry rather than a by-product of being human. We gave them far too little credit.
By keeping silent about our struggles we inadvertently taught Ryan and Josh to mask their own hurts and insecurities. They were outwardly doing the whole "good Christian kid" thing, but they were dying on the inside. Instead of experiencing life in all its fullness as they'd been promised, by their late teenage years our boys felt empty. In college they looked in the usual places for ways to fill their emptiness, but nothing worked. Bravely admitting to God, and then to us, that they felt they were living a secondhand faith, they decided that if you don't believe in God because of your own convictions there is no point in pretending that you believe at all.
Now 23 and 24 years old, Ryan and Josh have written Firsthand: Ditching Secondhand Religion for a Faith of Your Own to share their story. It's a brutally honest account of their faith journey. Ryan and Josh realized that the first step in owning their faith was to be set free from religion and embrace their personal relationship with Christ. They write, "One of the most liberating and powerful statements of all time comes from the lips of Jesus: 'You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free' (John 8:32). The only way we've been able to experience freedom is by making the choice to get completely gut-level honest with God and others." Through honest conversations with Kerry and I, their friends, and most of all God, they ultimately came to embrace a faith that was their very own.
This is not a story of a picture-perfect pastor's family; we are not that family. Looking back I can see that my husband and I each tried too hard to shield our children from our particular religious baggage. And when I say tried too hard, I mean we were less than honest about our own doubts and feelings of inadequacy. Ryan and Josh challenged us to share our struggles with them, explaining that hearing about our pain and mistakes made them feel less alone in their own.
As parents, we have to acknowledge that our periods of doubts, our questions about Christianity, and our frustration with the church at times aren't the things that drive our kids away from the faith they grew up with. Actually, it's the opposite. These moments can deepen their beliefs by showing them how difficulties point us to prayer and dependence on God. A healthy Christian faith doesn't avoid struggle—it sustains it and grows from it. Kerry and I are still learning how to demonstrate this for our children and create an environment where they know they don't have to be perfect and where we can comfortably bring forth our struggles with each other and with our loving, gracious God.
In their quest for an authentic faith, my children have become my teacher. One of the first songs I sang to the boys when I snuggled them close as babies was "Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so." Now that they're men, Ryan and Josh have shown me that that first simple truth is the most profound.
Chris Shook is the director of International Missions at Woodlands Church near Houston, Texas, a church founded with her husband Kerry Shook. Chris is the co-author with husband Kerry of the New York Times bestseller One Month To Live and One Month to Love. She has been married for 29 years and has four children.