Chap Clark is Associate Provost and Professor of Youth, Family, and Culture at Fuller Theological Seminary. Clark’s extensive publication of books, articles, and videos focus primarily on relationships. Most recently, he published Hurt 2.0 and also coauthored Sticky Faith with Fuller’s Kara Powell. Click here to follow him on Twitter.
The report, Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith? is a long overdue, comprehensive, and academically solid report that will certainly enhance and deepen the conversation regarding the impact of divorce on kids for years to come. The scholarship is first rate, and the care the editors took to ensure that the report was accessible to the layperson while still being thoroughly grounded in solid academic methodology is especially appreciated.
As a researcher who continues to study adolescents in their context, and who has devoted much of my academic life in the service of these very questions, as I read this study I have come away with a full agenda of responses and questions. For the purposes of this blog/review, however, I will limit my comments to what we at Fuller Seminary and our “Hurt” study team have been processing and wrestling with as they relate to this report, and offer the following three thoughts:
First, the study could communicate, particularly for the layperson, that there are relatively clear distinctions between the child or adolescent from an “intact” family and one from a divorced family. I do believe that in general the authors worked hard to avoid reporting, even implicitly, beyond what they actually studied, but I do wonder if some readers may come away believing that kids from “intact” families are really as qualitatively different than their peers from divorced families. In my research, it is not nearly that clean, or, frankly, that markedly different.
In my experience, as adults our response to understanding and dealing with children and adolescents, especially in the church, is to label and “box” kids into categories that help us feel like we have a good handle on who they are, what they think and how they feel. I am not saying the authors succumbed to this tendency, but I do believe that a superficial reading could encourage this type of response, especially as the study is boiled down into neat bullet points that summarize the study’s conclusions. As I analyze the landscape of adolescent development, both in my own research and the summation of literature to date, the distinctions are far less clear, the dynamics far more complex, and therefore the response we offer kids of divorce must be intensely contextual grounded in an attitude of humility and open teachability. Yes, many of the things mentioned in this study, on a macro level, highlight how generally kids from divorced families experience and respond to their circumstance. But on the other hand, each family, and each child, is unique, and must be treated accordingly. In applying any response to kids of divorce, we must take great care with each individual child.
Secondly, I wholeheartedly agree, and greatly appreciate, the affirmation from a long and rich history of research that tells us that the single greatest measurable and external influence on a child’s faith journey is the lived-out faith of their parents. That said, however – and this may be obvious but easily lost to desperate parents and faith communities – it is important to note that even this does not predict much–less promise–a child will follow in their parents’ faith footsteps. Faith, to be personally owned, must ultimately become “individuative-reflective.” This takes an adult decision that comes from within the child. While we can measure and program toward what we know are factors that seem to provide a greater opportunity for owned faith, the choice to follow Jesus Christ is ultimately up to the child.
With these two in mind, then, I believe that the practical encouragements that close the study are helpful for churches, youth workers, parents and adults in general as they seek to care for kids from divorced families. The advice for parents, and for the children themselves, is, to me, solid and encouraging. While the suggestions for pastors, youth ministers, and youth sponsors are also helpful and important, the final one, “Know that acknowledging the trauma or wound of divorce in a young person’s life is a prophetic role that opens a space for healing and hope,” moves into important but emotionally dangerous ground. For the well-trained and experienced youth minister or sponsor, this can be a powerful step in healing deep wounds and helping a kid to move through the trauma of divorce. But the sensitivity required to enter into this level of intimacy with a child or adolescent demands the utmost of care, training, and accountability. To enter into the sacred space of an adolescent’s pain without a clear and honest invitation is one of the most potentially hazardous ministry practices. We must tread lightly as we lead our kids to work through their experience of divorce.
Again, I greatly appreciate this study, and the conversations that will come from it. With all the good of this study to highlight the reality of how divorce impacts the faith journey of children and adolescents, my caution is for those who directly serve these children is to treat each one with great respect and honor, to come alongside each one, affirming each unique story, and enter into the sacred place of pain, fear and heartache with tenderness, gentleness and compassion.