Even though I grew up in a Christian home, with parents in professional Christian ministry, there was a time that I walked away from God. I was tired of the rules, authority and simply wanted to live life my own way. And as you can imagine, I hit rock bottom. Feelings of loneliness, despair and the weight of sin simply overwhelmed me and I hit the end of my rope … and so when I was four years old, I got down on my knees and decided I was going to follow Jesus.

Hopefully you can sense my sarcasm. Yes, I did first become a Christian at four, but to be honest, I don’t even remember it. But I do remember thinking (as I heard the typical Christian testimonies of God transforming people from broken homes, addictions, prison, gangs, and other religions) that someday God would give me an amazing testimony so I could follow him boldly and make a difference in the world. It really didn’t occur to me that I would rather avoid jail and serious addiction. But for whatever reason, I remember thinking that I first needed a great testimony for God to use me.

The journey to faith

The reason I share this (fake) testimony is because there are often unique challenges that Second Generation Christian Students (SGCSs) experience in their journey to faith. Every student has a unique story, and so I don’t want to imply that there is a formula for how all SGCSs experience faith. But just thinking about these issues, and the unique challenges they face, can be the first step in ministering to them.

In my own journey, there were certainly spiritual highs at camps, mission trips and concerts, but there were also lows that left me confused. I memorized verses, went to youth group, studied the Bible, went on mission trips, and went forward at youth rallies many times hoping that my commitment to Jesus would take. My parents were (and are) amazing examples of Christians who really live what they believe. My dad, in particular, is one of the most passionate and committed people I know. While I did a commendable job of outward conformity, I often struggled with inner doubts, false humility and a sense that my faith lacked depth.

Fortunately, by God’s grace, I have come to own my own faith. And that is my prayer for other young people who grow up in the church — whether pastor’s kids, students who are home-schooled, kids of Christian authors, or other kids who have simply grown up “Christian.” While SGCS have often heard “everything,” there are some practical steps you can take to help them develop their own faith:

1. They need a safe place to question and doubt their faith. In college, I had an amazing mentor who was the resident director of my dorm at Biola University. He cared for me as a person, put no expectations on me as a SGCS, listened to me, asked me thoughtful questions, and gave me space to work out some of my own questions and issues. He helped me realize that it’s okay to believe in God while struggling with faith and doubt. Research shows that not having permission to doubt can be caustic to a young person’s faith. Having a safe place to wrestle with my faith was critical for my faith journey, and it is for many other SCGSs as well.

2. They need to get outside the Christian world. After graduating from Biola, I was invited to work alongside a friend of mine with students in Orange County. Although it was an intriguing opportunity, I really felt that I needed to get out of my comfort zone and put my faith to the test. And so I worked in inner city L.A. at the Dream Center for a year before going back to grad school. For a kid who grew up in a small town in the mountains of San Diego, my experiences at the Dream Center helped permanently shape my faith.

Experiences outside the church for SGCSs don’t necessarily have to be this dramatic. In fact, there is tremendous value in just getting kids outside the walls of the church, such as going to a sporting event, movie, getting coffee, taking a walk, or playing pool. These kinds of experiences often spark conversations and provide the opportunity for heartfelt spiritual revelation.

3. They need a personal experience of grace. There really is no such thing as a “second generation” Christian. Regardless of our backgrounds, each of us comes to Christ individually. But here’s the catch for SGCSs: They have the answers before they’re asking the questions. Personally, I knew intellectually that Jesus was God and that I was a sinner in redemption before experientially grasping what that even meant. Many SGCSs need a personal crisis of faith, or at least some kind of experience that makes the questions real, so they can experience grace firsthand.

For instance, my friend Daniel Hahn said: “For me [as a SGCS] it took hitting bottom. After I moved far away from home, I got into a lot of trouble. I call it trouble, but it was actually the gutter that got me thinking about what I really believed and eventually changed my life.” This doesn’t mean all SGCSs have to end up like the prodigal son. But it does mean we need to challenge them to own their faith, help them wrestle with the big questions about God and life, and push them out of their comfort zones before they leave home. They need to personally experience grace in order to own it.

4. They need to know why they believe what they believe. There are many studies about why kids disengage the church. While there are many reasons, the inability to find answers to tough questions ranks near the top. For me, I grew up with an apologist father, but I still hit a point of serious questioning (this is a part of my “personal story of faith”). I knew my parents would continue to love me, and they expressed that, but I had to find some answers for myself. Looking back, I thank God for the work of people like William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland. They helped me develop a depth of conviction that continues to give me confidence that my faith was well grounded. SGCS need more than Christian answers; they need to know why these reasons make sense.

If you are a SCG (or you know one!) please check out my latest book with John Marriott: Set Adrift: Deconstructing What You Believe Without Sinking Your Faith. Essentially, this is the book I wish I had when I was younger.

This post and additional resources are available on Sean McDowell’s website.