The Idea That Faith is Caught and Not Taught is False…and It’s Hurting the Next Generation

As Christians, we have all kinds of pithy sayings that make their way through churches and establish themselves as generally accepted truths. Some end up on bumper stickers, some on wall decals, and some just get repeated so many times that people think they’re actually in the Bible.

There’s a popular one among parents that I keep hearing lately, and each time I hear it I cringe. Not only is it false, but it’s particularly damaging to the discipleship of the next generation.

It’s the idea that “Faith is caught, not taught.”

When people say this, they’re usually trying to emphasize that faith is a matter of the heart, not a cold belief in a set of facts that someone has taught them. And of course there’s truth to that sentiment. But nine times out of ten that someone relays this saying to me, there’s an implication that our kids’ spiritual development has little to do with the “intellectual stuff” of apologetics, but rather everything to do with how well we live our faith in front of them (apologetics is the study of why there’s good reason to believe Christianity is true).

This belief is desperately wrong. At best, it results in a passive approach to discipleship. At worst, it’s an excuse for intellectual laziness.

Let’s look at why.

First, we have to clearly understand what faith is.

Faith, in its most basic sense, is trust.

A blind faith is a trust that has little or no justification. For example, imagine that I claimed there’s an invisible unicorn living outside my house. When you ask me what reasons I have for that belief, I tell you, “I don’t need reasons. I just have faith.” In this case, I would be acknowledging that I hold a blind faith in my invisible unicorn—it’s a faith without reason.

At the other end of the faith spectrum is a person trusting in something they have good reason to believe is true. For example, I’m willing to get on an airplane because I have faith that it will safely get me to where I need to be. I can’t be certain, but I know there is good reason to place my trust in the process.

Importantly, this means that faith is not a way of knowing something. It’s how you respond to what you know. This is such an important distinction. Atheists often suggest that faith is inferior to science as a way of knowing about the world, but faith isn’t a way of knowing about the world at all. It’s trust that we place in Jesus in response to what we know about the world (and that knowledge comes from many sources).

In short, biblical faith is not blind faith. Biblical faith is trusting in what we have good reason to believe is true, based on the extensive evidence God has given us.

Now that we’ve established an accurate understanding of what faith is, we can see two major problems with the idea that “faith is caught, not taught.”

1. It emphasizes passing on our trust rather than the reasons for our trust.

If faith is trust, then what this saying effectively states is that our trust is something that should rub off on our kids as they see how we live our lives.

Our trust in Jesus may or may not rub off on our kids, but regardless, that shouldn’t be our primary goal in discipleship.

Instead, we need to pass on the good reasons that should lead to our kids’ trust in Jesus. Otherwise, they’re just borrowing our own trust without knowing the justification for it. That’s a faith that’s waiting to crumble as soon as it’s significantly challenged.

It’s worth a side note here that parents shouldn’t assume a well-lived Christian faith is even desirable to their kids. There are numerous kids who grow up in loving Christian homes, with parents who truly “walk the walk,” but abandon their faith. Why? Those kids might admire the sincerity of their parents’ convictions, but feel no desire to “catch” that same faith because they don’t believe it’s built on good reason. Once again, this points back to the need to pass on the reasons for the hope we have (1 Peter 3:15), not simply our own trust.

2. A deep understanding of the reasons for faith is not something that’s simply “caught.”

Even if we restate the saying as “Reasons for faith are caught, not taught,” it still doesn’t work.

Here are just a few major concepts that will never be passively caught based on how you live out your Christian faith:

  • What objective evidence is there for the existence of God?
  • Do science and God contradict one another?
  • Can all religions point to the same truth?
  • What historical evidence is there for the resurrection?
  • Was Christianity copied from pagan religions?
  • How do we know that the Gospels are based on reliable eye witness testimony?
  • How do we know that the Bible we have today hasn’t been corrupted in the copying process over hundreds of years?
  • How can a good God permit so much evil and suffering?

Between my two books, I cover 70 of these critical questions that kids need to understand today. My new book, coming in March, focuses on 30 more questions specifically about Jesus (Talking with Your Kids about Jesus: 30 Conversations Every Christian Parent Must Have). That’s one hundred important questions kids need to understand given the challenges today…and that’s one hundred important questions they won’t grasp deeply just by watching how you live your faith.

These things are taught.

And the need to proactively teach is woven throughout Scripture:

  • “Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them” (Deuteronomy 4:9).
  • “…he commanded our ancestors to teach their children, so the next generation would know them, even the children yet to be born, and they in turn would tell their children” (Psalm 78:5-6).
  • “Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction and do not forsake your mother’s teaching” (Proverbs 1:8).
  • “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4).

There’s good reason the Bible tells us to teach and train and not just keep walking with the Lord while kids look on. Those eyes can’t physically see all that needs to be mentally learned. And as long as Christian parents think all they need to do is model what it looks like to put their trust in Jesus, kids will keep struggling when challenged on the justification for such a life.

Does passing on an understanding of all the good reasons for faith mean a child will necessarily follow Jesus? Not at all. But when we’re obedient in our calling to be teachers (not just walkers!), we can be confident that we have given our kids the opportunity to develop their own trust in Jesus and didn’t simply encourage them to borrow our convictions.

A borrowed faith is readily handed back.