By / Aug 17

There has been much written lately about the declining rates of childbearing. Some argue that it is a good choice in light of economic and climate concerns, while others worry about the fact that men and women are delaying marriage and childbirth until later in life, leading to a population decline. Nowhere is this more acute than in Japan where a city of some two dozen adults have resorted to lifelike dolls as stand-ins for people because the last child born in the city was over 20 years ago. The recent COVID-19 epidemic has even contributed to what has been called a “baby bust” in the United States. This decline in births has serious implications for all areas of life, including religion.

In his new book, Faith and Fertility: The Demographic Revolution and the Transformation of World Religions, Baylor historian Philip Jenkins looks at the close connections between rates of fertility and religious adherence across the globe. His book explores the relationship between childbearing and secularization and the current ways that the religious landscape of the world is being reshaped, especially in Western Europe and North America where fertility rates have fallen precipitously in recent decades. 

In your introduction, you say that there is a direct relationship between the fertility rates of a society and its religiosity. Countries with high fertility rates also (typically) enjoy higher rates of religiosity, and vice versa. Is one feeding the other, or are these just predictors of the future?

Anyone who ever took a college course on sociology knows about debates over causation and correlation. If two things happen at the same time, does one cause the other, or are they both caused by something else altogether? Or, are they simply unconnected? What I am saying is that if you look at particular countries, or regions, that linkage between fertility rates and religiosity is very strong indeed. Moreover, sudden changes in the one trend correspond really neatly to changes in the other. In fact, as I argue, you can actually use fertility changes as a predictor of what will happen in the religiosity of a particular society, and those predictions are very likely to hold good. So is this causation or correlation? 

One problem is that the two trends happen in such short time periods — maybe five or 10 years — that it is close to impossible to decide which is cause and which effect. I think for instance of a country like Italy in the 1970s, which quite suddenly in just a few years experienced a very sharp fertility drop, and where in those same years, religious practice and commitment plunged. I can actually make a good case either way, for which trend is causing which. But in a sense, that does not really matter, because the basic linkage is so solid, and attested so widely. What we can say with high confidence is that high fertility societies are also high faith, and vice versa. When a high fertility society suddenly moves to a low fertility model — and those changes do tend to be sudden — then watch closely for the religious effects.

How do the changes in fertility and focus on child-centered families change other attitudes in the society? What are some areas of rapid shifts in public attitude that have coincided with the shift in fertility and religiosity? 

I use the example of Europe from the 1960s onward, although the changes that happened there have subsequently moved over much of the globe. When family size declines, and children are less on the scene, several things happen. Quite rapidly, people lose many of the ties that previously bound them to churches or other religious institutions. They are no longer sending children to church schools or first communion classes or bar mitzvah classes. But also, society becomes more open to arguments that separate sexuality from reproduction. In the older world, families might have listened closely to what religious institutions said about enforcing sexual morality through law, but that changes quickly. In Europe, so many of these changes have happened through referenda and public votes, rather than, as in the U.S., through judicial decisions. So, you can actually map quite revolutionary changes in public attitudes, with a new openness to contraception, divorce, abortion, and gay rights issues. 

As a result, countries that in 1960 were some of the world’s most morally conservative became some of the most liberal. At every stage, you can also link these developments to changes in fertility. As society becomes more liberal or even radical on these issues, so the churches lose ever more support as they are repeatedly depicted as the bad guys seeking to staunch progress. They face a kind of vicious circle. People are prepared to accept or tolerate the churches and clergy but only as long as they keep out of private lives. In terms of how religion has always been seen as a force in public life, that is a revolutionary development.

It is not, you argue, necessarily Marx or Freud whose work has reduced the appeal of religion, but possibly the work of Louis Pasteur and advances in medicine. Why has something like germ theory shifted our understanding of the family? 

One great force driving high fertility in past centuries was the very high death rate for babies and small children. Infant mortality rates were inconceivably dreadful, so people had to have lots of children to compensate for losses. That in turn severely constrained women’s lives. New insights about germs and infections meant that infant mortality rates fell incredibly fast, and that was the essential precondition for smaller family size. At the same time, knowing the causes of disease has massively reduced the role of clergy and churches in seeking to offer healing and protection against bodily ills. Whole areas of life have been transferred to the medical profession, which now can have a real and positive impact, which was certainly not true until the mid-19th century.

Also, higher standards of health mean that death has become a less familiar and visible part of our everyday lives, and that in turn has limited what was once one of the critical functions of clergy, namely in being present at deathbeds and funerals. Today, death is more medicalized, and is regarded as something for the very old, rather than something that can strike anyone at any time. We have had a revolution in death.

Your book deals a lot with secularization theory and the idea that religion will just generally decline and eventually disappear. However, you say that secularization is a self-limiting process. What do you mean by this?

Imagine a society that is low faith and low fertility, and as I say, the two trends go together. Societies age and become more stable. They also become more secular, and more liberal in their cultural and sexual attitudes. If those are your views, you might think that is a wonderful prospect, and we are all joining together singing John Lennon’s Imagine. But a society with a median age in the 40s — and that is much of Europe today — simply cannot survive economically. It needs people to do the working class jobs, to provide the human services, and to pay the taxes. That means drawing in immigrants, who come from young and high fertility lands in the Global South. In Western Europe, that means turning to North Africa or the Middle East, or South Asia. 

But high fertility societies are also high faith societies, and those new immigrants are likely to be strongly religious, not to mention very traditional in their morality. Many immigrants are Muslim, but plenty of others are passionately Christian. So, in that sense, a secular society will inevitably be transformed by those strictly non-secular immigrants. Over time, the immigrants will often come close to outnumbering the old-stock populations. The less religious a society is today, the more religious it will become in a generation or so.

While the secularization that you note about Europe is true, America has traditionally been a sort of outlier to the conversation because it resembles European nations in many respects but has also retained high levels of religious behavior and identity. Will that trend continue or will American begin to look more like Europe in the near future? 

The U.S. was long a problem for scholars of religion, because it was high faith and (relatively) high fertility. Some of us — including myself! — spent lots of time trying to account for this paradox. For better or worse, we no longer have to explain such things because the U.S. has now moved decisively to European levels of fertility. The big change was the economic crisis of 2007-8, which increasingly looks like a social revolution in people’s ways of life and expectations. 

Today, U.S. fertility rates track closely with those of famously low-fertility Denmark, and they may well go lower: it will be very interesting to see the long-term impact of the pandemic. And as we might have expected, low fertility rapidly implies low faith. The best evidence for this is the dramatic growth of the Nones, those who reject any religious affiliation. They already outnumber Catholics, and by 2025 should be the largest component of the U.S. population, above evangelicals.

Ronald Inglehart wrote recently that “Since 2007, the United States has showed the largest shift of any country away from religion and now ranks among the world’s least religious publics.” For anyone who recalls conditions even a decade ago, that’s amazing. So yes, I do think that “Europe awaits.”

This decline in religion though is not a complete rejection of faith. There is an increase as you note in pilgrimages to holy sites and even many of the Nones (as Ryan Burge has argued in his book on the growing religious group) display some continued adherence to religious belief. So, is this part of the larger conversation about a declining trust in institutions across culture, not just the church specifically? 

And that is an excellent point. When people talk about secularization, they often see it as the same as atheism, which it is not. When people cut loose from institutions, they often maintain the underlying codes and belief system, as in the case of the Nones. But here is the problem. If you cast off moorings from any and all churches, and live what you see as a religious life free of institutions, how long can you keep that up? Decades? A generation? And more important, is that something that can be passed on to the next generation. In Europe, it took a few decades, but those Nones gradually did turn into actual atheists, who see no reason at all for the survival of religion. I am not saying that trajectory is inevitable, but it seems like one we should be aware of.

How does the question of mass migration and immigrations contribute to this discussion? What effect does an influx of immigrants have on the religious behavior and fertility rates of a country? How do immigrants change over time in terms of childbirth and religious behavior? 

Right, I mentioned this earlier. Immigrants do tend to be younger than the historic population, because they are the sort of people who are likely to make such a dramatic move, and early on at least, they are very religious. As to what happens over two or three generations, that is a different matter. Certainly, people of migrant stock tend to move toward the norms of the host society, and their fertility rates do drop. Religion is a more complex matter. Christian migrants are a major part of church life in Europe, especially in countries like Britain, and we see a very similar pattern here in the U.S.

Muslims might tend to keep their religion even longer because it is so intimately bound up with every aspect of their lives, and their social realities. It is actually a very major and difficult step to move to be a real “ex-Muslim,” even if you abandon many aspects of the belief system.

In looking at Africa, you note that soon it will demographically lay claim to the title of the most populous Christian continent. What changes can expect to arise from this shift from Western Europe and North America to the Global South, and particularly Africa? 

Some areas of the world resist the drift to low fertility: Africa, and large portions of the Middle East and South Asia. These will increasingly dominate their respective faiths. By 2050 or so, around a third of all Christians will live on the African continent, and that does not include people of African stock living elsewhere in the world. The impact on Islam will be a bit less, because Muslim numbers are holding up very well in South Asia, but the African share will certainly grow for them too.

Common wisdom has often held that individuals go through stages of religiosity over the course of their lifetimes where they may leave in their young adult years but return when they have children. How does the shift in fertility affect that concept of the faith life cycle of individuals and their possibility of returning? How does it change the way that churches need to approach ministry and outreach in the future? 

I think about all the effort that churches put into studying and catering for children and young people, and I wonder if we are asking the wrong questions. The demographic revolution sweeping the world right now has its greatest impact on the numbers of the old and very old. Those numbers are soaring, both in absolute and relative terms. How do churches cope with them, apart from just holding helpful seminars on dying, death, and estate planning? That aging, that “graying,” poses questions that most churches have scarcely begun to contemplate. Those are some of the greatest challenges to ministry and outreach, and we scarcely have the vocabulary as yet with which to approach the problem. 

By / Dec 17

COVID came home to our family 71 days ago. That’s the day we learned my step-father-in-law had COVID, and it’s also the day he passed away. It’s the day we pulled our kids abruptly out of school and extracurricular activities and began our own 14-day quarantine. It’s the day that the coronavirus went from seeming very global and out there, to very personal, right in here, right at home. 

“Step-father-in-law” might seem like a distant relative, but Steve was a part of our everyday lives, even after the death of his wife, my husband’s mom, almost eight years ago. He hung on to us, and we hung on to him. He was at every birthday, every Christmas, every school play, every just-because family gathering. And it wasn’t unusual for him to show up on our doorstep with a 12-pack of tacos.

When my husband took him to the doctor just six days before he passed away, we expected a fairly routine report, probably an update on his dementia. He was still living at home alone and getting along pretty well. He seemed under the weather, but we never anticipated the appointment would become a hospital stay.  

Over the next six days, we watched in horror as he quickly lost his grasp on life. There were far more questions than answers.

The blessing and the curse was that we didn’t know he had COVID the whole six days we visited him. The coronavirus had not yet resurged, and somehow the hospital never tested him, even with his fever and labored breathing. That whole week we sat in his room, masked of course, using ample hand sanitizer of course, and—even though he was unconscious—we chatted to him, played music, prayed, and even behaved a bit silly at times, as we are wont to do. He was never alone, but surrounded by many, as he drew near to the end. 

The thing about COVID coming home is that you wonder where your loved one got it. You wonder if they could have avoided it, gotten better treatment, and beaten it. Steve loved long drives to his favorite old cowboy spots in the mountains, and he went to the same Mexican restaurant all the time. So we wonder, could he—could all of us—have done something differently? 

His doctors never decreed that Steve succumbed specifically to the coronavirus, but it was present. A so-called comorbidity. He declined so quickly. When we got the call that he was gone we all just stared at each other, mouths agape.

Where theology and anthropology meet

It’s moments like these when theology (what we believe about God) and anthropology (what we believe about ourselves) really matter. When our world crashes down, we find the foundation that remains. My husband, daughters, and I rehearsed our foundation to each other across the kitchen table. God is in heaven and he does whatever he pleases (Psa. 115:3). God created all things through himself and for himself (Col. 1:16). God numbers our days before we are even born (Psa. 139:16; Job 14:5). God alone is the giver of life and breath and everything (Acts 17:25). 

We reminded each other that man is finite and fallible. We come from dust, and it’s God’s breath in our lungs (Gen. 2:7). Our lives are brief, like grass that withers (Psa. 103:15). Our thoughts are not like God’s thoughts, his ways are higher (Isa. 55:8-9). This life makes us weary and heavy-laden, and we need a Savior to help us, to rescue us (Matt. 11:28-30). 

Here at the end of 2020 none of us really know or understand what God is doing. This is hard. COVID is hard. But because of the great unshakable truth of who God is, we know we are seen, held, and dearly loved.

I thank God that before that day we already knew he is good and trustworthy. The cross of Jesus Christ tells us so. While we were yet sinners—enemies of our Maker and Savior, following the world, giving in to our own selfish desires—because of God’s great love and rich mercy, Jesus died for us. He took our sin and in return gave us his righteousness. It’s by grace we are saved (Eph. 2:1-10). There’s no question, God is good. He lived, died, and rose again for you and me who believe. 

Here at the end of 2020 none of us really know or understand what God is doing. This is hard. COVID is hard. Losing Steve was so hard. His absence is loud and unavoidable. 

But because of the great unshakable truth of who God is, we know we are seen, held, and dearly loved. One day, everything is going to be alright. Heaven awaits, and death will be no more. 

Protecting the vulnerable 

Until then, though, in the midst of a global sickness that has come right in and brought death and pain—not just to our family but, at present count, to 300,000 American families—we look at the world with a renewed dose of reality. We are sobered that this virus is real and lethal to the most vulnerable. How then should we try to ensure that we do not cause anyone else to endure a COVID-related sickness or death? 

God forbid—truly Lord, please forbid it—that we unknowingly and accidentally carry this to someone else’s Steve. 

We need the vulnerable in our lives. We need grandmas and grandpas with dementia. We need boys and girls with disabilities. We need men and women who cannot hear or cannot speak or cannot walk or cannot live at the pace we deem normal and somehow more valuable. We need their wisdom, their perspective, their experience. We need their beauty, their strength, their hard-fought joy. We need their faith, their view of God, their understanding of creation. We need all 1,540,000 souls who have perished a COVID-related death around the world. 

With each one, we have lost something, someone, irreplaceable. 

The vulnerable lives in our midst bear the invaluable image of the God who made them. Their lives are not their own, nor are their lives ours. Their lives belong to God in heaven. Let’s live and love like it, with their good in mind. 

By / Dec 15

My husband and I said “yes” a year and a half ago. We said yes to bringing a child with whom we do not share DNA into our home. We said yes to giving care, advocacy, and love to this child as if he was our own. We said yes to a path of uncertainty, but certain to be full of both highs and lows. We said yes with deep joy and tentative excitement. 

We didn’t say yes because we knew the process would be easy or pain free. It hasn’t been.  We didn’t say yes because we were sure the outcome would be permanent stability for this child in our family. We’re still not certain what the future holds. And we didn’t say yes because we were experiencing the empty ache of childlessness. We’d already received the gifts of three biological sons who fill our hearts and home. 

We had a better reason to say yes: It was clearly God’s will for us to do so. We know this to be true, not because God revealed it to us in a vision or audibly spoke into our particular situation. We know it to be true because God made his will clear in his Word, and his Spirit impressed it upon our hearts through three primary truths. 

1. Children are always a gift 

Guardianship, foster care, and adoption are messy ministries. Why? Because these ministries are a necessary result of brokenness. The fact that so many biological parents are unable or unwilling to care for their children reminds us that something has gone terribly askew in our world. But children, regardless of the circumstances through and into which they are born, are gifts. Always gifts. God made this clear by allowing our first parents Adam and Eve to “bear fruit” in spite of their sinful rebellion (Gen. 3:16, 20). And he confirms that all human life is a gift by revealing his tender heart for the orphan throughout Scripture (Isa. 1:17; Psa. 82:3; Deut. 10:18; James 1:27).

We live in a culture that says the natural fruit of our sexuality is only good when it’s wanted or chosen. It’s reasoned that if children are not wanted or chosen, parents should have the freedom to kill them in the womb. This killing is a hallmark of the kingdom of darkness. Think of the mass genocides of infant children led by Pharaoh (Ex. 1:22) and Herod (Matt. 2:16), both prototypical enemies of God. In contrast, God commands his people not to sacrifice their own children as the pagan nations do (Deut. 12:31). Disdaining the gift of children is the natural overflow of humanity’s rebellious quest for autonomy from God. And it’s hellish business.  

But God is in the business of graciously bringing the gift of fruit from barren places. The Bible is full of examples including Abraham and Sarah (Gen. 21:1-2), Isaac and Rebekah (Gen. 25:21), Elkanah and Hannah (1 Sam. 1:19b-20), Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1:7,13), and Mary (Luke 1:31,34-35). Christians know that life is always a good gift to be received from the hand of God, and we demonstrate our belief in this truth when we are ready and willing to give our joyful yes to any children God puts before us who need tender love and care. 

2. We fight for life through death to self

The gift of fruitfulness is a heavy blessing. It’s heavy precisely because human life is so valuable. Receiving and stewarding the gift of a child, whether biologically one’s own or not, requires investments of time, energy, and financial resources in innumerable quantities. And if a child comes into one’s family from previously difficult circumstances, the investment may be even greater. In a very real sense, the gift of children requires parents to lay down their own lives for the life of another.

The culture of death all around us proclaims the lie that children aren’t always a gift worth the investment required to steward them, and this message rings true to fallen sensibilities. In a world that’s all about self-promotion, self-love, and self-care, self-denial sounds pretty ridiculous. But finding true life through death is the message of the cross, and it’s folly to those who are perishing (1 Cor. 1:18). 

Christians know that life is always a good gift to be received from the hand of God, and we demonstrate our belief in this truth when we are ready and willing to give our joyful yes to any children God puts before us who need tender love and care.

Jesus came to earth to conquer death through his own death, which led to resurrection glory. Through his sacrifice, he freely offers eternal life to all who trust him by faith. Then he calls those who believe to follow him in dying: “‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life finds it” (Luke 9:23-24). 

The indwelling Holy Spirit enables Christians to war against the culture of death by dying to self  in service to others. This means Christians can do hard things. We can be on the front lines of orphan care ministry, joyfully receiving and stewarding the gift of children (or supporting those who do), even though it costs us something. We tell the world the gospel is true when we willingly open our hands and homes to the good gift of children, even, and maybe especially, those we haven’t physically borne. 

3. The gospel changes everything 

My husband and I didn’t say yes to receiving a child into our home because we’re naturally noble and drawn toward service. Apart from Christ, we’re self-centered lovers of comfort and ease. No, we said yes because the gospel is true. It has changed (and is still changing) us. By grace through faith in Christ alone, we who were once orphaned by sin have been made sons and daughters of the Father. The Holy Spirit is now producing good fruit in our once spiritually barren hearts, enabling us to live for someone greater than ourselves. 

The Bible teaches that one primary evidence of gospel transformation in a person’s life is care for the least of these: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: To visit orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27). Because we know the promises of God are all yes for us in Christ Jesus (2 Cor. 1:19-20), the hearts of all Christians must be continually postured to offer our joyful “Yes!” to God in whatever he calls us to do. 

With empty hands, we’ve received his salvation and the gift of spiritual fruit. Now, with hands and hearts full of every spiritual blessing, we’re able to pour all we have back out in service to him as we steward the gifts and callings he has given us. Unstained by the world’s way of thinking, Christains say yes with our wallets, our time, our energy, and our very lives to receive the orphans of the world because God has done so for us. And this good news changes everything.    

By / Nov 19

“Sergeant?” “Yes, sir!” “Establish a recon post downstairs . . .”

That dialogue from the VHS trailer for a new movie called Toy Story enthralled me in 1995. When the film finally released on Nov. 22, my family saw it in theaters. Pixar Animation Studios’ debut made me a lifelong fan of this story and the studio.

Toy Story proved a worldwide phenomenon. Its revolutionary computer-generated animation inspired generations of growth in animated films and “live-action” special effects. Meanwhile, director John Lasseter and the Pixar brain trust’s simple story drew on children’s love of toys, parents’ nostalgia for Mr. Potato Heads and Etch-A-Sketches, and the fantastic idea that we’ve all probably wondered at any age: that sometimes, when we’re not around, toys just might come to life.

Twenty-five years later, Pixar has released three critically acclaimed Toy sequels as well as television specials and animated shorts. Toy Story has become a franchise powerhouse. Your own child probably owns something Toy Story–related: not just the films, but plenty of toys and merch. Depending on your age, you may have grown up enjoying the original Toy Story and its first sequel, Toy Story 2 (1999).

Familiarity may dull the impact of these tales. More likely, however, these films’ now-generational appeal may give families a perfect chance to re-watch Toy Story around its 25th anniversary. You could even more formally engage the story, world, common graces, idols, and gospel reflections of Pixar’s fantastical debut.

To organize such engagement of any popular cultural work, I recommend some basic questions. Grown-ups can first ask these questions of themselves, and then share them with children, taking into account children’s ages and attention levels.

Oh, and the purpose of this pop-culture parenting isn’t to “be cool” or “be like the world” (as some could conclude before reading an article about engaging culture). Instead, our goal is threefold. First, we want to worship God, and when we enjoy his good gifts to his image-bearers, who then share his common grace mixed with their own idols, we’re motivated to praise our Creator. Second, by engaging popular culture as families and Christ’s people, we build relationships, especially with our children. Third, this engagement with our real world—real people who cannot help but enjoy movies, TV, and beyond—we build relationships with others and have greater ability to share Jesus’s gospel with our neighbors who so badly need it. 

So, here are five questions to ask yourself and your family. 

1. What’s the story?

For this question, we ensure we get the basic facts right about any cultural work.

In Toy Story, vintage cowboy doll Woody (voice of Tom Hanks) oversees all the toys in his owner Andy’s bedroom, helping preserve domestic law and order. But his top-toy status falls when new arrival Buzz Lightyear (voice of Tim Allen) arrives with flashing lights, pop-up wings, and the space-ranger delusions. After Woody and Buzz get lost, they need to team up and return home before their family moves. When at last Buzz snaps out of his delusion and finds his own purpose, the story truly launches and “falls with style,” and our two heroes become lifelong friends.

2. What’s the style and shape of this world?

Here we explore the story-world’s “rules,” including genre and morality. We’re not yet sorting right ideas from wrong ideas. Our goal for now is observe and report. 

Magical realism reigns in the Toy Story–verse. Viewers must accept that toys really can come alive when people aren’t around, without explanation for how toys get this ability. Toys always follow certain fantastical/moral rules. You have to return to your place before a child sees you. You likely want to stay loyal to your particular child owner, and risk jealousy or heartbreak if the owner seems to reject you.

For Woody, and eventually also for Buzz Lightyear, a toy’s greatest purpose is to make a child happy. To fall out of a child’s favor means you will face abandonment and lost purpose—big themes, by the way, for a young child to confront in a story.

Pixar Animation Studios broke creative ground in scripting and storyboarding Toy Story’s plot, and then digital ground in designing, sculpting, scanning, programming, animating, and rendering Toy Story’s three-dimensional world. CG animation now takes viewers to entire universes of superheroes or alien realms. But in the mid-1990s, it took all a studio’s processor power to build just two small family homes, their surrounding streets, and a blinking, blooping Pizza Planet arcade/restaurant.

3. What’s good, true, and beautiful in this story? 

Now comes a happy task: we can invite our kids to join us in finding the honorable, virtuous, and artistically excellent elements of a creative work like Toy Story.

Toy Story’s world is explicitly moral. It presumes toys benefit from organization and moral behavior. Toys behave almost like parents themselves, often arguing and reconciling in order to make their children happy. And, while we (infamously) never see Andy’s dad, it’s clear his mom loves her family and wants to support them.

Our answers can include these elements that are clearly “good.” But we should also find the story’s “bad” elements, which the story actually wants to show as negative.

The gospel gives us and our kids the greatest hope that our favorite stories can only reflect in part.

For example, characters may believe or act in ungodly ways, yet the story itself may clearly show this as undesirable behavior. At first, Woody shows envy and anger. He hilariously but rudely mocks Buzz Lightyear for his space-ranger delusions. Later, Woody’s ill temper gets the best of him and backfires. He’s forced to rely on Buzz when they’re both trapped in the house of the toy-abusing neighbor kid Sid. (For grown-ups and older children engaging with advanced popular culture, a story’s violent moments or even language can also serve as reflections of truth.)

Meanwhile, Pixar’s team here shows the talents that made them famous. Animators brought in their own favorite toys, “becoming as little children” to recapture the thrill of simple play. Writer Pete Docter nailed old shoes to a board to better study the movement of little green army men. Sound designer Gary Rydstrom used filters to make the toy’s celebrity voice actors sound “plasticky,” yet without obscuring their identities. All the way, using mid-‘90s machines, Pixar’s best took extraordinary lengths to make Andy’s bedroom and Sid’s mutant creations look believable. With this creative excellence, they reflect the gift of God’s imago Dei to the world.

4. How do we find and subvert the story’s idols?

This question doesn’t refer only to cussword-counting or expectations of “clean” stories. Instead, we’re seeking out whatever good things the story offers to fulfill its characters’ hopes. Then we can show kids how these good things can actually turn into idols that cannot fulfill our heroes’ hopes, either in their world or in our reality.

For example, Woody hopes to regain his place as Andy’s favorite toy. We’ve shown this can reflect a good purpose: to do everything we can to please another person. What happens, though, when Andy grows up and goes to college? Will any toy be able to stay happy then? (Astute Toy Story fans know that sometimes a film franchise continues for so long that its own writers may eventually explore such a subversion themselves!) Without some greater purpose, Woody will find no lasting fulfillment.

In reality, we can do all we can to please a family member, boss, or spiritual leader, but that person’s pleasure will not last and will not ultimately fulfill our longings.

5. How does Jesus answer the story’s good hopes?

Now we can answer the story with the gospel. Yet the gospel is not just moral support for the story’s good parts, or moral judgment on its bad parts. Instead, Christ’s true story calls the story’s “bluff” of a happy ending. The gospel gives us and our kids the greatest hope that our favorite stories can only reflect in part.For example, we can show kids the lack of any creator in Toy Story. The film gives us no master “toymaker” who gives the toys their purpose and provides the rules they have been following. Now, switching to reality, we can recall that our real-life Creator has not left us so lost. God has created us for a purpose: to enjoy perfect happiness in him alone. His Word endorses good gifts, like making toys and stories, but focuses on describing the true and best

story about Christ’s quest to rescue his people from evil. Someday he will renew all creation and make us happy forever. In that day, no one will grow up and abandon us, and no toys will be left behind.

To be sure, you’ll find more beyond this introduction to engage about Toy Story. As a parent (or teacher, pastor, guardian), you’ll need to vary your approach, depending on your child’s maturity level. Briefer comments will help younger kids stop to think, while detailed questions will help older kids work through their thoughts.

Either way, always challenge kids to see all stories in light of God’s true story. Help them think and imagine how only our true Hero, Christ, can give us what we need.

By / Oct 15

Anytime I am asked to share our story, I am equal parts excited and nervous. Our story is not a typical one, thought it started out very charmed.  We easily could have been the stock photo for a new picture frame. I married my college sweetheart, a camp friend from high school. We both graduated from college, began our careers, got married, and moved to Dallas. We had a plan, and we were confident that our plan was surely God’s plan.  

When “typical” no longer defined our family 

After a few years of marriage, we started our family. We had a beautiful, healthy, strong-willed daughter. A couple of years after that, we had a handsome, healthy, and athletic boy. We continued moving forward with our plans and working hard at worldly success. In the fall of 2008, everything changed. I was pregnant with our third child. My pregnancy was normal, and there was nothing to be concerned about—until I went into labor five weeks early. From that moment on, our family has been anything but “typical.”  

Libby was born, and we instantly knew that something was not right. Multiple doctors and nurses came in and out, having very hushed conversations. They took her out and did not bring her back. She was taken to the NICU with a number of concerns, the most significant being respiratory and cardiac. We were told that she had a very serious heart defect and would require surgery. She was struggling to transition from the womb to the world and was requiring assistance to breathe, eat, and rest. She had open heart surgery at 10 weeks old, and it was shortly after that surgery that we were told that Libby had a very rare chromosomal abnormality called Trisomy 16P. 

We were told that the chances of her celebrating a second birthday were highly unlikely. We heard many things from doctors in the days following the diagnosis. We were told to “take her home and love her while you have her.” We were told “if you had not already repaired her heart, we would tell you not to bother—she won’t live long enough for the surgery to be worth it.” We were told to carefully consider our future family planning. Our heads and hearts were spinning. 

One of the most encouraging things we heard was, “Who knows?” It was a comfort and relief when a very knowledgeable physician would admit that maybe he or she did not know what Libby’s future looked like. It was in these moments that I could feel the Lord nudging me and saying, “I know.”  

Libby is now 12 years old. She is healthy and happy and truly a miracle from God. Life with Libby has been anything but easy. We have felt very much like navigators of a foreign territory. We have not found another family or even medical professional that has experience with Trisomy 16P. When Libby was diagnosed, there were 30 reported cases. Libby does not walk or talk; she has the cognitive ability of a nine-month-old baby. 

Despite the difficulty and stress, we decided to continue to grow our family. We met with doctors and specialists. We were told that it was a scientific impossibility that we would have another child with Trisomy 16P. In October of 2011, after a very typical pregnancy, we welcomed Hannah Jane into our family. Hannah’s heart was healthy, she was not premature, she was breathing on her own; however, we both knew that something was atypical. We were told that she also has Trisomy 16P. We were shocked and devastated all over again. How could this be? 

How our family experiences God’s faithfulness 

Although the diagnosis was the same and the girls are technically genetic twins on paper, our feelings were different the second time. I never want to sugarcoat it—it was hard. We cried many tears. We questioned God’s plan. We felt angry. At the same time, we felt a peace and a calling. We have had hundreds of doctor appointments, surgeries, and hospitalizations. We have had such extreme mountain-top experiences, like when Hannah walked over 700 steps in her gait trainer a few weeks ago at school. We have also had dark, scary experiences in the valley. We have walked through nights in the ICU where we didn’t know if our girl would live. We have sat through surgeries that were long and life-threatening. We have flown in care flight helicopters and been transported by ambulances more times than I can count.  

Here is what I have learned: God is God over the peaks and valleys. God was and is faithful every moment in between. He has been faithful to provide through his Word, his presence, and his people. I am grateful that God’s Word addresses fears and pain, anger and sadness. I am thankful that God does not turn away from our emotions. And I am grateful he continually speaks through his Word and his people. 

For anyone walking a similar path, I encourage you to find a Bible-believing, Gospel-preaching church that will minister to you and your family. We have been been a part of three different churches—all who have loved us well and cared for our girls. 

I would also encourage you to find parachurch ministries that minister to you and your entire family. Our very favorite event every year is attending Family Camp with Joni and Friends Texas. Joni Earekson Tada is a hero of ours and has established an unbelievably life-giving ministry that cares for families with disabilities. 

And most importantly, I would encourage you to press in to God’s Word and discover what he says about suffering. John 16:33 has become my life verse, “I have said these things to you that, in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (ESV).

I fought the reality that our life is anything but typical for a while, but now I embrace the calling and blessing that we have been given. Our girls have taught us so much about God—his faithfulness, provision, and love for us. Our girls do not speak, but they communicate the gospel every single day. Our plan did not look like God’s plan. In 2013, his plan surprised us with welcoming our fifth child into our family. Campbell Grace is a healthy, active, extremely talkative seven-year-old now. His grace abounds, and his plan is always better—for his glory and our good. 

By / Oct 14

Last month, a favorite family park reopened in our West Seattle neighborhood. With much excitement, my wife and three kids arrived to play on the newly built playground. Getting into a new rhythm of playing while wearing masks was uncomfortable for my six-, five-, and three-year-old kids, but nevertheless, they were excited about the prospect of playing at the park again. 

After the kids played a bit, an unexpected topic of conversation emerged. My kids noticed all the protective wear other families had. Some families wore masks, others wore face shields, while still others removed their masks to take advantage of breathing in the open air. My first reaction was to tell my kids not to stare. But then I realized there was an opportunity in their curiosity. In fact, it was the perfect opportunity to teach them about the conscience. 

We’re all adjusting to new COVID-19 rhythms and protocols. Each of us has our own perception and interpretation of all the new policies and procedures. Kids do too. And if your kids are like mine, they aren’t afraid to ask why one family’s approach to mask-wearing, social distancing, etc., differs so much from the next. 

As these questions come, I believe it’s important now more than ever for parents to teach their children how to differentiate between biblical convictions and personal convictions. I believe it’s important for us to help our kids understand how God has designed the conscience. Here are three truths to get you started:  

First, our conscience is a gift from God. God has given humans the ability to identify and describe our internal thoughts—whether positive or negative—about ideas, actions, and situations. In Romans 2:15, Paul explains that the conscience is an intrinsic ability that is “written on every heart” of every human. 

So instead of defaulting to a preachy attitude about matters of conscience (“I know what other families should and shouldn’t do”), we should remember that the conscience is a precious gift—one that we should appreciate in ourselves and others, one that we should utilize with grace.

Second, our conscience is a guide. When a friend of mine began teaching her kids about the conscience, she described it as “a moral compass that guides people toward a heightened awareness of right and wrong.” It’s a guide given by God to help us navigate our daily choices. As we navigate each day’s circumstances and decisions, our conscience guides us through our decision-making process. 

We should teach our kids that if they feel guilt over a particular sin or a poor decision, they should listen to those feelings. Their conscience is guiding them toward repentance and reconciliation. If we learn to be aware of our conscience, we can sense whether thoughts and actions are swaying us away from the true north of God’s righteous standards.

Third, our conscience needs calibrating. One of the challenges of the conscience is that it has been affected by the fall. Our consciences are not perfect. They are good, but flawed and need constant calibration. On the one hand, the human conscience has positive moral tendencies; we gravitate toward justice, goodness, and truth. On the other hand, we can sear our consciences by giving into sin and deceit. And we can overly strengthen our conscience by sneering at and standing in judgment of others who make choices that differ from our own. 

Thankfully, we have God’s Word and the Holy Spirit to correct our consciences and keep us from these twin dangers of lawlessness and legalism. When we compare our lives to the Bible’s instructions, God will graciously awaken our conscience toward truth. You see, God is committed to our sanctification—to our transformation. He wants to make us more like Jesus, and correcting our conscience is one of the ways he does so.

Have you had a conversation with your kids about their conscience? As parents and church leaders, our motivation should be that of Paul’s instruction to Timothy. He wanted his son in the faith to live with “love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith” (1 Tim. 1:5). By teaching these basic principles about the conscience, we can help our children grow up with godly discernment about the world around them. 

By / Oct 8

Over the last few weeks, I have been studying the country of China with my seven-year-old daughter. We have researched landmarks, language, customs, and geography. I want to teach my daughter about the diversity of God’s creation, so when we looked at maps of China and its regions, we looked at pictures of the various people groups that live in the country’s different regions.

I intentionally pointed out the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in northwestern China where the Uighur people have faced brutality because of their race and a campaign of genocide at the hands of the Chinese authorities. I could not ignore this historical moment in our geography lesson. So without going into graphic detail, I shared with her that a government is designed to protect its people (Rom. 13:1–7). But in Xinjiang, the government is hurting its people.

As we studied China, our family also looked forward to the latest live-action Disney movie, “Mulan.” The film recounts the story of a fearless young woman who risks everything out of love for her family and country to become one of China’s greatest warriors. The movie’s anthem is “Loyal, Brave, True,” a song that proclaims the importance of fighting for freedom and to protect one’s family.

With core themes like these, I didn’t anticipate the dilemma I now face. Since the movie’s release, I’ve learned that the movie was filmed in Turpan, a city where local officials operate concentration camps that hold Uighur people. In the movie’s closing credits, Disney explicitly thanks multiple Chinese government entities including Turpan’s public safety bureau, which is responsible for operating camps in the area. Moreover, Liu Yifei, the actress who plays Mulan, has used her platform to speak out in support of the Chinese Communist Party and against freedom for the Chinese people. In light of these realities, the ideals of loyalty, bravery, and truth that the film upholds look more like a thinly veiled facade behind which Disney is hiding actions that actually support China’s totalitarian government.  

My prayer for my daughter is that she won’t grow up turning a blind eye to injustice and suffering but rather see that she has a stewardship from God to be loyal, brave, and true.

We have decided we will eventually watch the movie, though some families have made the choice that they will not. As a parent, I am now faced with several questions. Do I simply teach my daughter the surface-level values of the film? After all, Disney has often presented heroes and heroines that fight for justice and truth. Or, do I pull back the veil and begin to teach my daughter about the complexities of evil?

This is an ongoing work in progress, but here is where we have started:  

  1. Teach your kids about human dignity. It’s not lost on me that my daughter and I enjoy many privileges. We experience safety and freedom while at the same moment Uighur families experience the horrors of persecution. This is grace, because the Uighur people are equal to us in the eyes of God. They are inherently his image-bearers, but they have not been treated with dignity.
  2. Teach your children to seek justice while trusting in God’s sovereignty. When we see injustice happening in our world, we have a desire to take necessary action. But, as Christians, when we act, we should do so hoping in the truth that God is sovereign over both good and evil. God’s Word promises that Jesus will return one day to put an end to injustice and evil on this earth. This fact serves as a reminder for me to teach my daughter to pray for the Uighur people. We pray for world leaders to honor the dignity of the Uighur people by standing up to the Chinese authorities, and we pray that the Uighur people would hear and believe the good news of the gospel—that they’ll find hope in Christ in the midst of this present darkness.
  3. Teach kids to respect government authorities but also help them realize that human governments are broken. It’s part of our civic duty to serve our communities and country by giving back to others. And it’s important to teach our children to be good citizens. As I teach my daughter the history of our nation, I’m careful to emphasize our civic duty as citizens of the United States within the context of a biblical worldview in which God’s sovereignty reigns supreme. Our children should know that bravery is required when seeking to protect others or build up our communities. But our children also need to learn that governments never carry out truth and justice perfectly. Broken institutions are bad saviors. We should not lead our kids to put their hope in man-made institutions but in God alone. Governments will fail, but ultimately God’s justice will not fail.
  4. Finally, help your kids pay attention to history and what is happening around them. I want to teach my daughter to recognize good and evil in the world as she grows. One way to help her grow in discernment is to help her learn history and then think about it in light of the Scriptures. What events and people have led to this current moment? How can I relate current events to her in age-appropriate ways? Parents will differ about whether or not it’s appropriate to pull back the veil on Disney’s connections to the Chinese authorities. Your child’s age and emotional makeup should factor into your decision about what information they can handle. But every parent should seek to talk to their children about current events and help their children to evaluate the world in light of a biblical worldview.

I began this series of geography lessons to help my daughter see that God has created a world that is bigger than her limited view. I believe it’s important for her to learn from an early age that God’s world is bigger than the community of like-minded people around us. I also want her to hide the truths of God’s Word deep within her heart so that as she grows to have a larger view of the world, she’ll also bravely seek justice, goodness, and truth. My prayer for my daughter is that she won’t grow up turning a blind eye to injustice and suffering but rather see that she has a stewardship from God to be loyal, brave, and true.

By / Sep 23

The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) led a coalition this year on Capitol Hill calling for Congress to pass the bipartisan Adoptee Citizenship Act.

Adopted children of U.S. families should receive the same rights and privileges through citizenship as natural born children. The Adoptee Citizenship Act seeks to provide citizenship to those children already adopted by U.S. citizens who were unfortunately left without citizenship from a loophole in the Child Citizenship Act of 2000. For more on this issue and bill, see this article, Explainer: What you need to know about the Adoptee Citizenship Act.

In April, this coalition of advocacy groups sent a letter to Congressional leadership, which includes Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and a letter to the Senate and House Judiciary Committee leadership, which includes Chairmen Sen. Lindsey Graham and Rep. Jerry Nadler, and Ranking Members Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Jim Jordan.

The coalition includes World Relief, Bethany Christian Services, Holt International, Christian Alliance for Orphans, the Korean American Grassroots Conference, and many more. You can see the full list of signatories in the letters below.

The ERLC strongly urges Congress to pass the bipartisan Adoptee Citizenship Act to provide a permanent legal remedy for the thousands of sons and daughters of U.S. citizens who were left in the gap of uncertainty. A great step you can take today on behalf of vulnerable children is to call your Representative and Senators to ask them to support the Adoptee Citizenship Act. To find your members of Congress and for more information on this bill, click here.

By / Aug 18

With Congress in August recess, we take a break from our usual policy focused conversations and host interviews with leaders we admire. This week, Chelsea Patterson Sobolik sits down with D.J. Jordan, a communications professional with the Pinkston Group.

Guest Biography

D.J. Jordan is a Vice President at Pinkston where he leads a team of experienced strategists, writers and designers in creating and implementing strategic communications campaigns for corporations, nonprofit organizations, advocacy groups and individual thought leaders. D.J. has worked for major news outlets as well as in various communications leadership roles in the federal government. Prior to joining Pinkston, D.J. was communications director for a U.S. Senator, communications director for the U.S. House Committee on Small Business, and press secretary for a U.S. Representative. He previously worked at both CNN and Fox News, where as an assignment editor and producer he helped develop coverage of breaking and featured news. D.J. earned a bachelor’s degree in broadcast communications from Liberty University, and a master’s degree in public management from The Johns Hopkins University. He has served on the boards of several state and nonprofit agencies focused on family issues, including the Virginia State Board of Social Services and Virginia’s Kids Belong, which advocates for children in the foster care system.

Resources from the Conversation

By / Dec 17

As we live in the tension between the Fall and the full restoration of all things, suffering is an undeniable fact of life. What comfort does the presence of God have to offer to the suffering family, and what does the Gospel say to these families? At the 2018 ERLC National Conference, Erick Erickson opens the conversation on reconciling God’s goodness with our suffering.