Francine Rivers is a multi-award-winning author. She spoke to Ruth Jackson about coming back to church through the influence of a child, the art of storytelling and how to cover difficult topics with young people
Ruth Jackson: What was your experience of God growing up?
Francine Rivers: My parents were believers and I attended church. They were very involved – my mum was a deaconess and my dad was an elder – but I saw a lot of infighting in the church. There was a split, and when I left home for college I left God, because I didn’t want any part in being a Christian if that’s how they behaved…very judgmental. As a child, my parents made sure I had a chance to go to church camp and we prayed before meals. I believed I was saved fairly young, but there’s a difference between being saved and surrendering your life, and letting God be Lord of your life. That’s when I think the change really comes.
RJ: What triggered that change?
FR: A lot of dysfunction. I acted out in college, then when Rick and I got married he was a marine in Vietnam, so he had a lot of issues. We tried churches, but they were not teaching the gospel, really. They were more politically inclined. We moved to northern California and God put us between two Christian families, and it was actually a little boy – about 8 years old – who came over and said: “Have I got a church for you!” I started going but couldn’t get Rick to go. So I asked the pastor if he’d be willing to do a home Bible study. He said: “If it’s all right with your husband I’d love to.” And Rick said: “Sure. Fine.” So we were baptised in 1986 on the same day.
RJ: Are there any stories in the Bible you think would be inappropriate or unhelpful to share with children? Take Noah, for example…
FR: It depends how you present it. Many young women read Redeeming Love. I didn’t realise when I was writing it that it has a great deal to do with sex-trafficking survivors and child abuse. I was looking at it more as an allegory about my journey to Christ, and how I was looking everywhere else except to God. I’d heard the gospel from the time I was a young child, but there was something about the story of Hosea that really got through to me of how much God loves us.
I think you probably have to tell the story. Tell it in a gentle form, and then as they get older you bring in the details and explain what was going on, because there are reasons behind everything. God doesn’t arbitrarily wipe out a planet.
RJ: Did you specifically aim your books at young people?
FR: No. I think that’s just a blessing. Some of the characters are young, so I think maybe that appeals.
RJ: You’ve written two children’s books. Where did they come from?
FR: For The Shoe Box I was asked to write a children’s story for Angel Tree [part of Prison Fellowship]. I had never written a children’s story, and I said: “I don’t know if I can even do that!” But what kept coming up for me was that I used to have a God box, and whenever I had a question or a prayer or some issue that was really bothering me I’d put it in the God box. I would open it up a few months later, and what amazed me is that they were answered, but never in the way I expected. You just never quite know how God’s going to work things out. I started thinking: “A child who’s going through a traumatic experience – if the father’s been sent to prison and the mother’s having difficulty because she’s trying to work and having to leave the child alone – what’s that child going to put in that box?” And that’s the story: the precious things he puts in that box, which he carries everywhere with him, but then he’s willing to give it up to the Lord.
The other book I wrote with my daughter. Her children were fairly small at the time, and I thought a family devotional would be kind of fun. We teamed up on it. I wrote the story and she worked on the materials to go along with it that the family could work on together. I loved it. For her it was excruciating!
RJ: Do you find writing for children more difficult?
FR:Absolutely. It’s hard to not add things that are going to be difficult for them to understand; concepts that are beyond their understanding. I know an example right now is gender identity. A friend of mine overheard a conversation where a man was saying that his 8-year-old daughter wants to be a boy. I remember wanting to be a boy when I was 8. The boys looked like they were having more fun! But this man was going to give his daughter drugs to make her a boy so that he could honour her gender identity. It made me think. Children don’t even know what gender is at the age of 8, so we need to be careful what information we’re giving to children, what we’re doing to children, because they’re not thinking along that line at all but the adults are overlaying their adult concepts onto a child.
RJ: You write about quite a lot of gritty subjects. Do you think that’s something we shouldn’t shy away from with young people?
FR: I think there are a lot of children who are dealing with major issues now. In The Last Sin Eater the girl is 12 and is trying to find somebody to take away her sins because she’s done something horrendous. There are so many children going through difficult situations, and we need to be able to talk to them about that.
RJ: How do you think we can capture the imagination of children?
FR: I think stories are always a way to capture children. It’s the way to capture adults, too. Story is powerful. Jesus used stories with the parables. It was to kind of close the eyes of some, but the ones who wanted to know more and wanted to understand would come to him and ask, and then he would explain.
RJ: If you could share the gospel in a nutshell for a young person, how would you do it?
FR: Oh man, I don’t know! I wouldn’t dumb it down. I think I would just talk about Jesus and how he came to save us, and explain that we all have a sinful nature and maybe explain or ask questions. I think questions help. Have you ever told a lie? Have you ever taken anything that didn’t belong to you? Then we’re law-breakers. We’re all that way and there’s a cost to that, and that’s why Jesus came: to pay that cost. That would be hard when thinking about tiny children, but little children understand a lot more than we realise, and I’ve heard so many stories of young children coming to Christ.
RJ: How do we welcome children into church and ensure that they remain engaged in their faith?
FR: We’re trying to figure that out in our church right now. I’ve heard of studies which suggest that the children who worship with their parents – who sit with parents and hear the whole service – tend to stay in church when they leave home. A lot of Sunday school in America seems to be entertainment – fast and visual – so those children grow up expecting church to be the same way. They don’t realise there’s a lot more to worship than just being entertained and having it be all about them. It’s deeper than that. So I would encourage people to have their children with them. Let them be a part of their worship. Let them hear the music, and let them see and hear what’s being said.
At our church we have hardly any parking, but we are right across the street from an elementary school. They offer Bible release time, where the kids are released from school to come have lessons in the church about Jesus and Christianity. They started with ten kids and they’re up to 25. And now we’re noticing those kids want to come back on Sunday morning to hear more, and they’re bringing their parents.
I think we tend to go into our buildings and close the doors because we don’t want to be contaminated by the world. We need to get out into the world and take the message to them. We need to be involved in our communities and let them get to know us, and then we’ll have the opportunity to talk about Christ.
RJ: Whose responsibility is it to disciple children and young people?
FR: The pastor preaches, but really the people who grow a church are the parishioners. The pastor may draw some people, but it’s the people going out to their neighbours and saying: “We’d love to have you come to church.” It’s the personal relationships that develop, and I think that’s the same way it’s going to have to be with this generation: to get to know them and respect who they are, and meet them on their terms and tell them about another way of life. Because we have a really wonderful thing here, and I think they’re searching. And I think they’re critical thinkers. They’re going to want to hear about it. When you engage young people in conversation they have a lot to say, and I think they’re changing the culture.
RJ: Do you talk about faith with your children and grandchildren?
FR: With my parents’ generation you didn’t discuss religion. It was impolite to bring that into the conversation. It was very private. That’s a lie from the devil; faith is meant to be shared. It’s the most important thing! The most interesting thing to talk about is faith.
Grandparents have a unique role to play in children’s lives. You don’t have to be the disciplinary, and you can just love them – spoil them! – and hand them back to their parents! I think you really have opportunities to show your faith to the kids. It’s better to show it in the way you live than to talk about it, because a lot of times they don’t talk but they’re watching. They’re always watching.
RJ: If you could give your teenage self any advice, what would it be?
FR:I wish I had been a strong Christian when I first had children, because I would have been a different kind of mum. I remember my daughter saying that they saw the really rough years we had where we were fighting a lot. Then they saw us come to Christ, and they saw the difference it made in our relationship and how we work together. We’re going on 50 years of marriage now!
When we moved to Sebastopol, so many of our daughter’s classmates were from blended, broken or single-parent families. That impacts the children. It impacts society. We have a lot of broken, confused, hurting people. We ought to be ministering to them, but the least comfortable thing for them to do is to walk through the doors of a church because it looks strange to them, and it looks like a club. Of course, a lot of people treat it like a club: I paid my dues; I want it my way; I want to tell you how to run the service. It’s not that at all. It’s about reaching the lost. So we need to figure out a way to welcome them from the outside and draw them in rather than waiting for them to come through the doors.