For children and young people growing up in Britain today, questions about other faiths cannot be avoided, whether it’s having friends of different faiths, hearing terrible news items about acts of terrorism done in the name of religion, or learning about other faiths in school. For some, encountering other faiths is a daily reality, for others it is through the media or online. However, the fact is this is the world our children and young people are growing up in, so what should our response be? Encountering other faiths impacts children and young people in different ways, here are some of the issues.
One consequence of there being more people of different faiths around is that religion is on the agenda in public and can’t be ignored. Growing up in a multifaith context means it can be easier to talk about one’s own faith, as having beliefs and a faith is the norm. Seeing people of different faiths prepared to stand out all the time, such as Sikh men wearing turbans or Muslim women wearing headscarves, can challenge Christians to think about how they stand out for their faith. This can lead to a greater confidence to be open about their beliefs and the way they practice their faith.
For some children and young people, hearing about acts of terrorism done in the name of a religion, and at the moment those are predominantly Islam, is unsettling. The world feels like an uncertain, possibly scary place and religion is often portrayed as the problem. Sometimes this leads people to conclude that either all religion is a problem or that Islam, and by default Muslims, is the problem. Both of these need addressing as clearly religion is also a huge force for good in the world, despite what we might see or hear. Telling the stories of how people of different faiths are making the world a better place, such as caring for the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire, is an important way to counter this fear and uncertainty. It’s also important to be honest about the bad things that have been done in the name of Christianity.
Often it’s much easier to start by asking others about their beliefs and practices, and use that as a springboard to talk about what we do and believe
Encountering different faiths, be it through chatting to friends or learning about them at school, can cause children and young people to have questions about their own faith, or the faith of others. It can be a particular issue for children coming from homes or churches where there is great certainty in the validity and uniqueness of Christ and the Christian faith. When one has grown up knowing that the Bible is the word of God, that Jesus is the son of God and that Christianity is the one true faith, having to face the fact that others do not see it in this way and make similar claims for their faith can cause many questions for young people. Often these discussions take place in schools where the overriding ethos is of a tolerant pluralism that regards all faiths as equally valid and worthy of study.
As parents, it can be tempting to want to protect or remove children from this context in the belief that it will cause doubts in their mind and lead them away from Christ. Yet this is the world in which we now live. Helping our children and young people be Christ’s followers means being his follower in a multifaith context, just like the first disciples did, this would be really familiar territory for them.
If parents and leaders are prepared to discuss the questions children or young people ask it can lead to a real maturing of faith. Sometimes these questions can seem daunting to adults
unprepared for them, such as: “Will my Hindu friend be in heaven?” or: “How do we know our religion is the true one?” Working through these can then be of benefit to the adults as well. As with so many areas of life, children and young people don’t want to be fobbed off with simplistic answers but are often seeking to grapple with how their faith sits in the reality of their lives.
SPEAKING ABOUT FAITH
For many young people and children, speaking about faith is difficult enough, but is often seen as being especially difficult when speaking to friends of different faiths. People get anxious that they’ll cause offense or are afraid that they’ll ‘get it wrong’. In fact, this is very rarely the case and speaking about what we believe to people of other faiths needn’t be something to be anxious about. Most people, of any age, are not waiting to be offended and if we speak about our faith in a non-judgmental way, and are willing to listen to them talk about their faith it can be a really enriching and rewarding exercise. Often we teach people to share their faith by starting with their own beliefs and ideas, but often it’s much easier to start by asking others about their beliefs or practices, and then use this as a springboard to talk about what we do or believe. For example asking Sikhs what they do in a gurdwara can easily lead to talking about what we do in church, or asking Muslims about prayer can lead to opportunities to talk about our own prayer life. When we take an interest in others often they then take an interest in us.
As parents, it can be tempting to want to protect children from other faiths in the belief that they will lead them away from Christ
For some Christian children this becomes a very natural part of growing up, others find it more difficult or feel ostracised by others. For many younger children, this is a complete non-issue: friends are just friends. It’s more likely to raise questions for parents: can we invite them round for a play date? What will they eat? What will it be like if they invite my child back to their house? Most of these can be resolved by just asking the parents - they will almost certainly be having all the same thoughts. Having a common interest, such as children, is often a great reminder of our common humanity and creates opportunities for very normal conversations.
There may be activities that mean that the time when people are available will be different; children might go to their mosque after school or spend Saturday at the gurdwara. While this might limit their availability, it doesn’t mean they are being unfriendly if they can’t come to parties or rarely invite friends back to their house. There may be lots of cultural reasons why friendships take different forms than what we’re used to. Often when people reach teenage years they find that there is less opportunity for mixing informally with friends of different faiths; this may be to do with the faith but is likely to be just as much to do with the culture of the family. While this can leave our young people feeling lonely it’s important not to instantly interpret this as a rejection of the friendship but a different cultural way of expressing that friendship. Of course not all friendships will work, which can be very hard, but this not unique to friendships with peers of different faiths and cultures.
For many people this is the big one. Should we pray for or expect children or young people from different faiths to convert to our own, and should we be asking our young people to be instrumental in that? It’s worth stopping at this point and reflecting on Jesus’ command to: “Do to others as you would have them do to you” in Luke 6:31. How would you feel if people from another faith were having this discussion about Christian children and young people? If we would feel uncomfortable about others wanting our children to convert to their religion then we need to tread very carefully to make sure we treat others in ways we’d be comfortable with.
While conversion might be deeply problematic, sharing faith and being a positive witness is much less so. It is legitimate to help our children and young people think through how they will be a witness and speak about their faith so that their friends grow up encountering a friendly, confident Christianity through their example. It also means helping our young people see the value of this without feeling a failure if no one converts because of what they are doing, but to be confident in God’s promise that his word will not return empty (Isaiah 55:11) even though we might not know what that will be or when.
These are just some of the joys and challenges that our young people face growing up in Britain today. If we are going to help children and young people be disciples we will need to help them negotiate this landscape and see the possibilities of being faithful Christians whoever they live among.