Throughout my banking career, I have had many opportunities to work with small and medium-sized enterprises that were family-owned. After surviving the initial few years of operation, a common cause of failure for family businesses is generational transfer.
This is especially true for the third generation, where by some estimates the success rate is as little as ten percent. Passing down the family business is a high-risk prospect. Similarly, passing on our faith to the next generation is not a given. Being reared in a Christian home is an enormous advantage. But it is sometimes said that the first generation believes the Gospel, the second assumes it, and the third loses it. To provide emphasis to the criticality of the point, we declare, “We are only one generation away from apostasy.” It is a serious challenge that requires great diligence. What can we do?
Make a plan. In the family-owned business, the advisors will counsel that you can’t start too early to plan the succession. As a parent, grandparent, or elder, we must also plan generational succession with an end goal in mind. Too often we live in the day to day because of its pressures and do not set a vision for our young people. Where do we want the next generation to be in ten or twenty years? What are they facing today that will shape them? How do we best influence them?
Tools including Bible education, service and fellowship opportunities, and emphasizing the importance of Christian universities can all help. A thoughtful path forward that is carried out and amended as needed will go a long way in making sure the next generation is equipped for the faith. Often in life, we don’t know what we don’t know. This is especially true of those that have not lived through various experiences.
And so, our obvious role is to transfer knowledge. The foundation is Biblical knowledge; we all do well to remember the admonition of Moses in Deuteronomy 6:7. Concerning the statutes of the Lord he said, “You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up.”
In discussions with young people who are losing faith, I am amazed at how little they know. Sometimes it is Biblical ignorance. Other times it is a lack of historical understanding on key questions. Frequently young adults reject core principles without a basic knowledge of past debates and discussions. I exhort them to make their own decision, but be sure to do it with an understanding of the topic. The founder of a business fought through many difficult days and questions that are lost on the third generation. In the same way we should provide a historic understanding of the spiritual struggles that have gone before to those that did not have occasion to live them.
Culture and heritage are powerful forces. In the business example, knowing your brand and being true to it goes a long way to maintaining focus, distinctiveness, and longevity. Mission and vision statements create cohesiveness and singular purpose for an enterprise. When it comes to faith, reasoned knowledge is its foundation. But in every life comes a time when we are just not thinking clearly.
This may be especially true as children move into adulthood. It is at that time that an internal sense of identification with the body of Christ is so critical. Some in a time of weakness may erroneously change their minds. It is a lot harder to flippantly change your core identity. (This is why the Biblical model of withdrawing should be so effective.) As we think about the transfer of faith, creating within each generation a core allegiance to our heritage and history will create retention. To do this we must make a unique plea to future generations as to why they should adopt our spiritual culture (based on demonstrative truth) and their role within it.
We must also help each generation make faith its own. In Genesis 28 we read of Jacob’s coming of age spiritually while in a foreign land and facing unique challenges. He certainly had a tremendous advantage and heritage in his grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac. Nevertheless, as he received the promises of God, he had to make his own choice, which he did through his vow (Genesis 28:20-22). Relying on an ancestor’s faith doesn’t work and may fail when under pressure.
Helping young people make faith their own includes addressing the unique circumstances they face, answering their “why questions” with real and respectful answers, while modeling the way forward. I have counseled many middle-age defectors from the church concerning the fundamentals. While they are accountable for the decisions they made, often their departure was facilitated by those that told them just to accept things on authority. Rather than addressing their questions, they were accused of rebellion. The young inquisitive mind can be the greatest path to strong faith and generational stability.
Those that have been blessed by a Christian heritage know the advantages. But let’s not take for granted that faith will continue to roll without our diligent attention and effort.
By Brett Pharr
This article originally appeared in Think magazine.