What’s Behind Their Faith Questions? Sean McDowell
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Dr. Sean McDowellDr. Sean McDowell is an author, speaker, and Associate Professor at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, with a Ph.D. in apologetics and worldview studies. He has authored or edited numerous books, including Chasing Love: Sex, Love, and Relationships in A Confused Culture and So the Next Generation Will Know. Sean is a gifted communicator with a passion for equipping the church, especially young people, to make the case for the Christian faith. He regularly engages nonbelievers in though...more
When someone doesn’t know Jesus, their brain isn’t the only thing tossing out arguments. Author Sean McDowell looks to deeper hurt behind faith questions.
What’s Behind Their Faith Questions? Sean McDowell
Sean: A digital “like” cannot replace a physical hug. There’s a lot of people who are trying to find their identity through social media or internet alone, apart from real incarnational relationships. I think the pandemic really exacerbated the loneliness that was there before.
Shelby: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Shelby Abbott, and your hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson.
You can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on the FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
Dave: Do you think the issues that our kids are dealing with today are different than twenty, twenty-five years ago?
Ann: Yes, I think—
Dave: When we were parents and were raising kids in the nineties, early two thousands—isn’t that when we raised them?
Dave: I can hardly remember—are the issues totally different for parents with their kids in 2023?
Ann: I think they are. Mainly I say that because of social media. It’s totally different. Now are there issues like bullying, loneliness, not being able to get alone; all of that’s true. But it looks different today because of social media, I think.
Dave: I think it’s heightened today.
Ann: Me, too.
Dave: We thought it was hard when we did it. You talk about now; it’s like, Wow!
Ann: There are a lot more places, I think, for kids to escape today than there were before. That’s interesting to navigate as a parent and to know how to navigate that.
Dave: We’ve got help in the studio today to help us [as] parents with these issues.
Sean, welcome back.
Sean: Honored to be back.
Dave: You are a parent, let alone a professor and a teacher and an author. Your latest book, A Rebel's Manifesto. Did you even think of parents when you were writing it? Is that on your radar?
Sean: Oh, 100 percent. My first book had ten chapters, because I thought, “Well, you have ten chapters in a book.” Then I went back to write as a parent; I said, “Oh, what tool would I use with my kids?” So, 30 chapters, shorter and it’s a set up to read together five, six, seven minutes and then talk about it.
Ann: The subtitle is Choosing Truth, Real Justice, and Love amid the Noise of Today's World. You’ve hit all the topics parents are discussing or want to discuss or need to discuss with their kids.
Dave: Here’s a question: Did you do it with your kids; did you talk through these with them?
Sean: Yes and no. I haven’t taken them through my book, chapter by chapter, because that’s a little bit weird: “Here, let’s go through Dad’s book.” But what I have done is in class—I have my kids in a private school, and we’ve gone through one of my books chapter by chapter and to discuss it as a class—had them in there.
I had my daughter—kids respond differently—my book before this same format but on sexuality is—I told my daughter; said, “If you’ll read this, and then just talk with your dad about it over coffee, I’ll buy you a pair of shoes or something like that.” [Laughter] And she did it.
We’ve talked about a lot of these topics over the dinner table, in the car, relationally. But I don’t sit down and make my kids go through my book. [Laughter] That would be a little much probably.
Ann: Is loneliness a factor today more than—that’s probably always been an issue, but is it heightened?
Sean: I think loneliness has always been there, but I think it is heightened for a couple of reasons. One being social media. It’s not that I think social media is bad, and even smart phones. In some ways it can be good, and it can be great. But a digital “like” cannot replace a physical hug. There’s a lot of people who are trying to find their identity though social media or internet alone, apart from real incarnational relationships.
That’s one reason. I think the other one—I think the pandemic really exacerbated the loneliness that was there before. Really what’s the root of loneliness? It’s broken relationships.
We can see going back to the 60’s, the 80’s and 90’s and today, we see divorce overall has increased, relationships are broken, marriage has broken down. Yes, there’s always been loneliness, but I think the tools that we have, what’s been changed through the pandemic: less people going out than in the past than just meeting in the flesh. I think loneliness is more serious than it’s been in a while at least in American history and beyond.
Ann: Have you seen that with your college students?
Sean: Yes, I have. I’ve seen it with high school students and college students. Now at Biola we have pretty unique students—aren’t just a cross section of any students. They’re coming to get a Christian education, coming to think Christianly. We have an amazing community at Biola. But I would say even amongst some of the best Christian families there are still a lot of kids in my classroom with broken relationships with their parents; a lot more than you would think.
That’s true in our Christian families. It’s true in our Christian churches. It’s true in our best Christian schools. I don’t make assumptions with my students. The deeper I probe, yes, I see a lot of hurt and brokenness there that you would not expect on the surface.
Dave: What would you say to a parent who is sensing, “My daughter is lonely. I can feel it; I can see it.” Talk about the loneliness factor. If I’m seeing that in my home—yet often I think we look as a parent [and] we see our child on a smart phone all day long, and we think, “They’re not lonely because they’re interacting with their friends.” But there are symptoms in their life that seem to be “Man, their isolated and feeling lonely.” How do we step into that?
Sean: First thing I would do is talk with my wife, because chances are she saw it long before I did. [Laughter] If I see it, it’s like flashing red signs and I missed all obvious hints. So, I just make sure “What do you see? Are we on the same page?” We would talk.
I might, respecting that kid, depending on dynamics, I might go to a sibling and say, “Do you think your brother or sister—I’ve noticed this; I’m just curious if you think, as parents, we’re on this. Do you see anything at school? Do you think we should have any concern?” Without gossiping behind that kid’s back, I might do that.
But most importantly, I would just go to that kid in the right setting. Maybe I’d say, “I want to take you out to ice cream or take you out to coffee and just chat,” and say, “I just want to hear your heart. Here are some things your mom and I have seen. Are we right to see this? Are you feeling this way? I just want to hear you out. What’s going on?” and talk about it.
I’ve found that’s the best way to get to the heart of it. If you notice something significant that concerns you—one of the things that I’ve learned, as a communicator, is I know very quickly when I’m over my depth and out of my expertise and I need a counselor and I need somebody professional to help—so look for those signs. But start by talking with your spouse and then just go into the kid and ask him and open up a conversation.
Dave: You write, in that chapter on loneliness, about your dad. How old were you when you first heard about your dad’s background?
Sean: I heard about my dad’s background probably as soon as I could speak, because he came from an alcoholic father, his older sister committed suicide, just a broken family.
We were sitting around as a family, maybe a decade ago, and my mom was sharing funny stories from growing up in Boston, and my sister, Heather, goes, “Dad, share a good memory, a funny story you have when you were a kid.”
Dave and Ann, it was awkward silence. He goes, “Kids, I don’t have one.”
Sean: I’m feeling it right now. It was “Not one. Holy cow!” I knew it my whole life but that, about a decade ago, really brought it home; like, “Holy cow! I feel that!”
But the thing he started sharing maybe about a dozen years ago publicly is that he had been sexually abused. He didn’t suppress it. He had gotten professional help with it.
I remember he sat us down as a family, just us, me and my three sisters, and I thought in my mind, “He’s going to tell us he’s dying of cancer.” That’s how grave it was, and he shared with us, and my sister was in tears.
But you realize how painful and hurtful that is and the scars that that leaves. That’s so many kids in this generation: sexual abuse, bullying, broken relationships. That’s why his story still resonates with Gen Z, because they’re saying, “I felt that, and I’ve experience that.”
Ann: That makes me want to cry for him to not have one memory—
Sean: Oh, my goodness.
Ann: —to be able to share. It’s pretty incredible of the legacy now for you guys, for your kids coming from that. It reminds me of you, too, Dave.
Dave: Yes, I was—Sean, when you were saying that I was thinking, “I would have a similar answer to memories when I was a little boy.”
Mom and Dad divorced. Dad left with his girlfriend. I watched the whole thing when I was a little boy. I didn’t have the sexual abuse. But I know that, and you write about this, all my life I think deep inside there was a little bit of loneliness. I have two brothers and a sister, but they’re ten years older, so they were gone.
When the divorce happened for me, I was seven. I had a little brother. He dies of leukemia that year.
I’m raised basically by a single mom; just me. My escape was sports and music. I just immersed in that. But I think, at the heart of it I was very lonely. I’d come home to our house; nobody was there. My mom was working several jobs to pay. I walk in a house, and I’m alone, so I’d pick up a guitar or I pick up a ball. I became proficient at those things, but I think it was an escape.
Now today, you write about it. There’s smart phones, entertainment. You name it, there’s endless means for us to placate our loneliness or our sense of emptiness.
Ann: Are there counterfeits where we escape?
Sean: Yes, to your question at the beginning “What makes it different?” The issues at their core are kind of the same. But we’ve never had endless ways to distract ourselves. Frankly, a lot of social media releases the same chemicals in your brain that certain drugs do. You get a certain high from it. They’re designed to [make] you addicted to them.
I used to have my students journal a few years ago. This was a freshman in high school. I said, “Write for five minutes nonstop; just write ‘Why do you think we keep ourselves so busy?’” These are freshmen, so most of them didn’t have deep answers.
But I’ll never forget one girl wrote, “I keep myself busy and distracted so I don’t have to slow down and feel the loneliness in my heart.”
Sean: I thought, “She is speaking for many in this generation.” Sometimes I just watch social media and try to analyze it. So much of it is “Do you see me? Will you “like”? Will you comment? Am I important?” That’s at the heart of so much of this.
If we don’t give our kids the relationships they need, they’re going to fill it with something else: they’re going to fill it with pornography, they’re going to fill it with success, fill it with sports. Obviously, sports and success aren’t bad; pornography always is, but these are ways of filling up the human heart.
There’s always been loneliness. We talked about that. But this generation can distract themselves from dealing with the root issue unlike any generation before. If we’re not intentional and we don’t step in, they’re going to allow themselves to live a life accepting these relational counterfeits.
Ann: But as parents, we get so worried about our kids that we react, that we shut things down and we’re not sure how to address the loneliness. I don’t think we’re thinking “lonely. Most of the time I’d say, “You guys are so stinking lazy. You’re getting nothing accomplished.” This was terrible. I’d have to always come back and apologize.
But we’re not sure how to go about that. Maybe if we say it nicely, they don’t hear us. What has been your experience, Sean, with this whole thing?
Sean: First off, I resonate with you. [Laughter] I write books on this, but I apologize to my kids. My wife and I are “Let’s start over, another reboot. This isn’t working.” It’s a process. You’re never going to have it perfectly dialed in.
But I think a lot of parents don’t fight these battles because it’s just easier not to.
Ann: Yes, you give up.
Sean: It takes effort; it takes work. And we don’t. What happens? The kid suffers for it.
Ann: So, we should battle the issue.
Sean: Yes, in the sense of—I think there’s a good amount of data that shows that kids want reasonable boundaries with technology. It’s true in my classroom; it’s true when I speak; it’s true in our family.
Now it has to be reasonable. There are times my kids have told me, “That’s totally unreasonable,” and we’ve backed off. You negotiate this a little bit. As long as you have reasonable boundaries, you state why, and you hold kids consistently to it, I’ve found, as a whole, they will respond to it.
That’s a start.
Dave: I think at the end of the day, if we’re not living it ourselves, they’re not going to listen to what we say [and] they’re going to do what we do.
Talk about this: You have a chapter on bullying. It’s always been a part of a child’s experience, especially at school.
Sean: It has.
Dave: But it seems like a different world now. How do we navigate that one?
Sean: I think the obvious huge difference is I remember growing up [in the] 80’s and 90’s, if somebody’s bullied, they could go home and escape it. Worst case scenario go to a different school.
Now you go home; you can’t escape it. Now other people are piling on top of it, so it makes it worse. It’s everywhere you go. Also, you can’t even just switch schools, because your reputation goes with you. It can create a fear in this generation: “If I just say the wrong thing, I’m going to get bullied.”
Now, the reality is there are three parties in bullying. There’s the person who’s bullied, there’s the bully and there’s the bystander. As far as I can remember, I’ve never bullied anybody. I was not bullied often. I can think of once or twice. I think growing up I had ways to navigate and protect myself from that that I figured out.
But a couple of times I can look back, I remember one time in high school I was a bystander. The kind of kid who could easily get bullied was getting bullied by a senior football player, and I didn’t do anything. I look back at that still to this day when it [comes] to my mind [I feel] a sense of shame and regret and anger. I don’t know what I would do. Maybe I’d just tackle that guy and take one for the team. I don’t know, but I would have done something.
Everybody is affected by this even if your kid’s not getting bullied. I still have conversations with my son: “Does this take place? What do people say? How do you respond?” And try to navigate it. We’re all one of those three parties and I think Scripture has something to say to all three of those issues, as well.
Ann: Those two things can go together, that loneliness part and the bullying. We can see our kids withdraw because they’re being bullied. So, they withdraw from any kind of social issues.
As a parent you’re watching it. They don’t always open up to us; our kids don’t always open up. Is there a way, do you think, Sean? How would you advise a parent to get into that, to really get into their kid’s hearts?
Sean: We’ve got to start young and build relationships with our kids. There’s no “Just ask this question, Do this turnkey thing,” because kids are different, and they respond in different ways.
When the Bible talks about “Train up a kid in the way that he should go and he will not depart from that,” [Proverbs 22:6, Paraphrased] the analogy that is used is a bow. Each bow used to have its own unique bent because they were not mass produced.
When I think about how I connect with the heart of my youngest son, it’s different than my daughter, it’s different than my older son. That takes some wisdom to meet them where they are at, but I build relationships with all of them; I spend time with them. So, when these issues come up, there’s some trust that’s there and I’m more likely to be able to speak into their life.
Ann: What if we haven’t done that; like, “I’ve done a horrible job of that, and I’m seeing my kids are really struggling. Is it too late because I didn’t build that in the early years?”
Sean: It’s never too late. Is it going to be harder?” Yes. But all you can do is give yourself grace and then start where you are at.
I would say for example, as a kid, I might say something like, “Is there a chance we can go to coffee? I just want to hear you out. That’s all I want to do. Would you be willing to hear me out and help me better understand you?”
I think most kids would say, “Yes.” You say, “I have some regrets in life, and one of them is that I was not more present in your life and didn’t do a better job as a dad,” or “a mom.”
“All you can do is ask for your forgiveness and see if you’d be willing to commit to helping me be a better dad to you.” What more could you do than that? Could a kid, like you said in earlier conversation, could a kid still say, “No, I hate you”? Sure; then you pray for them, and you try again. You don’t give up.
Kids want relationships with their parents.
Ann: They want it. Yes.
Sean: They do. There’s just hurt and there’s misunderstanding and there’s stupidity because they’re young. [Laughter] But we’ve got to break through that with love and your kindness that leads to repentance, Paul says. [Romans 2:4, Paraphrased]
Dave: Here’s my question: Your youngest is ten; your oldest is—
Dave: —eighteen. Three [children]. I don’t know them. It sounds like you’ve done a lot of good things. What would you say is your biggest parenting mistake or regret?
Sean: I guess I’d say a couple of things. It’s a tradeoff for me traveling a decent amount. My dad was probably gone half the time. I don’t want to be gone that much for the way I’m wired, so I travel less than that. But I’m still gone a decent amount, and it’s an ongoing conversation in my mind: “Am I balancing this well?”
Sean: That’s something that I’ve had to navigate with my wife and with our kids and try to figure out. I don’t even know that I would do anything differently. But there’s certainly times I’ve been on the road and I’m saying, “Why am I here? What am I doing at this?”
That’s probably a piece of it. I can think of times where I’ve said stuff to my kids that was hurtful. My kids like to make fun of me because my son would study in my office, and he would leave food. I’d say, “Don’t-eat-in-my-office!” He left food and I was so mad. I took this orange and I said, “You know what, you clean up, and I threw it on the ground. I stormed out of there. In my mind I’m saying, “I’m being such an idiot.” I knew it. [Laughter] But they’ll still make fun of me.
There are stupid things I’ve said and stupid things I did, but to be honest with you, my son graduated last May. When somebody graduates, it puts it in perspective. I don’t have a lot of regrets in my parenting. I don’t know how that lands with some of your audience. You asked me, so I’m going to give you an honest response: I don’t have a lot of regrets.
Ann: —which is super hopeful because of hearing your dad’s story at the beginning [and] how horrendous it was. There’s hope that our kids’ kids and our future generations can be whole and healthy, not perfect by any means. But by the grace of Jesus, there’s hope.
Sean: Amen to that.
I’ll tell you this: Just because I don’t have regrets doesn’t mean there [haven’t] been times I’ve been at a loss. There [were] times I could tell you where I’d call up a friend and I’d say, “I literally do not even know what to do. I’m at a complete loss how to parent.”
If you build that relationship over time, chances are it’s going to come through.
Dave: —the relationship will win.
Dave: When I think about our time with Sean McDowell, I am always blown away by his grace.
Dave: He is such a grace giver.
Ann: —so wise.
Dave: Last time he was here and again, it just hit me, I am so mean to people, I judge people, I am not that nice to people, especially when they have opposing views and maybe they’re angry views against what I believe and what I think. He models a Jesus-type love for people.
I think that’s so helpful for us, especially with our own children as we talk about faith issues. A Rebel's Manifesto; I didn’t even know being a rebel means being a grace giver in a world where there’s no grace.
Ann: I think what impacts me so much is he gives us tools and he’s super practical [with] “What does this look like inside our homes and at our dinner table?”
I am grateful that we have a chance to offer this to you, our listeners. Because I don’t know how you feel, but I need this as a parent and as a grandparent.
Dave: I think what Sean modeled for us is how to be a parent in this world and how to lead our families. I just want to say thank you to those that give financially to FamilyLife Today, because you allow us to do this and sit with people like Sean. He is going to change conversations in our homes. That doesn't happen if you don’t partner with us.
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When you join as a FamilyLife partner this month, as a special thank you for partnering with us monthly, we’d love to share with you Drawn Together, a couple’s devotional inspired by FamilyLife’s Art of Marriage®.
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I’ve really appreciated the time Dave and Ann had with Sean McDowell. He’s written a book called A Rebel's Manifesto: Choosing Truth, Real Justice, and Love amid the Noise of Today's World, and it is noisy.
You could pick up a copy of Sean’s book at FamilyLifeToday.com, or again, you could give us a call at 800- “F” as in family, “L” as in life and then the word, “TODAY.”
Now, coming up next week Tori Hope and Jacob Petersen are going to be talking to us about fostering children and the complications that come with that along with the glory that can be brought to God in the suffering of fostering children. That’s next week.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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