If we take as a premise that there is an enduring tie that bonds relational partners in a relationship then the paper The Psychology of Youth Faith Formation: A care-giving faith? should concern all of us, especially those working with young people. The main bulk of the argument in the paper was that youth faith experience precipitates from a ‘behavioural system’ known as the ‘attachment system’. It is said that a sense of attachment resonates with most of us, and, as a result we often relate to people in our lives as relational figures due to the internal model of self and others located in our attachment system. This model of seeing ourselves and others is simply the database from where we explore close relationships with others and engage with the world around us. It often happens that this model for exploring self and others may be affected by negative experiences that disrupt the care-giving interaction with relational figures, whether a parent, a primary caregiver, or even a friend. Such experiences can vary, from events such as divorce, the loss of a loved one, emotional abandonment, to a range of other issues that often fuel crisis in a family.
In the said paper, interviews were conducted with quite a number of young people between the ages of 18 and 35, many of whom had experienced difficulties relating with their primary caregivers – mostly their parents. Josiah for example was a responsible youth who was passionate about his education and determined to make the best out of life but his father was an alcoholic; he was often not home, or if he was he was either drunk or depressed. When Josiah was in Grade 11 and getting ready for his matric exams, his mother was critically ill, which meant that neither parent was able to provide him with the emotional support he needed when preparing for his exams. Reaching out for a secure relationship with someone that was not out of reach, Josiah found God, yet still struggles with feelings of anxiety about God abandoning him just as his biological parents did. He constantly feels that he is unworthy of God’s love and needs to do more to please Him, despite the fact that he comes to church regularly and prays from time to time.
June was abandoned by her mother who had left for London to support her family when she was in grade 1 and just about 8 years old. The physical and emotional impact this had on her during her formative years has made her wary of allowing people into her life and forming attachments. Her fear of being hurt again led her to finding God, whom she feels will always be there for her in a way which her mother was not. Nevertheless, she still experiences feelings of anxiety, despite acknowledging that “I want to have this relationship [with God]…and get myself again. I am not there where I wanted to be. I know it is important in one’s life. I know what miracles God can do if He is in your life.” Now a university student, June often kneels in prayer to God, hoping He will fill the void in her life.
A care-giving faith is a pattern of youth attachment behaviour towards God in which the young person emphasises the importance of needing care and emotional support in their faith experience.
The stories of Josiah and June are but two examples of how negative experiences with a caregiver (whether it be a parent, a friend, or any other person with whom we have had an emotional attachment) can have a profound effect on how we perceive and desire others. The two stories have one thing in common: they show how experiences with primary caregivers established the model for exploring self and desiring God. This model is seen regulating the attachment behaviours of Josiah and June, as they sought a relationship that would heal the wounds of their past and attend to their need for care and quality attachment.
When young people are deprived of love and care they are more likely to search for it elsewhere. Some find it in their romantic partner, school, workplace, church, fraternity, friends, or in any object or person that they think can be a reliable source of support to them. Some end up finding this advantage in God. They are in a relationship with God because He is perceived to be a caring relational Figure who will fill the void of their past with His radiant love and presence. As a result, they develop what is called ‘a care-giving faith’ as they draw closer to God as their transcendent caregiver in the place of a physical or human caregiver.
How does the church play a role as an agency of support for young people longing for a care-giving God?
A care-giving faith is a pattern of youth attachment behaviour towards God in which the young person emphasises the importance of needing care and emotional support in their faith experience. Their need for care-giving is justified because of the difficult experiences they had with their earthly parents and primary caregivers. The consequence of having abusive family relationships is that the abused often respond by developing insecure coping styles such as being anxious, dismissive, fearful, or even abusive, in order to block their conflicting past experiences. On the other hand, others may seek for a substitute relationship in a more reliable caregiver who will heal the wounds of their past and inspire a hopeful future. Many of the young people in the study (see The Psychology of Youth Faith Formation) found this serenity in God. Their relationship with God was used as a method of alleviating the pain and entanglements of the past, while meeting their own needs of attachment.
A church where young people are coming to faith because of the (fatherly or motherly) care-giving qualities of God ought to be one in which its leaders and community are reliable caregivers themselves since they are the very reflection of the One on whose behalf they lead
The problem with this kind of faith is that it is not grounded. It is like a house that is built on sand. When the rains and winds of life come and the winds of disappointment beat against it, it will collapse with a mighty crash. When God is perceived to be distant or not answering their prayers, most youth often re-launch the search for another caregiver because their attachment needs are not met. While there is a great difficulty comprehending this kind of faith, this can also be a great opportunity for the church and faith communities. How does the church play a role as an agency of support for young people longing for a care-giving God? A church where young people are coming to faith because of the (fatherly or motherly) care-giving qualities of God ought to be one in which its leaders and community are reliable caregivers themselves since they are the very reflection of the One on whose behalf they lead. Christ was an embodiment of mercy and care, and therefore those that follow Him must be a mirror image of His character to the world.
God is more than a temporal solution to our need for meaningful emotional connection
The challenge with nurturing the care-giving faith of young people is huge. It requires virtue, patience, and an authentic love that does not devalue them. We need to nurture our young, fragile members to see God as more than just a relational Figure to whom they run to when they are in trouble. Indeed God is more than a temporal solution to their need for meaningful emotional connection. The music of God’s affection is timeless. All that is required to listen to it is to tune to His frequency. Switch on the radio and move the dial to feel the reliable bond of His affection.
Young people need to maintain their relationship with God because He is more than just a transient remedy to their needs of support and care. “In Him is life, and that life is the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4-5). God is life in the gloominess of a dark past. His love for those who seek Him and draw closer to Him has no limits or boundaries in time and space (cf. John 6:37; Proverbs 8:17; 1 John 4:16). The realisation that God is more than a relational figure can propel young people of faith to see their relationship with Him as one that enriches the soul and spirit. It is a relationship that enables them to be set apart as the ‘light of the world’ and ‘salt of the earth’ for God’s ultimate agenda in a dysfunctional world (Matthew 5:13-16).