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Thursday, July 30, 2015

Faith, Identity and Growing Up Christian

Nobody should have to be a pastor’s kid. And nobody should ever be called a PK.

If that sounds a little cranky, be advised there are Christians reviewing Barnabas Piper’s book “The Pastor’s Kid: Finding Your Own Faith and Identity” on Amazon who agree with me. Because that’s got to carry some weight, right?

My disdain for the “PK” (pastor’s kid, preacher’s kid) and “MK” (missionary’s kid) abbreviations goes way, way back to the days in which I was two of the three. I’m not sure I could tell you why I disliked them so much; to the best of my recollection nobody ever used either designation to describe me. I don’t recall hearing them from my Christian friends. In fact I suspect I only ever encountered PKs and MKs in the magazine rack next to our couch in publications like Christianity Today or in those hokey teen novels in Christian bookstores.

Still, long before I knew there was a budding Christian subculture, it seemed to me awfully pretentious to have an actual name for kids growing up in the home of parents who served the Lord full time, let alone trendy initials nobody outside of evangelical circles could understand. I had an almost visceral revulsion for the terms. They seemed cheesy, tacky, self-conscious, embarrassing and trite, and that’s just for starters.

With that intro, you will be unsurprised to find out that when it dawned on me that Barnabas Piper is John Piper’s son, and that he’s made a name for himself in Christian bookstores and on the internet writing about the unique traumas and deprivations of being a pastor’s kid, it all came back. I cringed involuntarily.

Hey, he’s probably a terrific guy, and he may even have some useful advice to offer PKs and MKs. Like this bit:
“The call of the father is not the call of the child, but the ministry of the father creates an anvil-like weight on the child ... And it is this pressure, in part, that drives so many PK’s to break.”
Really? Do pastor’s kids “break” in large numbers? Maybe they do. It wasn’t my experience, but that doesn’t mean others don’t struggle with it. I don’t recall the “anvil-like weight” of my father’s ministry. But maybe that’s because my father wasn’t a pastor, at least not in the formal, unbiblical way we commonly use the word in evangelical circles. Sure, he was a shepherd and a full-time itinerant Bible teacher, and he was even moderately well known in the sort of churches with which I was familiar. But he was never, ever “the guy” — never the solo decision-maker, the single prominent face of a local church or the main attraction every Sunday morning. That wasn’t him.

If it had been, maybe I’d be Barnabas Piper. Maybe I’d write things like:
“[Pray that] all would be comfortable with the PK seeking a faith in God that can be expressed authentically and personally, even if differently from the parents. Tradition, theological distinctives, worship style, denomination — any and all of these can be questioned by PKs (and in many cases should be). Often these serve as anchors keeping the PK from going where she must go to find God, or as blindfolds keeping her from seeing God. It can be torturous to step out of her parents’ preferences and way of doing church and faith, but it is healthy when stepping out creates a new opportunity to meet Jesus.”
Ah yes. Forgot about the “torture”.

Still, I wasn’t the son of a modern “pastor”, so I didn’t have to step out of my parents’ preferences and way of doing church and faith to “meet Jesus”. I met him through my parents, not in spite of them. I did not feel any compulsion to define myself in opposition to everything they stood for.

I also don’t recall living with the “suffocating and warping” scrutiny that Piper refers to. Sure, I was moderately antisocial, and there were times in my teens when I didn’t feel like spending a Sunday afternoon lingering at the lunch table getting to know the visitors my parents had brought home from church. But my parents rarely saddled me with such obligations. I was free to stay or go after dessert more or less as I saw fit. So on occasion I stayed, and sometimes I even enjoyed it. Other times I bolted at the first opportunity. From time to time, sure, I recognized that I was being watched. But calling my experience “suffocating and warping” would be drama queenery of the first order.

If there was an anvil-like weight on me growing up, it was the perfectly ordinary anvil-like weight of my own guilty conscience, fine-tuned as it was by exposure to the word of God on a daily basis. You don’t have to be a pastor’s kid to feel that sort of weight. Any old decent Christian upbringing will do, provided you regularly resist it. The more you fight it, the more you feel it. And looking back, I’m grateful for that pressure. To be blunt, it kept me out of the bed of my first major crush, among many other things from which it preserved me. Sure, there was the normal raging hormonal teenage thing going on, and I knew I was far away from where I should be and wasn’t entirely sure I’d ever find my way back, and the opportunity was right there, and nobody would have known.

But attempting to dignify my teenage crushes or to make a relationship more “adult” or “serious” by bringing sex into the mix was just wrong, and I knew it right down to the core of my being. Despite the urgent appeal, somehow I knew I would come to regret it later in a big, big way. So I surprised myself and walked away.

The occasional anvil-like weight may not be all bad.

Now to be fair to Barnabas Piper (and perhaps he deals with this in his book), some children of pastors, missionaries and Big Men in the Christian Community do have genuine, major issues. Ask Frank Schaeffer. But unless their parents are immature, abusive, dysfunctional, hypocritical or insensitive or unless the kid is an out-and-out Old Testament-style rebel (in other words, unless there is serious ongoing sin in their household, something that does in fact happen among believers from time to time), their issues are most probably much like my own and much like those of every other non-PK and non-MK in the Christian community. They are simply part of the process of growing up.

We do not need merit badges and special status for having survived them, thank you.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for finding faith and identity. I just don’t think it’s some special brand of personal expression that PKs, MKs or any children growing up in Christian homes need to give voice to. I don’t think it’s a deep, personal statement they need to make in order to be “authentic”. There is after all only one Lord and one faith, right? That’s who and what they need to find.

Faith plus any particular brand of self-expression sounds too heavy on the “self” part to me.

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