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Why Faith Doesn’t Come Easily to the Gifted

Exclusive research reveals that without a change in ministry approach, bright, gifted children may turn to the darkness of disbelief.

What do director Woody Allen, blogger Susan Jacoby, novelist Philip Roth, and intellectual Stephen Hawking have in common?

They all rank on the top lists of famous atheists in the world today. The fact that they are all highly gifted and successful in their branches of influence is significant. Did giftedness lead to views like Roth’s: “When the whole world doesn’t believe in God, it’ll be a great place”?

Some would say there is a definite connection between these people’s giftedness and their atheism. Is faith automatically a greater struggle for the gifted children in your ministry? Is the kingdom of God at risk of losing the brightest and most gifted children to the darkness of disbelief?

One person noted wondering whether God existed and if so, why he allowed terrible things to happen. The participant remembers being “encouraged to not think about things like that too much and just accept the way things are.”

Gifted children have unwelcome questions.

Over 90 percent of the participants believe that as children they had more questions than their peers about their faith. Their questioning often included doubts. They say they thought about faith differently than their peers. One participant said, “For a while, I tried hard to seek answers, but I’ve stopped now and learned to keep things to myself. It’s hard to find people who understand.” Here’s a paraphrased snapshot of different experiences participants reported.

  • “I had many friends who memorized books of the Bible and Bible trivia and facts, but I wanted to know how a person could be sure those things are true.”
  • “When I did ask questions, others told me to ‘just have faith,’ which was frustrating.”
  • “My questions were ‘passionate extremes’ that my peers did not seem to see.”
  • “I began questioning more once I started college away from home. My father, a pastor, believed questioning was the same as not having faith.”

Gifted children are drawn to and repelled by certain things.

When asked what specifically drew them to their faith tradition or religious beliefs, participants identified four main categories. These same four major themes repeated throughout participants’ responses when asked about positive things they associated with church: people, church traditions, nature of God, and personal experience.

However, when asked about the things that turned them off within their, 60 percent identified people as the problem. Specifically, they listed hypocrisy, contradictions, inconsistencies, judgmental attitudes, and bad theology.

Participants who deemed their religious education a good fit said:

  • The experience strengthened their faith.
  • The ministry leadership was passionate.
  • The experiences were challenging and loving.

Of those who deemed their experiences a less ideal fit for them, they felt Christianity was made simpler than it actually is. They found the experiences to be shallow and insufficient for dealing with the real world.

All but nine of the participants believed their intelligence affected their faith beliefs and religious development. Those who said the effect on their faith was positive said it was due to their deep thinking, curiosity, and open-mindedness.

Those who said their giftedness had negatively affected their faith development pointed to the problem of finding spiritual peers. One said giftedness “makes religion and spirituality much more exhausting.” Another believed gifted people tend to be less religious because “blind belief is the opposite of rational thinking.”

The Implications for Gifted Children

There are numerous implications of this research on how we approach ministry to gifted children.

Shift to child-centered teaching.

The teacher-centered approach views the adult as the expert creating meaning for the child. The child-centered approach sees the adult’s role as one creating space and an environment for the child to discover meaning. In this environment, the teacher provides a framework for learning and meaning to occur. Teacher-centered learning environments focus on answers, whereas child-centered environments encourage questions.

We must shift to a learner-centered approach where the teachers and adults take on more the role of facilitator, discussion leader, mentor, and co-participant.

Pause and truly wrestle with kids’ questions.

While engaging with a child about difficult matters of faith might feel daunting and even frightening, children deserve to feel heard and not dismissed when they ask hard questions. Don’t feel that you have to answer every question; instead, wonder with the child.

The gifted students in the study frequently mentioned wrestling with the value of life, heaven and hell, justice, and God’s fairness. They contended with weighty topics earlier than other children. When children experience asynchronous development, parents and other influential adults may feel unprepared. Because matters of faith hold such deep importance and significance, gifted children need adults willing to listen, discuss, and consider these most personal, intimate questions.

Don’t value information over experience.

Offering mostly information in the early years doesn’t provide the best framework for children to grapple with faith questions. Nor does an information-based ministry allow kids to experience the presence of God in worship, the wonder of God in creation, or the power of God in answers to prayer. Experiencing God is something that rational thought can never compete against.

Provide opportunities for new learning and challenges.

Some studies identified “openness” as a trait more predominant in gifted people. That may drive gifted kids to be more challenging about matters of faith. When adults in gifted kids’ lives don’t encourage their curiosity and openness, spiritual development suffers. Respond to kids’ openness in exploration by going on the journey with them. Don’t shut down an opportunity to grapple with issues such as why God allows suffering in the world or where the Bible came from. Offer challenges when kids make it clear they have a solid grasp on a concept. Let them grapple with more abstract concepts, such as grace. Give them opportunities to enact what they’re learning by developing service project plans or even inviting your pastor to talk with them about complex faith issues.

Encourage critical thinking.

Gifted children seek connections, applications, and analysis. Without this higher-level thinking, gifted children often disengage. One participant said that he is now an atheist because there’s no proof in the Bible. For kids whose minds naturally lead them toward data and proof, adults who tell them they “shouldn’t think about things too hard” have a highly detrimental effect on gifted kids’ spiritual development. If gifted children encounter this sort of response, they feel stifled because their thinking isn’t welcome.

The very basis of Group’s Grapple preteen curriculum is to help kids think critically. Based on questions kids ask, Group designed groundbreaking curriculum to create cognitive dissonance by asking hard questions and then digging into the Bible to pursue more clarity.

Engage parents in faith discussions.

Parents of gifted children who raise their children in a context of faith must also engage their children in questions and discovery about the deeper matters of life and God. Parents, as children’s first spiritual example, must understand their gifted child’s probable curiosity for answers and tendency toward openness. They must also meet their gifted child at a place for questions and seeking without fear.

The almost nonexistent research about giftedness and faith development combined with the hurt, confusion, and frustration expressed by the participants in this study pulls the curtain back on a room full of possibilities for us as children’s ministers. These gifted children, whose beautiful and difficult minds and hearts sit waiting on the adults for guidance and wisdom, may not know how to ask for what they need spiritually. With intentionality, we can ensure our experiences and practices of spiritual development don’t fall short for these brightest kids.

Research and Results

The study format was an open-ended survey that sought feedback from 524 honors students predominately at two private Christian universities and fewer from state universities, all located inTexas. These academically gifted university students responded to questions reflecting on their experiences in children’s ministry, youth ministry, and home religious and faith development.

Amy Boone developed the Faith Development and Intelligence study while at Hardin-Simmons University in Texas. It was presented at the Children’s Spirituality Conference in 2016.

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