Andrea Palpant Dilley grew up in Kenya as the daughter of Quaker missionaries and spent the rest of her childhood in the Pacific Northwest. She studied English literature and writing at Whitworth University. Her work as a writer has appeared in Rock and Sling, Geez, and Utne Reader, as well as the anthology Jesus Girls: True Tales of Growing Up Female and Evangelical. Her work as a documentary producer has aired nationally on American Public Television. She is the author of Faith and Other Flat Tires. She lives with her husband and daughter in Austin, Texas.
Today I’m excited to interview Andrea for today’s Friday Five:
You describe your upbringing as a missionary kid, on the mission field. Did the hard life of a missionary at all contribute to your running from the Christian faith?
In the book I poke fun at the fact that, while most kids my age were playing Pac Man and eating pop tarts after school, I was visiting patients at my dad’s hospital. I spent time with sick people who died the next day. I attended funerals. I watched women wail in public, which was part of the mourning ritual of life in rural Kenya. Even the hospital morgue sat only fifty feet from the front door of our house. So yes, growing up as a medical missionary kid exposed me to more death and darkness than most kids my age would ever be exposed to, living in a western country. And those experiences very much informed my view of the world and my view of God. As a child, I don’t think I fully understood what was going on or why it was significant. But I carried those stories with me over the years. Eventually, as a young adult, they came to bear on my faith crisis.
Recent research has found that Christian kids who are allowed to express and wrestle with doubts have a higher percentage of keeping their faith. Do you agree and why?
I agree wholeheartedly. When I was struggling with my faith as a young adult, my dad spent hours with me sitting on our living room couch, talking. I don’t really remember the specific content our conversations. What I remember clearly—and what matters most—is that he gave me space to express my doubts openly. Although he challenged me, he didn’t judge me for carrying doubts or struggling with faith in the first place. He affirmed that struggle and took it seriously. I would say every Christian kid needs that kind of safe space, that boxing ring where they can climb in and fight out their questions without fear of judgment.
I’m a parent now of a three year old, and as I look down the road to her young adult years, I feel more sympathy for my parents and what they went through in watching me wrestle with faith and then leave the church. I know it wasn’t easy for them. But if they’d overreacted to my doubt, I would have run further away, no question about it.
Was it hard to go back and write about your journey, especially the painful parts? Was there a moment when you felt you weren’t ready to share it?
Absolutely. When the first box of books arrived in the mail, I hid them in my office closet for a day as a symbolic, last ditch attempt at self-protection. Some of the stories were just tough to see in print. For example, the story about my relationship with Michael was one that I didn’t originally include in the manuscript because it reveals in a very painful, personal way my naivete, my mistakes, my wandering. At some point in the writing process, though, my husband encouraged me to tell the story openly as a way to show the reader what my life looked like when I left the church and passed into a moral, spiritual no-man’s land.
So yes, it was at times very painful to write a personal memoir. It still feels personal now, as I watch people read the book and enter into the dark corners of my past. But I believe in transparency in community. I’ve shared my story not for the sake of therapeutic self-disclosure but for the sake of growth and faith in the church community.
Lot of prodigals come back with a bit of a chip on their shoulder, anger at the church, and deep resentment about their Christian upbringing. You don’t seem to express this. Why?
First of all, I had the privilege of growing up in a healthy church environment. I grew up surrounded by smart, thoughtful Christians who read Russian literature, volunteered as firefighters, and cared about the poor. They were the kind of people who took my questions seriously when I started into my skeptic phase. This faith community didn’t overreact to my doubt, which made it easier to come back to church without carrying a heavy grudge.
Second, maturity matters. When I left, I expected the church to answer all my questions all of the time in the same way that a five-year-old expects her dad to know everything about astronomy while looking up at the stars. By the time I came back, I carried more realistic expectations about what the church can offer. Don’t get me wrong; I still struggle with the imperfections of the institutional church. But having spent time away from that institution, I’ve realized that I much prefer the flaws of the church to the greater flaws of churchlessness.
If you could speak to a parent of a child whose faith has shipwrecked, what advice would you give them?
A recent Barna Group study revealed that three out of five young people leave the church permanently or for an extended period of time. That’s a really sobering statistic. I was one of those statistics; I left the church in my early twenties and then eventually came back. How my faith community responded to my departure—with grace and patience—was key to my return. With that in mind, I would offer the following suggestions to parents whose children have left or might leave the faith and/or the church.
a. Let your kids individuate. Listen to their questions, affirm their search, walk with them. But give them space to wrestle out their questions. It’s the only way they’ll come to own their faith.
b. If they have sophisticated theological or philosophical questions, equip them with smart apologetic resources. Give them books or DVDs by Lee Strobel, Nancy Percy, William Lane Craig, Eleanor Stump, Mary Jo Sharp, and others.
c. Raise your kids in community. Look for opportunities where they can spend time with pastors, professors, strong Christian mentors, and other leaders.
d. Help your kids think through faith-life integration. How does Christianity apply to politics, art, culture, etcetera? Encourage your kids to participate in public life. Get them involved in ways that put faith into practice.
e. Think seriously about where you send your children to college. Some kids need a traditional Christian environment while others might do better in a secular setting where they can push against the mainstream.
f. Finally, remember that active doubt (as opposed to passive doubt) can be a very healthy, soul-searching, truth-seeking part of faith. Trust that faith worth keeping can stand up to scrutiny.