Dexter Howard believes that the involvement of young people in damaging activities such as gangs, robberies and sexual violence can be attributed to one thing: fatherlessness.
An estimated one in three children in the US currently live without their father, and Howard believes that this has led to a collective broken identity. Having grown up in a single-parent family himself, he is passionate about teaching people to step into a new identity and see themselves through the eyes of God; as sons and daughters of a loving and eternal Father.
Howard, author and senior pastor of Restoration Worship Centres International, caught up with Christian Today to share some of his thoughts, and how we can choose to make the shift into sonship.
CT: Can you tell us a bit about fatherlessness and the impact you believe it's having on modern society?
DH: I believe that fatherlessness is a crisis of epidemic proportions. My parents divorced when I was five-years-old, and from then on my father unpredictably weaved in and out of my life. My mother did the best she could, working two or three jobs to provide and care for me, but I believe that mothers can only nurture and encourage, while the father gives affirmation and identity. That's what's missing as I look at the landscape of our society: identity and much needed affirmation. Without those things, it leaves a hole in the heart of a child.
Statistics show that a third of all children in America are living without their biological father, and several leading sociologists have labelled father absence as the most pressing issue facing America today. It leads to such detrimental effects as emotional, physical and behavioural development issues in both children and adults. I experienced that personally into adulthood as a man.
CT: When many families in America are single-parent families, is it difficult to speak into this idea of fatherlessness without seeming condemning or irrelevant?
DH: No, I don't find it difficult, especially when I'm speaking about truth and giving facts. I can give facts with compassion, with understanding, and from my personal position of experience. I came from a fatherless home, so that's why I'm passionate about it, and it allows me to be compassionate towards those who are also growing up in the same situation. If you speak facts with compassion, you can retain the respect of those who are going through the issues themselves.
CT: Where do you get this idea of the Father being the one to give purpose and identity from?
DH: I believe that God is our creator and the author of our life; he is the one who gives purpose and identity. We are created in God's image and he created the father, the male, to give purpose and identity to his children. I believe we see it from the very beginning of man in Adam. As he was naming the animals Adam was giving out purpose, while Eve was a nurturer, and we see those roles played out throughout humanity. Women are more nurturing and encouraging, while fathers give validation and identity.
I believe this is also played out in Jesus' relationship with his heavenly Father. The Bible says in Matthew 3 when Christ was baptised that he rose out of the water, the Spirit descended upon him like a dove and the Father began to speak from Heaven: "This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased." In that single statement we find three things: validation, affirmation and identity, all in one sentence! I think that speaks to the purpose of the father to give identity and validation.
CT: Another thing you place emphasis on is the role of 'sonship' which is mentioned countless times in the Bible – do you think a lot of Christians are living without fully understanding what it means to be called a child of God?
DH: Absolutely, I do. I believe we walk in partial understanding of who we really are. Growing up I was taken to church every week and I knew all about God the Father – and knowing that is incredibly important – but sometimes as Christians we stop there, and we don't gain a fuller revelation of who we are.
As human beings – both Christians and non-Christians – we need to understand the importance of who am I, why am I and what is it that God has placed me here on earth to do? We are all seeking our purpose, and I believe it's very important for all of humanity to understand that. I myself walked in partial understanding; knowing the Father is not enough, it's also about understanding who you are through the eyes of the Father. There needs to be a shift there.
CT: How has that affected your personal relationship with God, your ministry and the way you lead your church? Was there a big transformation there?
DH: Before my identity shifted, I saw myself as the son of a struggling man – my father was an alcoholic and also struggled with low self-esteem and eventually died of throat cancer – and that was the image I had in my mind of what my future was. All I saw in my father was that he was an alcoholic and a dying man. But when I shifted from knowing about God the Father to reading the word of God and living under a greater revelation, I began to see myself through the word of God and through the eyes of the Father which shifted my identity. I saw that I was born into a new family, and into the Kingdom of God.
That uncapped my potential, and I began to walk in a greater sense of awareness, purpose, identity and affirmation. I began using my gifts, abilities and talents and no longer walked in fear of not being enough. I walked in passion, which impacted my leadership and my role as a husband. I began to excel, simply because I knew my identity.
CT: How can others make the shift to fully understanding that identity?
DH: We start by entering into a relationship with the Father – that's what sonship is all about. Sonship begins with relationship. In John 1:12 the Bible says that God granted us the right to become children of God, which means to walk in simple faith and belief towards God the Father. I believe that's where it starts; understanding the reality of God, beginning to search his word and understanding how much he loves us as his children. He's not waiting to release his wrath on us; he truly loves us, and so we need to begin to see ourselves through his eyes. He thinks highly of us! And knowing that will launch us into a greater realm of understanding and fresh revelation of why we are, who we are, and what it is he's called us to do.
CT: What impact could that have on our culture?
DH: I believe that it can have a major proportional impact upon young people, simply because they are continuously looking for things and people to identify with. When I was growing up I attached myself to a gang, and found my identity in football. I actually had a coach who became like a surrogate father, validating and affirming me, but lots of young people don't have that. I have seen how having a shift in identity can give nothing but an incredible future and uncap young people's potential.
Howard's book, 'Identity Shift: The Change That Changes Everything' is available to buy from Know How Media Concepts now.