“I don’t know what to tell you, Dad,” said the young man awkwardly. Although the son had been raised in the church by loving, spiritually serious parents, he’d chosen to walk away from his faith – still a nice, respectful, hard-working guy who loved his family and lived an overall morally solid life. But he didn’t know what he believed anymore, and was definitely over the church thing.
Christian parents have you been through this situation? It’s happening all over the country. Of course, this occurred in our generation too, but it seems even more common with the millennials. I’ve seen plenty of it in my own family of origin. It’s heart-breaking. What can we do? Analysis and suggestions are not lacking. I could easily write this column based on the work of others and, no doubt, will reflect some of their thoughts in what I say. But, as a concerned parent myself, today, let give you some of my own slant on it.
Why are many of the second generation stepping back from the faith they’ve been brought up with?
1. They’re stepping back because the next generation often does this
Read the Bible, especially the Old Testament. The cycle of belief and unbelief runs through it. It will say things like: “But their children forsook the Lord and turned to idols.” Unlike genetics, faith cannot be automatically passed on. Every generation has struggled with this down through history, and even though the cultural aspects of Christianity may have been more common in our country in the past, like more people going to church years ago, that doesn’t necessarily mean that all of them were truly following Jesus. For some, church was just what acceptable citizens did.
2. They’re stepping back because the faith they’d apparently accepted hadn’t truly become their own
If you’re raised in a Christian home and Christian church, you will, in most cases, accept what you’ve been taught and even follow it to some extent. But when these temporary structures have been removed, and especially when you get old enough to think for yourself – that’s when the test begins. Is this really your own faith or is it one handed to you by others? I myself went through this time of processing, and suffered some spiritual setbacks.
By the way, this stage is normal and even necessary. In order to achieve a healthy spiritual independence each person must, at some time, ask these questions: “Do I really believe this stuff??” “Why?” “Do I want to live this counter-cultural style and be identified as a serious Christian?”. They must make it their own.
3. They’re stepping back because they’re not prepared to deal with alternate views or criticism of their faith
Much of what we do in the church is “preaching to the choir”. We make a lot of assumptions and tend to avoid the difficult questions – and there are difficult questions, even for committed Christians. When our children encounter these challenges, unprepared, it can be overwhelming. They may feel silly, naïve’ or even intimidated, especially if the challenger has experience in picking apart the normal answers untrained Christians give (“Well, I just believe by faith.”).
4. They’re stepping back because they don’t want to live the biblical lifestyle
I think that this is often a bigger part of the picture than our children admit. On the one hand, following Jesus can be difficult and even painful. Jesus spoke of taking up our cross and denying ourselves. On the other hand, let’s be honest, sin can be fun. It also helps us fit in better with our culture, is encouraged by our sin nature, and may bring us certain temporary advantages.
5. They’re stepping back because they’ve been deceived
Satan is a liar and the father of lies, starting with his lie to Eve in the Garden of Eden. The world around us is filled with truths, half-truths, and lies. It’s not hard to be deceived. Those spreading falsehood are often appealing and persuasive. Logic can easily be twisted to make what is false seem true.
6. They’re stepping back because a deep love for God hasn’t yet developed in them
We can teach our children biblical theology and ethics – how to think and how to live. These are crucial, of course. But they’re not enough. At the heart of Christianity is a love relationship with God. For some young people, if not most at this stage, Jesus is an important figure, but He’s not yet their best friend. The strong emotional bond with Him still hasn’t formed and often doesn’t till later.
How can we help our children stay close to Christ?
There are no easy answers to this question. As I write this, I know a number of godly parents grieving over children who have strayed from the faith. Even Adam rebelled against God, His Father, in the Garden of Eden. But here are some suggestions to make their continued commitment to Christ more likely.
1. I make their continued commitment more likely when I practice what I preach
Although children, especially older ones, often seem oblivious to their parents, they’re not. We have more influence than we know. If we sincerely love Jesus and follow Him consistently, this makes an impact on our kids. If we just “play church”, they pick up on that as well.
2. I make their continued commitment more likely when I give them freedom to question and struggle in their faith
It’s easy to get nervous or upset when our children question the Christian beliefs and practices they were raised with. After all, what’s more important than that they follow Christ and end up in Heaven? So it’s easy to pressure or shame them when they seem to be straying. This, however, often has the opposite effect we’d desire. They push back. They rebel. Relax. Listen. Offer the best answers you can find, but give them time. In the end, they must, and will choose for themselves.
3. I make their continued commitment more likely when I accept them
This is implied in the last point. Wherever they’re at spiritually, keep loving them, and accepting them as a person, even when you don’t accept all their beliefs.
4. I make their continued commitment more likely when I focus on the important aspects of the faith
Their faith, if they keep it, will be their own. Their lifestyles will differ some from ours. They may not buy all of our theology. But if they’re following Jesus and believing the main truths of the Bible, that’s what matters most. Don’t over-focus on secondary matters. God can deal with these, in time, if they need to be dealt with.
5. I make their continued commitment more likely if I regularly pray for them
Prayer is powerful and can break through barriers. God is able to keep them strong or bring light to a darkened heart.
6. I make their continued commitment more likely when I don’t take excess credit or blame for their choices
While we should give our best, in the end, it’s their responsibility whether or not they follow Christ. Not ours. It’s between them and God. They must allow the Holy Spirit to draw them and transform them. So take that weight off of your conscience and hand it over to them and to God.