“Mom, Dad, I don’t believe anymore.”
These are words no Christian parent wants or expects to hear. These are words no parent of any faith system who has endeavored to pass along their faith to their children wants to hear.
It’s devastating. It’s personal. It’s a parenting fail of the first order.
Sure, they can read and write and have above-average SAT scores. But if a child walks away from faith? That’s a loss difficult to compensate for with traditional parenting wins. When kids second-guess their faith, parents often second-guess their parenting: What did we do wrong? Should we have sent her to Christian school? Did the Christian school undermine his Christian faith? Should we have attended a different church?
Why our kids and not theirs? Why him but not his brother or sister?
Andrew, our oldest, was our only child (so far) to lose faith. Fortunately it was temporary. He told me first. I told Sandra. She was terrified. When Sandra is terrified, it’s my fault even when it isn’t.
Over the years, we’ve discovered several rat snakes in our yard, some quite large, which explains why we’ve never seen any rats. I say we’ve discovered. Actually, Sandra is always the first to discover snakes. And she hates snakes. Considering her reaction, you might conclude I bring the snakes home and strategically place them to ensure she is the first to encounter them. She admits that blaming me is irrational. But it’s where she goes. So I always take responsibility, which requires a measure of creativity. When I struggle to connect the fault-dots, I default to, “It’s my fault, honey. If I hadn’t asked you to marry me to begin with, this never would have happened.”
When I told Sandra that Andrew didn’t think he believed in God anymore, she immediately wanted to know what I was going to do about it. I smiled and reassured her, “He’ll be fine.”
I’m not sure why that wasn’t reassuring.
To her, “He’ll be fine” sounded a lot like, “Don’t worry; I don’t plan to do anything about this.” Which was true. I wasn’t planning to do anything about it because Andrew was seven years old at the time. Honestly, I was relieved he deconverted early so we could get it out of the way. It gave us plenty of time to reconvert him, hopefully before he reached the age of accountability, something Protestants invented.
So I wasn’t worried. But Sandra was. Turns out she didn’t need to be. And she would tell you I got this one right. I didn’t pressure Andrew. I didn’t ask why. But I did ask when. However, he wasn’t sure when it started. I also asked him if it was okay to continue praying with him at night. He assured me it was. During that season I didn’t insist that he pray. Then once or twice a week, I would ask him, “Andrew, how’s your faith?”
This went on for several months. I went out of my way not to pressure him or even talk about it unless he brought it up. Then one night while I was getting him ready for bed, he said, “Dad, I think I have my faith back.”
So I said to my servants, “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”
Actually, I said, “That’s great, Andrew. I’m so glad we can talk about stuff like that. Do you want me to tell Mom, or do you want to tell her?” He let me tell her.
She was so relieved, she ran upstairs and threw Andrew over her shoulder and called our friends and neighbors and said, “Rejoice with me! I have found my lost sheep!”
Well, that’s what she wanted to do. But she knew better.
- Remember, don’t freak out. Freak out and your kids will shut down.
Good for You
If your initial response is, “Good for you, Andy, but my situation is different,” I get it. It’s different because your seventeen-year-old daughter has a new boyfriend who convinced her to abandon her old faith. Or your nineteen- year-old son came home from college with a new tattoo and a new worldview. It’s late in the game for you. Worse, it’s mind-boggling. Infuriating. You spent seventeen-plus years teaching, modeling, exposing your kids to, and reinforcing a faith-centered worldview, and one cute guy later, one semester away from home later, it all evaporated. How can that be?
What could you have done to prevent it? What should you do now?
Much has been written on the topic of how and why young adults lose faith, so I won’t attempt to tackle that here. I would have to know your entire story to comment on what you could have done to prevent it. But I can tell you what to do now. And for those of you with little ones still crawling or running around, this goes for you as well.
- Parent with the relationship in mind.
That’s still it. Parent with the relationship, not their faith, in mind. Do everything in your power to keep your side of the relational drawbridge down, regardless of what they believe or don’t believe and — and this is difficult — regardless of how they choose to live. Dare I take it a step further, maybe too much further?
Don’t let your faith get in the way of your relationships with your children.
If you’re a Christian and your faith is getting in the way of your relationship with your children, you may have subscribed to the wrong version of your faith.
Here’s why I say that: Jesus never allowed what He believed to separate Him from people. Just the opposite. His perfect understanding of what God is like and who God likes compelled Him to always keep His side of the relational drawbridge down with all kinds of people. Jesus liked people who were nothing like him, and they liked Him back. They liked Him back because they were convinced He liked them, which was unlike other religious folks they knew.
The folks Jesus was constantly at odds with were religious folk who refused to follow His example. So, again, if your version of the Christian faith is or ever becomes an obstacle to your relationship with your children, you may have the wrong version. If your child walks away from your faith, it may break your heart. But as far as it depends on you, it should not break the relationship. Follow Jesus through the Gospels and that becomes abundantly clear.
I see that hand.
“But if I don’t confront their sin and object to their behavior, won’t it appear as if I condone it? Don’t I become complicit? Don’t I become guilty by association?”
Let’s tackle the last one first. If Jesus were concerned about guilt by association, He would have stayed in Heaven. So don’t worry about that. If you’re more worried about what your friends at church or your nosy neighbors think than how your children feel, that’s on you. Don’t parent your children with other people’s opinions in mind. Or your reputation in mind. Besides, friends and neighbors come and go.
When it comes to confronting your child’s error or lifestyle choices, remember this: Your child already knows what you believe and why you believe it. They already know what you condone and condemn. There’s no need to go there. The more pressing issue is:
Do you know what they believe and why they believe it?
You are in a relationship with your children, but it is not the same relationship. You are the parent. You’re not the pastor. You’re not the counselor. You’re not an apologist. You’re not an evangelist. The training years are behind you. Perhaps the coaching years are as well. Don’t revert. Don’t panic. Don’t freak out. Be a student, not a critic. They aren’t going to hell. They’re just putting you through it.
So put your Bible and your apologetics books away and sit back down in your parent seat and be the parent. If your kids have moved out, these are the friendship years. Do you have friends whose values and lifestyle choices don’t mirror yours? If so, you know what to do. If not, that may be part of the problem. Either way, find your parent seat and have a seat. And fasten your seat belt.
But not for your wayward child. Not yet.
Pray for you.
Ask God to give you eyes to see your child the way He sees them. Is God afraid? Worried? Fretting? Freaking out? No. Pray that you would see as He sees and that you would respond as He responds. How does your heavenly Father respond to prodigal children? Jesus told us.
He puts out the welcome mat and waits.
He keeps his side of the drawbridge down. If Jesus was correct — and I, for one, think He was — God’s side of the relational bridge doesn’t even have cables or motors attached. It’s always down.
Parenting with the relationship in mind positions you to navigate difficult discussions regarding faith with the relationship in mind as well. Why?
Because parenting with the relationship in mind ensures that you lead with your values rather than your beliefs.
What do you value most about your children? Hopefully, the relationship. So if one or all of your children question or abandon your faith, continue to parent with the relationship in mind, because a healthy relationship keeps the door open and the drawbridge down.
Relationship equates to influence. Remember, never give up influence with your children unnecessarily. Or with anyone else, for that matter.
And just so you know, if your children lose their faith but then choose to return to faith, it won’t be because you convinced them to. It won’t be because you convicted them to. It won’t be because you coerced or controlled them back. While these four Cs are often what we reach for first, they are relational kryptonite.
Don’t believe me?
Do you feel comfortable with or look forward to a long car ride with adults who readily employ any of those four Cs in their relationship with you?
You resist and avoid those folks. So don’t become one of those folks.
Don’t become one of those parents.
Leverage the four Cs with your middle schooler, high schooler, or college-age child and they will resist and avoid you. As noted earlier, you may be right, but you may right them right out the door. You may right them out of your life.
Excerpted with permission from Parenting and Getting It Right by Andy & Sandra Stanley, copyright Andy Stanley and Sandra Stanley.
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Have you had a child reject their faith? I understand the pain. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks about your relationship with them, stay as close as you can and keep praying! I’m right there with you. ~ Laurie McClure, Faith.Full