It’s something I often hear from parents who are heartbroken that their teen or adult kids have walked away from Christianity.
Whether it’s through one of my online book read along groups, private emails, blog comments, Facebook messages, or at speaking events, when parents reach out to me about their kids walking away from faith, their words are laced with painful sadness and a sense that they in some way failed.
My kids are still young (ages 9 and 7), so I haven’t faced this myself, but I relate to these parents because I have so often experienced my own sense of parenting failure.
I haven’t shown enough patience, and I see them exhibiting their own impatience.
I haven’t given them enough conflict resolution skills, and I see them argue constantly.
I haven’t spent enough time showing them how to serve others, and I see them lacking perspective on how to live out their faith.
As a parent, there are so many I haven’ts. And there will always be, because none of us are perfect. We cannot flawlessly deliver all that our kids need. But there’s something about I haven’t that implies opportunity.
I haven’t implies I haven’t yet.
When our kids leave home, however, those I haven’ts will cement into regretful I didn’ts.
As Christian parents, there should be nothing more important to us than raising our kids to know and love Jesus. How could there be something more important if our kids’ relationship with Jesus has eternal implications? Yet we have to recognize that we don’t control whether or not our kids become Christ-followers. The heavy burden of I didn’ts that so often comes with a child’s rejection of faith must be tempered with grace and placed at the foot of the cross.
At the same time, parents with kids still at home can’t ignore the fact that there is much we can do to help our kids develop a lasting faith. We are called to actively disciple our kids (Deuteronomy 6)—not to sit back and see what happens. We should focus on what we can control and give the rest to God.
With that in mind, there are many regrets we can purposefully avoid. They are things that we largely have in our control and that we should be able to reasonably identify as responsibilities long before I didn’t becomes a reality. Here are five you don’t want to have if your kids walk away from faith. Unfortunately, they are five I hear from parents far too often.
1. You didn’t give them a deep enough understanding of Christianity.
Research has shown time after time that at least 60 percent of kids who grew up in church walk away from their faith by their early 20s (here is an excellent summary of the studies). Don’t be jaded by the numbers—that is a crazy statistic.
Young people often turn away from Jesus, however, with a flawed understanding of the nature of truth, what Christianity even is, and what the Bible teaches.
They think that Christianity requires blind faith; that a person must choose between faith and science; that Christianity basically boils down to living with “good values”; that Christians think they’re better than others; that Christians aren’t loving if they declare something is sinful according to the Bible; and much more.
How sad to think that many turn away from what they think is Christianity, but is actually only a caricature of it based on layers of misunderstandings built from popular culture over time.
One of the most important things we can do as parents is ensure our kids deeply understand what, exactly, Christianity is—and isn’t. This requires us to 1) study the Bible deeply with our kids and 2) be educated on how the world gets Christianity wrong so we can proactively correct those misunderstandings with our kids.
If my kids reject their faith, I want to know that they accurately understand what they’re rejecting.
2. You didn’t expose them to the claims of skeptics.
A lot of parents are overwhelmed at the thought of helping their kids learn the case for Christianity and how to defend their faith against the seemingly ubiquitous challenges today.
Where do you start? Where do you end? How can you cover it all? How can kids ever really be sufficiently prepared? How can we even be prepared ourselves?
But here’s what you need to know: Helping your kids develop a faith that’s prepared for today’s challenges is not a nebulous, impossible task.
Skeptics make a predictable set of claims, so we have a pretty specific agenda we should be covering with our kids over time. Think of it like helping them study for a test. You might not be able to anticipate every conceivable question they’ll get, but you can make sure they know what major subject areas they’ll encounter and how to think through the most important questions in those areas. They’re not venturing out into a completely wild blue yonder. This test can be studied for.
If my kids reject their faith, I want to know that it’s not because they were taken aback by shocking claims they hadn’t heard first from me.
3. You didn’t make enough time for conversations about faith.
In their research for the book Sticky Faith, Kara Powell and Chap Clark surveyed 11,000 church-going teenagers and asked how many of them talk with their parents about faith. They found that only 12% of kids talk regularly with their mom about faith and 5% with their dads.
What a devastating fact.
How can we help kids navigate the complexities of faith in a challenging world if we’re having zero or few conversations about it with them? Let’s be clear: This is completely in our control. It’s simply a matter of prioritizing the time needed and learning what conversations need to be had.
If my kids reject their faith, I want to know that it’s not because I didn’t invest time consistently and continually in having meaningful and relevant spiritual conversations with them.
4. You relied on the church to develop their spiritual life.
Being part of a fellowship with other believers is an important part of the Christian life. But there’s no question that simply getting your kids to church each week is not enough to prepare them to be independent followers of Jesus—especially in a challenging world like this. Parents must accept responsibility as the primary spiritual influencer in the life of their child.
If my kids reject their faith, I want to know that it’s not because I delegated the responsibility of spiritual discipleship to the church.
5. You focused more on raising kids with “good values” than raising kids with Jesus.
This might be one of the mantras of this blog given how much I repeat it, but it’s so important, I need to say it over and over: good values are not the same as Christianity. None of us want to raise kids who are little terrors in the world. We want them to be pleasant people who generally exhibit what the Bible identifies as fruits of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. It’s easy to forget, however, that those qualities are fruits of the Spirit, not fruits of how hard we try. They are the outcome of a Spirit-filled life: the fruit, not the root.
If we focus on raising kids who are simply “good people” (by whatever behavioral definition you want to assume), and not on raising kids who love Jesus as the root of the fruit, we’re just raising future secular humanists.
If my kids reject their faith, I want to know that it’s not because they believed good values were pretty much the same as Christianity and eventually decided they didn’t Jesus.
If these points raise some I haven’ts for you, take a moment to consider right now what needs to change. Know that they don’t have to become I didn’ts. And rest in the peace of knowing you’re not responsible for your child’s ultimate decision to follow Jesus, but rather for being obedient to your calling as the primary spiritual influencer in your child’s life.
If you need a resource to help you with these points, you’ll find what you need in my latest book, Talking with your Kids about God. You’ll get equipped to help your kids understand Christianity more deeply; you’ll know specifically what claims skeptics make about God that you need to expose them to; you’ll learn how to have those conversations (every chapter has a step-by-step conversation guide); you’ll see what it means to take responsibility for their spiritual development rather than delegating to the church; and you’ll be prepared to teach why good values depend on the existence of God.