Andy Peck looks at the heartbreak of children drifting away from church and faith and suggests some things to remember

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What do Franklin Graham, Selwyn Hughes, and Danielle Strickland have in common?

Answer: They all came to faith, or back to faith after rebellious childhoods.

Perhaps the best known and favourite parable for many is the Prodigal Son. Although the eldest son is also a key figure in Jesus’ teaching, who doesn’t love the tale of a returning child being embraced back into the fold?

But for many of us that day seems a long way off. Maybe you are navigating the teenage years already aware that your children are not keen to walk with Jesus. They may have already stopped attending church, or have left home to attend uni  and God doesn’t factor in their lives.If only it was possible to give them a jab at childhood that would save them from drifting and ensure they remain on course!

As a parent I have known the ups and downs of this kind of drift, with neither of my ’children’ (aged 18 and 20) in regular church attendance . There is a mystery to the ways of God in a person’s life and I wish I could give you four steps to ensure your child never strays. I can’t but here’s some things to remember.

1. It’s not about church attendance

Your aim is to help your children and teens understand the wonders of life with God in this world and the world to come. Hopefully you demonstrate this in the way you live with God, how you see God at work and teaching them how terrific his values are. So walking with Jesus daily is the goal, recognising that there will be the ups and downs of faith just as in other parts of life. Whether your child/teen attends church regularly is not the issue, and especially if you know that the services may not serve them well.

2. But it is about church

It may not be about church attendance, but gathering with other Christians remains the best place for them to strengthen their walk with Jesus. I don’t allow myself to say, ‘well church doesn’t matter’ because when we come to faith we are brought into a church family and it matters that my boys connect with Christ’s people.If someone is able to nurture faith outside the gathered community that is the exception not the rule.

Now notice I say ‘gathering with other Christians’. Of course some groups of people who attend a building with the name ‘church’ outside don’t assist people to walk with Christ for a whole variety of reasons and so you want your children/young people to be connecting with Christ following believers. They may have drifted away from church in part because they are not being helped? Or maybe they have doubts but nowhere to express them, and they feel they have to leave.

Richard Foster, author of Celebration of Discipline (a bestseller on Christian discipleship) has suggested that some young people may need to find faith in a church that is different from their parents. That may be true for yours? If your church doesn’t have a youth group, you are wise to seek alternatives in other churches or parachurch networks. And why not start a group that explores the doubts and uncertainties all Christians have?

3. Don’t make it personal

OK so maybe you can pull the ‘do it to please me’ card every now and again, but at the end of the day you are (at this point) a fellow disciple. We have told our boys straight: ”You have been adopted into our family and we believe it is a blessing that we are a Christian family. We believe that following a risen Jesus and living according to his values is to seek life in all its fullness as Jesus promised us. And we commend this path to you. But if you find a better way to live then let us know. We are all ears!” Of course they haven’t and as it happens both have some warmth towards the faith even if things aren’t as me would like them to be.

Now we haven’t been the perfect parents or the perfect role models of Christianity. It is easy to ask, ”what did I do wrong?!”  I hesitate to bring up the example of Judas Iscariot because it is hard to understand exactly what was going on with him, and I am not suggesting he is a symbol of your child! But I do so to illustrate that Jesus was the perfect model and yet Judas does not continue following Jesus. We may have regrets but our example in and of itself is not a key factor.

Somehow it is important to talk about their reluctance to go God’s way openly. You so much want them to enjoy God as you do, but it has to be a faith freely chosen and their connection or non-connection is primarily with God not with you. Too many parents have unwittingly driven their children away because they have forced the issue and made it personal. So we make it clear to our boys that they are missing out if they don’t connect with God and his people. We are sad for them, but we love them of course unconditionally and look to be there for them.

4. Keep communication lines open

Your children may have already decided God and church is not for them. You may have older children who made that decision a while ago and there has been no change. So you keep praying and loving and not allow the ‘faith divide’ come between you. In some cases there is more going on spiritually than you realise

There may well be an event, or a conversation, or a connection with someone in the future that is going to lead them to faith or back to faith. There are plenty of Christians who now see God doing amazing things in their lives who were exactly where your children are now. And for some, God is even using their time away from faith as part of the ministry they now have.

Who knows, maybe like Franklin, Selwyn or Danielle there will be a day when they do return and you can rejoice together?

A prayer: Lord be with my child right now, knocking gently on their hearts door and reminding them of your love, welcome and warm embrace to all who repent and return to you. In Jesus’ name, Amen.