Kate Orson explores the issues and emotions of teenagers and grown-up children who turned their back on faith

Leaving Church image

For children growing up in a Christian household, belief in God often comes naturally, perhaps even automatically, simply because the parents believe. Yet there may come a time in adolescence or young adulthood when that choice becomes more conscious and intentional. Maybe they start to question their beliefs or fall away from the faith. Or maybe a teen becomes born again and begins a personal relationship with Jesus that wasn’t there before. 

Proverbs 22:6 says: “Start children off on the way they should go and even when they are old they will not turn from it.” But what if they do? Despite the best efforts of Christian parents, it’s not uncommon for older children to stray away from the faith. It can feel like tricky terrain to navigate a child’s growing independence when you are watching them walk away from the free gift of salvation. How should Christians handle it? I asked three parents of adult children about their experience.  

Stacey’s story – ‘unchurching’ 

Stacey’s family daughter started struggling with her faith when she began questioning her sexuality. As Stacey began to understand what was going on she realised that her daughter had been hurt by her church experience and some of the attitudes of the people there. She had also picked up some false ideas from the church such as the idea that all gay people go to hell.  

The experience made Stacey reflect on how her and her husband “had left a lot of the discipling up to the church”. As Stacey’s family are highly committed Christians they had thought, ‘Well, we’re there two or three times a week, so surely she’s hearing everything she needs to hear, because those people are going to be way better at teaching her than I am.’

Stacey realised she needed to talk things through with her daughter, as she had picked up things in church that put her off Christianity that were actually unbiblical.  

“In our house, we’ve termed it ‘unchurching’. My oldest would ask questions and I’ll be like: ‘Oh, sweetie, that’s something that you’ve learned from the culture of church that the Bible doesn’t say. So let’s talk about that.’”

Another area to ‘unchurch’ is the hurt that her daughter picked up from the church. Stacey says: “I thought about how to explain to her that what she felt from other people was people, not God. And that is tragic and so incredibly harmful and painful. But not all people in all churches are going to behave like them.” 

Stacey’s approach is to be honest about what the Bible considers a sin, but also thinking about questions such as: how can I minister to her heart? How can I love her well? How can I show her that God is who he says he is, that Jesus is who he says he is? 

Stacey’s experience with her eldest led her to reflect on her own childhood and change how she does things with her younger children. “As a child the only time that I ever saw our faith reflected at home was in our rules and praying before meals. I didn’t ever see my parents studying the Bible or praying together. My husband and I decided we would start showing our kids what we’re doing for our faith.” 

Now Stacey models her faith more, telling her children when she’s going to pray or being open about her own sin struggles. If she’s learnt something interesting in Bible study, she’ll share little titbits with her family, just finding ways to bring her own lived faith into family life.

If the family are going through any emotional struggles, she’ll try to bring in a biblical perspective, such as: “What lie is the devil telling you that you believe right now? Because that’s not from God. Anxiety is not from the Lord. So what are you worried about that’s causing this anxiety? And how can we turn that around? How can we believe a promise of God instead of believing this lie from the devil?”

It is Stacey’s hope that by showing her children God’s goodness in a natural, organic way, they will stay close to the faith.  

Andrew’s story – love and communication 

Andrew’s children were raised in a deeply devoted Christian family, out on the mission field witnessing miracles. Yet despite this, some of his children now don’t believe or have backslidden. With each of his children he’s seen how some kind of influence from the world has affected their beliefs. Non-Christian friends, a Bible college that took a more worldly approach and social isolation on the mission field have all contributed to straying from the faith.

Andrew advises: “I think you have to pray and be bold when you have an opportunity and you feel the Holy Spirit urging you to say something. I think it’s important to remember you can love your child without affirming their sin. It’s important to try to keep connected, to keep up communication, to offer love, to offer help and assistance when it’s needed. But I also don’t think you should shut down the fact that you’re a Christian. I think you should still let that show, and that you should still talk to them about things as you have opportunities.”

Andrew takes different approaches depending on which child he’s talking to. “I have one who is a Christian but backsliding, so I might remind them about the love of God and what they’ve experienced and what they’ve seen and what they’ve known. I might show them a scripture that opposes the culture.”

With his non-Christian child, if they were going through a particular issue he might “send them a relevant biblical truth but wouldn’t be exactly quoting the Bible. An expression of a biblical worldview, but without quoting chapter and verse”. 

On reflection, Andrew feels that one of the reasons that Christians struggle is a need for real community and support. “When a child has Christian friends who believe as they do and support them in their belief and encourage them in their belief, it’s helpful to them. Even if they’re in maybe a more hostile environment, young people getting together and supporting each other – a support prayer group kind of thing – would be really helpful to them to have community.”

Amy’s story – modelling faith 

Amy’s oldest daughter became interested in new age and witchcraft as a teenager. Amy’s approach was to try banning and controlling what she read, listened to and watched. Gradually Amy realised that she was acting out of the flesh and from her own fear rather than the Spirit. “All it did was provoke anger and rebellion.” With her second child who’s walking a similar path, Amy has changed her approach.

“My focus now is my relationship with the Lord, rather than my daughter’s behaviour. I’m focusing on displaying my faith, what I’m doing and how I live it out. He just flows out of everything I say and I do. I don’t change the way I am to accommodate my children because they’re not comfortable talking about God any more. What I’m doing differently from my eldest is not trying to enforce them to live in obedience to the Lord because I am.”

Amy, like the other parents, is honest and open about her biblical views, but because she’s built safety and trust, her children come to her to talk about things that are contrary to the faith. She says: “I still react in a very loving way, as a person that they can trust.” Amy feels that modelling her faith is beneficial: “There’s so much confusion and instability in our culture, where everything is relative. I’m standing on a rock. I’m consistent. That is going to be appealing.”

Amy’s journey has made her reflect on how as parents at some point, we have to respect our children’s free will. “We have a responsibility to train them up, but at some point, you have to let them have their independence. God didn’t want us to be robots, he gave us free will.”

In the place of control, Amy has chosen prayer instead. “I lift my children up to the Lord every day and ask that the Lord would convict them and love on them.”

As Christian parents what more can we do but to keep praying, handing our burden to God and allowing Christ to live through us? “I can do all things through him who gives me strength” Philippians 4:13.