What to Do When Your Child Stops Believing (Part 1 of 2)
When he was about fourteen years old, my son, Jonathan, sat me down and told me that he had lost his faith in God. I was hurt, but I wasn’t surprised. After all, he had not shown much spiritual interest in several years. He suffered from depression and had been painfully lonely since we moved from Kansas to Tennessee. He had prayed for several years that God would heal him from his pain, but he only felt that God had abandoned him. It was easier for Jonathan just to quit believing than it was for him to believe that God exists but doesn’t care about his suffering.
I was heartbroken. I’ve been in ministry since I was in high school, and church work has given definition to my entire life. My wife, Julie, and I had tried hard to raise our two children to love Jesus. We went to church multiple times per week. Jonathan had been to Christian schools. We frequently had morning devotionals with the children. Jonathan and I had prayed together, traveled together, and many times I would carve out time just for him. I had baptized him with my own hands when he was nine. I thought I had done a good job being a spiritual father to him.
Yet here we sat. My son. The unbeliever.
What do you do when your own children stop believing?
Understanding the kinds of unbelief
As American becomes increasingly pagan, it appears that more and more of us are going to face the challenge of children who abandon the faith—whether teenagers or twenty-somethings. Before addressing the question of how to respond, let’s start by distinguishing four different kinds of unbelief. An accurate diagnosis can help you know how to respond. It can also equip you to disciple other parents.
Jonathan suffered what might be one of the most common sources of unbelief— unrelieved pain. Many teens and twenty-somethings suffer tremendous emotional pain from the dysfunctional world in which we live. They have depression. They are bullied. Many have been abandoned by one of their parents through divorce. They are shamed online, manipulated by marketers, and sometimes left for hours on their own with nothing but a smart phone and a video game. They ask God to relieve their hurt, but the relief doesn’t come. They eventually find it is just easier to give up on God. Though they may call themselves atheists, they really aren’t. Instead, they are believers who feel they have no other choice but to abandon God.
North America is rewriting the Christian faith to suit its pagan impulses, and the pressure on younger people is immense. They are told every single day that people who believe in biblical morality are bigots. They are encouraged to speak of Jesus as a progressive social reformer, but they are attacked if they mention a Jesus who judges sinners and rebels. A million progressive podcasts and blogs on the internet undermine, over and over again, biblical notions of gender and sex, of sin and redemption, of the inspiration and authority of Scripture. Progressive Christianity has a different message than biblical Christianity: one of self-affirming, therapeutic platitudes that suit secular American values. Many of our children simply cannot stand in the onslaught of progressivism. So they accept its tenets. And, as I’ve argued elsewhere,i because it dismisses everything that made Jesus necessary in the first place, progressive Christianity eventually leads to disbelief.
If your son or daughter adopts progressive Christianity today, tomorrow they will most likely cease to be believers in any real sense at all.
To be honest, sometime our children stop believing because they never really saw faith as important in the first place. Some of them grew up in churches where very little effort was made to engage them. Even if their parents were relatively faithful, the church simply made no effort to inculcate faith in its children. Others grew up in families where their parents didn’t take Jesus seriously. In these families, anything was likely to knock the parents out of their spiritual commitments—sports, recreation, or just laziness. These children rarely prayed with their parents. They never saw their parents make serious sacrifices for the faith. The parents were spotty in their attendance at church. Eventually, the children took seriously the one spiritual legacy offered by such parents—the legacy of spiritual apathy. They just dropped out.
The last category of unbelief occurs when our children—whether teens or young adults—decide that they like a sinful life more than they like a faithful life. These are children who are drawn into circles of friends who cultivate the things of the world. They like to party. They play to the world of sensuality, alcohol, popularity, social acceptance, and the like. Maybe they have started dating someone who is not a serious believer. Or maybe they are just hanging with a rebellious crowd. In any case, they simply cannot live a divided world. They may still go to church to pacify their parents, but inside, there is no faith in God left—only a lust for pleasure, approval, relevance, and success. Such children are, to be frank, in rebellion against King Jesus because they have decided to crown themselves king of their lives.
(Here is Part 2.)