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 between four different kinds of unbelief. An accurate diagnosis can help you know how to respond. It can also equip you to disciple other parents.
Painful doubt. 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.
Progressive reprogramming. 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.
Responding to Your Unbelieving Children
So, your teenage or twenty-something child is showing signs that faith in Jesus is no longer significant in their lives. Either she has told you that she no longer believes, or he has simply stopped taking Jesus seriously. How do you respond?
1. Pray. Pray. And pray some more. If I have to explain to you why you should devote yourself to prayer during this time, you have a bigger problem than you think. Fast. Pray. Collect a group of spiritual friends and ask them to enter into a period of prayer. Jesus teaches us that boldness in prayer gets results (Luke 18:4-5). Be bold to your God about the condition of your children.
2. Be compassionate: doubt is a consequence of living in our broken world.Just as the rest of creation is subject to frustration, our minds are also subject to frustration. After all, sin has broken every part of creation (as Paul says in Romans 8:20-22). This includes our minds. All knowledge is slippery in a broken world. Every one of us faces doubts. And when a person is transitioning from childhood to adulthood, the doubts increase as our children must ask themselves whether our faith as parents is really real.
In fact, doubt can be a good thing. Doubts about the position of the earth led to the scientific revolution. Doubts about that email from the “crown prince of South Asia” can save you thousands of dollars in fraud. So, while the Bible wants us to overcome our doubts, it also offers great sympathy to us when we doubt. It is sympathetic towards the man whose son was offered healing by Jesus: “Lord,” the man explained, “I believe! Help my disbelief!” Jesus healed the boy.
For this reason, when your children are struggling with doubts, lead with compassion. Remember that your child may not have chosen her doubts. Often our doubts choose us. A friend of mine lost his faith after concluding that science and Jesus are not compatible. His parents became angry at him. “It isn’t fair that they should be mad at me,” he explained. “I didn’t want to doubt. But I simply cannot make myself believe what I don’t think is true.”
Pray that God will lead you to show mercy and grace to your children when they struggle with doubt. They need you more than ever now.
3. Lovingly refuse to compromise. I don’t want to scare you here, but it is important to remember that Jesus addresses the problem of unfaithfulness. If you are heartbroken over the loss of faith in your child, well, your feelings are justified. Jesus says that “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). Your child’s condition is serious. Their eternal destiny is at stake.
If the child is younger, make it clear to him or her that living by Christian standards is not an option in your home. When Jonathan lost his faith at the age of 14, I told him that I would not try to make him believe. But, I explained, anyone who lives under my roof will go to church and live by Christian standards. No exceptions. If your tenth grader declares to you that she no longer thinks school is important, would you tell her that she doesn’t have to go anymore? Of course not. Children aren’t fully capable of knowing what’s good for them, so sometimes we have to lead them—whether they like it or not.
When our unbelieving children become older, we face a different temptation: the temptation to adapt our beliefs in order to accept our children’s disbelief. It is a great temptation—who in this world could we possibly love more than our own children? And so I’ve seen it a dozen times: a twenty-something year old son abandons Christian teaching on sexuality—one man, one woman in a committed married relationship for life—and soon the parents begin to change their own beliefs about sexuality in order to accommodate their son. It’s a serious mistake, and makes the entire family guilty of compromise.
Lowering your standards to accommodate your son or daughter’s unfaithfulness to King Jesus will not bring them back to Him. It will, instead, only reinforce their falling away. And it will make you an accomplice. Be loving. But don’t back down from what King Jesus teaches. Practice saying this: “I will never stop loving you, and having a relationship with you is one of my deepest desires. But as much as I love you, I will never support and I will never celebrate your loss of faith. I love you and I love Jesus too much to do that.”
Pray that God will give you the courage to stand for King Jesus over all other loyalties, trusting that He will work it out. Sometime back, I declared to my entire family that, were they all to abandon Christ, I would choose Him over them. Make it clear to the world that your first loyalty is to King Jesus.
4. Offer your children a safe, stable, and Christ-centered anchor. When your son or daughter loses their faith, they may at first feel an inner freedom. But typically they quickly begin to feel insecurities and fears. Their world has come apart, and they no longer have a secure anchor. If they are acting out, behaving recklessly, or making flippant comments, it is likely that deep inside they are feeling isolated and insecure. Their misbehavior is a mask intended to cover a profound loss of meaning.
During this time, you should be their source of Christian strength. Affirm, over and over again, that you love them and care about them. You must prayfrequently that God will grant you the strength to be the firm compass they no longer have. Invite them to come to you and to discuss openly their loss of faith, their fears, and their struggles. Listen to them in love. Try to touch the part of their life that is hurting before you seek to re-convert them. Pray that you will patiently listen to your struggling child. Pray that they will come to you with their doubts.
5. Speak Christ into your child’s life, but avoid arguing and nagging. You are going to want to argue with your son or daughter. You are going to want to prove them wrong. You are going to want them to meet with some expert who can prove that they should return to Jesus. But you should know that it rarely works. Of course, it is right to speak truth to people who are leaving the faith. But when people are losing faith, arguments rarely bring them back. In fact, too many arguments will simply run people off. They will feel nagged about that over which they feel they have little control.
Rather than nagging, shaming, and constantly trying to prove your point, choose instead simply to witness Christ in your life. When good things happen in your life, give daily thanks to God in front of them. When you have to make a decision, let them see you pray. When you feel joy, tell them that it came from King Jesus. Be a witness, not a prosecuting attorney. A witness is someone who has seen something, not someone who tries to prove something. See King Jesus in your own life, and then bring Him to the forefront for all your children to see. Your son or daughter can easily resist your logical arguments about God and the Bible. But they will have a much harder time dismissing your constant interaction with the risen Savior. Let them see King Jesus in your life, rather than constant conclusions from your logical syllogisms.
I did not give my son dozens of books on Christian evidences when he lost his faith. But I would regularly say things like “God answered my prayer today when I asked for such-and-such. He’s a really good God.” Pray that God will bring Jesus to the foreground of your life so that everyone, including your children, can see Him clearly.
6. Seek out a mature Christian to disciple your child.This one is very important. I minister in a very large church, and there were many people who loved my son, even though he felt disconnected. Three men, however, went out of their way to disciple Jonathan. When he was a teenager, Jim saw Jonathan’s loneliness, and simply began to ask Jon to join him in life. They worked together, played together, and just hung out together. For several years, Jim was the only relationship my son had at our church. When Jonathan was in his early twenties, a film producer and Taekwondo Grandmaster both discipled Jonathan—almost every single day. They loved him, poured themselves into him, prayed with him, and treated him with grace and compassion.
You should never stop loving on your children, but sometimes it helps is you get a couple of older adults to make a commitment to disciple your son or daughter. As I said above, most people don’t rediscover Jesus through logical syllogisms (although good logic matters). Most of us learn relationally—we learn by watching others. Getting a mature Christian to adopt your son or daughter can help them find their anchor again. And even if it doesn’t, it may set the course for their eventual return. Pray that God will reveal to you a mentor or two who can disciple your child. Pray that when you ask, they are willing to make the investment. Pray that our churches will return to making disciple-making the main thing.
7. Be joyful, optimistic, and hopeful. God is not done with your child yet. When your son or daughter loses their faith, it will bring you a sense of loss, of shame, and of failure. And, truth be told, you may well have had something to do with your child’s loss of faith.
But don’t be too hard on yourself. You were never going to be the perfect parent in the first place. And even if you had been, your children were created by God with free will. At the end of the day, they make their own choices, regardless of how good a parent you have been. After all, God is the perfect Father, and excepting only Jesus, every single one of His children has rebelled—including you!
So, even with your feelings of fear and shame, this is not a time to be silent. This is a time to speak to your congregation and ask them to pray over your child. It is a time to partner with others who have the same experience, with elders, with older parents who have been through life, and ask them to disciple you, to pray with you, and to love with you. It’s a time for honesty and for reaching out to your spiritual family. Openness offers healing. And it allows others to share their pain, too.
And don’t despair too deeply. Remember that God can use even the loss of your child’s faith to do something amazing. As many as 50% of those who leave the faith when they are young eventually return. Some come back stronger than ever.
After being discipled by the three men I mentioned above, and with the help of my entire church, my son came back to King Jesus when he was 21 years old. And he came back with a vengeance—he immediately began to baptize his friends. He eventually led a school of discipleship where he trained 60 or 70 people how to follow Jesus. He has become an excellent Bible scholar and a preacher. And now he leads a church planting team in the Northwest, where he declares that Jesus is King of the Universe to anyone who will listen. Had he not fallen away, he would likely have never excelled beyond mere cultural Christianity. But because he now knows what it means to be lost, he is determined to show others the beauty of being found.
Take hope. Show joy. And be Jesus to everyone you meet. Especially your own children.
[i] David Young, A Grand Illusion: How Progressive Christianity Undermines Biblical Faith (Nashville: Renew, 2019).