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How to Help Students Choose Between Faith and Family

As a pastor who is diligently trying to build a discipleship culture into the hearts of the college students I lead, I pull no punches in challenging them to rise up as active agents of redemption around the world and around the block. More and more students are doing just that in our ministry every day.

But I did not foresee the sheer amount of conflict that this would cause between students and their parents and family members. This is fresh on my mind right now, because about 80 percent of my counseling right before graduation and summer break boils down to this question:

What should I choose – my faith or my family?

In my context, most of my pastoral concerns with this problem don’t have to do with an Islamic kid getting disowned because she became a Christian or with a student who has agonistic parents who are openly hostile to the matter of faith – although our church has dealt with both of these issues in the last year.

Instead, for this post I want to address a more subtle yet no less aggressive form of parental conflict: When a student wants to fully pursue a form of kingdom expansion that threatens the nice, secure, and financially beneficial future that their parents* envision for them.

*I am all too familiar that students come from all sorts of different family structures, from single parents to stepparents to legal guardians and more. But for the sake of space, I’m using the term “parents” to describe a student’s primary caregivers, no matter how diverse or complex that relationship may be.

Can we as ministers encourage and support students trying their best to be obedient to God with their lives when it directly contradicts or subverts parental authority?

My first response to that question is always NO.

Here are a couple of reasons why:

Submission is one the hardest and yet most important postures for a disciple to learn. Students are still under the authority of the parents, and honoring your mother and father and submission to authority are very big deals in spiritual formation. (As a reminder, we are discussing a Christian pursuing obedience in calling and vocation under parental authority, not permission for conversion or public worship.)

Even though we are cultivating and encouraging students to hear the voice of God and respond, the default mode for many of them is to demand that mommy and daddy give them what they want, when they want it, and how they want it – especially when it something of spiritual significance. This is not the way a disciple should operate, because it’s not the way Jesus would act if He were us.

Refusing to wait is sign of immaturity. Students often come seeking a definitive YES or NO answer from us as ministers after God has moved in their hearts. They say something like, “My parents won’t understand or agree, but God is calling me to…” It may be a mission trip, or a change in major, or another internship. For the students, it is all or nothing, now or never, and for some this is their first awakening to real faith with responsive obedience. As a result, they are prone to overreact at the first sign of resistance, especially when it comes from their own family. So before some of my students start dramatically turning over dinner tables or chopping off ears to purge their house and home of resistance, I ask them to wait and consider if there are alternatives and perspectives they haven’t yet thought of.

So what do we as ministers and leaders and disciple-makers do for students as they deal with these issues? Here are a few things that I try to share with students in these situations.

Can we try a both/and not just an either/or? Part of maturing wisdom in a student is challenging their perspective so that they see issues from more than one side. We see this in Daniel 1 when Daniel came up with an incredibly wise and shrewd solution to his God-following dilemma while under the authority of another. He worked out a way through which both parties found an agreeable solution and outcome.

Some of the most remarkable progress happens when a student takes time to listen and honor his or her parents’ desires and concerns and then comes back with thoughtful plan on how to accomplish both what the parents want and what he or she believes God is prompting him or her to do. Permission and submission go a long way in cultivating favor.

Embrace conflict as opportunity for growth. Students (and parents) are often in the midst of the awkward stage of transitioning from a parent/child relationship to an adult/adult relationship. Some parents have spent their entire lives learning to guard and guide their children from every whim or fancy in an effort to teach them how to become responsible young adults. Sometimes the parents simply cannot hear that God has dramatically realigned their child’s value system because they have yet to honor their child as a young adult – or because their child has yet to learn to communicate to them as a young adult. This takes time, practice, and patience.

While the time may come to openly defy authority in name obedience, as it did for Daniel, we need to go through Daniel 1 before we immediately jump to Daniel 6.

Parents are not the enemy – Satan is. This is hard for us ministers to remember. We are so tempted to vilify parents. Instead, remember that God’s sovereign plan for our students will not be thwarted by an authority figure. Let this truth free you up to lovingly pray for and partner with your students’ parents.

Who knows – perhaps their child will lead to a huge breakthrough in the parents’ own relationship with Christ. That’s something that all of us – pastors, students, and parents -want to see.  

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