I was raised in a Christian home. My parents were heavily involved as ministry volunteers, so we weren’t just at church every week, we were there for every single service from 8 a.m.-noon every Sunday. And we attended every church event: Bible studies, dinners, worship concerts, family nights, fundraisers, retreats, service projects, mission trips…EVERYTHING.
When I was a young teenager, not only was I involved in the church youth group and confirmation classes, I also started a Young Life club in our hometown because my parents were involved in the organization and wanted to bring it locally.
But, like many kids, somewhere along the way I started to have doubts about my faith and religion in general. I had deep questions that no one had good answers for. I felt constrained by the super-strict rules my parents set for our “Christian home.” I witnessed church politics that were divisive and ugly. I experienced hypocrisy and betrayal by church leaders who were supposed to be role models. I felt like Christianity was more focused on rules, judgment and external appearances than love.
I told my parents I was “over it” and quit going to youth group and Young Life. I spouted my disdain for the Christian institution with fierce vehemence. Every Sunday became an epic argument about going to church with them, and I usually ended up sitting in the back row reading a People magazine in order to keep from being grounded for not going at all.
By the time I got to college, faith was something I carried in my back pocket like an insurance card—only needed in case of dire emergencies. I believed I was still going to heaven since I hadn’t totally renounced my foundational belief in Jesus or salvation, so I partied like there was no tomorrow with nothing to lose. Every Sunday morning I called my parents for our weekly phone chat, and smugly informed them I was NOT ever going to church again and was thoroughly loving the fact I’d be rolling over to go back to sleep after our call.
My faith existed in its dormant state until years later and my first child was born. My daughter had a traumatic birth injury—one she barely survived—and her life hung in limbo as she lay in the PICU attached to cords and monitors.
“There’s nothing we can do but wait,” the doctors told us.
I was devastated, but thankfully my mom was there. And she reminded me that God was there too. She set up post by my daughter’s bassinet, keeping one hand on my baby’s tiny leg as she prayed. The nurses told us that my daughter’s vital signs improved dramatically when my mom laid praying hands on her, and my mom gently invited me to try.
It had been a long time since I’d prayed or reached out to God, but that moment when I opened my heart again I felt like I was coming back home to something I already knew. I was filled with hope, peace and comfort that were beyond my understanding, but I knew at that moment my true faith journey was beginning. For real, this time.
My daughter is now 23 years old, a healthy, vibrant young woman with a thriving faith that’s also taken the scenic route through dark valleys and dry deserts. As her mom—and mother of two other sons and stepmother of another son and daughter—I’ve discovered that my kids are each on their own unique path on God’s time frame, not mine. Despite being raised in our Christian home (albeit a highly imperfect, slightly dysfunctional one), their experiences, behaviors, beliefs and life stories have been vastly different from one another. But I believe they will each ultimately find their way to embracing a faith of their own. I just need to keep reminding myself of this.
What I know for sure is that faith formation is not a linear process, and it’s never-ending.
Just because kids went to church and/or were raised by a Christian parent(s) doesn’t mean they’re going to follow a certain path. The influence of a Christian family is important and foundational—that is certainly true, but it is still NOT a guarantee of the outcome. We can create environments, but heart-change is God’s territory. Matters of the soul are ultimately the work of the Holy Spirit, not the result of our human endeavors.
Faith is a personal, lifelong discovery, with many detours and bumps in the road. Your kids’ faith journey is THEIR journey, not yours. The young adult years are a crucial crossroads for the first true steps of owning and defining a personal faith and belief system outside of the home. Some kids embrace faith and dig deeper, and some kids doubt, question, rebel or reject it. Some kids bounce back and forth. It gets messy. It can be scary. This is normal. But it is NOT the final finish line for our kids’ faith, regardless of where they are today.
So what can we do as parents when our teen and young adult kids struggle with their faith?
- We never stop praying for them, because prayer is powerful, and it’s something we can always still do.
- We take a deep breath, lean on our own faith and we trust our almighty God’s timing and work in their lives.
- We never stop loving them, and we try to model (as much as humanly possible) what Christ’s unconditional love looks like.
- We never stop listening to them (even when what they have to say is hard). We keep the lines of communication open, honest and respectful. We seek to understand, we ask questions that help them dig deeper and explore, we present the truth in love instead of as an argument.
- We recognize that our kids cannot simply inherit the faith of their parents, but must forge an authentic faith of their own. This often means doubting, questioning, walking away, screwing up and other frightening things. For some kids this is the only way they will ever realize their need for Jesus and fully surrender to it.
- We share our own stories and struggles about our faith with them—times when we doubted, mistakes we’ve made, and how we came to the decisions we have about our beliefs.
- We let them know we are praying for them, how we see God is still working in their lives, that God is still with them, and that he still loves them even if they don’t believe it.
- We don’t give up, but we don’t force. We help them get connected with others in the faith community if they have questions we can’t answer. We encourage them to seek opportunities where they can serve and help others with their hands so that it might engage their heart. We invite them to church, but we don’t sulk, scold or punish them if they don’t go. We always keep the door open to possibility.
- We realize that we haven’t failed as parents—God has given us all the gift of free will for a reason. Who our kids turn out to be is not a reflection of our identity.
- We accept that the reality of today might not be the reality of tomorrow, and that parenting and faith are lifelong journeys with no true end.
- We continue to stand strong and joyously in our own faith, pursuing an ever-deepening relationship with Jesus, seeking his Word, embracing our worth as his beloved, and grateful for his presence in our lives.
- We pray that our lives speak in powerful ways when words cannot.
If you’re a parent with a kid who is wrestling or walking away from faith, you are not alone. Hang on to hope, hang on to this list of truths, and reach out to others for support. Decades after being the prodigal child, I called my own mother for advice on how to survive the heartache of feeling like I was losing the battle as I saw my kids struggle with their faith, and she shared these simple words that helped her endure with hope while raising me:
“Remember, your kids are God’s kids too, and he’s not letting them go.”
This article originally appeared here.