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Living Room Compassion

Ministering to parents whose children have left the church

My son doesn’t go to church anymore because he thinks God is a myth.”

“My daughter says she still believes in God but just has no use for the church.”

“My son married a girl of another faith, and now neither of them goes to church.”

“Our grandchildren have no idea who God is.”

The words come out in short bursts between moments of conversation. Tears quietly fall. People ask, “Why has this happened to our family?”

All this took place within the confines of a living room on a Sunday evening in Edmonton, Alberta.

The month before, a concerned elder had asked what our congregation could do for parents whose adult children no longer attend church. He noted that many parents in our church were hurting and carrying this burden alone. As a pastoral staff we decided to host an open meeting with interested parents for discussion and prayer on this topic.

We honestly wondered if anyone would come. We knew many people who were struggling with this issue, but they were struggling alone, not letting others in the church know of their situation.

A Shared Burden

Much to our surprise, and to the surprise of the other attendees, 18 parents filled the living room where we met. A dozen or so stories were shared—stories of adult children who refuse to go to church, who have doubts about whether God is real, who are not bringing up their own children to believe in Jesus. Each scenario had unique aspects, but all the scenarios struck a common emotional chord.

When parents present their children for baptism, they don’t imagine that the day may come when their children reject that baptism. Parents entrust their children to God, and then they do their best to raise them in the love of the Lord. Along with the community of faith, they hold their children in prayer and try their best to set a good example as disciples of Christ.

But no parent is perfect. No church community is perfect. And the mysteries of why one child embraces the Lord and another does not may remain unsolved. Many parents are filled with questions, doubt, guilt, and shame. They may also feel anger toward God and the church. But there is no one balm for all these emotions and no one answer to all the questions.

Coming together as parents and pastors was not about finding answers. It was about supporting one another through a difficult and sometimes long journey. At subsequent meetings, parents shared ideas for how to reach out to one another’s children, but more than that, they simply reached out to one another with love and compassion.  

Meeting and praying together has meant sharing both the sorrow of adult children who are not attending church, as well as sharing the joys of observing God at work in the lives of their children, no matter how small that work may seem.

Some of you reading this article are going through the same struggles as the parents in our group. If we could invite you into our living room meetings, I think you would find four themes to be evident. They capture the best of what I think the parents in our group would want to convey to you.

1. You Are Not Alone

Many parents carry this burden on their own, all the while feeling guilty and ashamed. They wonder what they did wrong. But instead of sharing their feelings, they keep quiet and the burden grows.

But after having met together, the parents in our group know they are not alone. They can look across the church sanctuary or fellowship hall and see other parents they’ve met with who are also struggling. They can approach one another and share a knowing look, a comforting touch, or a word of encouragement.

One parent shared a familiar proverb to explain the experience: “A sorrow shared is but half a trouble; but a joy that’s shared is a joy made double.”

2. There Is No Easy Solution

There is no quick recipe or three-step plan for bringing your children back into the church. Some efforts may produce fruit; others may not. And even within one family, siblings may have different responses to the faith and to the life of the church.

You may find some books and articles you can read together as a group. You can share your stories of what has worked and what has not worked with your own children. But the parents in our group readily acknowledge that there is no simple solution.

3. Look to Your Church Community for Support

Be willing to tell your story to a group of friends, to your elder, or to your pastor. Join, or better yet, start a support group for parents in your church community. Trust that you are not alone and that you will find others willing to travel this painful journey with you.

The simple act of coming together to share stories and to join in prayer for one another is very powerful. It may not lead to an immediate change in your situation, but it will lead to a change in you.

4. Trust in the Lord

Trust that the Lord has not given up on your children. Trust that the Lord loves and cares for your children. And pray. Pray for changed hearts in your children and in yourselves as parents.

You do not have to trust perfectly. When your sense of trust is waning or when it’s hard to pray, allow others to lift you and your children up in prayer.

There is strength and comfort to be found in meeting together, especially through painful times in our lives. There is power and grace in abundance when we take time to pray together. The living rooms we meet in have been transformed into holy ground as hurting parents share their hearts with one another and with the Lord.

Many of the parents in our group would tell you this is a long road to travel. Many of them have been quietly praying for their adult children for more years than they wish to count. And they keep on praying. They keep praying, over the years and through the pain, because they love their children and are deeply convinced that God loves their children even more.

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