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Many Christian parents share a common joy: children who are walking with God. But many also share a common grief: children (or grandchildren) who have walked away from God.

If it becomes clear that your son or daughter has no desire to walk with God, you will probably go through a time of painful soul-searching. How could this happen? Why my child? Where did I fail? Is the Lord punishing me? Should I tell the church? How should I pray? Is God even listening? Should I talk to my child? How? Where can I turn for help?

Fear can gnaw away quietly at you as you wonder what to do. Spouses may at times feel impatient with each other—moments of disagreement can carry a sense of accusation. A sense of resentment may invade your family life.

Sometimes life brings problems for which there are no solutions, but we still have to face those problems. Here are some places to start if you have a child who isn’t walking with God.

Take Stock

First, I would invite you to sit down with your spouse or, if you’re a single parent, with a trusted friend. Take stock of the things you know for sure. Perhaps the most important is this: God is in charge. The destiny of your children is in God’s hand. The Lord gave parents a wonderful role to play in their children’s faith life, but we must realize that God, not us, is the source of that faith.

So you can commit your child to God, knowing that God will deal salvation-wise with him or her in his time.

Salvation is by God’s grace. Your child’s faith-decisions are between him or her and God’s Holy Spirit. But what is beyond you is not beyond the Spirit, so leave your fear and worry before your Father’s mercy seat.

Remain a Friend

Second, I encourage you to consciously recommit yourself to your child. Parenting includes being your child’s friend—playing a supportive role that needs ongoing expression. Continue to show delight in your child, to show your appreciation of his or her gifts and interests. Praise her for her efforts. Listen to his stories. Your parental friendship should remain solid for every child, believer or unbeliever. Your unbelieving child is equally entitled to your friendship for the simple reason that he or she is your child.

This has another side. Children have an uncanny psychological sense. They watch you—how you relate to your spouse, how you relate to God. And they watch how you express your values and ideals.

What a child watches for especially is whether Mom and/or Dad are just church members or whether they are truly followers of Jesus.

Kids experience a lot of insecurity. They face a threatening world. Your home is their God-appointed shelter. They need your friendship, but they don’t want you to be their buddies; rather, they seek your protection, your acceptance, your affection, and your sincere interest.

Children can accept correction and even discipline, but they dread being emotionally disowned by their parents. Your commitment to love your kids is not negotiable—so be Christ to them!

Such loyalty creates an atmosphere in which children feel secure and free to confide in their parents. And it is especially your “wayward” child who needs that warmth and security. Your child must know that you remain on her side with love undiminished. That will help her deal with one very paralyzing thought: “Now that I don’t believe anymore, my parents will think that they have failed in bringing me up.”

Does your continued love mean that you will not be sad if your child walks away from God? No, you will experience real sadness. But in your sadness your trust remains in the Lord.

God is patient. He is not through with your child yet. And that’s why your prayers can continue unhindered. (Consider the following Scripture passages to bolster your trust and faith: Rom. 8; Eph. 2; and Col. 1.)

Can the Church Help?

Yes, the church and individual members can help. But it is not easy; grieving parents face complex, highly nuanced situations. And no two situations are alike. Parents themselves have a hard time understanding their young adult children.

On the one hand parents feel a need to talk with trusted church members about these problems, but on the other hand they hesitate because they know how difficult the situation is.

Here are some things concerned church members can keep in mind when talking with a parent who is saddened by a child’s lack of faith:

  • Ask the parent how all his or her children are doing; then ask about the child for whom this parent worries.
  • Don’t be in a hurry. Don’t look around as if you’re eager to move on.
  • Don’t change the subject or cut the parent short.
  • Don’t offer unsolicited advice.
  • Don’t look anguished.
  • Don’t refer to other situations that you think are similar.

In other words, just listen—the kind of listening that clearly comes from being engaged.

Why is listening to burdened people so helpful? It affirms to them that they belong. Their plight can make them feel inadequate. Heart-to-heart listening assures them that you value and esteem them.

After listening, assure the parent of your prayers (and be sure to keep your promise). Perhaps the situation will be suitable for a short prayer there and then.

Do not wait too long before following up with this mom or dad by phone or in person: “Hi, it’s good to speak with you again. How have you been since we talked last? I’ve continued to think of you and pray for you.”

The church can also help by bringing concerned parents together for mutual support and encouragement. See “Living Room Compassion,” in the September 2009 Banner for a description of how one church brought hurting moms and dads together to share their stories.

Above all, we need to realize that parenting is not easy. Our prayers—especially for families with growing children—need to be fervent and frequent.

A Hot Topic

I think we may generally agree that the Christian Reformed Church cares about young people. Youth work is rated high in individual churches. And our most recent synod (annual leadership meeting) highlighted the challenge to care for children and young people. Representatives of the Calvin College Center for Social Research presented a summary of the splendid study Spiritual and Social Trends and Patterns in the Christian Reformed Church in North America. Lots of good advice!

The denomination’s recently formed Youth Ministry Task Force is working hard on a coherent youth ministry plan. Churches have been urged to address the disconnect between adolescents and the older generations and to keep track of young members who move away.

In a Banner editorial as long ago as May 2006, editor Bob De Moor suggested that young people be represented at meetings of synod, with the privilege of “having the floor.” Good thinking, though just now being implemented with the invitation of youth advisers to synod.

Finally, the June 2010 issue of The Banner contains an article on youth ministry by Pieter Pereboom and Anita Kuiken, “Shaping a Youth-Friendly Church,” which contains splendid advice.

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