Our friend Kim was sitting on her couch the other night when her son James, 15, plopped down beside her and pronounced, like he was asking for lunch money, "Mom, I don't think Christianity is working for me."

"Oh?" Kim said, her voice rising.

"Yeah. When I'm a grown up, it probably will," said James. "But for teenagers, Christianity just isn't very useful."

"Can you believe it?" Kim asked us today. "After all these years? It isn't useful?"

We tried to muster shock and dismay, but we were mostly just relieved to hear that someone else's teenager was skittering off his parents' preferred spiritual path.

Let's face it: the teenage years foil most of our spiritual intentions--and fantasies. Both Heather and I used to believe good Christian parents never raised kids who did dope, ditched God, deceived their parents, or, heaven forbid, refused to go to church. We even remember delivering some convincing speeches on these matters to wayward parents a time or two--while my own children were pre-puberty, of course.

Five teenagers later, we live in reality. At one time or other, most of our kids have tried dope (why on earth didn't God think to specifically condemn marijuana in the Bible?), ignored God (why doesn't He get His feelings hurt and, like, react?), and lied to us so convincingly that we felt guilty for doubting them. And most Sundays, getting our kids up for church requires no less than five warnings, stripping them of bedding, and finally threatening to bring on the ice water.

Are we failing as Christian parents or have all the rules changed? Or both?

Another parent we know calls adolescence going into the tunnel. It's a dark passage, a span of years when what's going on in your child's head and heart and where he or she is headed is anyone's guess. You look back on those first 10 years and what you see is a bright, sunny place. Your child was happy to memorize verses and pray before bedtime. He felt content to learn about life and God and Jesus from the safety of your lap. He shook his head sorrowfully over those who didn't have Jesus "down in their heart."

Then comes the tunnel, and for your teen or preteen, the sudden darkness seems like a perfect opportunity for a) shaking off his parents, b) practicing irresponsibility and dangerous behaviors, and c) taking what he feels is his rightful place as center of the known universe. You wonder if anything you've instilled will stick. When he finally emerges into daylight, will his course be only slightly off--or will he be headed down the road to spiritual ruin?

It doesn't help that today's teens are growing up in a religiously correct culture. They're taught to choose their faith apart from their parents. They're encouraged to find a non-exclusionary higher power who operates without a name, a gender, a specific religious affiliation, or any notion of sin.

This is hard to take for parents who grew up in the '70s, reading "The Cross" and the "Switchblade." Heather remembers pouring over those radical Christian comic-book tracts, which were popular at the time. One depicted a man in heaven being forced to watch--with God at his side--an entire feature movie (sans popcorn) of his life, not only in Dolby Surround sound, but with the inside scoop on his every thought. To hear Heather tell it, the fear that this tract inspired kept her in check from unmentionably grave sins more times than she'd care to count. In fact, God as filmmaker is still a powerful, very real deterrent in her mind.

Now and then, in moments of desperation, we wonder if maybe those old tracts could do the trick for our kids.

But we doubt it. Really, we have begun to doubt that our kids will ever experience Jesus the way we did. We worry that we have flat-out failed as Christian parents. And so we cling to small signs--anything to indicate that Jesus is alive and well at our house, Jesus movement or no. For example, one son recently named Jesus as his role model. We still see the light of Christ in our teens' eyes when they come back from a church retreat, and we see our football player taking better care of his cross pendant than anything else in his room (okay, except his CDs and Cal Ripkin cards).

Who knows? Maybe God has something completely different in mind for this generation than for ours. And maybe Jesus would agree with James about the usefulness thing right now. But sooner or later, most of us embrace Him on other, better grounds.

Are our kids going to turn out OK? Will they follow Him? As long as they're anywhere in this tunnel, it's too soon and too dark to tell.

But we reckon what God's all-seeing lens is recording in that tunnel right now might look less like a disaster in the making and more like this: urgent if brief or sleepy prayers in the night; conversations with friends--Christian and non-Christian--about life and Jesus and that stuff; a rigorous letting go of much that is tied to religion, so that what remains can be owned, personally and enthusiastically; a loved child (six feet tall, headphones on, inhaling pizza) safely at play in God's arms. And Jesus waiting where the light begins, not worried at all.

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