Parents do their best to raise their children with a godly worldview and good moral values to grow into upstanding citizens and society contributors when they enter the world. However, sometimes, children want to live their own lives, so the relationship between child and parent becomes strained.
The problem intensifies when a child has left Christianity. Whether they were wounded by leadership, hurt by church attendees, or robbed of a service opportunity, children leave Christianity for many reasons. But when the child leaves the faith, parents feel like there’s a hole in their hearts. Proverbs 22:6 reminds us to train a child in how they should go, and they won’t depart from it when they get older.
Still, in today’s world, it’s more probable that a child will leave their faith and the church, making strained relationships almost non-existent. Barna’s research indicates that 59 percent of young Christians disconnect from church life after age 15, either permanently or for an extended period, which can be devastating for both parent and child. Parents can feel like failures because their children didn’t support their faith and leave a legacy for generations. Despite being an adult, the child can feel like a disappointment for not following the faith and meeting their parents’ expectations.
What should a parent do? The instinct might be to negotiate or force the child to submit to God, but that’s a recipe for disaster if the parent wants to continue a relationship with their child. Here are some tips on how parents can maintain a relationship with a child who’s left Christianity.
Keep them in your prayers.
This may sound simple, but prayer is the best weapon in restoring a broken relationship. David cried out to God in sorrow, Paul submitted to God’s authority, and Abraham sacrificed his child to follow God’s will. His will is that no one should die, and He never forces it on anyone. The pain of free will is that people can make their own choices, sometimes to their detriment. While it must break God’s heart to see one of His children leave Him, He never chases them. He lets them come to Him out of their choosing.
In the same way, you should allow your children to do the same, as painful as that may be. Pour out your heart to God. Cry on His shoulder and tell Him how hard it is. He will keep you in your pain and comfort you as you grieve. Your child may never return, but you can rest knowing you’re not alone. God will always walk with you during every part of your journey.
You might not like their choices, but they’re still your child and need your encouraging words. Try your best not to tear them down and build them up instead. Showcase their good qualities. For example, if they achieve a dream, celebrate them. Praise their successes and accomplishments. Help them recognize that your love isn’t predicated on what they do but that you love them for who they are. God does it for us; you can do the same as parents. This is the best way to show Christ to your unbelieving children.
Try to understand them.
The last thing your grown child needs is a lecture about why they should follow the faith. Instead of giving advice and lecturing them, have a heart-to-heart talk with them. Take them to their favorite coffee shop or restaurant and try to simply listen. Practice active listening by not only hearing them but understanding them. Listen for what they’re saying but also what they’re not saying and read between the lines.
Watch their non-verbal communication. For example, arms crossed across their chest show a defensive posture. However, hands resting on a table suggest a welcoming, open stance. Try to get them to express themselves by repeating what they said, nodding appropriately, and asking clarifying questions when necessary. Even if your child doesn’t return to the faith, listening validates them as humans and as an essential part of your life.
Set an example.
In asserting their independence, an adult child might tell you that you can’t discuss faith in front of them. You can respect their decision to walk away, but your child can’t tell you what to do. You might not have the same influence over how they live their lives, but they can’t tell you how to live yours. Don’t stop living out your beliefs because they don’t want to continue in the faith. Instead, keep living in your faith as your life’s center and focus. They may not like hearing about the latest worship song or sermon, but your words may continue to plant seeds they might not acknowledge. The Bible tells us, specifically in 1 Peter 3:15, that we should always be prepared to answer everyone who asks for the reason we have hope.
If your child returns to Christianity, make a point to welcome them back. In the parable about the lost son, the father doesn’t chase his son. Instead, he lets him go off to live as he wants on his terms. Despite knowing what’s best, he allows his son to come to that conclusion and return when he wants. That way, his entire heart was in his decision. The father made a fool of himself by welcoming him back to the family.
You don’t want your kids to return to Christianity because they think it’ll make you happy. God desires an intimate relationship because we want to, not because He’s making us. Being a prodigal parent is challenging, but solving the issue independently without God is even more difficult. Try to lean into God and His understanding of the situation. God knows things we don’t and has the ultimate control over the situation. As long as your child lives, there’s a chance for redemption and repentance both with you and with God.
Most importantly, don’t abandon your relationship with God. Read your Bible and surround yourself with people who will cry with you and listen to your pain. They may be able to give advice when you need it. Ask God and tell Him everything. You may or may not have a prodigal who returns home, but you can have a deep, vibrant relationship with God.