You’ve done all the right things. You took your child to church from birth, sending them to Sunday school, VBS, and children’s worship. You gave them kids’ devotionals for Christmas and answered all of their childlike theological questions. You made sure that Jesus was the focus of Christmas and Easter. You talked about Jesus openly and frequently in your home, prayed with your child, and involved them in service projects and other outward extensions of your faith.
And yet now they’re drifting … drifting away from the faith, heads turned by secular and worldly beliefs and temptations, questioning at least some aspects of what they’ve been taught about God, about Jesus, about Christianity in general.
This probably causes you great concern, especially if you never went through a questioning period in your own life. Maybe your own adolescence and young adulthood were solid as a rock, resting on the foundation of Jesus Christ and the things you had been taught in your church and by your parents. Maybe you never strayed, and you can honestly say that you’ve never known a day when you didn’t know Jesus.
Or maybe you weren’t a Christian until you were an adult, and you were determined to raise your kids in the faith so they would never experience that kind of confusion and wandering. Maybe you were told that if you just followed Proverbs 22:6 and “trained up a child in the way he should go,” your child would not depart from the faith. Maybe you see your own wanderings echoed in your child and you wonder why your sincere, prayerful efforts seemingly didn’t work.
I have many friends who are raising Gen Z (born 1997 to 2012) kids. As the mother of three Gen Zs and one late-model Millennial, I’ve heard a lot of stories, sat with a lot of moms, and prayed a lot of prayers over kids who are drifting from God, questioning what they’ve been taught, and seemingly turning from the faith in which they were raised. Often these changes, for both boys and girls, come about between the impressionable ages of 16 and 21.
What does this wandering look like? Some teens and young adults fall in with a “bad crowd,” attend college—even a Christian college—and drift (or determinedly walk) away from their faith, consult friends and relatives who are professing atheists, silently and despairingly question the goodness of God when confronted with evil in the world, are won over by teachers’ persuasive and authoritative arguments against Christianity, are heavily influenced by non-Christian peers or social media, begin openly questioning (or arguing with) their parents about their religion, seek out romantic relationships with non-believers … the list goes on and on.
It’s hard to watch your teen or young adult struggle with their faith, something that has saturated their lives from birth, been carefully taught and passed on to them, and been lived out before them every day of their lives. It’s easy to wonder if all your efforts have been in vain, to question what you did wrong or where you dropped the ball. But it’s possible that God is using this time in your child’s life to work out something necessary and difficult, something that, frankly, you have very little part in.
Because at some point in our Christian lives, we all have to own our faith. By this I mean we can’t just coast along on what we’ve been taught by our parents, our pastor, or our Sunday school teachers. Owning your faith might mean anything from having a dramatic born-again experience to simply a quiet realization of your own personal relationship with Jesus, something you know in your heart and in your head to be true—not just because someone told you about it or taught it to you.
The process of owning your faith is especially important for teens and young adults who are already in a period of tremendous growth and on a quest for self-identity. Today’s culture—the world that Gen Z has come of age in—encourages and celebrates questioning of all kinds (questioning how you were raised, questioning your faith, questioning your sexuality, questioning tradition and authority, and so much more). But every generation, even in more Christian-friendly times, has struggled with owning their faith because it’s simply a part of being human, breaking away from parental bonds and figuring out who or what you will worship, for better or for worse.
For some, this process might mean silent questioning, never really leaving the church, and a smooth transition to a stronger relationship with and belief in Christ (I have one like this). For others, this might mean leaving the church, drifting and wandering for years, and hopefully returning to the faith at some point—maybe at age 25 or at age 50 or at the very end of life (I have one like this, too; the jury is still out). And everything in between. As parents, we need to trust that God has a plan for each of our children. Their walk with him may be smooth and peaceful or it may be rough and broken. But it is their path, not ours—we have our own path to maintain.
If we’ve lovingly and diligently raised our children in the faith (“Train up a child in the way he should go…”), we have indeed laid that solid foundation for them and set them on the right path. As they approach and enter adulthood, we move from raising (“training”) them to trusting the Lord with them. What we hope, of course, is that the rest of Proverbs 22:6 (“… and even when he is old he will not depart from it”) will prove true in their lives, but, like all of Proverbs, this verse isn’t a cause-and-effect promise or a guarantee, and it certainly has no time limit attached to it.
So what can you do? Whether or not our older children are drifting or questioning, we can (and should) pray for them, answer their questions, not antagonize (criticize, exasperate, provoke, Ephesians 6:4) them, be available for them, not compare them to siblings or to our friends’ children, and acknowledge their increasing independence and autonomy. All of these things help maintain what is critical and lasting: a positive and fruitful parent/child relationship.
It also may be helpful to ask yourself, how much patience has God the Father had with you in your life? How much mercy, how much love, how much forgiveness? How much does he want a relationship with you, despite your many flaws and shortcomings, despite some of the poor choices you’ve made or doubts you’ve had? As Henri Nouwen so eloquently taught me in The Return of the Prodigal Son, sometimes I’m the wayward, immature son and sometimes I’m the arrogant older son, but I can also learn from this parable how to be more like the third person in the story: the compassionate and forgiving Father.
I’ll leave you with some brief reminders I’ve said to myself, often daily, as the parent of three young adults who have gone/are going through this difficult period in their lives, and one who is quickly approaching this stage:
- This child actually belongs to God and was given to me for a short time only. Thank you, Lord, for that privilege.
- I have faithfully and to the best of my ability laid the foundation and set this child in the right direction. God, please right any wrongs that I’ve done and erase any damage that I’ve caused.
- This child has his own path to walk (just as I did at that age). Lord, give me patience and peace whether that path leads directly to you or wanders in worrisome ways.
- “Letting go” and “keeping my mouth shut” are key to preserving the relationship that I want with my child. Dear God, please help me open my grasping hands and choose my words carefully.
- Thank you, Lord, for loving my child even more than I do.
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Related article on parenting younger teens: Overthinking Imagine Dragons: A Parenting Story
Photo by Jesús Rodríguez on Unsplash