Why are young people leaving the church? If I had a dollar for every time I heard this question, I would have a lot of dollars. And I get it. The rate at which young people are leaving the church is alarming. Everyone has experienced a young person throwing aside their faith, either directly or indirectly. It’s devastating.
So, how does the church need to change? While this question needs to be addressed, I don’t think it provides an answer to the problem.
Stick with me, I am going somewhere.
You see, I believe parents are the primary link between young people and God. Not the church. In his book Soul Searching, Christian Smith says this:
The most important social influence in shaping young people’s religious lives is the religious life modeled and taught to them by their parents.
In an interview with Drs. Kara Powell and Chap Clark, Smith goes even further:
When it comes to kids’ faith, parents get what they are.
Whoa. That’s real.
Here’s the deal. Parents, you are painting a portrait of God for your children every day. Every word, action and conversation is a brushstroke. And when your children prepare to leave home, they are staring at a portrait of God. A portrait that shapes their actions and decisions about faith moving forward.
Are there exceptions? Absolutely. As a youth minister, I witnessed young people leave Jesus, even though the faith of their parents was rock solid. I also saw young people continue into college on fire for God, even though their parents had shaky, fickle faith. So, this isn’t a black and white, issue. Few issues are.
But will you, as a parent, play an enormous role in shaping the faith of your children? No doubt.
With that being said, I want to point out some things young people need from their parents. I present these as someone who left God for a season in college, someone who ministers to young people every day, and someone who is passionate about reaching about the next generation.
Here are seven things youth need from their parents so they won’t abandon God.
1.) They need you to stop handing their faith off to youth leaders.
I grew up in church. But I was never part of a youth group. I didn’t receive formal training in youth ministry. So, when I jumped into youth ministry, the whole thing was new to me.
In the first few months, I noticed something alarming. It appeared as though parents looked to me as the primary person responsible for the spiritual growth of their kids. Why is this alarming? The Bible makes no mention of this model.
Unfortunately, most churches have created this mess. And reinforced it. Calendars are filled with events, and a cultural pressure is placed on young people to get a gold star for perfect attendance. Don’t get me wrong. I am not against youth ministry. I think it is a great tool for building faith in young people.
But there is a problem when youth ministry becomes THE tool.
Parents, you have the primary responsibility for building faith in your children. Youth leaders exist to equip you and supplement the work you are doing in the home. They don’t exist to replace you.
2.) They need you to care as much about their struggles as you do about their salvation.
Growing up, I remember numerous conversations with my parents about baptism. My fellowship holds baptism in very high regard. Too high. That’s how I felt, at least. I grew to hate the word “baptism,” and with every conversation about why I needed to be baptized, I took one step further away from God.
Maybe that’s not fair. But that’s where I was. As strange as this sounds, I needed someone to care as much about my struggles as they did about my salvation.
And I struggled mightily in high school. I searched everywhere for my identity. I struggled with lust and pornography. I traveled down dark roads searching for direction.
It was as if my salvation was the only thing that mattered. Eventually, I started to see God this way. He didn’t have much to say about my present struggles. He just wanted me to be “saved.” And I didn’t care much for a God who didn’t inform my current situation. So, I left.
Here’s what I learned from that season. While everyone who talked to me was sincere, I believe they were trying to manufacture my salvation. Humans don’t have the power to save someone. That is God’s job.
Parents, what you can do is show the love of God to your children. This starts by helping them see their present struggles as God’s concern. Sit down with your children. Talk to them. Show them grace.
As you do this, the gospel will come to life. Because the gospel doesn’t just inform salvation. It informs everything. Addictions. Temptations. Identity issues. And once your children see that God walks with them through their struggles, they will have a stronger desire to give their lives to him.
3.) They need you to answer the questions they are asking.
Today’s culture is extremely complicated and complex. Young people see everything. Information (good and bad) is available on-demand. And as young people battle with difficult questions about sexuality and social issues, among many other things, the world is forming their perspective. Every article. Every conversation. Every video.
It is more important than ever that parents open up space to discuss difficult topics. It’s time to stop turning a blind eye to the questions prevalent in the lives of your kids. Naivety is not an excuse. Awkwardness and tension won’t work as excuses either.
I never had a conversation (at least not one I remember) with any adult about sex growing up. Nothing about lust. Nothing about God’s design for purity. Nothing about masturbation. I never had a conversation about alcohol. I was battling these questions, but Christians weren’t there to give me answers. So, I tried to figure it out myself. You can only imagine how that worked out for me.
Yes, these conversations are awkward. Yes, they create tension. But your children are asking them. Unless you create space for the hard questions, they will turn to other sources for answers. And that usually doesn’t end well.
4.) They need you to stop protecting them.
The world is broken. No argument from me there. It seems as though our world is more sinful than ever.
But I wonder what the response would be if the same microscope were placed on cities like Ephesus and Corinth? During the time of Paul, Ephesus was overtaken by witchcraft. Every spring, roughly 1,000,000 people traveled to the temple of Artemis, which was filled with prostitutes. Let’s just say these people weren’t going to the temple to talk about the weather.
To top it off, Ephesus hosted the Festival of Dionysus, a keg party that would have laughed in the face of any St. Paddy’s Day party you have thrown (not that you would do that sort of thing).
So, how does Paul instruct the Ephesians to respond in the midst of a culture blanketed with sin? He tells them to put on the armor of God (Eph. 6:10-20). In other words, jump in the fight. Paul didn’t understand a theology of retreat. There is no such thing. He expected the Christians in Ephesus to engage the culture, not run from it.
When the ultimate goal is to make sure our children never experience the evils of the world, we not only do them an injustice socially, we rob them of seeing the gospel’s transformative power.
As a parent, your goal should not be to teach your kids how to flee from evil. Your goal should be to show them how to engage it. For the glory of God. In those spaces, they will see the gospel. And it will become real.
5.) They need to see God as more than rules and church attendance.
Looking back on my childhood, this was the most important factor in my faith as I transitioned into college. I needed to see that my parents trusted the promises of God. I needed to see that my parents made decisions as though God was real and alive, not a set of rules or a list of “do’s and don’ts.” I got that from my mom. Not so much from my dad.
And until God surrounded me with men who modeled an unwavering trust in Him, I thought following Jesus was just a piece of the puzzle.
Parents, especially fathers, never underestimate the impact of your decisions on your children. They need to see you trust God with your time and money. They need to see you approach your job as a mission field. They need to see you love people well. All people. They need to see you trust the promises of God in Scripture.
If you boil Christian living down to church attendance and morality, your children will notice. And who wants to follow a God who is nothing more than rules and showing up to a building? I sure don’t.
6.) They need to see your struggles and doubts.
You need to be strong for your children. They need to see that you have it together. I understand that. But let’s get real for a second. God is mysterious. Faith is not easy. Some questions about God don’t have easy answers. You have probably experienced days where you considered throwing in the towel.
Join the party. I want you to meet some people. These are the apostles. Yeah, the ones who walked with Jesus and started the church. Yes, they are at the “I have doubted my faith at some point” party.
Parents, your kids have doubts. And they need to see that you have doubts as well. Otherwise, when questions about God come, your kids will either internalize them or turn to another source for answers. Both are bad options.
I am not telling you to have confession hour every night. But there is power in vulnerability and authenticity. Your kids need to know you are human. And they need to know the path to intimacy with God involves seasons of doubt and struggle.
7.) They need you to plead for God to build and sustain their faith.
Parents, in the journey to lay a foundation of faith for your children, nothing is more important than prayer. Pray for your children. Pray with your children. Every day.
The best part of my day is when my boys lay in bed and ask Tiffani and I to pray for them. I also know a day will probably come when they won’t ask us to pray for them. Instead, we will have to fight through the tension and pray for them even though they don’t necessarily want us to. But we are committed to praying for them every night.
I am eternally grateful for my mom. She is awesome! And I am convinced that my faith is a product of her relentless devotion to prayer. I think my mom prayed so much eventually God got tired of hearing her ask for transformation in my life. So, after years of hearing thousands of versions of the same prayer, he called me back home. And I haven’t looked back since.
Never stop praying for your kids. Don’t allow their current circumstances to impact God’s power. Even if your child is light years from God, God is only a prayer away from them. One prayer can change everything.
Parents, you are painting a portrait of God for your children. What does the picture look like?
It is never too late to start investing in the faith of your children. God doesn’t operate like money. The outcome of your kids’ faith isn’t necessarily determined by the time you put in. God isn’t confined to such things.
It is also never too early to get started. Set the trajectory of faith for your children now.
The church plays a role in the faith of your children. But the primary responsibility is yours, parents. You got this. God would never give you a task and not equip you for it. Your children don’t need the funniest, most knowledgeable or best communicator to build their faith. They need you.
So, give them what they need.
In your experience, what do youth need from their parents to build a faith that lasts? Leave a comment below and let’s continue the conversation.
I love you all. To God be the glory forever. Amen!