What to Do When Your Children Leave the Faith
There’s a lot of it about, Christian children losing their faith. Some move to laxer forms of Christianity, the “lite” versions that don’t ask as much of them. Others just drift away and become “nones.” Still others turn against Christianity.
Look just at the Catholic Church in America. The writer Robert Barron recently told the Catholic bishops that half of Catholics under 30 have left the Church. Most became “nones,” though others became Evangelical or mainline Protestants. One of every six millennials is a former Catholic. Most leave before 23 and the median age for leavers is only 13. Thirteen people leave the Church for every two that enter. The numbers for Evangelicals are not as bad, but not good either. Here’s a good survey of recent studies.
I’ve written about a mother who spoke up after a talk I gave in a local church. First in There’s Science and There’s Scientism and then a couple days ago in Three Reasons Christian Children Lose Their Faith. Her daughter said she’d learned too much science in medical school to believe in religion.
This is the third article in a series of three. For the first and second articles in the series, see There’s Science and There’s Scientism and Three Reasons Christian Children Give Up Their Faith.
What can we do when children lose their faith? Whatever reason they give? A few things. But I’m afraid there’s no magic answer. People choose what they choose for deep, complex and usually tangled reasons. Convincing someone who’s lost his faith to commit himself to the Lord again isn’t like fixing a busted pipe. Everyone can see the problem and knows how to fix it. Your child may not see the problem. He probably thinks he’s seen the real problem (religion) and answered it. You’re asking him to change his mind, and change his life, and that’s a big ask.
First, Have Confidence
What can we say to the mother whose child has left the Church and claimed “science” as her reason? Or gave any other reason, or just stopped going to church without trying to explain?
First, have confidence in your Faith. Don’t act as if the Faith has to prove itself to science, or to any other challenger. It doesn’t. We have good reasons for believing what we do and living as we do.
If you talk about it, talk like evangelist, not like a defense attorney. We tend to cringe a bit when people challenge the Faith. We offer a Gospel, a good news. Your child may be understandably wrong, for reasons I gave, but you still believe he’s wrong, and in a way that’s bad for him.
Second, pray hard. God can do what you can’t. In this case, He wants to do what you can’t.
The great Presbyterian theologian J. Gresham Machen once wrote of those parents “who with untold agony of soul has seen the barrier of religious difference set up between himself or herself and a beloved child.”
God Created Both
In my talk, I said that God created the things of the world and the things of faith. Therefor they fit together. We may not see how a scientific claim fits with a Christian truth, but God invented both, so they do. Someone will figure it out eventually.
Anti-religious people don’t see this. They claim that science gives us real knowledge, while Christianity gives us fake knowledge.
We understand different parts of reality in different ways. We study gravity one way, we think about God in another.
You see the difference all the time. A doctor examines a friend’s heart with an EKG. You know his heart by being with him, by seeing what he does and hearing what he says.
The doctor might say he has a bad heart. You say he has a good heart. You’re both right. You look at different things with different instruments.
The doctor can’t say, “The EKG says your friend is a jerk.” In the same way, the chemist or the physicist can’t say, “My instruments don’t find God anywhere.” The simple answer is: “Of course they don’t. That’s not what they’re for.”
For more on this, see There’s Science and There’s Scientism.
They believe their child is lost. They don’t pester the child, he says. “In countless cases there is hardly a mention of the subject of religion; in countless cases there is nothing but prayer, and an agony of soul bravely covered by helpfulness and cheer.”
Third, love God more than you do. Many of us start gliding when we get older, especially when the kids are out of the house keeping us on our spiritual toes. We may not lose our faith, but we don’t hard at keeping it. We can love God and His people more. And that may help bring back our children, for the next reason. The most important reason.
Share Your Faith
Finally, try to help your child recover her belief in God — but not by arguing, unless you’re really good at it. Few of us are, and argument usually doesn’t work anyway. If your child really cares about the arguments, he can read literally tens of thousands of good things.
Even if you argue, share more. Talk to your child about what your faith means to you, why you go to church, why you pray, what biblical stories move you, the great Christians you admire, the prayers you love to say, the church’s good works you love, how knowing Jesus changed you. Get down to the details, the specifics.
“The first means of evangelization is the witness of an authentically Christian life, given over to God in a communion that nothing should destroy and at the same time given to one’s neighbor with limitless zeal,” Pope Paul VI wrote. “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.”
“St. Peter expressed this well,” Paul continued, “when he held up the example of a reverent and chaste life that wins over even without a word those who refuse to obey the word. It is therefore primarily by her conduct and by her life that the Church will evangelize the world. In other words, by her living witness of fidelity to the Lord Jesus — the witness of poverty and detachment, of freedom in the face of the powers of this world. In short, the witness of sanctity.”
You can argue for the Faith that way. The best answer to “But science!” or any other reason is always “Come and see.”
David Mills is a Senior Editor of The Stream. After teaching writing in a seminary, he has been editor of Touchstone and the executive editor of First Things. He has edited a book on C. S. Lewis called The Pilgrim’s Guide: C. S. Lewis and the Art of Witness and written two books of popular theology, Knowing the Real Jesus and Discovering Mary.