Paul Prather

If your adult children have lost their faith, don’t despair, here’s help

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A lot has been written about the unprecedented numbers of young adults who are forsaking religion.

Adolescence and early adulthood have traditionally been a time for questioning parents’ religious beliefs, rebelling and flirting with new philosophies. That’s part of growing up.

What’s new is not that today’s young people are leaving churches — it’s that they’re departing in record numbers and that, once they’re gone, they’re staying gone.

The ranks of what are often called “nones” (in that they claim no religion) are growing fast.

A 2017 study by two political scientists at Brigham Young University, as reported by Religion News Service, found that 34 percent of Americans are now atheists, agnostics or religiously unaffiliated. That made them the largest religious demographic in the country, surpassing Protestants (33 percent) and Catholics (21 percent).

Not all nones are young adults — they come in all ages — but millennials and Generation Z are rejecting religion at far higher rates than previous generations.

I periodically encounter the parents of those who have dropped out of church. They worry a lot about their adult kids. Their own faith is vital to them, and they tried to pass it on to their offspring, but for some reason it didn’t take.

Understandably, they wonder where they went wrong and ask themselves how they might still guide their children toward a meaningful relationship with God.

Here are my suggestions:

Don’t beat yourself up. Assuming you did the best you knew at the time to bring up your children in the nurture of the Lord, then that’s all you could have done. Your adult kids are independent moral agents. They make their own decisions, often for reasons that have little to do with you.

But if you think it’s needed, do apologize. If you didn’t bring up your kids well — you neglected their spiritual development or were addicted to drugs or were involved in an abusive cult or dragged them along through your five disastrous marriages — then of course say you’re sorry. Make amends where possible.

Don’t preach, nag or argue. Young adults (and the rest of us) are preprogrammed not to respond well to harangues from parents. The more you push them, the more they’ll recoil. The more you argue, the more they’ll dig in. Or else they’ll fold and do what you want, but resent you for it. Hug a lot and lecture as little as possible.

Lay off the legalism. Many nones say they’ve been particularly turned off by churches’ harsh political rhetoric and condemnation of those churches view as sinners. Who can blame them? Concentrate instead on demonstrating the love of God, not only toward your own children but toward everyone in your corner of the world. Even skeptics have a hard time overcoming love. Love always wins.

Get out of God’s way. Remember you’re not capable of revealing the Lord’s presence to anyone in the first place. Only the Holy Spirit, acting within God’s perfect timing, can change a heart. If you can’t do it, then quit trying. You’re only making the Lord’s work more complicated.

Accept your kids where they are. Your son may not be where you wish he were spiritually. But he’s exactly where he is. That’s where you must meet him. Even after your daughter has come around a bit, she might never see faith exactly as you see it. You might be a diehard Baptist, and she might become a Catholic. Or vice versa. Just remind yourself, “This is the work the Lord’s doing in her, not me. It’s all good.”

Try again — with the grandchildren. If you fall short with your kids, guess what? You might get a second chance with the grandchildren. Volunteer to haul them to Sunday school and vacation Bible school. Pay for them to attend church camp. As you’re hauling them around, tell them how much God has meant to you. Sing hymns with them. They’ll never forget that.

Pray. Probably the best thing you can do for your unbelieving children — besides loving and accepting them — is to intercede on their behalf to the Almighty. Ask God to demonstrate his love for them as lavishly as you would demonstrate your own love if you were fully able to do it.

Trust the Lord. He cares for your kids more than you do. Trust that when the time is right, he’ll reveal himself to them. He’s said his promises are not only for those who believe, but for their children and their children’s children. Take him at his word.