When Your Children Stray from the Church
James and Holly may not have been perfect parents, but they did the best they could when rearing their daughter and two sons. The kids never had to worry about where the next meal was coming from. They attended good schools, had good friends, made some good childhood memories. More importantly, James and Holly made sure church was part of their children’s weekly life. All three were baptized and confirmed. They were at Sunday School, VBS, and weekly church services. These parents trained up their children in the way they should go, as Proverbs 22 says. And now that they are old, they have not departed from it.
Actually, only one of them hasn’t. Their oldest son is still active in his local parish. But their youngest son and their daughter—they may go to church when Easter rolls around, but even then, they usually stay home. For James and Holly, it’s more than disappointing; it’s a deep ache that won’t go away. They stress over if and how they failed as parents. They’re worried sick not only about their children, but about their grandchildren who are growing up unbaptized, untaught, with little or no knowledge of God and what He’s done for us in Christ.
These parents are far from alone. Scattered throughout all denominations are moms and dads whose greatest disappointment in life is that their children have seemingly abandoned the faith. And they’re all wondering the same things: Why? Where did we go wrong as parents? And what can we do to bring our children back to church?
This is a hard struggle with no easy fix, but perhaps the following reflections will prove helpful. This is not a to-do list. It is written for your consolation and encouragement as you bear this cross. You are welcome to add your own thoughts in the comment section below.
- The water of baptism never evaporates. If your children were baptized, either as infants or when they were older, they cannot become unbaptized. God the Father made them His children in that Gospel-saturated water. And because He did it, it remains a perfect, saving work. They can try to walk away from their baptism, but that’s as impossible as walking away from gravity. Yes, sadly, they can deny or reject what God has done for them in these saving waters, but even then, the fact they are baptized as God’s son or daughter remains as true as ever. God loves them. He baptized them. He claimed them as His own. If and when you can, remind them of this beautiful truth. It is the kindness of God, it is the baptismal love of the Father in Christ, that will lead them to repentance and the Father’s house once more.
- Even a tiny faith has the full Christ. One of the most comforting verses in all the Scriptures is Isaiah 42:3, “A bruised reed He will not break; and a smoldering wick He will not snuff out.” Our Father is not the kind of God who weeds people out of His kingdom who don’t have faith that is quite up to par. Quite the opposite. Bruised reeds and smoldering wicks are especially beloved of God because of their fragility. He leaves the ninety-nine sheep to scour the hills for a single, lost lamb. Your child is precious to God. And even if a spark of faith remains, that spark holds within it the full fire of the Father’s forgiveness. Bruised reeds belong to God as much as solid oaks. Do not assume that because your children are not attending church that they don’t believe anymore. I was that child once. I was fighting an inward battle with God; I didn’t like His church or, for that matter, many churchgoers. Outwardly, it may have seemed that in me there was nothing but darkness, but on the inside there was at least a smoldering candle of faith. And that faith held the full, forgiving, faithful Christ.
- Even if we are faithless, God remains faithful. One of my favorite poems is “The Hound of Heaven” in which the poet describes his inward flight from God. “Down the night and down the days…down the labyrinthine ways,” he fled from his Father. Yet God doggedly pursued him; He showed him through life’s struggles and losses that all the happiness this man pursued was found in Him who gives all things. God is like that. “If we are faithless, He remain faithful—for He cannot deny Himself,” (2 Timothy 2:13). He cannot deny that He is our Father. If you, as an earthly parent, are worried about the spiritual welfare of your children, just think of how much more your heavenly Father is concerned. Your children mean infinitely more to Him than they do to you. Even if they are faithless, He will remain faithful in His loving pursuit of them.
- Your Christian Life Makes an Impact. When I stopped going to church, my parents did not. Although I would never have admitted it back then, the sheer fact of their continued fidelity to Christ meant something to me. Never downplay the impact that your example provides to your children, even if they are grown and leading lives of their own now. You are still their mom and dad. And there is within most of us an eye that never completely stops looking to our parents for guidance, for love, for approval, for acceptance. Even in the worst-case scenario, if our children do not believe anymore, let us continue to believe, to pray, to be an example for them. We pray for them, the whole church on earth and in heaven prays for them, and even Christ Himself prays to the Father in the Holy Spirit for them.
- Grace and grace alone will sustain and heal both parents and children. God’s grace in Christ is not only for your children; it is for you, too. Those bruises on your soul that no one can see, where you’ve beat yourself up about your children straying from church, Christ’s blood is a healing medicine for them, too. Chances are, even if your actions had nothing to do with your children’s decisions, you still feel like you share part of the blame. The all-encompassing grace of Christ covers all your guilt, real and false. He became our mistakes, our failures, on the cross, so that we become in Him exactly as the Father wants us to be. Your guilt, real or imagined, is no longer yours; it belongs to Jesus. In Him, God declares you a perfect parent, free of sin, free of guilt. Remember, you have a parent, too, a heavenly Father, whose love and concern for you is boundless. You are and will ever remain His child. And your children are and will ever remain His children. Be still and know that He is your Father—the kind of Father who spends all day and all night doing nothing but thinking of, smiling upon, and showering His grace down onto you.
Speaking to Jerusalem, His beloved city, God says, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me,” (Isaiah 49:15-16). The same is true for you and for your children. God will not, and has not, forgotten you. The face of your children is engraved upon the hands of the Father. The nail scars in the hands of Jesus spell out your name, and the names of your sons and daughters. We are all in His hands.
Even if your children stray from church, Jesus Christ will never stray from them. Even now, He seeks them out, calling them by name, for they are His lambs, more precious to Him than anything in heaven or on earth. I pray that love, the love of the Good Shepherd, may be your peace as well as your hope.
What we need in our fragmented world, full of hurting people, is the love of Jesus Christ, who welcomes home sinners with a grace that knows no bounds. My book Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons, is packed with reflections that go that extra mile of grace. Again and again, they present the Christ who is crucified and risen for you. Please take a moment to check it out here. You may also be interested in my collections of hymns and poetry entitled, The Infant Priest, which you can purchase here. Both books are also available on Amazon, as is my booklet Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing (also on Kindle). Thank you for your prayers and support!