So you raised your child in a Christian home, attended church regularly, and then sent him or her to college.
And now your beloved offspring has informed you that some professor, at the university for which you footed the bill (arrghhh!), convinced your kid that God isn’t real. Or that religion is a sham. Or that smart people don’t believe in God. Maybe all three.
What can you do?
Take a deep breath, count to 10 (100 may be necessary) and settle in for the long haul. Your child probably will come back to faith. It’s not only a biblical promise, but it’s also a real possibility—if you respond correctly.
First, the promise: You’ve probably heard “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6).
In 35 years of ministry, I’ve seen this come true countless times. The college student eventually gets married, or has a child, or the children start school, and the skeptic is moved to think about the reality of God and the importance of moral/religious training. Or a sudden illness occurs, or a job is lost, or a divorce happens and the self-sure citadel of the skeptic begins to crumble or totter.
Sooner or later, as psychologists Tim Clinton and Gary Sibcy have said, “Life trashes our trophies.” And that includes the home-made trophy (idol?) of the self who doesn’t need God. Even notorious celebrities like Elvis and Evel Knievel who recovered aspects of faith in their later years.
I especially appreciate that the Proverbs author wrote “when he is old” and not “when he is an adult.” Becoming an “adult” is a biological marker, but becoming “old” is less clearly defined and comprises more than accumulated years. It seems to also convey a level of maturity that’s been attained.
The key is that people become “old” at different rates. Some are old when they are teenagers while others are still teenagers in their 40s or 50s. In other words, while people mature physically through similar stages, people mature emotionally or spiritually at their own unique pace. Indeed, some people never become mature, even though they may be physically old.
But if they were trained to know and honor God when they were young, the chances are good that this training will kick back in later in life—sometimes even surprising them. This is especially the case if the parents truly modeled (and continue to do so) a vibrant, authentic faith. Adult children see how their parents’ faith helps them survive and even thrive through the storms of life, which draws these children back like moths to a light.
This begins to answer the second issue, the possibility question. Here’s the most important part: We can’t fool our kids. We may think that we are religious people because we do this or that, but our kids know the truth. They know what we are really like when no one else is looking, and they know to whom we turn in times of need—ourselves or God.
So to the parent of a child who claims to not believe in God: The best way to draw your child back to faith is to kindle the fire of your own. Don’t be religious just to be religious (they will see through that too), but authentically draw close to God in true humility and Christlikeness.
James 4:8 says, “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.”
That’s a wonderful promise, and there may be an added benefit: Might it also be true that when we draw near to God, he will draw near to our children too?
After maintaining our own vibrant, authentic faith, the other key to helping our kids return to faith is this: as your kids go through their “prodigal experience,” continue to love them unconditionally, as God in Christ does us. No matter what their chosen style, hair or dress or life or whatever, always keep the doors of your heart and home open to them. And as the Prodigal Son in the Bible came home, don’t be surprised if yours also does someday.
In sum, if your children claim to not believe in God: Don’t freak out, remain positive and prayerful, focus on growing closer in your own relationship to Christ, and keep your arms open and the welcome mat out. And even when they remain in the far country for what seems like a long time, trust in the promises of God’s word (including Proverbs 22:6) more than in the physical evidence you see with your own eyes. For God sees the heart, and he wants them to come home even more than you do.
Dr. Rick Stedman is a collector of classic-rock vinyl LPs, bookaholic, author, philosopher, pastor, and devoted husband and father. He founded and for two decades led Adventure Christian Church in Roseville, California. He has graduate degrees in theology, philosophy, and ministry, and for relaxation likes to tinker in his garage, read, listen to music, and hang out with his wife and best friend, Amy.