January 18, 2021

A Prayer for Alex: What to do when your child says he doesn’t believe any more.

ps.jpgA friend stopped in to ask me some questions about her 6th grade son’s sudden announcement that he no longer believed in God or Jesus. Our time was simply too short for a substantial answer, so I thought it would be a good topic for an essay. Probably others are facing similar struggles with your own children. There are thousands of “Alexes” out there, and thousands of agonized, surprised parents. I hope this is helpful. Feel free to write me with your thoughts.

Dear Doc and Leanne,

I appreciated the opportunity to talk about Alex, and I am glad that our friendship is such that we can share one another’s burdens. I can feel your concern about your son, and I join you in that concern. The faith journey of our children is something we all feel responsible for, and even though we know we can’t “make” things happen, we hear a lot in scripture about what parents should do. We are commanded to raise up our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. We’re told that if we raise up a child in the right way, when he is old, he will not depart from it. But then there is the real world, where things aren’t that simple, and our middle school age sons tell us they no longer believe in God, despite our faith, prayers and efforts. So what can I say that would be helpful?

For starters, I think we generally have bought into an evangelical fantasy about where young people ought to be in their faith journey, and we all want our kids to be part of this fantasy, even if it is, well….ridiculous, or at least far from reality. These are the kinds of fantasies where middle school and high school young people are already “mature Christians,” “excited for Jesus,” “witnessing to their friends,” and, of course, immune from the various peer pressures and social corruptions common in American culture.

Last year, for instance, a “Kids for Christ” ministry team came to church with a band and other creative ministries, all led by kids middle school age and below. The parents played managers and roadies, and spent the rest of the time beaming with pride, as well they should. I commend them for being involved with their kids and making it possible for those young people to put their faith “out there” in the world. But I would warn those same parents to be cautious. Experience has taught me, and many others, that the faith journey is often one with many unusual turns and twists along the way. Those who were once excited young Christians may turn out to be committed unbelievers, while the kids that looked like they couldn’t care less about God often wind up being your pastor. (I remember when my friend Richard, a Presbyterian pastor, spoke at chapel and talked about being expelled from OBI. I remember well how he laughed at my faith right up to our senior year, and then was soundly converted out of the clear blue!)

We would all love for our children to be part of that ministry team, but most of all, I want my children to have a serious and true faith. I don’t want their faith to be entirely the result of bribery, peer pressure, acquiescence and parental acceptance. I am not saying children’s ministries like the one which visited us are the results of those influences. I am saying that experience proves it is quite possible to influence young people’s behavior, without seeing a real heart change or faith commitment.

Evangelical Christians, who believe in conversion, usually also believe in the nurture of children in faith from birth on. Few churches treat their children of believers as rank Philistines, even if their theology says that is exactly what they believe. Child Dedication services give evidence that we believe there is a shepherding, growing, nurturing process at work, and such a process is long term, and can’t be a matter of betting everything on what a child says or does in any one phase of their growth. If we are really committed to nurturing our children in this journey, then we accept that there will be diverse seasons and varying terrain. In order to grow, our children may adopt what appears to be a hostile stance toward what has come before. We need to be more committed to the process than to give up or panic at the first sign of trouble. We may, in fact, be close to significant growth.

Middle school boys usually go through a period of rejecting the “Sunday School” version of their childhood faith. If we are honest, most of us will admit that we probably can’t stay entirely “ahead of the game” when it comes to the influences on our children. As they grow, they are going to see some of their previous commitments as “childish,” and we will see them throw that part of their world overboard, sometimes with a loud announcement. This is especially true, I’ve found, in the early middle school grades, with boys who are smart, aware of the larger world, and sensitive to what is “normal” for older boys. Religion, in general, doesn’t do well at that age. Even among choir boys.

What happens? Normal things. The young man begins to be aware of what other teenagers are thinking and doing. He picks up signals from the world of science and from the larger culture. If he is normal (and parents aren’t exerting unusual control over media), he is listening to music, watching TV and viewing movies- all of which introduce him to a larger and more “cool” world than the world of the fourth and fifth grader. And in this world where teenagers seem to know everything, the messages about God are heavily biased against the religion of his childhood. It will not be unusual for the young man to pick rejection of religion as one way to become an independent individual, thinking and choosing for himself, and seeing himself as grown up.

Is this a disaster? I don’t really think so. My friends who work diligently to avoid this are often buying a lot of stock in something that we ought not to be encouraging: conformity to the values of family without choosing those values in the open market. (I know I am going to hear from some readers that we ought to protect children from choices that they aren’t ready to make. All I can say is you need to take a class in human development. And stay awake when the teacher is discussing what is happening in middle school.) In other words, some families want a monopoly because they are certain they can’t win their child’s heart and mind if he knows what is over the fence and beyond the road.

The implications of this view are serious. It is pessimistic, and it encourages a kind of immaturity that I don’t want to encourage. That isn’t to say that a child must start taking in MTV asap in order to make a choice, but, on the other hand, is it right that a child watch no TV so they are not even aware there is a choice? Why are we so convinced that an adolescent rejection of religion is to be avoided at all costs? I would far prefer to deal with the possibility of rejection early on than later, when a college age or young adult child decides to abandon Christ with true finality, fueled by resentment and a sense of being confined in a failed effort to produce an unsullied, and unchosen, Christianity.

Further, this adolescent rejection may be, in fact, a necessary prelude to significant growth. Such a rejection may be painful to hear, but it shows a mind a work. Questions are being asked. A worldview is being formed. Yes, that worldview has concluded that a God who can’t be seen and who isn’t accepted by lots of smart, cool people is a fairy tale to be dismissed. But how far do we want to go with childish notions of God and childish answers? These questions, and this early rejection, really put parents in the position of a serious effort at bringing the young person to the place of trust. Christ isn’t the answer to every scientific objection or skeptical excuse. He is God incarnate. He asks for our trust. He is a savior of sinners. To come to the place of trusting Christ, we often must see the inadequacy of our own answers and the bankruptcy of the idea of others. In order to believe, we often must disbelieve…and then see faith in a new light.

So what to do in the meantime? How do you respond? Let’s move to some more practical answers to your situation.

Alex is looking for some reaction. You can be sure of that. He may hope that this will rid him of any participation in your family’s spiritual beliefs and practices. Of course, this shouldn’t be the case. Make it clear to him that, no matter where he is personally, your family’s values won’t be changing. Whatever have been your spiritual practices, these will continue and with his respectful participation. When he has his own family, he may do what he wants. Your family will worship, pray, etc.

Don’t overreact emotionally, and don’t act as if his objections are stupid or immoral. In fact, be cautious about any approach to the issues he will say are bothering him. Some may be useful for discussion, while others will be a waste of everyone’s time.

For instance, if he thinks evolution eliminates Christianity, enlighten him. If he believes that a God that doesn’t answer him verbally, isn’t real, help him examine his thinking. If he is convinced that no one smart or cool believes in God, correct his errant notions. But if he wants to argue Bible difficulties like where did Cain get his wife, be cautious. It he has unbelieving heroes, don’t demonize them. The answer here won’t be as simply as giving stock responses to Bible difficulties or saying Blink 182 is of the devil. Faith is commendable because of Jesus, not because of apologetics. Answers are great. Exposure to the reality of Christ is better. We need Christ in this situation, and not just the Christ we’ve talked about. Our children need a Christ who is experienced and real.

I have four practical suggestions for where you are with Alex right now. I’m sure you could think of them yourself, but my time working with students has underlined these things as very important with middle school boys who are rejecting the faith.

1. Every summer, send him to a great Christian camp, or similar experiences. I know this sounds simplistic, but in the big picture, I would mark this as a very significant and effective response.

Why? Peer pressure works both ways. Camp surrounds a student with older kids who are committed to the faith and who present a model of being normal and “cool” that appeals to every young person I’ve known. The positive peer pressure of camp generally helps the student to rethink their decision with a more open mind, and with consideration to how others have handled similar questions. Good conversations usually occur with older youth. Friendship and bonds are formed that make the faith more than an intellectual experience. Camp, or similar experiences, have been very helpful for young men like Alex. I would highly recommend finding a church youth group that can include Alex in such an activity.

Why didn’t I say just join a youth group? Because that isn’t the answer. I’ve seen hundreds of pagan kids in youth groups. Many youth groups are full of the same skepticism that Alex has adopted, and their focus on activities doesn’t help. I think intelligent young people are a lot less reachable with pizza and stupid human tricks than most youth pastors expect. Some youth groups would be great. Others would be counter productive. Be cautious. I would personally go another route we’ll discuss below, and then send Alex and a friend to a quality camp like the The Cove.

2. Take your family to a church that presents the faith- and especially the Gospel- in simple, positive, understandable ways. You won’t be surprised to hear me say that every church doesn’t help you deal with a young person like Alex. Many trust the “youth program” to do the foundational work. This is a critical error. Church should be a family event, not an age-grouped event. Alex needs to hear the Gospel, even if he is bored with it and doesn’t believe it. He needs to hear the Gospel and nothing else. He doesn’t need a lot of manipulation or emotion. He needs to hear about Jesus Christ, the savior of sinners. He needs to hear it over and over, plainly and simply. I can’t say this enough: find a church that is Gospel centered and go there regularly. If Alex is going to reject the idea of God and the message of Jesus, let’s be sure he’s hearing it so there is no confusion.

Now there are some who won’t like what I am going to say next, but it is critical. Alex needs to understand that a belief in evolution doesn’t eliminate the Gospel. There are Christians who- rightly or wrongly- believe in various versions of evolution, and are still Christians. Christianity isn’t about politics, tacky Christian music or television evangelists on TBN. Being a Christian isn’t being a preacher or an angry anti-gay protester. It’s not being like your parents or your pastor. It’s not promising to be like the weirdo Christians at your Christian school, be they teachers or students. Christianity is about Christ. Jesus. Who he is, what he did, what it means. It’s the announcement that Jesus lived, died, was raised and is now Lord of all. Alex needs to hear this till he is totally clear that the ONLY thing that matters in his rejection of Christianity is Jesus. The rest you can throw overboard any time you want.

I don’t really care what denomination you have to go to to make this change, but do it. Don’t be hung up on loyalty in a matter this important. If your church is preaching moralism, or expounding Ezra or making the Gospel anything less than crystal clear, leave. Don’t stay for the music or your extended family. The Gosepl matters and the clock is ticking. This isn’t something that can be anything less than a priority. If Alex is going to reject God and Jesus Christ, then it should be exactly those persons, and nothing else, that he is rejecting. And if he is going to believe, he needs to hear the simplicity and straightforward invitation to believe in those same persons in the clearest, most understandably Christian way.

3. Examine how faith works in your own home, and make any changes that need to be made. This sounds personal, and it is. The greatest influence on a child’s faith- now and in the years to come- will be the faith and practice of parents.

Evangelical parents tend to either do too little or too much in making their own faith part of their family. I’m fairly convinced that a middle way is where we need to go. What does that look like?

God is clearly part of how all important decisions are made.
Prayer is common, but no one is forced to pray.
Christian special days are celebrated modestly.
Devotional life is there to be observed and joined in.
The children will learn the basic message and story of the Bible.
Sunday worship isn’t an option while you live with the family.
Respect for the God, Jesus, sincere Christians and the Christian faith will always be expected.
Ministry to other people, especially those who are suffering, is part of family life.
Spiritual things are part of family discussions, particularly where culture and faith might be in conflict.
Children aren’t overly sheltered, but parents are willing to relate the truth of the Gospel to whatever children might see or hear.
Christian moral and ethical choices are a priority.
Loving God and Loving neighbor are the foundations of what parents want for their children.

What would I avoid? I would avoid attempting to force faith into the life of a child beyond the basic commitments of the family. In other words, Alex will need to see that this is a Christian marriage and family, and his stance at any moment doesn’t change the commitments and identity of your family. But you won’t be forcing Alex to become a Christian or prove that he believes what he doesn’t believe. He is free to believe as he chooses, and he is still loved and accepted as part of the family.

Declaring a “three alarm fire” over an unbelieving child is, in my opinion, a mistake. How you feel needs to be personally expressed, but in terms that help Alex to see this is an acceptable part of the human journey of growing up, even if it makes you sad. Tell him about Christians who went through times of rejecting the faith they were taught about as children. Share with him how you identify with some of what he is feeling. But above all, show him the love of Jesus, who consistently loved and showed compassion for those who did not “believe.”

Don’t like Alex’s rebellion have a “pay off” in getting negative attention. Do all you can to avoid arguments, and help him see that Christians don’t reject unbelievers. At the same time, make it clear that the direction of your family isn’t determined by the children, but by the parents.

If there are areas where the practice of the faith in your family may have made it easier for Alex to reject the faith, directly address those. Apologize to him if you have failed to be the Christian examples or nurturers who should have been. Remember that God makes great demands on parents, but he is also the same gracious God to Christian parents that he is to prodigal son. I have no doubt that the father did some soul-searching as he waited for his son to come home. A “wayward” child may become an instrument for the Spirit to bring renewal and growth to parents and the family. Open your hearts to this possibility, and be certain that I am always available to talk with you about this journey called Christian parenting.

4. Pray for Alex, no matter what he says he believes or doesn’t believe. This seems quite expected, but I think it is probably the most important thing you can do. God gave this child to a Christian family for a purpose. I always operate on the assumption that one of those purposes was that the child would come to know and trust Jesus Christ. I know there are many unbelievers from Christian families, but I also know that the scriptures are full of marvelous promises for Christian families. I will stand on those promises, and the way to stand is to pray those promises.

John Piper talks about learning to read the “new covenant” promises of God and turn them into prayers for those who don’t believe. (One of Dr. Piper’s sons went “prodigal” for several years, so he isn’t just talking here.) In a sermon from 1986, Piper gave specific examples of New Covenant praying.

Paul leaves no doubt where he stands on that issue in Romans 9:16, “It depends not upon man’s will or exertion, but upon God’s mercy.” So he prays that God would convert Israel! He prays for her salvation! He does not pray for ineffectual influences, but for effectual influences. And that is how we should pray too.

We should take the new covenant promises of God and plead with God to bring them to pass in Israel and in the the full number of the Gentiles and especially in the individuals in our own circle of acquaintance.

“God, take out of their flesh the heart of stone and give them a new heart flesh” (Ezekiel 11:19).

“Lord, circumcise their heart so that they love you” (Deuteronomy 30:6).

“Father, put your Spirit within them and cause them to walk in your statutes” (Ezekiel 36:27).

“Lord, grant them repentance and a knowledge of the truth that they may escape from the snare of the devil” (2 Timothy 2:25-26).

“Father, open their eyes so that they believe to the Gospel” (Acts 16:14).

“God, crucify the mind of the flesh that is unwilling to submit to your law that the mind of the Spirit might rule unto life” (Romans 8:7-8).

In other words, we should say, “Father, my heart’s desire and prayer to you is that you would SAVE them.”

Most Christians don’t pray this way because their theology takes away the sovereignty of God in salvation. I can’t say what a disaster this is for the Christian parent. We are told to boldly pray for God to do what only God can do. While I don’t agree with everything in the book, Douglas Wilson does a great job sharing the promises God makes to parents in his book “Standing on the Promises.” If nothing else, a survey of the promises of God to parents will provide great material for prayer and a strong sense that God intends to bless our children. Stormie Omartian has much of this same material in her book “The Power of a Praying Parent.” It is worth getting resources that convince us of the promises God gives us to pray for our kids. The assurance of these promises are beyond price in the tough times.

Of course, our role is to keep praying. Throughout our child’s life. We can’t pray in a way that stops our child from having their own thoughts and decisions, but we can pray the promises of God for that child throughout life. We have no idea when or how God is going to work. We have no idea how far down they will go before they see the truth. We do not know the road God will allow them to walk, why God chooses that road, or how long they will be on it. But we can pray, and we must pray.

I know this is a difficult turn in the road. No one wants their sixth grade child, a child who has heard about God and Jesus every day, to say they don’t believe. But this is the reality. What we must keep in mind is God’s bigger picture and purposes. At Alex’s age, I was an atheist. I remained so until my sophomore year of high school. Today, I am approaching my 33rd year as a Christian. Who can understand the ways of the Lord? I am simply glad for a faithful church, praying parents and a merciful God.

Trust in the Lord, and call upon him in the time of trouble. He will hear and answer, and you will have reason to praise him. I’m confident that God has a plan and a purpose for this season of Alex’s life. Let’s see it through.


Michael Spencer


  1. I have a word of warning about using Christian camps as an influence on unbelieving youngsters: you’ll be playing with fire. As a kid, I resented the camps and the youth meetings and more I was subjected to. For me, it was moving away from my grandmother (and the imposed religion living near her entailed) that began creating the conditions that allowed me to look at Christianity for the first time.

    Having been a counselor at a Christian camp now and having a brother, sister and cousins all going through the camp, youth group and children’s church rounds, I wonder if the the proper good influence can be found easily. Christian camps are all too often rand on the emotion-driven sort of Christianity- I’ll never forget the scenes of my childhood (and the scenes I saw fellow counselors try to create) of crying kids at altar calls. In short, there’s no quicker way to breed resentment against Christianity than sending a kid to the wrong camp.

    The kids who didn’t believe, or didn’t care as much that I saw go in camp were often embittered at having to be there, and were very hard to reach as a result. Many of my coworkers tried to move them by shame, which made me sick and upset. Once, at a group activity, instead of forcing a kid who felt alienated into it, I sat at the table with him and played chess and talked to him. A once alone kid was begining to feel a little better. As a result, I was harassed by two coworkers for not making him go play games and listen to music with the rest of the kids. And this was a camp that was better-run than any I attended as a kid.

    Of course, a camp with good thoughtful counselors and more could be a great influence- but where are they?

    – K.B.H., Louisville

  2. KBH

    A point that needed to be made, but I have probably participated in over 50 camps in my ministry, and I really saw very little to be concerned about FROM THE STANDPOINT OF ALEX. Keep my context in mind here.

    The Kentucky Baptist camps that I was part of were not perfect, but they were professionally done, ethically done and aside from the Thursday night cry pretty dull.

    I am big on the relationships these camps encourage. My kids were both positively influenced by camps. Just the “nudge” that was needed.

    If there are “bad” camps out there, avoid them. Parents should only send a child to a camp they have checked out. We did, and it worked well. I would recommend the same for anyone else….with due caution.

  3. My statement was more in general, rather than in response to your advice to this family (who I do not know). That is, I was making it for parents who might look to your article as a source of general advice. I apologize if it came off know-it-all-y or bitter.

    – K.B.H.

  4. Any advice for those of us with grown up children not following Christ? Only one of our 4 [our daughter] is a believer.

    We pray for the boys and we talk about our christian activities, and occasionally talk about the gospel, but we don’t want to “harp.”

    Our daughter also tries to share with them, but seemingly doesn’t usually get very far.

  5. Good question David, but as I am sure you anticipate, it’s quite different.

    I use the analogy of a hand of cards. When we have small children at home, most of the cards of “influence” in their hands are parental. As they get older, they deal away parental cards and pick up other cards.

    By the time they are adults, the “parental” cards in the hand are important cards, but there aren’t as many of them and they don’t hold the influence they once did. We did what we could, now we are relating to adult children, and they will make up their own minds. Which is exactly what I want from my kids—I want them to choose for themselves what they believe. Integrity is important. And God will work as God chooses as well. I would never despair.

  6. As it happens, in church this morning the pastor talked about the Amish custom of letting teenagers run around for a couple years and then decide if they wanted to be Amish or not. About 85% of them go back home, apparently. They don’t actually get baptized until then, in their late teens. Do other adult-baptist traditions have customs like that? It seems sensible, but it sounds like most evangelicals expect their kids to toe the line all the way along.

  7. G’day Camassia. I watched a documentary about Rumspringa [the custom to which you refer.]

    The unaccustomed freedom seemed to do a lot of damage to some kids. Some who had never smoked or drunk before immediately went and got “blotto.”

    But the idea of letting them know that it is their choice is good.

    And the idea of not putting undue pressure on them seems sound.

    With my children, they’ve all caught the music bug, though only 2 are professional musicians, but it is disappointing that only one has so far caught the Christian bug, if I may use such language.

  8. I would be very cautious of youth camps. Since the majority of Churches and parachurch organization are semi-pelagian it is statistically probable that this is true of the camps. Therefore, their approach will be emotional-based, urging for the children to make a decision for Jesus, which is unbiblical for children of any age. If we don’t believe that God is sovereign in all things, including salvation, then we’ll spend our time on evangelistic schemes to get our children to make a decision for Christ. But if you believe in God’s sovereignty, then the answer is prayer, regardless of the age of the child. What is impossible with man is possible with God.

    At 12 a profession; at 13 I was out the Church door. For the next 30 years I was sporadically in the door but mostly outside. Then, when I reached bottom, God sovereignly regenerated my heart, without any request, decision or desire on my part. During all these years only one human cared for my soul, my mother. She persevered in prayer everyday for my soul.

    For me, the must difficult part of being a Christian is realizing that God may not choose to save all those I love and at the same time praise him for his choice because it is righteous and good and for his glory. Jesus taught we must love him, and by extension all of God’s choices, more than anything else, including family.

  9. Hey there
    I found your blog through some random connections… but i wanted to comment on this one. I am 16, and i have been through alot of what you talked about. I have grown up in a Christian family, i have gone to Sunday school and Church clubs and daycamps and the rest my whole life. I never openly rejected Christianity, however it was close to my mind back in grade 9 and 10, i was pretty darn close. So i know what you’re talking about.

    I just wanted to say that this was really good… from what i know about pre-teen and early-teen kids (which is some considering i was one not that long ago), you seem to understand them and their reasoning and opinions and feelings very well. Those suggestions of yours are very well thought-out, and they would have made an impact on me, and other kids i know. Church families often seem to go to extremes… either they force Christianity on their kids, and so the kids get so fed up and frustrated, they just leave. OR the parents don’t want to force their kids, so they let them do pretty much whatever they want. this ends up in some messed up situations for sure. so a loving balance is super important. thanks for that. 🙂

  10. Geezer…

    >Since the majority of Churches and parachurch organization are semi-pelagian it is statistically probable that this is true of the camps. Therefore, their approach will be emotional-based, urging for the children to make a decision for Jesus, which is unbiblical for children of any age.

    1. Well…this is the parents business, isn’t it? If they are reformed and only want their kid to be exposed to Reformed Christianity, then they should pick a Reformed camp.

    2. Arminians are Christians too. I would far prefer my children see and hear the Gospel than see and hear Calvinism for Calvinism’s sake. There are lots of Arminian ministries that I can affirm. Wesley could be my pastor any day.

    3. Emotion has right and wrong uses. I think we can affirm it’s right use.

    4. Rejecting the faith is not a matter or Rejecting Calvinism or becoming Penetecostal. It’s about rejecting Jesus.

  11. imonk, my point is that those who hold the semi-pelagian doctrine that unregenerated man can have saving faith leading to being born-again create spurious “emotional decisions” for Jesus. Further, their structure of evangelism is that of that arch-heretic Finney. This explains why such a high percentage of Southen Baptist “converted” children desert the church and Jesus in their teens and early adulthood.

    The last thing Alex-like children (and adults too) need is more psychological arm twisting to make a “decision for Christ.” They need the true gospel and the persistent prayer of others that God will change their hearts. Then they will receive the gift of saving faith, which no one rejects.

    The fact that there are Christians who hold to Arminian theology (After all, God regenerates millions throughout the world that have little access to the scriptures, much less theological systems.) does not mitigate the error of that theology or the harm done by the propagation of it. How else does one explain that the majority (60% of Southern Baptist) evangelical church members never darken the church door and yet comfortable rest in the fact that one time they made “a decision for Christ” and now have eternal fire insurance policy?

    The issue is not about rejecting Jesus since we all come into the world already having done this. The issue is will we who have had our hearts sovereignly regerated obey Christ and deliver the true gospel and then watch joyfully as God regenerates the hearts of his elect.

  12. imagine a fantasy series with the compelling wordsmithing of a j.r.r. tolkein, but with a bleak nihilism at the heart. a series wherein the protagonist yearns for the drama and significance he sees in the lives of those around him, but is unable to truly embrace. what you have is the ‘thomas covenant, chronicles of the unbeliever’ series, penned by stephen r. donaldson.

    the writer’s father was a world-renowned missionary surgeon.

    a movie that profoundly shaped my child-rearing perspective was filmed by a graduate of calvin college whose career began in the porn industry. ‘hard core’, the r-rated film starring george c. scott, is an adaptation of the parable of the prodigal son. in the end, all the efforts of the calvinist father to exert total control over his environment, and his family, came to naught. my wife and i stayed up for hours after that movie, discussing what it had to say. yes, as home schoolers, we made a pronounced effort to manage the environment our kids grew up in. however, as elect sinners, redeemed fallen people, we distrusted the efficacy of our controls, and begged God constantly to make himself known to our kids.

    this is the advantage of the paedobaptist position. we felt no compulson to ‘save’ our kids by imposing a ritual upon them (‘going forward’ + being dunked = salvation). we did our best to raise them in one faith, not two, and assumed that in all probability they would want to follow in our footsteps. but the bottom line credit goes to God. not to our parenting. not to their compliance with an imposed ritual.

    secular humanism is another religion with alternate doctrines of origins, destiny, and redemption. christian parents who tell their children that secular humanism is the faith that best matches the ‘real world,’ and who saturate their kids in secular humanism for 30+ hours a week, have few grounds for complaint when those children, in dutiful respect to their parents’ lived-out convictions, embrace the faith that their parents told them best meshes with the ‘real world.’

    (please excuse the e.e. cummings imitation — a broken left pinky makes it easier to forgo capitalization.)

  13. Thanks Michael. You’ve voiced our thoughts again. Thanks for the encouragement.

  14. WOW! Thank you! I have to say I am a richer woman today. I am actually going through this with my 14 year old son. This is a confirmation for me from the Lord. I have initially “backed off” from him about youth group. He demands it is boring and he is alone there. I recently began talking to my two sons about once again inviting television back into the home. I am divorced and they get TOO MUCH of it at their dads house, so I think they get a healty balance. At home, we talk and play games and “do” things instead of sitting in front of the idiot box..which my 9 year old has come to dislike. But Praise the Lord for reading what I have been contemplating. I must say that there would be no way either of my boys would go to a camp, for those that would, Great…that would work for some, but not all. The wonderful suggestions about what to do and not do have also confirmed that by me loosening the reins and letting him choose, instead of me, he will make that decision. He’s not a full blown, on fire, Jesus spouting Christian, but what he has for Jesus is on the inside of his heart where he shines. And isn’t that where God first looks and examines His children? I believe to all were given spiritual gifts…all different and yet, all with the same message. Salvation. If my son knows the Gospel story and lives that life TOWARDS others, isn’t that what we are really striving for? For our children to be someone who cares about others, helps others, loves people, respectful, caring and just one of those kids that their friends say: “there’s something different about you.” I beleive God put your message here for many parents who are going through the same things as “Alex’s” family.
    Praise the Lord, God bless you, your ministry and family always.
    Washed whiter than snow.Shelley. Thank you!!!

  15. I never went to a Christian camp so much as I went to those weekend conferences and retreats. Most were lame, but Michael is dead on – we should not underestimate the influence of “cool” older Christian teens. When I went away from home at 15 to a retreat and saw other Christian kids a few years older who were essentially hip but totally on fire for Christ, it helped keep me on the team.

    Michael – what are your thoughts on weekend conferences and that rotating group of youth speakers and worship leaders? And if we say no to them, how would you explain to a teenager whose friends are all going?

  16. Good question, Matt.

    Obviusly there are several factors here. One is how much is being done for sheer entertainment and how much is substance. There are a lot of good things going on in the youth/college area right now. Louie Giglio’s Passion movement. Who wouldn’t want their kids headed to Urbana or taking in a weekend with the Founder’s Confernce youth guys? These are quality people.

    But there is a lot of chaff in the wheat, and that is a concern. My experience is that there is a point where junk can be presented so effectively that it drowns the good work of pastors, parents and good teachers. You have to be involved with your youth program to be sure that isn’t happening.

    Most youth programs have formal ways for parents to be involved. (My programs were all 75% parent run at all times.) There may be a Parents advisory or just an open door policy. Go along on the retreats. See what is happening and talk to the YM and the elders present. Make your interests as a parent a priority. In fact, don’t go to a chruch whose youth and children’s programs don’t EXPECT high levels of parental support and input. Don’t go where you are locked out and everything is done by college kids. A youth program should not be a bunch of college students. THe YM should be an adult, hopefully a parent. And the adults involved should definately include real adults and parents, not just Joe Cool.

    I think we can glean the good and throw out the chaff, but it will mean staying in there for the conversations, and not going overboard about things we might not relate to. Youth speakers are different than your pastor. That’s a good thing in modest doses. In fact, including a pastor a lot is another good sign of a healthy youth program.

    Stay involved. Sort through things. Be part of the program. Talk about what happened at events when you are home.

    Church is a family project and that goes for retreats, etc.

  17. Sixth Grade? I would hardly take a kid’s statement in sixth grade as a definitive statement for his life’s path.

  18. Well, within revivalistic evangelical Arminianism, where this family lives, the statement by a middle school boy that he no longer believes in God is taken pretty seriously.

    As I wrote, I think you need to see the bigger developmental picture, but this is a culture that says “If you died tonight…” to kids all the time.

  19. michael david says

    this is absolutly crazy, for the past two days, i have studied and prayed about calvinism and predestination, and i realize how huge and all powerful God is…..but my question is, if we are predestined(and it does not matter what we do or dont do) then how did God decide? yes! God is sovereign. but that does not answer the question

  20. So glad you’re getting published. As you know from my other comments I’m a big fan of your writing. You join together rich Biblical content with heart stirring passion. You ought to be widely read, and you are becoming so. Keep honing these gifts. If I were a prophet I’d make this prediction: This is but a small beginning of what is to come.

    This article describes the kind of parent I seek to be. For a few years we home schooled and led insulated lives as a family. Then we moved to a new neighborhood in the Maryland suburbs and started to love our neighbors. This meant we got involved in what they were reading, thinking, watching, etc. This meant our children started having friends who were from all kinds of backgrounds beyond our Reformed church. We shared Harry Potter books, discussed the Matrix, and learned to engage people where they were. Basically, we practiced the incarnation after we started loving our neighbors, or we started loving our neighbors when we became incarnational. Either way, I’m more secure in our kids spirituality and my own then I ever was when we lived insulated lives.

    Great article. Congrats on the publication. I’d definitely buy your books and put them on our church’s booktable!

  21. The tough part with my children is that while my hubby believes sort of in Jesus Christ; he is non-practicing anything and the children look confused between my newly christian outlook, and his agnostic lifestyle. Surely his lifestyle without church and God has seemingly cost him nothing whereas I “lose” time at church which I really enjoy.

    Also, if we pray for God to save children, does not that mean that free will has not prevailed?

  22. We get so scared of our children walking into the world and away from our beliefs, that we attribute to them the sort of maturity that we (?) have, and think that because they are saying now that they don’t believe, that is their life choice. From that perspective we press the panic button and begin to overeact, instead of, as Michael Spencer has suggested, interact with them over it, without being afraid of their exploratory thoughts, which are just symptoms of them trying to learn to think for themselves.

    Don’t get me wrong…i don’t mean accept everything without question, but I do mean, don’t be afraid of children beginning to think for themselves…we had to do it, everyone does, if their faith is to be genuine.

    I was afraid of my children thinking differently, muchly because of the Christian background I was in at the time, which was legalistic and without understanding of people’s hearts. I’ve learned the hard way to give room for other ways of thinking…I have four kids, the three sons all walked away for a period of time. Two of them have come back to the Lord and the other one is close now, but there are many times I wish I could have gone back and given them more room to watch and read some stuff I banned…only now I would watch and read with them and interact over the ethics of it.

  23. Noel Byrne says

    Why should one be “catioius”, as you advise, when answering “where did Cian get his wife”? There is only one possible Biblical answer, why avoid giving it! In my opinion it is exactly this kind of advise that leads to young and old Christians being swayed by whatever theory is in vogue at any given time. Are we afriad to take God at his word and explain the context of why it was perfectly allright for Cain to have married his sister?
    If we refuse to explain the difficult passages to our questioners, they will look else where for answers as they will perceive Christains have no answers.

  24. “Christianity isn’t about politics, tacky Christian music or television evangelists on TBN. Being a Christian isn’t being a preacher or an angry anti-gay protester. It’s not being like your parents or your pastor. It’s not promising to be like the weirdo Christians at your Christian school, be they teachers or students. Christianity is about Christ. Jesus. Who he is, what he did, what it means….the ONLY thing that matters in his rejection of Christianity is Jesus. The rest you can throw overboard any time you want.”

    Amen. Because too often that’s really what the teenager is rejecting- the composite picture we’ve put together of what we think a Christian should look like, smell like, and talk like. We want to reproduce a little junior who fears no evil, sees no evil…and junior has seen way too much already in this world to play naive and blind.

    Thanks for sharing such a sober minded, realistic understanding of the battle kids face…when they grow up in Christian homes.

  25. GranpaJohn says

    There is a passion in my heart for those who must struggle and wonder over the eternal souls of those whom the Lord of Glory has put into their lives, especially those who come from their own loins.
    At 55 I have poured my heart out over three; one now a Godly father of the world’s three greatest granddaughters, another a simply awesome Godly house parent in a Christian boarding school and the last, the current praise team leader at our church. I personally had no church no faith no camps and no Godly guidance as a youth. Both my parents died “lost”.
    My oldest son had spurious catholic contact after I divorced when he was 3; occasional Baptist influence and a straight out of High School marriage. He was certain there was no Real God in those religion crutches. Lots of prayers, visits, Bible discussion and did I mention prayers? At 26 Christ become real in his life.
    My daughter was 2 when I “received Christ”, was always in church after that, and was saved and baptized 5 or 6 times before it was real at 21. During the teen years there were MANY nights, following her in the car, then sitting outside where she was at praying, and praying and praying. She went as far as to attempt to serve Satan. Now she leads a wonderful Girls dorm devotion. At 4 my youngest son begged to receive Christ so he would not burn in hell. Always in church, camps, involved and I have never doubted his Son ship. His love for music and gifted voice allow him, now 26, to encourage others to love Christ more, each Sunday morning.

    Before I had children I had a thousand theories on how to raise the perfect child. Now I have three adult children, and NO theories. Each day I used what worked for that day, the only consistency is found in God’s Holy Word. Be found in it continually, not often. Influencing our children for Christ is the most important task in our lives. They are influenced by both the good and the bad they see in us and in those we allow to influence them. So speaking from this basis I advise others, Pray MUCH, Peek into their affairs often, Preach MORE through actions than words, Pause twice before telling them how they MUST do it, and Plead with your heavenly father to somehow do a Romans 8:28 thing over the stupid thing you just did.
    Michael, your essay ministers, your thoughts help but it is your evident personal relationship which enables you to rightly divide the truth and the error before you.

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