“Ssh! Don’t talk about it. Especially in church!”
I once attended a Bible study with a small group of women who loved God deeply, knew the Bible well and had worked as hard as anyone could at motherhood, and yet eight out of 10 of us had children who had walked away from God. It didn’t come out right away. But, as we began to know, trust and pray for each other, out popped the pain. And shame. And mess.
In some faith traditions, when children turn away from the faith of their parents, the children are removed from that community: “Because you don’t believe as we do, you can no longer be part of us.”
In other faith traditions, the parents of the self-proclaimed non-believing children become the object of whispers and shaking heads and comments about inadequate parenting.
And yet, all of these God-loving people would quickly say, “We need to make every effort to reach the lost with the good news of the gospel.”
What might happen in our churches, in our families, if instead of ignoring or ostracizing the children in our midst who had walked away from God, we instead make every effort to reach them with the good news of the gospel? What might happen if we reached out to their parents?
What might happen if we talked out loud and often about navigating life with loved ones who have walked away from God?
Why do we in the church stand at arms-length from the heartache the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15 portrays and talk of it mostly in the coded terms of a parable? Why can’t we talk about the fact that perhaps as many as 8 out of 10 of us attending church know the real-life pain of watching a loved one, particularly a child, walk away from God?
We have evangelistic training, aimed at helping us reach unchurched and unbelieving friends and neighbors. Why do we not also have training events aimed at helping parents reach no-longer churched and no-longer-believing children?
Perhaps, we fear starting the conversation; we fear admitting that our children have turned out less than “perfect” according to the rules of God, embellished with our additional rules. Perhaps we fear being perceived as parenting failures.
And yet, our God, completely perfect and holy, has children (us) that from the beginning of time have walked away from him. We do not label him a failure.
Let’s give ourselves permission to talk about this in our churches. And, let’s think together about creative ways we can reach children who have walked away from God.
While you, like the father in the parable of the Prodigal son, wait for a loved one to return to God, what can you do?
- Stay connected. When someone hurts us, we often want to retreat and/or lash back. What would happen if we, instead, worked to find common ground and led with that? Do you both love Mexican food? Shoes? Baseball? Chocolate? Even if a lost child shuts you out in anger, you can still send regular texts or emails or even letters stating simply, “I love you. Always.” (The very same message God sends us daily through his Word.)
- Pray. We can so easily say to ourselves or to others, “I have done everything I can do. All I can do now is pray.” That makes prayer sound like a weak, last resort, secondary to our own amazing, exhaustive efforts. Really? We believe that the God of the universe can’t do more than we have done? Let us pray, believing that instead, God can do “exceedingly abundantly more than all we ask or imagine.“ And let us remember that God loves our children even more than we do and longs for them to enjoy relationship with him. He will never stop pursuing them. Consider praying a specific verse for your lost loved one: Jeremiah 29:11; Ezekiel 36:26-27; Psalm 40:1-3.
- Hang on to your own faith. When someone we love dearly walks away from God, we can react with anger to God, muttering, “I loved you and served you, therefore, you owe me this!” Sometimes we can also subtly shift our faith so that our lost loved one really isn’t lost anymore: “I think we can get to God in many ways. I don’t really think sin matters that much in the big scheme of things.” This shift might make our hearts feel better, more inclusive, but it denies the essence of the gospel: the way to God is through Jesus, who died to take the weight of our sin and give us eternal life.
- Talk to people who will pray with you and for your children. What if we could let go of the need to look like perfect parents and instead embrace imperfection and admit our mistakes to ourselves and to our children? And what if we in the church could speak of our imperfections to each other without judgment and then find the support of prayer and a listening ear?
May we wait with arms poised to fling open in genuine welcome.
Afton graduated from Wheaton College with a degree in literature as well as a teaching certificate in secondary education. She and her husband John are the parents of two adult children.