So, it’s happened: you’ve come to faith and are filled with the joy of knowing Jesus, but your teenage or grown children want nothing to do with it. Or you’ve raised your kids in a Christian home but, as they’ve grown into adulthood, they’ve turned their backs on God.
It’s heartbreaking. You love them and long for them to believe... but you don’t want to turn them against you. And sharing your faith, by word or action, has become a potential minefield.
The Rev John Lavender, assistant director of Evangelism and New Churches – who, along with his wife Karen, has many years’ experience in parish and running parenting courses – says: “It’s always a concern for us that we want to share our faith with those we’re close to, but when it’s your children there’s an added level of potential pain, worry, and complication”.
He says the initial thought for most parents in this situation is, “Where do I start?”. It’s important to recognise, he adds, that “we’re entering really tricky, hard territory. That’s the first thing. The second thing, and this goes without saying hopefully, is that we want to be praying for our unbelieving children”.
Patience, godliness and wisdom
The issues can be quite different for parents who’ve brought their children up in the faith and parents who have come to Christianity later.
For those who aren’t from a Christian background, Mr Lavender says, “they might really have lost their way, and then they’ve become Christians. That could be a good thing for the unbelieving children who see their parents transformed, but they might have a lot of hurt from the past and say, ‘Mum, Dad, you’ve hurt me so much, I can’t go there’.
“I’ve seen couples in their 50s with young adult children, and it’s just heartbreaking, because bad patterns have been established and it’s very hard to turn them around.
“It’s such a difficult issue. Prayerfully loving your children, keeping the lines of conversation open as long as you can and seeking forgiveness if you need to – all of this is important.”
“… tell them you’re praying for them if they’re going through a bit of a tough time. That might irritate them, but it’s very hard to be really irritated by someone who says I’m praying for you!”
Adult children from Christian homes probably grew up going to Sunday school and youth group and may even have gone to a Christian school. They may also have expressed faith at some point but, now, say they don’t believe.
“Remember what it says in Ephesians: ‘Fathers, do not exasperate your children’,” Mr Lavender says. “Don’t bait them or irritate them. And don’t stop being a Christian in their presence if they don’t believe. You say grace, you keep talking about church and what happened that week... Sometimes they might think you’re baiting them so you’ve got to be careful, but you can’t stop being Christian around them.
“You can also tell them you’re praying for them if they’re going through a bit of a tough time. That might irritate them, but it’s very hard to be really irritated by someone who says I’m praying for you!
“You can also be praying for God to bring Christian peers into the life of your young adult children, and if appropriate, asking their Christian peers to pray for them too... asking them to invite your kids to their own church and look for opportunities to speak with them about Jesus.
“The ones that have walked away can be quite bitter... they might be walking away because of a hurt or a misunderstanding, or they feel they’ve been robbed of something. These relationships – really, all relationships with children who don’t believe – require great patience, godliness and wisdom on the part of the parents.”
Love your kids, but don’t compromise
Part of the difficulty of ministering to adult children who aren’t Christian is knowing when to hold a line on matters of faith life. For example, Mr Lavender says, parents can be pulled both ways when they are regularly invited to events at a time they would normally be involved with church activities.
“You can feel really torn, but what I want to encourage Christian parents to do is not compromise on what’s really important,” he says.
“Some people will go to the parties and the dinners and they’ll miss Bible study or church, signalling [to their children] that meeting together with my Christian family is not important – but you want to make sure they understand that it is! So perhaps you can say, ‘Can we have the party in the afternoon? Because I’ve got church in the morning so I’m not able to come in the morning’.
All manner of issues will come up in your relationships with your adult children, but over and above these are the essential questions of faith and belief.
“What if Jesus really is who he says he is? What if eternity really is a thing?... somewhere or another you have to have those conversations.”
Mr Lavender draws on a reference by English evangelist Rico Tice, who talks about being prepared to ask questions that cross the “pain line”. These are difficult but important questions where you are never sure what response you will get. Mr Lavender says we should be confident to ask these questions, not fearing what people will think of us, because it is what God thinks of us that really counts.
“At the bottom line, pray for your kids! Keep living out your faith around your kids"
As an example, he says, “What if Jesus really is who he says he is? What if eternity really is a thing? You’ve got to pick your time and work out which hill you’re going to die on, but I think somewhere or another you have to have those conversations.
“You take a risk asking these questions. There might be hostility, yet it might actually open the door for further conversation and who knows how God will use these opportunities? It would be terrible if you never took or made an opportunity to speak to your adult child about Jesus, so I think at some point you’ve got to prayerfully look for a time when you can cross that pain line.”
He adds that it’s important not to “rush in and say things” because that isn’t necessarily the best option. But nor do you want to leave things unsaid because you’re afraid it might damage the relationship.
“Look prayerfully for opportunities to bring things up. They’re adults and you want to talk through it together as adults, speaking as well as listening. But most important is to do it from love – speaking the truth in love. That’s got to be the thing that guides us.
“At the bottom line, pray for your kids! Keep living out your faith around your kids. Be honest with them, even saying how much you’d love them to know Jesus, too, and speaking with them of the difference that Jesus has made to your life, and you’d love that for them as well.”