There’s a lot of conversation about what causes people to leave the faith right now. Why do people reject Christianity?
Josh Harris, author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, has publicly stated he’s no longer a Christian and it’s sparked a ton of conversation.
It’s Rebecca on the blog today, and I wanted to talk about my experiences writing Why I Didn’t Rebel, because this was really the huge question I wanted answered when I wrote the book. Are there certain parenting practices which seem more correlated to kids rejecting Christ? So I reviewed the academic studies done on the subject, and then I interviewed 25 people about their faith journeys throughout high school and early adulthood to figure out what made some kids stick with the faith and others leave for a period.
I personally believe it’s really important to go through a period of questioning your faith. I think it helps strengthen our convictions to really wrestle with them, and it helps us separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to doctrines. What’s really important, and what is just a non-gospel stance I have? Does this help me act more or less like Jesus? What are things that I don’t know what I believe?
Furthermore, not all instances of questioning and doubting led to kids leaving the faith. For many of us, it made us stronger in our convictions and also led to us being a lot closer to our parents! But for others, it was the opposite. So today I want to start by talking about those kids who did rebel–the ones who left the faith for a time or acted out and what they said about their faith journeys in high school and beyond.
What I found again and again was that when teenagers question their parents’ faith or Christianity in general, it is usually over a matter of compassion or hypocrisy.
They see the pain and hurting of marginalized communities. They feel that there isn’t love or grace in the home, even though Jesus is talked about a lot. They feel that someone is being treated unfairly and no one cares.
And it shakes their faith.
For kids who rebelled, their parents all responded almost the exact same way: with arguments and crack-downs to make sure their kids got back to “right” theology. The teenager reacted with compassion, and the parents responded in anger. And it’s understandable–the parents were frightened; their kid was questioning something that was the core of their faith.
But here’s the thing: when your faith is more about doctrine than it is how you treat other people, or if you can’t wrestle with the pain and hurting of others without it damaging your doctrine, maybe your doctrine needs to be changed or put back in its place.
Because who sounds more like Jesus: the one who is broken up because of someone’s pain, or the one who works hard to make sure that the right rules are followed?
I believe one of the biggest threats to our faith is hardness of heart. And it’s really easy to slip into; we get so caught up in what the right doctrine is that we forget to ask ourselves who the people are behind what we believe. We focus on having the right theology, but we don’t actually put as much care and thought into whether we’re truly living out the fruit of the spirit.
But what we believe means nothing if we’re not living it out. Faith without works is dead. We are called to produce good fruit. So when your teenager is questioning his faith, instead of worrying about his theology maybe ask yourself–do we need to catch a bit of the fire of youthful conviction and compassion? Are we missing something? And wrestle through those topics together with your kid. Don’t be afraid if your theology or doctrine gets tested in the meantime, because sometimes we get stuff wrong. And you and your child can get to different conclusions on the topic and still both be following God.
Furthermore, all of the kids I interviewed for the book are Christians today. But not all of them came back to their parents’ faith.
Even the kids who were out doing drugs, having casual sex, getting arrested, and pretty much anything else you can imagine–they came back to Jesus in their 20s. But for the vast, vast majority of the kids who rebelled, that required discovering who Jesus was separate from their parents’ faith.
Almost every person I talked to who had rebelled said that they didn’t really meet Jesus until they left their parents’ home because they didn’t experience his love, grace, kindness, or peace. In other words, they were in homes void of the fruits of the Spirit. I know, that’s harsh, but when they found communities that were truly gracious, kind, loving, and humble Jesus became real.
And the scary part is that those kids came from families who thought that they were doing everything right. They thought they were good Christians because they checked off all the boxes for what they believed. But teenagers are amazing tests for authenticity–they can spot inconsistencies from a mile away. So when you’re growing up in a home that talks about love, grace, forgiveness, and joy but isn’t loving, gracious, forgiving or joyful, God seems really really distant or simply not that important.
The unfortunate truth is that it’s really hard to know if you’re doing it all right or not. And I think none of us are, to be frank. That’s why it’s so important to have humility when it comes to these things. The kids who rebelled also had questions. They also doubted their faith and had to work through really big questions. But the difference was that their parents encouraged them to wrestle through and wrestled through it with them. There wasn’t this fear that kids would leave the doctrine–it was about honestly working through what it meant to be like Jesus in every situation.
My dad used to say, when we were talking about theology, “Rebecca, people have been arguing about this for over 2,000 years now. Let’s not assume we have all the answers yet.” I loved that–that mentality in my home is what made it OK for me to question what my parents believed, what I believed, what my church believed and know that it didn’t mean I was a bad person for being confused at times.
Parents, having humility about your doctrine or what you believe is, I personally believe, one of the most important things you can possibly do when it comes to raising teenagers who stay strong in the faith. Listen to your child when she doesn’t agree with something you believe–don’t jump immediately to proving her wrong or disciplining her for questioning. Understand that your kids are being raised in a totally different culture than you were, which means they will have their own blind spots but may also understand some things that your generation got wrong. Remind yourself that the gospel is what matters, Jesus is what matters, and as long as your child is trying to act more like Jesus, you’re in a pretty great place–even if you disagree on what that means in every circumstance.
What if I told you that not all teenagers rebel?
This is blunt but important we all understand: our rules, our political stances, and our non-gospel related doctrines are not the gospel.
John 3:16 does not say “that whoever believes the earth was created in 6 days, doesn’t get a tattoo when they’re 19, votes a certain way, and believes in Jesus will not perish but have everlasting life”–it just says whoever believes in Jesus. We all need to remember this, no matter where we are on our journeys. We may believe our individual doctrines are important, but we need to keep them in their rightful places.
So please, for the sake of your children, never put your doctrine–whether it’s about sex, marriage, politics, the age of the earth, or anything else–above the call to act like Jesus. Recognize your kids may have a faith that looks very different from your own, and that may be a good thing.
And most of all, embrace the messiness that comes with youthful conviction. It’s actually a very healing thing, and can be an amazing tool for conviction and setting us back on the right track.
Your teenagers need you to be a safe place for them to bounce ideas off of and wrestle through the tough topics. And the way you can do that is by making sure the focus is more on acting like Jesus than having all the right theologies. Because at the end of the day, we’re called to love one another. And if your kid can clearly see that in your life, that’s the best witness for Jesus that you can give them.
What do you think? What is the biggest reason that teenagers leave the faith? Did you ever have doubts? Let’s talk in the comments!