When Adult Children Leave the Church: Living in the Tension

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In my work with Faith Formation Ministries I support congregations and the grieving parents of “wandering” adult children as together we navigate the important insights from the recent Renegotiating Faith report. I coach them in doing the important work of self-reflection and corporate examination, asking these questions: “How did our children get to this place of disengagement with the church?” “What might we as parents and a covenant body have done to contribute to this?” and “What was beyond our control?”

That’s the tension, isn’t it? We affirm that it is the Holy Spirit who does the heavy lifting of growing faith. It is not our work. And our children are individuals who must respond to the work of grace. Yet mysteriously we are also invited to partner with the Spirit in supporting the work of the Spirit. 

Parents, Sunday school teachers, and catechism instructors all live in the tension of knowing that there are limits to what we can do to encourage faith while wondering if we did enough. We also live in a mechanized world that seems to promise that if we do the right things—push all the right buttons—we will almost always get a certain outcome. So we agonize over the fact that we did indeed send our children to Christian schools and youth group, and still they seem to be turning their backs on the very things we hoped they would embrace. We are not experiencing the expected outcome.

My friend Al Postma from Pastor Church Resources shared this quote about infant baptism with me a while back, and I have found it to be very helpful. It’s from Henri Nouwen’s book Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (Random House 1986, p. 82):

"The awareness that children are guests can be a liberating awareness because many parents suffer from deep guilt feelings toward their children, thinking that they are responsible for everything their sons or daughters do. When they see their child living in ways they disapprove of, the parents may castigate themselves with the questions: "What did we do wrong? What should we have done to prevent this behavior?" and they may wonder where they failed. But children are not properties we can control as a puppeteer controls his puppets, or train as a lion tamer trains his lions. They are guests we have to respond to, not possessions we are responsible for.

"Many parents question the value of baptism of newborn babies. But one important aspect of early baptism is that when the parents bring their child to the church, they are reminded that the child is not their own private property but a gift of God given to a community that is much larger than the immediate family. In our culture it seems that all the responsibility for the child rests on the biological parents. The high-rise apartment buildings, in which families live in their small isolated units and are often fearful of their neighbors, do indeed not offer the small child much more to depend on than his own parents. . . . 

"The church is perhaps one of the few places left where we can meet people who are different than we are but with whom we can form a larger family. Taking our children out of the house and bringing them to the church for baptism is at least an important reminder of the larger community in which they are born and which can offer them a free space to grow to maturity without fear."

For me, hope and challenge live as close neighbours to each other in these words. Parents are not alone. God’s covenantal promise is real and enduring. God loves our children even more than we do. There is hope in knowing that as a parents we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses to help support our children in their journey of faith. Our community can speak into the faith journeys of our children, especially when they are in the process of differentiating themselves from their parents.

The challenge is realizing that as parents and as a community we may need also need to acknowledge where we may have cast a shadow over the faith-formative opportunities in our children’s lives. 

Where have we majored in minors, or shied away from tough questions? Might we have “outsourced” our children’s faith formation more than we meant to? How might distrust of other adults speaking into our children’s lives make it difficult for the community to support the faith of our kids? Did we place too much weight on faith being taught, or not enough emphasis on connecting the dots to our own faith stories? Have we been too private as individuals and too presumptive corporately?

As we reflect on how to be a covenant community together, here are three great resources for congregations who want to find concrete ways to live into their baptismal vows and re-engage with young adults from their congregations: 

And here are two resources for congregations who want to encourage parents in their roles: 

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Thank you for your article Lesli, and for the resources you supplied. Much appreciated. Caroline.