My older sister wanted to go to college out of state. We grew up in a small town in California. So she decided to go to college in New York City. It was as far out of state as she could get—both physically and metaphorically.
She wanted to see the world from a different perspective. And she did. As I remember it, this became clear one Christmas break when she announced that she was no longer a Christian.
It’s not an unfamiliar story to many parents.
Your son or daughter may or may not be in college. But at some point, your child (young or old) will question and maybe even walk away from the Christian faith.
A recent study by the Fuller Youth Institute found that “seventy percent of students…reported having doubts in high school about what they believed about God and the Christian faith.” Often these times of doubt come during the Christmas season. Because it’s a natural time of year to reflect on whether or not the Christmas story and all it implies is really true.
How can parents respond?
Here are three simple responses that will help you help your children as they work through doubts and unbelief:
- Give your child time and space to share their doubts
Don’t respond first with arguments. Instead, listen to your child’s doubts. Ask them what led them to their doubt? Praise them for thinking seriously about matters of faith. Allow them to critique, challenge, and even deny their faith. Don’t critique their critiquing. Instead, ask questions that seek to understand where they are coming from. And keep the dialogue going.
- Expose them to other Christian viewpoints
Often when your child questions Christianity, he or she is really just questioning their understanding of Christianity. New York City pastor, Timothy Keller, is famous for saying to young skeptics, “Describe the God you don’t believe in. Maybe I don’t believe that God either.” He then encourages skeptics to expand their understanding of Christianity by learning about how other Christians around the world understand and worship God, deal with suffering, and live the Christian life. As a parent, one of the best things you can do for your child is expose them to the breadth of Christian thought and practice throughout history and around the world.
- Remember this may be just a season
Don’t blow them off assuming this “phase” will pass. But don’t freak out assuming this “phase” is permanent. Remember God is bigger than our doubts. He’s not scared or offended by them. God is still at work in your child’s life, even if you or your child can’t see it. If you prayerfully pursue the above two actions it will only be a matter of time before you see what God is up to in the life of your child.
My older sister is actually proof that God is faithful even in the midst of doubt. Today, she loves Jesus, is committed to the church, and is married to an Anglican priest!
Hopefully, your Christmas season won’t involve any denials of faith. But if it does, see the moment as a door for opportunities. An opportunity to listen to your child’s story. An opportunity to expose your child to other Christian stories. And an opportunity to trust God that your child is still a part of His story.
Thank you for sharing your family’s story and this advice. You may remember my brother told me (via email) that he was an Atheist a few years ago and I read the message on a work trip in New York by myself. I pretty much crumbled in my hotel room and forwarded it to you, feeling quite nauseous, and asked you what I could say. And I still remind myself that you said I needed to let him know he’s my brother no matter what.
I don’t know what the future holds for our relationship or where I’ll fit into his story, but your sister’s journey gives me hope, and I still see glimpses of the Holy Spirit working in him. We just live our lives and pray, knowing that it’s not out of the reach of the great redeemer. Hopefully he knows the door is open when he’s ready to talk.
If I didn’t say it then, thank you for being there for me in a dark hour. The holidays are making me sappy.