Few things can pierce a parent’s heart as painfully as their children’s decision to walk away from God. Pain, guilt, shame and the feeling of failure are the crushing burdens which parents of prodigal sons carry, while still wavering between hope and discouragement.

Two thirds of young Americans who used to attend a Protestant church regularly for at least one year during their adolescence, say they stopped going to church between 18 and 22 years old, for a period of maximum one year, according to a study conducted in 2017 by LifeWay Research in Nashville, Tennessee.

“The reality is that Protestant churches continue to see the new generation walk away as young adults. Regardless of any external factors, the Protestant church is slowly shrinking from within,” declared Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research. Catholic writer Brandon Vogt claims that the church he belongs to is experiencing a massive loss in young people, so much so that he compares it to bleeding out: 50% of young Americans raised in the Catholic Church no longer identify themselves with this religion, and 8 out of 10 people who lose their faith do so before the age of 23.

A study conducted by LifeWay Research concluded that the most frequent reasons for church abandonment have been: starting college (34%), work place-related responsibilities (24%), disagreement with the Church’s position regarding social and political problems (25%), the fact that young people no longer feel connected with the congregation (29%) or that they perceive the church as critical or hypocritical (32%).

Results show that most young people do not leave their church due to atheism or because they lose their faith, which may be even more worrying for Protestant churches: this means that there was no well-rooted faith which would urge a young man to look for a local church when he enters a new life stage, explains Ben Trueblood, responsible for research on students at LifeWay.

The importance of the parental model

The most important social influence in shaping the religious life of young people is the religious life modelled by their parents, writes Christian Smith, sociology professor at the University of Notre Dame, in his book Soul Searching. Starting from this affirmation, Christian author and blogger, Frank Powell tries to clarify the problem of responsibility for young people who move away from God. While many wonder what the church should do for these young people, Powell says that parents, and not the church, are the main link between young people and God.

When he became a youth leader, Powel noticed that parents often looked at him as primarily responsible for their children’s spiritual growth. The Bible, however, does not support such a pattern, he says. The pastor, the youth leader and other church members who care for young people can help strengthen the faith of young people and are expected to do so, but the parent has the main responsibility to build this faith. Looking back at his childhood, Powell says that the most important factor in maintaining his faith in the period when he left for college was his parents’ faith. Children must not see God only in relation to a set of rules or to church attendance. They need to see that their parents actually trust God’s promises, that they make decisions as if “God is real and alive”. Through their daily choices, parents sketch a portrait of God, Powell says, insisting it is never too early and never too late to reflect this portrait as faithfully as possible.

Encouraging adult children to find their way home

Even if your son or daughter is already an adult when they reject God, it is never too late for them to be influenced by their parent’s faith, says Rob Rienow, author of the book Never Too Late: Encouraging Faith in Your Adult Child, which analyses a few biblical principles parents should follow.

First of all, the parent should analyse their own life, because it is impossible to lead your child in a direction in which you yourself are not headed, says Rienow, quoting a passage from Deuteronomy: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (Deuteronomy 6:5-7). Any parent makes mistakes and we need to take our failures to God, in prayer and repentance, aware of the fact that “our lives have a ripple effect through generations.” Secondly, no matter how hurt they are by their child’s choices, the parent must maintain a close relationship with them.

“The shortest distance between your adult child’s heart and Christ is your relationship with him or her,” Rienow says.

Last but not least, parents must communicate both grace and truth to their child. The child must feel loved no matter what happens in their life, but at the same time, it is important to know that their parents are concerned with the child’s spiritual state.

On the other hand, the parent’s concern is no reason to trespass on the child’s freedom of choice. “You want the best for your adult children, but you also know you can’t tell them how to live. You cannot make that decision for them,” says Dr Alan Nelson, family psychiatrist and therapist. While they pray for their child’s (re)conversion, a parent must keep communication channels open so that the child does not associate the meetings with endless sermons concerning the consequences of their choices or with parental disapproval, Nelson says.

“None of us has the power to change other human beings like that, and it would be a terrible power if we did,” said Frederich Buechner after years of being crushed by the longing to solve his daughter’s anorexia. As she became a bag of bones, his parenting and well-being had come to revolve exclusively around her choices. Eventually, the writer realised the only chance for his daughter to be healed was for her to realise that he had nothing left to do but to grant her the freedom to choose life or death. On the other hand, Buechner understood that this burden is not at all unfamiliar to our heavenly Father, who limits Himself to give us the freedom to choose even the things that destroy us.

Strengthening relationships and (re)discovering the power of intercessory prayer

If they could live life over, any parent would try to mend their errors. However, seeing that the past cannot be changed, the best thing to do is to strengthen the parent-child relationship, writes Dorothy Eaton Watts, author of the book When Your Child Turns From God. It is difficult to love when you are hurt, but a parent’s strongest weapon is unconditional love.

In the midst of daily problems, it’s easy to miss the opportunities which can strengthen relationships. This is why we need to stop and celebrate the simple joys, without waiting for special events, write Dave and Claudia Arp, founders of Marriage Alive International.

“The greatest gift we can give our children is to be with them, in moments of joy, sadness, success or despair,” writes Watts, pointing out that, although parents will sometimes choose to miss certain events in disagreement with their child’s choices, their absence only increases the gap between the parent and his prodigal son.

On the other hand, the parent’s presence conveys acceptance of the child, but not necessarily of their choices, and keeps communication channels open.

The most precious gift children can receive, which expresses more love than any other gift and which only costs time, is prayer, says Watts. In his book, he gives examples of conversions which took place following the parents’ prayer. Pastor Dick Eastman, author of the book Love On Its Knees, says that his mother’s prayers changed the course of his life, after he was involved in several crimes during his adolescence. Eastman recounts that none of the gifts he ever received from his mother surpassed the value of her intercessory prayers.

Faith is a non-transferable gift from God, so the role of the parent to point the child to God is important but has its limitations, writes pastor John Piper, underlining that the parent shouldn’t be overburdened by their child’s choices. Praying for children is essential, Piper said, suggesting frequent fasting periods in which friends can participate. Reaching a balance between the sadness provoked by the child’s alienation from God and the joy His presence gives us, is an important thing to pray for, says Piper, explaining that nothing can ruin true Christian joy, not even the suffering provoked by a prodigal son.

Breaking free from fear and guilt

One of the most difficult experiences a parent is faced with is learning to give up the control they exercise (or would like to exercise) over the child. Christian author Karen Burton Mains calls it the “Moriah experience”. Forced to witness the torment her youngest son went through in his last months of life and then his death from cancer, Mains speaks about the gift of a fierce struggle, in which you learn to bow your knees before the One who controls everything, when you can no longer control anything.

By bringing a child into the world, a parent can understand God’s love for His children somewhat better. However, as children grow, the parent also gets a glimpse of the pain God feels when His children decide to use their freedom to the detriment of their well-being.

Regardless of his children’s choices, a parent should free himself from the habit of martyrdom; he must learn how to live depending only on God and not on his children.

Often, parents who have rebellious children experience a double suffering—the suffering caused by their own regrets and that caused by fellow church members who look at the experience critically. At times they might even ask them to give up their church ministry until their children resume their best behaviour, author Mary Yerkes writes. The answer to the terrible question, “Have I failed as a parent?” is “Yes; all parents fail,” explains Yerkes, quoting the apostle Paul: “…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). On the other hand, even in a perfect environment, with a perfect Father, Adam and Eve chose to rebel. Therefore, after they have asked for forgiveness for the mistakes they are aware of, parents must support their children in prayer, clinging not to the bad news of the present, but to the One who loves their children even more than they themselves do, Yerkes concludes.

A survey conducted by psychologist James Dobson shows 85% of children come back to their parent’s values and faith between 20 and 24 years old. The next moment of return is around their 40s, when their own children are teenagers.

The most frequent reasons why young people finally returned to the church they grew up in, according to LifeWay Research, were the family’s encouragement (37%), their personal desire to come back to church (32%) and the feeling that God is calling them back (28%).

Eventually, as tough as waiting is, we should not forget God does not account for time as we do, Watts says. He patiently waits for His prodigal sons and remains with them and with their sad parents. Any rebel child is pursued by His love for days and years on end, because God does not give up on us. This is a reason for praying parents to hope: God will continue to draw rebellious children to Himself even after the parent’s last heartbeat.

Carmen Lăiu is a writer for ST Network and Semnele timpului.