“Children cannot live according to God’s ways if they do not know God’s Words.” This is a truth in which Christian parents can ground their efforts to help their children build their faith in God, in order to later avoid the path of prodigal sons.

Most American parents worry about their children’s spiritual development, according to a Barna survey conducted in 2021. Nearly three quarters of respondents said they were concerned about their children’s relationship with spirituality. The number of Christian parents who are concerned about this aspect of their children’s development is much higher than that of non-Christian parents (42% vs 27%), but a majority of both categories wants a healthy spiritual relationship for their children (80% of Christian parents, compared to 58% of non-Christians).

The group most troubled by their children’s spiritual trajectory remains that of practising Christians, with 51% of them saying they were “very worried” and 33% “somewhat worried” about their children’s choices.

Statistics on Christian children who give up their religious beliefs show that these concerns are justified. Most studies show that between 45% and 48% of young people leave church after their first year of college, never to return, says Christian author Hillary Morgan Ferrer in a book published in 2019. Up to 90% of those who give up their faith start off on this path of alienation during secondary school and high school, according to data quoted by the authors of the book Already Gone: Why Your Kids Will Quit Church and What You Can Do to Stop It.

We often wonder what happens to those who lose their faith, but the answers to this dilemma could be found, at least in part, by reflecting on an equally important question: Why do teenagers and young people remain faithful to their spiritual values?

Prodigal sons versus abiding sons

Analysing the characteristics of young people who choose to stay in the church, pastor Jon Nielson notes that one of the major differences between them and those who leave is that the former (or at least most of them) are converted.

“Good children” is not, in fact, the category in which we would be satisfied to find our children, says Nielson, noting that the Bible speaks of conversion in unequivocal terms: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: the old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). This excludes any border area where nominal Christians, “good enough” people, or people with behavioural slips, but with a “good heart” would place themselves. Therefore, unconverted Christians is a target group to which gospel ministers should devote their attention and efforts as we “get back to understanding salvation as what it really is: a miracle that comes from the glorious power of God.”  

Based on the words of the apostle Paul (“So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, […] to equip his people for works of service” [Ephesians 4:11-12]), Nielson observes that the young people who are ready to serve are those who remain in the church, emphasising the need for youth programs to focus on apprenticeship rather than entertainment.

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prodigal sons

Eventually, young people who remain in the church are often the ones who grew up in gospel-centred families, says the pastor, adding that, while this formula is not one that works without exception, the principle in Proverbs 22:6 still remains part of God’s plan to pass on His Word from one generation to the next: “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.”

A study by Canadian researchers pointed out four characteristics of young people who choose to remain Christians: 1) they have experienced God’s presence and have witnessed Him answering their prayers; 2) they have found a favourable environment in their church to share their questions and spiritual dilemmas; 3) they have reached a deep level of understanding of the gospel; 4) they have seen members of their religious community living out their faith in a practical way.

Analysing the profile of churches that manage to keep their teenagers and young people in their midst, a study conducted by Lifeway Research found that they are made up of Christians who are sincere, forgiving, authentic in their obedience to the Word, receptive to the needs of the most vulnerable, capable of inspiring young people, without an excessive tendency to criticise, and focused on maintaining the unity of believers.

In love with the Word

When children are old enough to go to preschool or school, parents may feel there is still an eternity to go through until the season of independence. However, parents only have 18 years (or perhaps not even that much) at their disposal to shape in their children a solid understanding of the written Word, and every day should be appreciated at its true value, says Christian author Starr Meade, in an article that lists the things that parents should check or avoid in the process.

At times, parents tend to wait too long to share important scriptural truths with their children, limiting themselves to easy-to-understand Bible stories. The result hereof is the child’s deprivation of a mind constantly trained to understand Scripture. The years go by and young people are unlikely to remain loyal to a faith they do not understand and cannot defend.

In more than a decade of teaching, Meade says she has frequently encountered children who used Christian jargon without knowing how to explain, if asked, the meaning of the words and phrases they used. Using accessible language and notions, the Bible should be explained to children in a way that is simple, yet never simplistic or focused only on certain Bible truths while excluding others.

Bible stories can be used as bridges to a clearer understanding of God’s salvation. That is why He must remain the central character of each story, instead of using these stories as isolated lessons in morality or good behaviour, the author says.

If we are convinced that the Bible is the best book we will ever open, we will find ways to present it in child-friendly terms, avoiding in any way the suggestion that reading the Bible is just another chore that needs to be done daily, such as homework or dishwashing.

The example of a parent who reads the Bible regularly is the best foundation that can be set when building a favourable climate for the family to draw near the Word. Establishing a routine of reading or narrating the Bible together with the whole family (perhaps at breakfast or at bedtime) may seem like a waste of time when children are too young or impatient, but this exercise will make them more and more prepared for an authentic meeting with the Author of the Word.

If, in the first years, the child is spiritually nourished by the parent, this responsibility must be gradually transferred to the child, and for this to happen, the child must be taught how to read the Bible, says pastor Josh Mulvihill. Thus, the child must learn the basic methods of Bible study, which include observation (What does this passage say?), interpretation (the ability to interpret the Bible by using Bible verses, but also by consulting available resources, such as Bible commentaries), and application (What does this passage convey to me/ask of me?). Ultimately, we open up the Scriptures not only to be informed, but also to be transformed by the One who has the authority to tell us how to live.

Let your children see you fight your battles of faith

At the age of 44, after a miscarriage, Catherine Segars, a Christian author, blogger, and former actress, began praying for another child, and her struggle in prayer lasted several months. At one point she thought of involving the children in her prayer fight, but she felt a reluctance familiar to many parents: what if this was going to be an unanswered prayer, and the children would be disappointed?

It is not wise to share with our children all the issues with which we struggle in prayer, but there are battles of faith that must be fought together, Segars believes. She advises parents to look for specific situations in their children’s lives where they can join them in asking God for what they need. God wants to work visibly in their lives, so whenever we give Him the opportunity to do so, we help our children work on their little-trained muscles of faith.

“Prayer is the most natural supernatural thing we can do,” says pastor Ché Ahn, noting that parents’ interest in a life of prayer is quite faithfully reflected in the way their children engage in worship. Speaking of the early exposure of his children to prayer, Ahn says that he taught them to seek God whenever they faced a problem, to pray for others, and to observe the connection between their prayers and the subsequent unfolding of events.

Every parent should be aware that “our lives have a ripple effect through generations,” says Christian author Rob Rienow.

If parents remain the most important link between their children and God, then all their efforts to build their children’s faith matter, from the first steps to the last prayer for a prodigal son. It may take an excruciatingly long time for someone to let themselves be conquered by God’s irresistible love, but only eternity will show the value of each prayer and each act of service.

“Which blow is it that breaks the stone?” missionary Amy Carmichael was asked by her spiritual mentor during a walk in which they stopped to look at a man breaking stones on the side of the road. Her answer, which came promptly while looking at the hammer splitting boulders, may become the leitmotif of any parent struggling to establish their children’s steps on their way Home: “It’s the first blow, and it’s the last blow, and it’s every blow in between.”

Carmen Lăiu is an editor at Signs of the Times Romania and ST Network.