The stats are scary. Seventy to 90 percent of kids who attended an evangelical church will stop attending church by age 18 (here’s an excellent article summarizing a wide range of studies on young people leaving Christianity). What can you do as a parent to increase the likelihood that your children will grow up to have a strong faith of their own and a commitment to a local church?
First, commit to going to church as a family 50 Sundays a year. This allows you 2 Sundays off for out-of-town vacations but feel free to visit churches while on vacation. This commitment means you will say no to other activities that will interfere with regular church attendance, like your child participating in travel teams for sports or dance.
Oh my, I can hear the uproar already. “But my child loves soccer/baseball/volleyball/dance! And we only miss church one Sunday a month. Plus, my child might get a college scholarship someday for this sport or activity.”
May I be frank? Your child is unlikely to get a college scholarship of any significant amount to play a sport. And if you total up the amount you will spend over the years on travel teams, hotel rooms, uniforms, food on the road, etc., you will have a chunk of change that could be put towards college. Additionally, many parents who are banking on their child playing a college sport may be disappointed when said child announces at some point in high school that s/he is burned out on the sport and has no interest in playing in college.
Do the math. If your child is missing church once a month, that is a 25% absence rate. Would you allow your child to miss school 25% of the time? Of course not! My local school system allows students only 10 unexcused absences a year (about a 7% absence rate) because of the detrimental effect absences have on learning.
I hope it goes without saying that you should be enthusiastically attending church with your children if you want them to attend church as adults. What’s your personal attendance look like?
Second, involve your child in children’s camp, youth trips, mission trips, etc. and participate as a fun chaperone if possible. If it’s fun and would give your child opportunities to bond with other Christian kids and adults while learning about their faith and possibly serving others, sign your kid up! Plan your summer vacation so that your child won’t miss out on these church opportunities. Children’s camp and youth camp typically happen only once a year so prioritize your child’s attendance.
If possible, try to go on some of these trips as a chaperone, but make sure you are the kind of chaperone your kid would want around. This doesn’t mean you are buying beer for underage kids, but it does mean that you relax, enjoy the kids and their goofiness, and participate in the fun and worship. Some of our best memories with our kids are chaperoning their church trips. Yes, it was exhausting and took up some of our vacation days, but it was worth it.
Third, from an early age, get your child involved in serving at church. This is very important. Teenagers and young adults are much more likely to stay involved with church if they have a place of service there. Your children need to see you serving with pleasure, not griping. They will benefit from serving alongside you and from you helping them explore areas of service. Our ADHD son who struggled to sit still in church found that working a video camera or the lighting/sound board helped him stay focused and interested during church services. It also gave him a sense of belonging: he is part of our church’s Tech Team with a black shirt to show for it!
Fourth, share how your faith has made a difference in your life. Be appropriately transparent, taking into account your child’s age, as you share about your spiritual journey. Kids are quick to detect hypocrisy so live authentically and if you mess up, admit it and ask for forgiveness. Kids are also quick to forgive. You will have more influence in your children’s spiritual development if you cultivate a close connection with them. They are more likely to feel close to you if they believe you don’t expect perfection from them and that you are a compassionate parent with reasonable expectations.
Fifth, talk about life’s difficult questions. The primary reason young people give for leaving their faith is intellectual doubt and skepticism. They don’t see how faith and science go together. They don’t understand how a loving God could allow bad things to happen to good people. They are confused by the scandals and division caused by some church leaders. They are embarrassed by the hatred they see some church goers direct at those who are different, have differing beliefs or lifestyles.
Our children will wrestle with these issues and may be challenged by non-believers to answer hard questions, so we must open up dialogues about these tough topics.
If your children express doubt about faith, don’t freak out or shut them down. Kids stop talking to parents who freak out. Even if you are panicking on the inside, don’t let your face show it. Listen, be patient, and help your child navigate through their doubts. Get support and answers for yourself if needed.
Lastly, talk about how Christianity, the Bible, and the church have answers for living a meaningful life. Young people will leave their faith if they think it is irrelevant. Studies show that the young people who stay in church believe their faith is practical, relevant, and real.