How Can You Reach Your Twentysomething Who Is Drifting from God?
by Haydn Shaw
My wife was born in Hammond, Indiana, the setting for the movie The Christmas Story. In one scene that always makes me laugh, the younger brother, Randy, won’t eat his meatloaf and mashed potatoes, so the father threatens to use a tool called the “plumber’s helper” to spread Randy’s jaws apart and shove the food down his throat. Although we may be able to force-feed meatloaf and mashed potatoes, we can’t force-feed our faith when our children (or friends) lose interest in God. But what’s our first inclination? To try to fix them—to find some technique that can pry their brains open while we shove our faith in.
Why doesn’t fixing work? The people we’re trying to fix don’t think they’re broken. Instead, they think we’re the crazy ones who get wacky over religion. An even bigger reason fixing doesn’t work is they don’t want to be told what to do or think. They want to make their own decisions.
For almost four decades, Vern Bengtson and his team from the University of Southern California have been studying 3,500 people from all five generations in 350 families to see why some families pass on their faith to their children and others don’t. Most people assume that with all the new technology and the thought shifts from previous generations, it has become significantly more difficult for families to transmit their faith to their children. But the good news is the opposite: more than half of the young adult children have stayed in the same religious tradition, the same as it was in the 1970s. Evangelicals, Jews, and Mormons hand on their faith more often than mainline Protestants or Catholics.10 Seventy-four percent of couples who are still married, both attend church, and are both evangelicals also had kids who were evangelical.11
The families that are emotionally distant and rigid in their beliefs actually drive their children from their faith. The research is clear: parents who are deeply committed to and model their faith will not compensate for an emotionally distant dad.12 In addition, those parents who are so worried about losing their children that their response is to hold them tight—who don’t let them ask questions about other religions, don’t let them explore other denominations, and don’t allow them to express doubts—discover that their children are more likely to leave and not come back.13
Since we know that forcing our emerging adult and young adult children into faith doesn’t work, what can we do?
When parents or grandparents can have conversations, engage with questions, and raise some of their own without freaking out, yelling, or preaching too much, then we’re in a good place. But we can’t do that consistently unless we place our kids in God’s hands. The first way we do that is to parent as God parents. We cannot do with our children what God won’t do with us.
We so desperately want them to do what is right that we manipulate and control instead of letting them choose—even if it means their own destruction. Think about it. If God took away humans’ freedom to do evil, the world’s greatest problems would go away. But he’ll do anything—including dying—instead of that. He wants us to choose to love him over all the alternatives, even if our free will creates mass destruction. We cannot convince our kids to believe; we can’t sell them on loving God. It’s not our job.
Relaxing doesn’t mean we don’t care. It means we pray for our children, but we give up our messiah complex, thinking we can “save” our children. Instead we allow them to make their choices, and we place them in God’s hands.22
It’s the hardest thing, though, to hand our kids over to God, isn’t it? Nothing in my sermons or workshops on the spiritual life of the generations grabs people more than this idea that we must hand our children over to God. I watch people struggle through the idea. Some grow still, almost frozen, while others physically shake. Many parents cry. More people want to stay after and talk with me about this topic than any other. While their stories are different, they fall into two themes: (1) “It’s so hard, Haydn. I’ve loved this child from before he was born, and I’ve done everything to keep him safe and happy. How can I let go of that now, especially when this is the most important thing?” Or (2) “This was the breakthrough for me. For the last five years I’ve thought it was my job to preach and push when I need to listen and love.”
Far more than we realize, we are all control freaks with our kids, and the emerging adulthood years force us to face this and let go. So I asked one desperate mother, “Who loves your son more, you or Jesus?” Quietly, she replied, “I know the answer is Jesus, but it doesn’t feel that way. It feels like he’s not doing enough or my son wouldn’t be drifting away.”
That’s it, isn’t it? That’s the heart of our desperation, the reason why we struggle to control our emerging adults. It’s difficult to place our kids in God’s hands when he is so committed to free will that he makes us no guarantees, except one: he loves them with a big love, a God-sized love, and has since before he laid the foundations of the earth, and through that love he is always at work, 24-7, calling them—and he will never quit.
For our part, we quit shoving commandments in their faces and telling them what they’re doing is wrong. Then we do what we can. We relax and we pray and we give them up to God. We listen to our emerging adults far more than we talk. And then we wait for God to provide the opportunity to say or do something that might influence them. And most of all, we love them with a big love, just as God does.
Haydn Shaw, who has researched and helped clients regarding generational differences for over twenty years, is the author of Sticking Points: How to Get 4 Generations Working Together in the 12 Places They Come Apart, and FranklinCovey’s bestselling workshops Leading Across Generations and Working Across Generations. He has just written a new book, releasing this month, titled Generational IQ: Christianity Isn’t Dying, Millennials Aren’t the Problem, and The Future is Bright.
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