In the last year, we have noticed a growing number of parents asking us the question, “What do I do if my teenager tells me, ‘I don’t even believe in God?’” We’ve heard the question so many times we needed to address it, and we addressed it last week in Part I of this article, My 16-Year-Old Doesn’t Believe. If you haven’t read it yet, I strongly recommend you do that now.
I am a parent of two kids, and although they haven’t asked me that question, I do have a fairly unique perspective on this issue for several reasons:
First, my wife and I ran a campus ministry for Youth for Christ for many years in Sacramento where we worked with plenty of teens who didn't want anything to do with their parents' faith.
So what is a Christian parent supposed to do when their sixteen year old comes to them and tells them that they don't want to go to church or believe in Jesus anymore?
Second, as a pastor currently, I have had many parents come to me with these same questions. Sometimes they have even brought their teens into my office and asked me to "fix" them (I think it’s great to involve your pastor, but I’ll admit, “fixing” people isn’t exactly what we do).
Third, I have been married to an incredible woman for twenty-one years, who grew up unchurched, but became a Christian at the age of sixteen. In many ways, her situation is exactly the opposite of the question being asked in this article. She had the same conversation with her parents about faith, except for the fact that she had to tell them that she was now a Christian. They were also very deeply concerned about her change in beliefs.
And finally, as a teen, I went through this myself. I grew up in the church, faked it for quite a while, and then in my twenties abandoned Christianity completely for several years. So basically, my parents went through exactly what many of you are going through. I then discovered Jesus in my mid twenties, but in the process I met a lot of people like me along the way.
When I was in my late teens, I started to have doubts about my belief in God. Occasionally, I would articulate this to a Christian friend or leader and I usually received the same reaction - they would talk. Some people would react by saying, "I know that sin is a powerful temptation, but you need to just be disciplined and run away from the temptation." Others would say, "You know it takes more faith to be an atheist than it does to be a Christian. You should read this book." And then they would hand me an "apologetics" book (if you are not familiar with the term, these are books designed to answer people's questions about the faith, but mostly present arguments against atheism). Or my favorite, "I thought that you were smarter than this. Don't be such an idiot."
Now I am not saying that these answers were wrong per-se (except for maybe that third one), but they were all volunteered to me without even taking the time to ask why I was experiencing these doubts. I was already very afraid to ask these questions to begin with, and when I finally did, most people just talked at me. That’s what most people do.
Often they were just explaining to me how they overcame some of their doubts, or how they saw someone else do it. But in the process, they failed to understand one of the most important principles in dealing with doubt: Every single person experiencing doubt has completely different reasons for their doubts.
Let me say this in a different way. No two sixteen year olds who express doubt have exactly the same reasons for their doubts. We may assume that we know, but we never will actually know until we ask them.
You Have to Ask Why
Years ago I moved from a fairly warm climate city in California up into the mountains of Northern California. I drove a convertible Mustang GT at the time and realized quickly that this car wasn't going to work well during winter. So I sadly decided to sell the car in order to look for a more practical vehicle for the snow. But this meant that I was going to have to do one of my least favorite things in the world - buy a car. No, I don't mind the process of test driving cars, actually it is kind of fun. I just don't like dealing with car salesmen. Why… because most of them don't listen to you. I can't tell you how many people were trying to sell me other Mustangs or sports cars because they assumed that was what I wanted. But all they had to do was ask me why I was looking for a new car. The simple fact was that I wanted to drive a car that drove well in the mountains in the snow, and if they had asked me that, they would have stopped trying to sell me another Mustang.
If we don't figure out why our teen is having doubts, we cannot even begin to deal with the situation. If we just start talking at our kids, without figuring out why they aren't interested in Christianity, we are just wasting our time. As a matter of fact, I would argue that you shouldn't say anything to your kids about their doubts until you really understand why they are expressing them to begin with. This may mean many hours of listening to your teen before you say anything that resembles advice. And even though you may be tempted to jump in and “fix” the doubts with words… often fewer words and an attitude of non-judgmental listening can really open hearts to God’s truth, grace and love.
Imagine that your son just read a copy of the wildly popular book "The God Delusion" by atheist Richard Dawkins and they start expressing doubts. You don’t know this. You just know he has a bunch of friends who smoke pot. So then when he expressed those doubts to you, you start talking to him about drug use?
Or what if your teen is bored to death at church, but when they tell you that they don't want to go to church anymore, you start talking to them about alluring temptations like sex? It must be that, right?
When you don't take the time to ask why, and then you talk at your children instead of listening to them, you just further alienate them. And trying to overcome objections that they don't even have just makes your ideas look even more irrelevant in their lives.
If you don't know why your teen is having doubts, there is no way that you can even begin having a meaningful conversation. This means that you have to listen to them. Jonathan made this point well in his article last week. There is a reason that your child is going through the feelings and questions that they are, and it may not be what you think it is. The only way that you will find out is to talk to your child and really figure out why they are experiencing doubt. Then, and only then, can you start to dialog with your child about their doubts.
Tips for Meaningful Conversation with Your Teen
Getting your teen to talk to you and figuring out why they are experiencing doubts is more than half of the battle. But the reality is, conversation is a starting point, and there is no magic formula or quick fix that will always work. There is no script that you can follow or argument that you can make that will work every time. As a matter of fact, arguments often have the exact opposite effect, further entrenching our kids in the positions they have begun with. But when we engage in meaningful conversation about these things with our children, and we listen, we may find that we still have influence. Relationship is key (another point made in last week’s article). When our kids know and believe that we love them no matter what and we are invested for the long haul in their lives, we get much greater buy in.
While I could never begin to try to deal with every objection that teens tend to bring up, here are a few things that you might remember while trying to get to the "why" with your teen.
- It May Not Be the Gospel That Offends Them
When my wife Amy was in fifth grade, she was invited for a sleepover at a friend from school's house. My wife wasn't a Christian, but she knew that this girl who invited her was a believer. Amy was also really happy to be invited because she was having a hard time with some girls at school and she was extremely lonely. This was the first time that someone from school had invited her over in years, and she was very excited. But the night that she was supposed to go, she received a call from the girl asking her what her stance on abortion was. I am not kidding, this 5th grade girl's mom needed to know what another 5th grade girl thought about abortion! So Amy knew that she had about a fifty percent chance of getting it "right" but she still guessed incorrectly for this situation - she said "pro-choice” (ironically, she didn’t know what abortion was but thought “pro-choice” sounded good). The girl put down the phone for a minute to tell her mom, and when she came back she apologized to Amy and said that her mom said that no "pro-choicers" were allowed in her home. If my wife had known, she would have said "pro-life," but instead she got to spend another Friday night alone.
As you can imagine, that situation had a profound effect on my wife's view of Christians. What she didn't recognize at the time was that these "Christians" were not acting like followers of Jesus. As a matter of fact, these parents were acting much more like Pharisees than Jesus. Even the most cursory glance of the gospels shows Jesus dining with all kinds of scoundrels. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to see Jesus welcoming people far worse than a fifth grader with indeterminate views on abortion.
The problem was that it took my wife a while to get over the way that this Christian had treated her. She didn’t know what to believe as a kid growing up in a home with no faith exposure. She craved real and authentic friendships. The mother of her friend missed a true ministry opportunity to show love, kindness and grace to a kid craving it.
Unfortunately, this situation gave my wife a false impression of Jesus and she didn’t want anything to do with Christianity for a while.
Sometimes, the gospel that people object to isn't really the gospel. When your teen starts really talking about what they hate about Jesus and the Bible, you may find that they aren't actually objecting to the gospel at all. They may be reacting to many of the peripheral issues that are presented as gospel, but just aren't. We need to be careful about closely tying our politics and culture to our Christianity. This may be what your teen is actually objecting to, not the gospel.
- Go Through It With Them
A lady at my church came to me and told me that her teenage daughter was reading books by “atheists.” I asked her which books, and she told me that she didn't know. What she did want though was a recommendation of a book to give to her daughter that would counter these arguments that she was reading. My response to her wasn't exactly what she wanted to hear. I told her that instead of buying a book and handing it to her daughter (which I am sure the girl never would have read), why didn't she read some of the books that her daughter was reading. Then she could have a meaningful discussion with her about these ideas. (This isn't great advice for everyone, but I knew that this mom could handle it). But most importantly, the only way to really understand what your kids are reading and how it is affecting their worldview is to also read it and discuss it with them.
I have seen this happen so many times when parents don't use these situations to engage with their children. Handing them a book or sending them to a pastor is the least relational thing you can do. What we need to do is find ways to interact with our teens about the things they are reading and thinking. Otherwise, how are we ever going to have a meaningful influence in their lives?
- It Could Be You
Many years ago, a teenage girl told my wife Amy that every time she broke her curfew or disobeyed her mom, her mom would try to exorcise demons from her. I am not kidding! The mom would start immediately telling the daughter that she was in league with Satan and start an exorcism right there in the house. She would yell, "The power of Christ compels you!" (They do it this way in the movies; maybe she figured that is how you do it at home.) Apparently, this was something this particular mom had done with her for a few years and as you can imagine, this strained their relationship a bit. This teen told Amy that she didn't even know if she believed in God, but that she knew that she didn't believe in demonic possession.
To make matters worse, the mom mentioned to Amy once that she couldn't figure out why her daughter wasn't interested in Jesus. Amy didn't have the relationship with this mom to tell her the truth - "a large part of the problem is you!"
We are constantly worried about how others are pulling our children away from Jesus, when sometimes the real problem is that Christians are pushing them away. As you are speaking to your kids about this, you may need to be humble enough in the conversation to explore how your behavior has affected your kids. How do you talk to them? Does it reflect the love of Jesus?
Chances are that your kids know all of your dirty little secrets. Maybe, your next move is dealing with some of those. I am not saying that you have to be perfect, but don't tell your daughter not to sleep with her boyfriend if she knows you are having an affair. I know it sounds obvious, but most of the stories I hear about people leaving the faith are filled with stories of hypocrisy.
- Sometimes You Need Professional Help
As a pastor, I do quite a bit of counseling. However, I am the first to admit that I am not a counselor. And while I took counseling classes in undergraduate school and graduate school, there are definite times when I need to refer people out for professional help (whether it be counseling, drug rehabilitation, etc.)
Most pastors are not professional counselors (with a few notable exceptions). If someone mentions to me that they have suicidal thoughts, extreme depression or a desire to hurt others, I have a list of excellent professional Christian counselors who I regularly refer them to. And, of course, I also continue to meet with them as a friend and a pastor (remember, relationship is key). I just know that sometimes I am out of my depth and additional support is necessary.
As parents, there is nothing wrong with admitting that there are some issues that are way outside of our expertise. Sometimes, when our kids express their intense feelings of loneliness or despair, they may not just be talking about their existential angst. They may have some real psychological or emotional issues that others need to help with. It is a process, and emotions can be tricky, so getting help when dealing with serious emotional or psychological issues is critical.
- You Still May Have One More Move
If your child is sixteen, it is easy to forget that you are still in charge. You may not feel that way, but legally you still run your house. Your child will point out that it isn't fair that they don't get to make all of their decisions yet, but in our country (for those in the USA), they won't get to do everything that an adult can do until they are 21.
Historically, this is unusual because in most cultures and in most time periods, teens (girls especially) were already parents at 16. Adolescence is a modern phenomenon (your teen may have already pointed that out to you) and this is part of the problem. We tend to keep children a little bit younger in the United States and that is just how things work here.
But that can be a real advantage to you as a parent, especially if your child is starting to experiment with dangerous behaviors. If you notice that your child is being influenced by other kids to do drugs, criminal activity, or hurt people, you may want to seriously consider moving your child out of the situation. Unless you are raising your child in a split home, or are tied down to a specific area, you might even want to consider suffering financial loss in order to move. I know that this may sound easier than it is, but this option will disappear in just a few years. I have met quite a few parents who wish more than anything that they moved when they started to notice that their kids were having problems.
But the problem isn't always where you live. You may also figure out that the problem is your church. As you dig in to the reasons that your child is having doubt, you may discover that someone at church is contributing to or making the situation worse. Or maybe they are being taught some things at the church that are unnecessarily pushing your teen away from Christianity. If this is the case, you may seriously need to find another church right away. No, I’m not recommending you leave every time you find something you disagree with—you’ll never be at a church more than a few weeks. I’m saying if you discover someone is teaching heresy or treating your child un-biblically… then leaving might not be such a bad choice.
Also take a look at the possibility of moving schools. My wife's mom really advocated for her school district to allow her to change schools in seventh grade and this made all of the difference. Amy made a whole bunch of new friends and the bullying that she had been experiencing in grade school stopped because those kids now went to a different school. This new school is also where she ended up meeting some Christian kids that would eventually lead her to Christ.
You might be surprised at how much even some little changes in where you live, where they go to school and where you go to church could affect your kids in positive ways.
- Love, Love, Love
When my son was born ten years ago, I asked my mom for some advice on raising him. I asked her, "Is there one piece of advice about parenting that is more important than everything else?" Now, my mom is a university professor and she sees the nuance in everything, but her response was so simple, "Just love him. There is nothing more important."
Now I had to fight back the tears when she said that, because I knew that she meant it. There was never any doubt in my mind that my mother loved me. Even when I left the church, I knew that, while she was disappointed, that it had no effect on her love for me.
I cannot stress how important that is. Do not make your love conditional on whether your kids are claiming to be Christians. I have met people who have been shunned by their parents because they rejected their religion, and it is devastating. It is one of the worst things that you can do. If you want them to eventually love Jesus, this is the surefire way to prevent that from ever happening. If we want to convince our kids that Jesus loves us unconditionally, maybe it is a good idea not to put conditions on the love that we show to our children.
A Final Thought
Telling your Christian parents that you are having doubts is one of the hardest things in the world to do. Chances are, that it was difficult for your teen to even mention it to you. Also, the way you deal with it now will also determine whether or not they take the risk to talk to you again about their thoughts in the future. If you want to continue talking about these ideas after they are eighteen, you need to make it very comfortable to talk about them now.
Remember that you don't have to seek to be understood as much as you need to seek to understand. It is easy to forget that our elegant arguments are not nearly as important as how we love and listen to our children. This is why I love what John so eloquently said in his first epistle, "Dear children, let us not love with words or speech, but with actions and in truth.” (1 John 3:16-18, NLT)