T HAPPENED TO US. WE WERE STUNNED!
My husband, Roger’s, mother had died, and we were on a plane en route to the funeral with our only daughter and her family. Our daughter gently explained to me that she and her family no longer attended church and that she did not want to continue the pretense. Furthermore, she did not want to discuss it.
Our hearts were now doubly grieved. Our first human reaction was to talk about it; surely there was something about this beautiful message that they misunderstood. But this definitely was not the time.
Throughout the years—both from personal experience and from numerous discussions with church leaders—Roger and I have learned many things about how to handle an occasion when someone says to you, “I don’t want to go to church anymore.”* Here are suggestions for friends, for parents, and for church leaders on how to cope with that situation.
If you are a friend:
The most successful approach is to avoid conflict—do not argue or become defensive. Arguing results only in higher walls of defensiveness. In order to maintain an open bridge for communication, it is vital to remain friends. Set aside time to really listen to youth and young adults as to why they have made this decision, without being judgmental or denying them the right to their feelings. They might think church is too boring, it is not relevant, or they have no friends there. Explore when they began feeling that way. Was it triggered by a particular incident? Spiritual apathy usually begins with nonattendance at Sabbath school. You may want to check out the church programs for yourself. Is there a vibrant Sabbath school program? If not, network with your church leaders to provide interesting and relevant spiritual programming.
Youth and young adults like to be able to think for themselves. Foster a thinking climate in which they can explore what the church teaches, in which they can discover the principles and biblical support behind Seventh-day Adventist doctrines, and in which they can determine the church’s relevance for today’s world. They should be able to feel comfortable asking questions as they sort through their values and make their own choices.
If you are a parent:
Parents need tact and wisdom as they deal with this situation. Youth and young adults don’t want religion “pushed down their throats”; yet, it is still appropriate for parents to establish Christian standards of behavior. In order to have the kind of wisdom needed to address the issue in a loving and balanced way, much prayer, thought, and tact are required.
Former Adventist Review editorial assistant Ella Rydzewski recounted a conversation she had with Roger Morneau (Adventist Review, Dec. 13, 2001, p. 6), during which he gave this bit of wisdom for parents of grown children: “He said parents should not talk to their children about religion unless asked, for they have probably acquired enough of it over the years that they now have ‘religious indigestion.’ He advised that parents pray daily and fervently for these children and pray for themselves that they remain loving and accepting. Children of any age need to
see the fruits of the Holy Spirit in the lives of their parents if they are to find parental religion attractive.”
Youth and young adults often announce on Sabbath morning that they don’t want to attend church services. A parent might respond by saying, “We will miss you, and we will talk about it this afternoon.” This will give the parent time to think and pray about the situation before talking to their son or daughter. Or the parent may prefer to write their child a letter (if this is the best way to avoid conflict) and share a personal experience by saying: “I used to feel the same way (if the parent did), and this is what helped me reconnect.” Encourage the young person to hang in with the family and find ways to work through their feelings. Schedule family council time when the family can brainstorm ways to handle the situation. But whatever happens, do not argue—just listen carefully and clarify what the family member is saying.
Walk the talk by living a life consistent with what you teach. Youth and young adults are very perceptive, and they learn more from what they observe than from what they hear. A famous lecturer was once asked for his parenting advice. His reply was: “There are three most important principles—example, example, example.” This truth is highlighted by these words from Ellen White: “It is because so many parents and teachers profess to believe the Word of God while their lives deny its power, that the teaching of Scripture has no greater effect upon the youth” (Education, p. 259).
Teach that religion is basically a matter of relationships—with God and with one another—that demonstrate God’s love. Our love for one another will prove to the world that we are Christ’s disciples (see John 13:35). Codes of behavior and a system of beliefs will follow naturally as the love of Christ changes the heart, even as it has changed the heart of the parents. This represents a grace orientation rather than a law orientation and is demonstrated by a home that is warm, supportive, and a place where children can ask questions without feeling threatened.
Be willing to talk with your teenagers about your own personal faith. This is not about explaining doctrines, but about what Jesus means to you and what God is doing for you personally. Conduct interesting family worships, preferably in the morning and evening. This provides an opportunity to teach your children how to pray conversationally and how to use the Bible so it provides spiritual nourishment.
Work on ways to make the Sabbath special and church interesting. A good place to start is by visiting your child’s Sabbath school to find out how its programs are conducted. Are they interesting and relevant?
When her daughter announced that she no longer wanted to go to church, a parent in our church told her, “If you will go to church with me this week, I will stay home and worship together with you next week. Sabbath is a day that the family needs to be together.” Her teen was not eager to spend Sabbath at home with Mom. Then this parent worked with her daughter to find a way for her to help in the children’s division. The teen really enjoyed teaching the children, and Sabbath school attendance was no longer a problem.
If your teen feels they have no friends at church, here are some things you may want to try:
• Ask another young adult to call or invite your son or daughter to a church program.
• Assist your church in providing other church activities that will help the youth to become better acquainted with one another, and work together with other church leaders by helping in Pathfinders, assisting with a community service project, or planning Saturday night activities. Relationships are very, very important to youth and will do much to hold them in the church.
• Notify your pastor discreetly and confidentially about your young adult’s apathy. Your pastor can then encourage church leaders to reach out to them at this critical time and can make a point of touching base with them. Above all, the pastor can certainly pray for them.
If you are a church leader:
Here are some very workable and practical supportive projects that would encourage those who are faced with the challenge of winning back the confidence of their youth and young adults:
Set up a Web site for parents and friends who are concerned about their youth. List helpful, accessible resources. For starters, this article and others like it could be listed. You may contact this author for a free PowerPoint presentation on the topic.† Another excellent resource is an article by John Van Eyk, “The Influencing of Searching Minds—How to Make a Public College Student Feel Part of the Church,” Adventist Review, June 20, 2002 (www.adventistreview.org/2002-1525/story3.html).
Organize a prayer group for parents concerned about their children. It could meet during midweek prayer service or another time convenient to the parents. We have one at our church.
Keep in touch with the youth in your church who are attending school away from home by sending them church bulletins and newsletters, and by giving them warm welcomes during holiday breaks and vacation times. Encourage the parents to subscribe and send periodicals and devotional materials geared to this age group. For college and university students, consider sending them the international journal of faith, thought, and action called Dialogue, which is published in four languages by the General Conference Education Department. To subscribe, you can contact the Education Department in your local conference or union office.
Create and foster a warm, accepting, nonjudgmental climate. Church members need to learn that we should not criticize those whose dress, music, or lifestyle habits are different from our own. People grow spiritually and emotionally only as they feel loved and accepted. Everyone who steps into one of our churches should feel welcome and wanted—part of the family.
Church members must be intentional about involving our youth in the lives of our congregations. Give them an opportunity to use their talents by first giving them lesser responsibilities and then increasing them as they grow into the positions. They could even work with a mentor as they take on a leadership role in the church.
Set up a spiritual guardian program. My home church pairs a spiritual guardian with a newly baptized youth between the ages of 13 and 19. Guardians are asked to volunteer for this ministry by calling the youth Sabbath school director.
My Own Story
At the beginning of this article I shared my husband’s and my heartache when our daughter and her family decided to leave the church. We responded by placing a high priority on maintaining a warm relationship with them—a bridge for them to return. We had to refrain from talking about religion, but in private we spent many hours in tears and in prayer
for them. This went on for 10 long and anxious years. Then one day our daughter called us and said, “Mom, Dad, I received a letter from the church here asking former members to come back for just a visit to check them out and see how they have changed. Well, a number of things have happened in my life that have impressed me to accept this invitation. I will see for myself whether they have changed and how they will treat me. But don’t get your hopes up too high, because I have no idea what the outcome of all this will be.”
We redoubled our intercessory prayers on her behalf. And sure enough, God was directing. On that Sabbath she was warmly welcomed by the church members as well as the pastor, who took her under her wing. It was not long until our daughter invited us to her rebaptism. We know from personal experience that it takes both loving acceptance and many, many prayers to bring back God’s precious lambs.
May God bless us all as we prayerfully keep in touch with the youth and young adults in our homes and churches. Each one is of priceless value and needs to know that they are important to God and to us.
“For I will contend with those who contend with you, and I will save your children” (Isa. 49:25, NRSV).‡
*Information for this article was also gleaned by talking with youth specialists working at Andrews University: Roger Dudley, director of the Institute of Church Ministry at the AU Theological Seminary; campus chaplain Timothy Nixon; and Ronald Whitehead, director of the Center for Youth Evangelism.
†For a free PowerPoint program to install on your Web site, e-mail: [email protected]
‡Bible texts credited to NRSV are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright ” 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.
Margaret G. Dudley, Ph.D., is a counselor and retired Andrews University faculty member who prays that this article will bring encouragement to all who are concerned about the spiritual experience of their children and others dear to them. She and her husband, Roger, have coauthored two books on marriage.