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Empty pews

The Faith in our Families report from Care for the Family and Hope reminds us that only half of children brought up in Christian homes will choose to follow the faith when they are adults.

We often unhelpfully call these children ‘prodigals’. But rather than labelling them with Christian jargon, let’s help them rediscover the Father who runs to meet them where they’re at. We spoke to some of these young people at various points along their journey. There are no easy answers, but we have included a few questions for you to reflect on. Here are their stories:

I wasn’t healed

I was born into a Christian family. We went to a massive, lively, charismatic church with lots of young people. It was really exciting.

But I had questions that I suppressed. Sometimes I asked people, but the answers were very black and white. There wasn’t a culture of questions; it was almost considered blasphemous. I moved away and was able to ask and explore those questions. The new answers didn’t fit with what I believed and that was really destructive.

I still had faith. I came back to my home church, where they were having a healing service. They were appealing for any asthma sufferers, which I was. I was really hoping for a miracle. And it worked! I was running around in church and that wouldn’t have usually happened.

The next day I went for a run and started having an asthma attack at the bottom of the road. I couldn’t get off the floor. I was praying and doing all the things my church had told me, but nothing happened. I just thought a loving God, the God I really did believe was my dad watching over me, wasn’t there in that moment. No dad would do that. It was heartbreaking.

I wasn’t mad at God, because I thought God clearly couldn’t be real. It sent me off, starving for information. I Googled loads of things privately. I was starting to doubt God because all the scientific and rational things I was reading about made more sense.

I was heartbroken about losing God. I really thought he would show up along the way. I felt like I had wasted a lot of my life, that everything had been really stunted because I hadn’t been allowed to think for myself. Eventually, I was this atheist and felt really happy because I was in control of my life and my feelings. I finally felt content.

Are our children given space to ask questions?
Do we leave room for different opinions?
How do we handle healing and ‘unanswered prayers’?

The mosque answered my questions

I grew up in a Christian household but I just ‘borrowed’ my parents’ faith. I had lots of questions, but there was no forum for them.

I didn’t dare ask questions at church and my parents couldn’t answer the ones I had. This led to me being very rebellious. I grew up in South London and there was a gang culture around where we lived. As the gang grew, a lot of the older members who went to prison converted to Islam. When they came out they started to influence us younger ones, and because we had nothing else to look up to, many became Muslims.

Our pastor gave us an opportunity to ask questions at church, so I asked loads. The more questions I asked, the more he was saying: “You have to have faith.” I gave up on the Church after that and became a Muslim.

My friends took me to the mosque and I did the whole prayer thing, but there was still something inside me that struggled. There were certain practices I didn’t adhere to. It led me to search for answers online.

Thank God for ministries like RZIM (Ravi Zacharias International Ministries). I started to read and absorbed all the information. I finally was equipped with some answers, and it led me to the other extreme. I went back to my church and would sit at the back. The pastor would say something and I would be like: “Nope. Jesus didn’t really say that. You’re taking it out of context.” It must have hurt.

Apologetics doesn’t necessarily deal with all the issues; you also need a loving community. Thank God I’m still at the same church, but I think I’m a bit more balanced now! These days I can chat with young people who have questions like me.

How can we help our young people own their faith?
Do we know where to find answers to their questions?
Is there room for dialogue?

I didn’t want to feel guilty anymore

I was brought up in a Christian family and went to a small, informal Christian fellowship every Sunday.

I went to university at 18 and tried to find a church where I felt comfortable. I got baptised and invited all my friends. That was the last time I went to church.

Somebody gave me a book about the historical accuracy of the Bible and I started questioning. I also began to feel like some of the morals I had based my life on were very tenuous. It frustrated me. I started to question whether it was important that I stuck to those rules.

I had just started a new relationship. We were about to start a sexual relationship, but I didn’t want to because I knew I would feel guilty. We ended up having sex and the next day I was annoyed that I felt as though I had done something wrong, when I knew I hadn’t. It made me reassess my faith.

Having Jesus at the centre of your life is supposed to make your life better, but I had never experienced what it was to not have him at the centre of my life, so how was I to know if it was necessary? I stopped going to church, reading the Bible and praying. In the years since, I have had a wonderful life. I now get what I had from Christianity from my friends and family, and from the world. I don’t feel any guilt. I feel peaceful, no longer worrying about upholding the Christian morals I once did.

Do our young people know God’s grace?
Do we focus too much on morality?
How do we talk about sex and relationships?

I wanted to experience everything

I grew up in a Christian family and had a lovely childhood. I was filled with the Holy Spirit, which was the most amazing experience. But when I was about 16 I started feeling very negative about the way I looked.

I felt that I wasn’t experiencing the world around me. I wasn’t experiencing the things my friends were experiencing. So at 19 I left the Church. I wanted something more from life. I wanted that relationship. I wanted to feel like I was worth something, but I wasn’t getting that from church any more.

I decided I wanted to experience absolutely everything. That meant going out drinking and doing drugs. Although I felt empty, I was constantly filling myself with the next thing. All this time I totally ignored God, because from my experience he hadn’t fulfilled me in the way I wanted.

I went to a festival and had been up all weekend. I had done a lot of drinking and drugs. I had gone too far. I felt unbalanced in my own mind. My dad picked me up and drove me me home. I just broke down, saying: “Dad, I really want to come back to God. This lifestyle isn’t fulfilling me. It’s not doing what I wanted. It does it in the moment, but it doesn’t last.”

I decided to start going back to church. There was this longing in my heart. I felt like I needed God, and I knew the other things weren’t working. I remembered knowing God when I was younger, and that’s what I wanted from my life. I didn’t want the superficiality of this new lifestyle.

I have never regretted coming back to the Lord and I feel so much better now, knowing my life has purpose. I can build on that relationship. There are things he wants for me that are so much better than drinking and drugs, which just seem ridiculous to me now. I feel so much more fulfilled.

How can we show children that God is enough?
Are we ready to love without judgement?
How can we nurture young people’s relationships with God?

I never knew if God was real

I’m a pastor’s kid, so God was integral to everything we did as a family. I never even thought to question what we believed.

Even as a child I struggled to pray. It felt like I was praying into a vacuum. I never heard from God and I certainly didn’t experience him the way other people seemed to. I thought the problem was me. I’d go to events with our youth group and see God profoundly moving in my friends’ lives. I’d see stuff happen to them but it never happened to me, so I wondered what was wrong with me. Why would God not meet with me? Was I doing something wrong? Didn’t God like me?

In my gap year, surrounded by people from all over the world and away from my Christian bubble, I began to question everything and came to the conclusion that God probably didn’t exist. I finally realised it wasn’t me that was the problem. Years later, I’m a happy agnostic.

Do we help young people critique their faith?
Do we place too much emphasis on emotional experiences?
How can we help children experience God personally?

Most of these young people lost their faith as teenagers, but we also spoke to the mother of a younger child:

At age 10 my daughter wrote: “Dear Mummy and Daddy, I am really sorry but I do not believe in God so I am an atheist. I didn’t know how to tell you this, but now you know. I hope you still love me? Coz I love you very much.”

My response was to reassure my child that whatever her beliefs she belongs in our family. She is loved and accepted; not in the hope that she will change, but now. I was really pleased that she should have given her faith thought, not accepting anything without a challenge, and I love her strength of character.

From observation and chatting with her, I see she reached her decision due to many influences. Her experiences of faith are from toddler groups, Church of England primary school exposure and church groups. She has always resisted the group activities where she felt unable to blend in. She is much happier in one-to-one activities. I think she associates God with being forced to join in (there seem to be more rewards for extrovert children in our culture). Another influence is my child’s community of YouTubers, several of whom profess atheism or perhaps offer a lightness of approach to life that she hasn’t picked up elsewhere.

God didn’t seem relevant

As a child, I loved church, but at 10, I started smoking, fighting and generally being a terror. My behaviour was awful and my school forced me to take anger management classes. I still believed in God, he just didn’t seem relevant to my life.

I was thrown out of our church youth group. My youth leader had the patience of a saint and tried everything to engage me but I disrupted every session and unsettled the group so, for the sake of the rest of the flock, he decided to sacrifice the black sheep.

When I was 14, my older brother invited me to a summer camp. Excited at the idea of a week away from my parents where I could get away with stuff without being caught, I agreed to go along.

I refused to go to any of the main sessions, opting instead to sit outside smoking and chatting up girls. I missed curfew two nights in a row, returning to my tent both times with girls. I was given a final warning: one more false move and I’d have to leave immediately. The next day, I was smoking outside when a youth worker gently persuaded me to join them in the main meeting. I was determined to ignore everything that was happening in the session, but thankfully God had another idea. In the middle of a worship song, before anyone had even started speaking, I encountered God in a dramatic way and gave my life back to him.

I felt God tell me to learn the guitar in that moment and I learnt to play by worshipping for hours alone in my bedroom. I think that time spent with God helped equip me to go back to school as a Christian.

How can we show children that God is relevant to their life?
Do we meet young people where they’re at?
Are we inviting ‘difficult’ kids to our events?

Care for the Family will be exploring these issues further in next month’s magazine.

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