Why Children Leave the Church, Part 1

May 22, 2014 | Martin Weber

What shall it profit a pastor to save the whole city for Christ but lose his or her own children? While many kids grow up healthy and happy in the parsonage, many others are slamming the back door of the church as they exit to the world.

Why? My academic research revealed 40 attrition factors among adult children of Seventh-day Adventist clergy. I’ll explore them with you from time to time in this column, since many of these factors affect all Adventist families. This month instead of focusing on data, I’d just like to share comfort for hurting parents and grandparents.

We Adventists do so much to help our kids find God and become committed members of our church, yet we lose many of them. Often we blame ourselves — and certainly we’ve all made mistakes. But so do parents whose kids remain with the church. Although home factors profoundly influence our children’s spirituality, ultimately it’s their own choice as to whether they stay with the church.

Lots of church members don’t believe that, and they aren’t shy about sharing unsolicited advice: “Pray harder — storm the gates of heaven!” Sometimes their counsel seems contradictory: “Let go and let God bring them back to church.”

Inevitably, Prov. 22:6 gets quoted: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” Guaranteed!

Confidence in God’s saving power is commendable, but simplistic faith violates both the principles of Scripture and the character of God. Besides, what that proverb appears to guarantee has already failed. Prodigals, by definition, have departed from their childhood religious training — otherwise we wouldn’t be praying for their return.

Has God not kept His word? No, because a proverb is not a promise. Rather, a proverb posits a principle generally true but not a universal, absolute guarantee. Consider another proverb: “When a man’s ways please the Lord, He makes even his enemies to be at peace with him” (Prov. 16:7). Really? Tell that to Stephen as enemies stone him to death for his faithfulness.

Jesus prayed for Peter that his faith would not fail (Luke 22:31). Yet it did fail, spectacularly. Did not the Father hear the intercession of His Son? No, God preserves free choice regarding matters of the soul, no matter how hard or long anyone fasts and prays.

So why pray? Because Christ will open the eyes of those blinded by the god of this world so they can see their situation (2 Cor. 4:4). Our Father allows His prodigals to suffer hunger in their pigpen. It's always their choice. At the end of the day, even prayed-for children get to decide for themselves about being saved.

Long ago the prophet Samuel was a father of adult children in radical attrition (1 Sam. 8:3). It’s fair to assume that this extraordinary intercessor (Jer. 15:1) prayed for his prodigals, not only in their adulthood but throughout younger years. After all, he had witnessed firsthand the carnage of another clergy parent, Eli. Yet God didn’t come through for Samuel’s parental prayers — not as defined by the simplistic view of faith that pervades so many prayer meetings.

God is not to blame if our children are lost. And ultimately, faithful parents are not to blame. Adult children will answer to God for themselves about their choices, as it is written, “Each of us shall give account of himself to God” — yet, “resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s [or our children’s] way” (Rom. 14:12, 13).

What kind of stumbling blocks do we innocently place in front of our kids? We’ll talk about that next month. Meanwhile, a preview:

  • Parental conservatism regarding lifestyle standards is not statistically significant in attrition. What hurts is rigidity and legalism — becoming coercive with one’s convictions.
  • Lack of relationality in the family is a supremely serious cause of attrition.
  • Closely associated is lack of freedom for teens to develop their own faith experience in a nurturing, nonjudgmental context — and without the expectation of being super saints.
  • There is no greater cause of attrition than attempting to shield teens from knowledge of, or to resist discussion about, church or denominational conflict.

Summarizing this preview of my attrition data: What’s important is a loving, gracious, respectful attitude toward our kids, modeling faith and mentoring them — but not coercively. No wonder, since Jesus said, “By this all people [including our kids] will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

Read part 2 of "Why Children Leave the Church."