Every Christian parent dreads the day that their teenage son or daughter tells them they don’t want to go to church. Let me give a few lessons I’ve learned from four kids now grown up. There has been some heartache along the way and I didn’t always get these things right, but I’m outlining them here in the hope that you may be able to learn from my mistakes.
1. Don’t panic, pray
Don’t go crazy when you hear the words ‘I don’t want to go to church’. There are many reasons why a teenager might tell you this, so don’t overreact, and don’t talk about it with them until you’ve got time to listen to them properly. Instead, what you should be doing straightaway is make this situation a matter of prayer.
2. Understand why
Take the time to listen carefully and understand. And choose your timing carefully. I have found trips in the car on the way to sport or some other appointment are good for this kind of conversation, as you have a captive audience (they can’t escape!) and there are relatively few distractions.
Ask them what is the problem - what do they not want to be involved in, and why? The problem could have many different facets. Perhaps they don’t like youth group, or adult church. This might be because they find these things boring, and let’s face it, they might have a point. Are they having relational problems with a leader or another teenager, or have they just broken up with a boyfriend or girlfriend ― if this is the case, it can be really hard to keep attending when the other person is there. It could be that they don’t like the games at youth group. Or it could be that they do not want to hear about Jesus. Remember that the problem your teenager presents may not be the real issue, so be prepared to ask questions if you feel there might be another underlying reason.
3. Remember you’re in the middle of a power changeover
To state the obvious, there’s a big difference between a 13 year-old and a 19 year-old saying this. As kids grow from babies to adults, the power balance in the parent-child relationship changes. When they are little, you have all the power and make decisions about where they go and what they do. Toddlers make no decisions for themselves and don’t have to live with any resulting consequences. By the time they have grown into adults, they have to make their own decisions and live with the consequences. The art of parenting, however inexact or desperate it might be, is to manage that transition.
So as we are speaking about church attendance, we need to remember where teenagers are up to in that transition. You can pretty much tell a 13 year-old that they will go as they are told, but you’ll be hard pressed to make a 19 year-old do this. This doesn’t mean you can’t help your 19 year-old to work through this difficulty, but it is important to remember that 13 year-olds are at a very different stage of decision-making and consequence-facing than are 17, 18 or 19 year-olds.
Whether or not your kids are under your roof and financially dependent on you will also affect the way you will need to relate to them. If they are still dependent on you, they still carry some obligation to do as you ask.
4. Tread gently
Be careful forcing kids to go to church, even if they are at a young age. I’m not saying ‘give up and roll over’, but speak and act thoughtfully so the kids feel there is a little bit of ‘air in the tyres’ when you talk to them. Given church or youth group is about relationships, enforcing attendance by parental order may place more strain on the situation. You may well need to hold the line and make them go, but if they can feel that they can be listened to, and that there has been some willingness on your part to negotiate on the matter, it will help take out some of the heat.
5. Look for other relationships that will help
Are there some peers, youth leaders, or others who could help to alleviate the problem? If so, consider helpful ways to encourage these relationships.
6. Remember that the job of Jesus is already taken
As a parent, you can do your best to see that your kids stay Christian. Love them, pray for them, teach them, discipline them, but never forget that in the end, their faith is between them and Jesus.
7. Never, never, never give up.
Read Luke 15 regularly and pray that the lost will be found in God’s time.