Reshaping our view – parenting adult children for faith
Just because children are all grown up and independent doesn't mean we can't share faith with them well. We just need to think a little differently.
We often get asked how to share faith with adult children. And of course behind that question, very often, is a real grief and sadness – and maybe guilt or shame – that their children seem to have rejected the faith they grew up with.
And if that’s the case for you it can feel so hard! Your children are all grown up; they have their own lives and their own views. But there’s a niggle deep in your soul: you want them to know God. Because it’s not just for show; it’s because you want the best for them.
Paul, writing from prison near the end of this life, said this:
‘I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.’
Despite the many hardships he had experienced, Paul was able to say: whatever happens, I am content – because of God, who in every aspect of my life, is there, rooting for me, strengthening me, comforting me. And isn’t that what we’d love for our adult children? To be able to say: whatever happens, however good or bad or agonising – I’m OK because of God standing with me, strengthening me, comforting me, guiding me. And when we can’t see that in their lives, very often we grieve. Because it’s the one thing we want for them, and they don’t seem to get it.
We can feel powerless, shamed or sad and feel like we’ve failed. But it doesn’t have to be like that.
Ditch the quilt
Imagine an heirloom quilt, lovingly stitched by a great-grandma, passed down to each generation. You loved it, spread it proudly over your bed every day, enjoyed the warmth it brought. And then, when the time is right, you pass it on to your child. But you soon discover that your adult child isn’t using the quilt. It’s not on the bed, it’s packed away in a cupboard. Maybe it’s brought out when you visit, or used at special occasions, such as Christmas. But it’s just not relevant to your modern child with their own ideas and influences.
We can feel like that about faith. Faith was something your children knew and experienced during their childhood. They came with you to church, read their bibles, seemed to have some sort of faith – but as they grew older, faith got pushed to the edges of their lives and maybe even seemed to disappear altogether. You tried to pass on your faith, but it got packed away in a cupboard.
But what if we think about faith differently? You see, the phrase ‘pass on your faith’ implies that it’s a done deal. You might see other families in church who seem to have passed on their faith to their adult children because there they are, in church or ministry or happily identifying as Christians. You’ve either done it or you haven’t.
But actually, that’s not how faith works. As Christians, we’re not passing on a set of religious activities and beliefs. We’re passing on a relationship with a God who, for us, has been an amazing God. If we think less about ‘passing on faith’ and more about ‘helping someone discover who God is’ then it becomes easier to see that this is something you can do as a parent, even of an adult child. All your children are somewhere on the journey of discovering who God is, and you can walk with them on their journey of discovering who God is, just as you walk with them on their everyday journeys of life.
Finding your next steps
So what can we do practically to help our adult children meet and know God? Everyone’s family is unique and how you share faith will depend on so many factors. But here are some ideas to help you figure out your next steps.
1. Pray for them
- Pray that God will show you your next steps as you walk alongside them: what is the one next thing I can do to help them discover who God is?
- Even if you aren’t in contact with your children, you can enrol the help of an almighty God who loves them. Specifically pray for God to place Christian friends and colleagues around them who can speak into their lives.
2. Reshape your view
- Remember that faith isn’t a done deal, a neat package gratefully accepted or rejected. It’s a journey of discovering who God is and understanding all that he wants to be for you.
- You can’t always see faith taking root or growing in someone, so not going to church or taking part in religious activities doesn’t necessarily tell you what’s really going on.
- You are still hugely influential! Your children will still be learning how to do life from you and as they observe you as you age and face new challenges, they will also be able to see the importance of who God is to you and how he makes a difference.
3. Build the strongest possible relationships with your children
- The more connected you are to your children, the more influence you will have, and the more opportunities to share who God is with them.
- Love them unreservedly: their value isn’t any less because they aren’t following the path you wanted.
- Don’t make faith a bone of contention. Respect their views, don’t enforce your views or expectations on them.
4. Reflect on the barriers
We know that if our children understand and knew God like we did they wouldn’t hesitate to follow him – so there must be something stopping them understanding that. If we can identify any obvious barriers, this may give us an important next step, for example explaining something that happened in the past, or apologising, or asking questions. Examples might include:
- Never really understanding who God is: he just isn’t relevant to me and my life
- Having big questions that haven’t been adequately answered, such as ‘why does God allow suffering?’ or ‘how can you believe in God and science?’
- Being hurt by church
- Seeing a disconnect between what Christians say and what they do
- Feeling that they aren’t good enough for God because of their lifestyle, choices or past.
5. Create windows into who God is for you
Just because your children are adults doesn’t mean they’ve cracked doing life! As adults, we never stop learning how to do life. We see the example of others and learn from it: how to cope when you are made redundant, how to choose your first house, how to parent this colicky baby, how to get through a break-up. And that doesn’t stop as you get older. We observe older people facing illness and death; we see the joy of becoming a grandparent; we learn how to tackle retirement well. And however old we are, our parents are still hugely influential for how we do life. So if we can create windows – create intentional glimpses into our relationship with God and how that sustains us – our children will see what a difference he might make and how he can be the God Paul spoke about for them. For example:
- ‘How can I pray for you? I always chat to God about you and the family because I know he cares about you too.’
- ‘I’m really wondering what God’s got planned for my retirement!’
- ‘I’m really scared by this diagnosis, but I just keep thinking of Psalm 23 and I know that God will be walking with me through this – however it ends’.
- Add in the ‘why’ to the ‘what’ of what you do: ‘When I go to church it’s like I get filled up with God’s strength for the week ahead’ or ‘I’ll be over just as soon as I’ve finished today’s Bible reading notes: so often I find that what I’ve read in the Bible helps me know what to do next’, or ‘Monday nights are such a blast! I love meeting with my friends from church – it’s such a great community of people who really know me inside out and still love me!’
- Fill in some of the gaps they might not know about: who God was when you lost your job, or when you moved abroad, or when your partner died.
6. Open up conversations about God
You may even feel comfortable asking why your child doesn’t seem to share your faith. Questions like ‘I wonder what God thinks when he sees that war?’ or ‘Do you think Jesus had favourite people?’ help everyone think more deeply about God and see past the childhood assumptions.
7. Trust God for this one – however hard it seems
He loves your children even more than you do and longs for them to really know and understand him. Keep asking him what are your next steps and keep your children close.
Other posts that might be helpful
Extracts from the Parenting for Faith podcast, this one answering the question ‘how can you parent an adult child for faith’, and this one about how to start parenting older children for faith.
Ideas for creating a spiritual framework for older or adult children.