When Alex Doesn't Believe

Michael Spencer
Thursday, May 3rd 2007
May/Jun 2005

A friend asked about her sixth-grade son's sudden announcement that he no longer believed in God. Our time was simply too short for a substantial answer, so I wrote a letter.

Dear Doc and Leanne,

I appreciated the opportunity to talk about Alex, and I am glad that our friendship is such that we can share this burden. I can feel your concern about your son. The faith journey of our children is something we all feel responsible for, because God commanded us to raise up our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. We hope that if we raise up a child in the right way, when he is old, he will not depart from it. But the real world isn't that simple, and sometimes our middle-school-age sons tell us they no longer believe in God.

Many of us have bought into an evangelical fantasy about Christian young people, fantasies where middle-school and high-school young people are already "mature Christians," "excited for Jesus," "witnessing to their friends," and, of course, immune from the various peer pressures and social corruptions common in American culture. Reality, however, may not cooperate.

Last year, for instance, a Kids for Christ ministry team came to church with a band and other creative ministries, all led by middle-school-age children. The parents were beaming with pride, as well they should. I commend those parents for being involved with their kids and making it possible for those young people to have a great experience. I would counsel those same parents, however, to be prudent. Experience teaches us that a faith journey may have many unusual side roads. Those who were once excited young Christians may turn out to be committed unbelievers, while the kid who looked like he couldn't care less about God may wind up being your pastor.

We would all love for our children to be part of that ministry team. Most of all, we want our children to have real faith. I don't want their faith to be entirely the result of bribery, peer pressure, acquiescence, or parental expectation. We all know that it is quite possible to temporarily influence a young person's behavior, without seeing a heart change or faith commitment.

Evangelical Christians believe in conversion and in the nurture of children in faith. Few churches treat the children of believers as rank Philistines, even if their theology says that is the case. "Child dedication services" give evidence that we believe in a shepherding, growing, and nurturing process. Our parenting can't be a matter of betting everything on what a child says or does in any one phase. We accept that there will be diverse seasons and varying terrain. In order to grow, our children may adopt what appears to be a hostile stance toward what has come before. We need to be more committed to the process and not panic at the first sign of trouble when, in fact, we may be close to significant growth.

Pre-teens (often boys) usually go through a period of rejecting the "Sunday School" version of their faith. As they grow, they are going to see some of their previous commitments as being childish, and we will see them throw that part of their world overboard, sometimes with a loud announcement. This is especially true in the early middle-school grades, with boys who are smart, aware of the larger world, and sensitive to what is "normal" for older boys. Religion, in general, doesn't do well at this stage.

What happens? The young person becomes aware of what other teenagers are thinking and doing. He picks up signals from the world of secular knowledge and from the larger culture. If his parents aren't exerting unusual control over media, he is listening to music, watching TV, and viewing movies-all of which introduce him to a larger and more "cool" world than the world of the fourth- and fifth-grader. And in this world where teenagers seem to know everything, the messages about God are heavily biased against the religion of childhood. It will not be unusual for the young man to pick rejection of religion as one way to become an independent individual, thinking and choosing for himself, and seeing himself as grown up.

Is this a disaster? I don't really think so. My friends who work diligently to avoid this are often buying a lot of stock in something that we ought not to be encouraging: conformity without ultimately choosing values in the open market. I know some will say that we ought to protect children from all such choices, but I think our knowledge of human development counsels otherwise. A family may want a monopoly over all influences because they are afraid they can't always win their child's heart and mind if he knows what is over the fence and beyond the road.

The implications of this view are serious. It is pessimistic, and it encourages a kind of immaturity that we don't want to encourage. That isn't to say that a child must start watching MTV in order to make choices, but is it right that a child never be made aware that there is a choice? Why are we so convinced that an adolescent rejection of religion is to be avoided at all costs? I would far prefer to deal with the possibility of rejection early on, rather than later, when a young adult decides to abandon Christ with true finality, fueled by resentment over a failed effort to produce an unsullied, and unchosen, Christianity.

Further, this adolescent rejection may be, in fact, a necessary prelude to significant growth. Such a rejection may be painful to hear, but it shows a mind at work. Questions are being asked. A worldview is being formed. Yes, that worldview has concluded that a God who can't be seen and who isn't accepted by lots of smart, cool people is a fairy tale to be dismissed. These questions, and this early rejection, highlight the importance of faith. Does God offer an easy answer to every scientific objection or skeptical argument? God asks for our trust. He is a Savior of sinners who trust him. To come to the place of trusting Christ, we often must see the inadequacy of our own answers and the bankruptcy of the idea of others. In order to believe, we often must disbelieve . . . and then see faith in a new light.

So what to do in the meantime? How do you respond? Let's move to some more practical answers to your situation.

Alex is looking for some reaction from you. He may hope that he can avoid any participation in your family's spiritual life. This shouldn't be the case. Make it clear to him that, no matter where he is personally, your family's values won't be changing. Whatever have been your spiritual practices, these will continue with his respectful participation. When he has his own family, he may do what he wants. Your family will worship, pray, and honor Christ.

For instance, if he thinks evolution destroys Christianity, enlighten him. If he believes that a God that doesn't answer him on cue isn't real, help him examine his thinking. If he is convinced that intelligent people don't believe in God, correct his errant notions. But if he wants to argue obscure Bible difficulties, be cautious. If he has unbelieving heroes, don't demonize them. The answer won't be as simple as giving stock responses to Bible difficulties or saying Blink 182 are of the devil. Faith is commendable because of Jesus, not because of apologetics. Answers are great. Faith is better. We need Christ in this situation, and not just the Christ we've endorsed. Our children need to trust Jesus in their own experience.

I have four practical suggestions for where you are with Alex right now. I'm sure you could think of them yourself, but my time working with students has underlined these things as very important with middle-school boys who are rejecting the faith.

1. Every summer, send him to a great Christian event of some kind with kids his age. I know this sounds simplistic, but it is important.

Why? Peer pressure works both ways. Surrounding a student with older kids who are committed to the faith and who present a way of envisioning maturity helps the student to rethink his decision with a more open mind, and with consideration to how others have handled similar issues. Conversations happen. Friendships are formed that make the faith of others observable. A good camp, conference, or similar experience, can be very good for a young man like Alex.

Why didn't I say just join a youth group? Because that is not the answer (and I was the youth ministry professional for years). I've seen hundreds of pagan kids in youth groups. Many youth groups are encouraging the same skepticism that Alex has adopted, and the focus on activities doesn't help. Intelligent young people are a lot less reachable with pizza and stupid human tricks than most youth pastors expect.

2. Take your family to a church that presents the gospel repeatedly and clearly. Every church doesn't help you work with a young person like Alex. Entirely trusting the "youth program" to produce disciples is a critical error. Church should be a family event, not an age-grouped event. Youth groups should be secondary. Alex needs to hear the gospel, even if he is bored with it and doesn't believe it. He doesn't need manipulation of mind or emotion. He needs to hear about Jesus Christ, the savior of sinners, over and over, plainly and simply. If Alex is going to reject the gospel, let's be sure he's hearing it.

Now there are some who won't like what I am going to say next, but it is critical. Alex needs to understand that a belief in a scientific theory doesn't eliminate the gospel. Christianity isn't a view of science, politics, tacky Christian music, or television evangelists. Being a Christian isn't being a preacher or an angry anti-gay protester. It's not being just like your parents or your pastor. It's not promising to be like the weirdo Christians you don't like at your Christian school. Christianity is about Jesus. Who he is, what he did, what it means. It's the announcement that Jesus lived, died, was raised, and is now Lord of all. Alex needs to know that the ONLY thing that matters in his rejection of Christianity is Jesus. The rest you can throw overboard any time you want.

I don't really care what denomination you have to go to in order to achieve this goal. Don't be hung up on secondary things in a matter this important. If your church is preaching moralism, legalism, or making the gospel anything less than crystal clear, leave. Don't stay for the music or your friends. The gospel matters and the clock is ticking.

3. Examine how faith works in your own home, and make any changes that need to be made. This sounds personal, and it is. The greatest influence on a child's faith-now and in the years to come-will be the faith and practice of parents.

Evangelical parents sometimes, out of good motives, do either too little or too much in emphasizing the importance of faith for the family. I'm fairly convinced that via media is the way to go. What would that look like?

‘¢God is clearly the foundation of all important decisions.
‘¢Prayer is natural, but no one is forced to pray.
‘¢Christian special days are celebrated modestly.
‘¢Devotional life is there to be observed and joined in.
‘¢The children learn the basic message and story of the Bible.
‘¢Sunday worship isn't an option while you live with the family.
‘¢Respect for the Christian faith will always be expected.
‘¢Ministry to other people, especially those who are suffering, is part of family life.
‘¢Spiritual things are part of family discussions, particularly where culture and faith might interact.
‘¢Children aren't overly sheltered, but parents are willing to relate the truth of the gospel to whatever children might see or hear.
‘¢Christian moral and ethical choices are a priority.
‘¢Loving God and loving neighbor are the foundations of what parents want for their children.

What would I avoid? I would avoid attempting to force faith into the experience of a child beyond the basic commitments of the family. In other words, Alex will need to see that this is a Christian marriage and family, and his stance at any moment doesn't change the commitments and identity of your family. But you won't be forcing Alex to become a Christian or to prove that he believes what he doesn't believe. He is free to believe as he chooses, and he is still loved and accepted as part of the family.

Declaring a "three-alarm fire" over an unbelieving child is, in my opinion, a mistake. How you feel needs to be personally expressed, but in terms that help Alex to see that you accept this as part of being a parent, even if it makes you sad. Tell him about Christians who went through times of rejecting the faith they were taught as children. Share with him how you identify with some of what he is feeling. But above all, show him the love of Jesus, who consistently loved and showed compassion for those who did not always believe.

If there are areas where shortcomings in your family may have made it easier for Alex to reject the faith, directly address those. Apologize to him if you have failed to be Christian examples. Remember that God makes demands on parents, but he is also the same gracious God to Christian parents that he is to a prodigal son. I have no doubt that the father did some soul-searching as he waited for his son to come home. A wayward child may become an instrument for the Spirit to bring renewal and growth to parents.

4. Pray that God will give Alex faith in Jesus. This seems quite expected, but I think it is probably the most important thing you can do. God gave this child to a Christian family for a purpose. I always operate on the assumption that one of those purposes was to know and trust Jesus Christ. I know there are many unbelievers from Christian families, but I also know that the Scriptures are full of marvelous promises for Christian families. I will stand on those promises, and the way to stand is to pray those promises.

John Piper has taught me to read the "new covenant" promises of God and turn them into prayers for those who don't believe. We all know these verses, but think of praying them this way:

"God, take out of their flesh the heart of stone and give them a new heart flesh." (Ezek. 11:19)

"Father, put your Spirit within them and cause them to walk in your statutes." (Ezek. 36:27)

"Father, open their hearts so that they believe the gospel." (Acts 16:14)

Many Christians don't pray this way because their theology questions the sovereignty of God in salvation. I can't say what a disaster this is for the Christian parent. We are told to boldly pray for God to do what only God can do, and our role is to keep praying throughout our child's life. We can't pray that children won't make their own choices, but we can pray the promises of God. We have no idea when or how God is going to answer. We do not know the road God will allow them to walk, why God chooses that road, or how long they will be on it. This is God's work and his glory.

I know this is a difficult season. No one wants their sixth-grade child, a child who has heard about God and Jesus every day, to say he doesn't believe. What we must keep in mind is God's bigger picture and purposes. At Alex's age, I was an unbeliever. I remained so until my sophomore year of high school. Today, I am approaching my thirty-third year as a Christian. Who can understand the ways of the Lord?

Thursday, May 3rd 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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