I recently ran across a story from Christianity Today’s Ed Stetzer about young adults leaving church. About 70 percent of them do so, apparently, though Stetzer notes that two-thirds of them eventually return. He writes:
“Our teenagers aren’t primarily leaving because they have significant disagreements with their theological upbringing or out of some sense of rebellion. For the most part, they simply lose track of the church and stop seeing it as important to their life.”
It was about that point in the story when I realized that I’ve raised a statistic.
Oh, he’s more than that, of course. Colin, my 23-year-old son, is smart and funny and, as I’ve mentioned, a wicked-good rock climber. But he doesn’t go to church. He hasn’t since high school, a.k.a. the time we stopped forcing him to. Once he got in college, church went by the wayside.
This is a strangely difficult admission to publicize. When you work for an organization like Focus on the Family, your kids aren’t supposed to leave church. We publish reams of pamphlets specifically to keep that stuff from happening, right? We give lots of practical direction to help keep your kids thriving and in the faithful fold. Which just shows how horrible I am at following directions.
I always knew Colin would be a challenge. He’s a scientific dude, not prone to spiritual epiphanies. One night when he was six, and I was reading him the Creation story, he turned to me and said, “I don’t believe that.” The whole story seemed incredible to him—which, I told him, was part of the point: God can do pretty much anything He sets his mind to. It was the very first of dozens of conversations we’ve had about religion. When he’d come back from Sunday School or youth group, we’d talk. Sometimes I’d just watch his mind work and let him think.
If we’re honest with ourselves, I think most of us would admit that, while our God is never changing, our relationship with Him does. There are seasons we feel ourselves resting on the heel of His hand. There are seasons we struggle. And Colin, blessed with a sharp but-forever-challenging mind, has had and will have more seasons than most.
And, because he’s all grown up and I can’t really force him to go to church without things getting really awkward, I’m left to wonder what I could’ve done differently, and what I could still do.
It’s a hard place to be as a dad. Let’s admit it, a sad place. After all, we want our kids to be happy, and I believe God’s the key to that happiness. We want our kids to be loved, and God’s the source of it all. Colin hasn’t forsaken the faith, but I want it to be as important to him as it is to me. To see what I see in it. But it’s impossible to force someone to look through another someone’s eyes.
And so for now, I kinda think I just have to be patient. I want to be available for him to talk with, to hash out questions with. I pray that I won’t get defensive during these conversations, that I won’t take offense, and that I’ll be able to express, as clearly and persuasively as I can, the messy beauty of Christianity. I want my wife and I to always provide a safe port for our son to come home to—to show Christ’s love and grace and joy through what we say and how we act.
And we do the hardest thing of all: We wait. It’s all in God’s hands, after all, and His timing is not ours. He doesn’t dabble in statistics. For God, we are people, not statistics—tools for His divine work. He has plans for Colin, I know it. And perhaps someday, my boy will feel God in a light barely imagined, as if a gray film was lifted from his eyes and he saw color for the first time.
Hey, it happened for me. Why not him?