Today we are starting an important series to help parents understand how to talk to their kids about God in a way that will draw them to Him, rather than push them away.
(This series the Jesus Your Kids Will Follow is also available as a podcast click here to listen)
In my work with kids who have walked away from Christianity, I have very often had them tell me that it was their parents’ faith, not their own. At one large gathering of high school students in Texas, I directly asked how many of them felt that way, and more than three-quarters raised their hands. Obviously, it is much easier for kids to walk away from faith that is not truly their own. This is currently happening all too often, as the percentage of kids who report giving up faith in high school and college ranges from 70%-90%. Even with these sobering statistics, however, I believe there is reason to hope because the real Jesus of the Bible actually connects on a deeper level with the current generation of young people than was possible with previous generations.
The Values of This Young Generation
Let’s begin by looking at some characteristics of the younger generation. Starting with the Millenials and continuing with today’s youth, there has been a significant shift in values. Today’s young people are less concerned with right and wrong, facts, knowledge, and truth than were previous generations. Instead, they are much more concerned about caring for and accepting other people, no matter what their lifestyles may be. Today’s young people value community and authenticity. Because many of them have experienced the results of living dual lives themselves, hiding things from their parents, they don’t want others to have to hide aspects of their lives. The dual lives that many churched kids live has led to hurt and damaged relationships with their parents. Today’s generation empathizes with other people’s pain, partly because they carry the scars of painful relationships themselves.
The values of today’s young people can be troubling to more conservative-minded parents, who may end up reacting with alarm, Unfortunately, the conversations which follow can actually end up pushing kids even further away from the Lord. However, if instead of reacting with fear, we understand the potential benefit of our kids’ different values, we can instead have conversations that demonstrate how Jesus’s approach to others actually lines up with the values of today’s generation in many powerful ways.
The Compassionate Jesus of the Bible
The Jesus that kids will follow today is the actual Jesus of the Bible. Jesus loved with open arms; He didn’t allow people’s sin to push Him away. In fact, He was so loving, so caring, and so healing that people would seek Him out rather than hide things from Him. Sinners of all types would chase Jesus down to spend time with Him, not fearing that He would condemn or judge them harshly. This kind of generous, forgiving love is exactly what today’s youth and young adults want to see in the world. They want to see love like Jesus showed the woman caught in adultery, which refused to condemn her, but instead saved her life. They want to see love like Jesus showed to tax collectors, prostitutes, and the many others considered to be notorious sinners of His day.
Jesus said “This is my command: love one another. The one who loves lays down his life for his friends.” This definition of love will greatly impact our kids if we talk about it in real terms and live it out in our daily lives.
This is where it gets challenging for us as parents. We feel that it’s our job to protect our kids, and this can mean that we try to intervene when they’re hanging out with friends we find questionable. But this kind of attitude doesn’t look to them like that of the loving and accepting Jesus of the Bible. It is very understandable when parents try to put up roadblocks against relationships that seem risky or dangerous for their kids, but such attitudes often go against their kids’ strong natural desire to accept others, identify with their pain, and refrain from causing them more hurt or rejection. The danger is that our kids will assume that our attitude is the same as God’s, and rather than worshiping such a God, they will reject Him.
I can’t tell you how many times I have talked with parents and their teenaged or young adult children who were undergoing massive conflicts over their kids’ friendships. The parents struggle to believe that their kids could make good decisions and could withstand the negative peer pressure from these friends. In every single case, the kids began doubting God’s love and compassion and started walking away from faith. Their parents’ lack of trust in them made them feel unloved, and this feeling in turn actually led them to be more vulnerable to the negative influence of their friends than they would otherwise have been.
In contrast, the parents who themselves tend to live like Jesus, accepting, serving, and befriending people whose values and lifestyles are different than their own, are the parents who also extend trust to their kids. Their children in turn feel loved and accepted at home and are able to build healthy relationships with non-Christians while not compromising their own faith. These kids are stronger. They withstand temptation, not falling prey to bad influences, but instead serving as a positive influence on their non-Christian friends.
Our family experienced this dynamic at work when our oldest daughter, Heather, befriended a girl whose parents were not very involved in her life. Amy’s neediness came out in a wild streak, but that didn’t rub off on Heather. Instead Heather helped get Amy involved in youth group and with our family. We threw birthday parties for her and brought her along to Christian family camp. Rather than conforming to Amy, Heather was able to draw Amy to God and make a real difference in her life. Our son is currently dealing with friends who want him to help them hide their drug use from their parents. Instead of secretly going along with that, Paul told us what was going on. He brought the situation to us because he trusts us to help him make good decisions and care about his friends the way Jesus does.
Our children have been able to befriend some pretty wild kids but not fall under their influence because we’ve talked to them over the years about how Jesus treated others and loved them, modeling such compassion to His disciples, who didn’t always feel comfortable with this approach at first. Jesus talked to the Samaritan woman when the disciples wanted to send her away; He refused to support the stoning of the adulterous woman, but, while the disciples watched, He silenced her critics until they all departed. The disciples witnessed how Jesus showed compassion, healing and forgiveness to those in need of compassion. The disciples gradually learned to love as Jesus loved, and as a result of hearing about these things, our kids, too, can come to know and love the true Jesus and learn to step into their role as His modern-day disciples.
I would like to end with a story that happened when I worked with a troubled family at one of our family camps. At first the college-aged son felt very hesitant about meeting with me, as he had walked away from the faith almost as soon as he had left home for college. At the beginning of our six-hour session, he said that he didn’t want to talk about God. I honored his request but managed to help him open up about his negative core values and the resulting pain he had gone through. During our conversation he felt safe, heard and understood, and definitely not judged, which is why, despite his earlier request, he eventually began asking some very deep and challenging questions about God: “Is God cruel, or is He loving?” “Why would a loving God allow horrible things to happen?” etc.
As I began to answer these questions, I could see that his mind was churning. At one point he said, “You know, Jeff, the way you talk about God makes so much sense, and I think this is a God I may actually be able to follow.” At that point I decided to give him a Christian song, which related to the emotional healing he needed: “Tell Your Heart to Beat Again” by Danny Gokey. I explained to him that this is the theme song for Revive Family, and he immediately found it online.
The next morning I was really excited to find out if he had actually listened to the song. What I didn’t expect is that he had listened to it 20-30 times, while breaking down and crying. His heart had opened up, and he had begun to both grieve and pursue healing in his life. Later that day while we debriefed with his parents, he told them about some of the things he had gotten involved in at college – things that were very hard for him to admit to them. He told them, “The God Jeff follows is a God I think I can follow, but, Mom and Dad, I can’t follow your God.”
This statement hit those parents hard, and later in the evening they had a long conversation with me about it. It was clear that they believed in the same God I do, the God that their son felt he could follow, but they had not managed to communicate their faith to their son in a way that he could connect with. The good news is that they were open to changing their style of communicating their faith, and their son was on the road to healing and restoration.
Our kids’ generation values love, care, compassion, community, and the ability to be authentic and open. Jesus values these things, too, and when I talk about this Jesus to kids who have left or are considering leaving the church, I have seen their eyes light up and their hearts open up to this Jesus. If we as parents try so hard to protect and control our kids, instead of introducing them to this Jesus, we will cause them to be frustrated and hurt and distant from us, which will in turn, make them more vulnerable to negative influences in their lives. We must choose instead to live out the love of Jesus and talk to our kids about how Jesus took His disciples into tempting situations and showed them how to transform them with love and compassion.
Thank you for joining me for this series, “The Jesus Our Kids Will Follow.” There are five more sessions to come that will challenge us to live and love like Jesus so that our kids will see Jesus at work in our homes and will join with Him in the mission of loving the world with open arms. I hope that today’s session has been helpful to you, and I want to ask for your help as well. If you have comments or questions about this blog post or the overall series, or if you have specific challenges in the area of communicating God to your kids in a way they understand and get excited about, please email them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If I hear from you early enough in the series, I will be able to add some of your ideas into the radio and podcast series over the next five weeks. Eventually, I would like to turn these blogs and podcasts into a book, and your feedback would be invaluable for me as I begin the writing process.
Thank you so much and may God bless you.