Leading Them Back to Christ
About the Guest
There's no greater sorrow than to watch a child walk away from the faith. Drew Dyck and Rob Rienow give helpful advice to parents of prodigals, encouraging them to keep the relational lines open between themselves and their child and to never stop believing in God and His faithfulness.
There’s no greater sorrow than to watch a child walk away from the faith.
Leading Them Back to Christ
Bob: Author and researcher Drew Dyck says that if you have a son or a daughter who is in their early 20s—they’re not interested anymore in spiritual things, not going to church—there is still reason for hope.
Drew: When I was doing these interviews with people who had walked away from the faith, something really surprised me. My wife actually suggested that I start asking a kind of an absurd question, at least it seemed absurd. She said, “Ask them if they ever still pray.” Almost to a person, they admitted—maybe in hard times, in times of doubt about their doubt, they broke down and would utter a prayer.
What it showed me is that there were spiritual signs of life. That was heartening, really, to see that God was at work in their hearts.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, November 2nd. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. We’re going to talk today about what we can do to help nurture some of the spiritual signs of life that we see in the young people who don’t seem interested in church anymore. Stay tuned.
Welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. As we have been talking this week about young people growing up and wandering or abandoning the faith, I’ve often wondered, “If we can just get them married, and get them to have kids, won’t that fix everything?”
Lots of times you watch these young people who have wandered away, well, by the time they start facing marriage or parenting, they start to realign. Do you think that’s the solution? Just get them married and get them to have kids, and we’ll be okay?
Dennis: Well, it isn’t that simple. I’m thinking back to a passage of Scripture that I’ve mentioned many times here on FamilyLife Today, Third John 4, “I have no greater joy than this than to know that my children are walking in the truth.” When they do have their own children, all of a sudden that question, “What are my kids going to believe? What will they embrace?”
Bob: “What direction am I going to point them in?”
Dennis: Right. “What’s the worldview? What’s the basis?” So, you look around and you go, “Do I want them to go to secular humanists or study humanism as a basis for their faith? Do I want them to go to a cult; or would I like them to, perhaps, go back to the Christian community, the church, and study the Bible—see what it has to say?”
Well, we have a couple of guests here, Drew Dyck and Rob Rienow, who have made some significant contributions to this area. Rob, Drew, welcome back to the broadcast.
Drew: Thank you.
Rob: Thank you so much.
Dennis: Drew is a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary. I’ll forgive him for that, as a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary. (Laughter) He is a managing editor at CT, Christianity Today, for leadership journal. He and his wife Grace live near Chicago. He is the author of a book called Generation Ex-Christian.
Rob Rienow, along with his wife Amy, are founders of Visionary Parenting—just started that this past February. They’ve been married since 1994. They have their own vision for parenting with six children and live near Chicago. He is the author of When They Turn Away.
Rob, I want to ask you about a couple that you write about in the book. Bob talked about children wandering away from the faith, drifting away from the faith. You use an illustration of a couple that you call Michael and Jenny who couldn’t have children. They ultimately had to adopt to have children. Their forever-ever-after, happy story didn’t turn out quite as happy as they wished it would; did it?
Rob: No. For couples that struggle with infertility, and the desire to have children, and for whatever reason the Lord closes that door, it is an excruciating process. So, thank God for adoption. Thank God for foster care and all these different ways that God lets Christians care for little ones.
This particular couple went that route of adoption, and God blessed them with a couple of children. As time went on, things got darker, and darker, and darker. As their son wentin to the teen years—didn’t just hit kind of your normal rebellion (if you want to call it normal, I don’t even like to use that term). Got involved into some dangerous things with drugs, dangerous things with violence, and then, ended up in prison due to some sexual crimes with a minor.
You talk about dreams of parenthood getting shattered. You wait so long for this opportunity; and, now, you have a child that has been convicted of sexual crimes and in prison. The amount of crying themselves to sleep over the years during that whole saga was just unbelievable. They never gave up this vision and calling that they knew that God had brought them into this young man’s life in order to be a blessing to him, in order to ultimately point him toward Christ.
From prison, then, the time comes where he starts to turn his heart back to home, starts to turn his heart back to his parents. His parents start writing these letters of encouragement, these letters of blessing. “There is hope for you. We love you. There’s hope because Jesus really did die on the cross and really did rise again from the dead.” He comes to Christ in prison; and, now, has paid his debt and is beginning to walk with Christ.
Some of these stories take a long, long time. These stories of redemption—we wish they were quick and there was a magic formula: “You do one, two, three, four; and everything is going to work out great;” but some of these journeys that God has us on are long marathons.
Dennis: You told us before we came into the studio that you and your wife are holding conferences for empty nesters; and that you’re seeing a growing number of adult parents, whose children are out of the house, who are experiencing the heartache of a child who has left the faith.
Rob: A few moments ago, you shared that Third John 4 Scripture that, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking with the truth.” I think the opposite is true. No greater sorrow for a Christian man or woman when one of our own children is far from God. The statistics on this are just awful. Somewhere, depending on the study you look at, 60-80 percent of kids growing up in our churches today are leaving the faith.
A lot of times, we just sort of focus on those statistics—we focus on the young adults; but the truth is for the vast majority of them—those prodigal children have parents in the church. Sometimes, we might even go in and say, “You know, were losing 75 percent of kids to the world.” You don’t understand that you’re talking to people, and that is their greatest source of pain in the whole world.
In our ministry, we’ve found in our research in churches, that two out of three of our empty nest parents in our Christian churches have at least one child who is far from God. I think it is so painful that hardly anybody talks about it. You get a prayer request here and there, “Pray for my son’s job; he’s struggling. Pray for my daughters marriage; she’s hurting.” Rarely, do you get the prayer request, “My son’s not saved; pray for his salvation,” because that’s too hard. It hurts too much.
So, as we, then, are going in and saying, “Look, you’re not alone. It’s never too late for God to use you to bless your adult children and point them toward Christ.” The response that we are seeing is overwhelming.
Bob: Drew, you may be aware of this. We did an interview a number of years ago with John Piper. He was telling us about one of his kids who had wandered during his college years. I’ll never forget Dr. Piper saying that he wrote an email or a letter to his son everyday during that period of time and just loved on him. By the grace of God, the prodigal came home at one point.
I thought that had to be a hard season—not just because his son was away—but just to get up the—just to come to the typewriter every day and say, “Son, love you; thinking about you; praying for you. Here is what’s going on in our heart.” There had to be days where he thought, “This is worthless. This isn’t making any difference. I’m probably—” He got no response from his son during this time, but he just kept faithfully reaching out.
Drew: Yes. When it comes to this topic, because hopelessness is such a big problem, I really encourage parents to take the long view. It isn’t a sprint. It is a marathon. That is not to say that the problem isn’t urgent or important; but you really need to keep faith. How many stories have we heard of the faithful parent or grandparent that prayed for years, even decades, only to see this stubborn person finally come back to Christ? We’ve all been blessed by those stories.
Yes. Don’t give up. You can’t overstate the importance of prayer on this topic. Ultimately, it’s God working in their hearts that does it. I’m convinced we can give our loved ones who have strayed no greater gift than spending time on our knees in the presence of God on their behalf.
When I was doing these interviews with people who had walked away from the faith, something really surprised me. My wife actually suggested that I start asking a kind of absurd question, at least it seemed absurd. She said, “Ask them if they ever still pray.” We’re talking about people who had left, very bitter against their faith, against their parents, against the church—some even self-described atheists.
Almost to a person, they admitted maybe in hard times, in times of doubt about their doubt, they broke down and would utter a prayer. I asked them, “What do those prayers sound like?” That’s when they spill out these honest, desperate, angry prayers, “God, where are You? Have You abandoned me? Do You exist? Do You care?”
What it showed me—because it was pretty discouraging hearing story after story of these kids leaving the faith, leaving the church—what it showed me is that there were spiritual signs of life. That was heartening, really, to see that God was at work in their hearts, even when they seem so far from God. It takes the pressure, I think, off us, too. Yes, we have to be proactive. We have to reach out to them, but all of our efforts are merely getting behind what God is already doing in their lives. God is at work. Don’t give up. Don’t give up. Keep pushing.
Dennis: Having been there with one of our children who did not do well for a number of seasons, hopelessness is a great term. It’s interesting, as a parent, all the emotions you go through. You move internally looking at the mistakes you’ve made, questioning what you didn’t do right, what you did wrong, what the “could-a, should-a, ought-a, would-a,” all the questions. Yet, that is a futile exercise.
Rob, in your book, you talk about how you found two types of parents—one who took 100 percent responsibility for their children’s response and loss of faith, and the other who took no responsibility at all. Explain what you found as you’ve talked to those of us as parents who have experienced a child who has left the faith for a period of time.
Rob: Well, you talk to a lot of moms and dads, like you said, in that first category, who are just beating themselves up. They wallow in every mistake they ever made. They replay the tapes over and over again, “If only, if only, if only, if only.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with taking stock of the past, identifying, “Here’s some things I did wrong. Lord, I repent.” You know? Nothing wrong with that.
I kind of use the analogy of, “Look, if you’re pulling out onto the highway, you’re going to take a glance in the rearview mirror; but not much more than a glance because if you are staring in the rearview mirror while you’re pulling into traffic, that’s not—you’ve got to have your eyes forward.”
The end result of that sort of wallowing in the past, the Enemy uses that to just pile on the guilt. That guilt, then, leads you to passivity. As a result, those parents that are overwhelmed with the past, they are not doing anything now to reach out to their child because they are living with the wallow of the past.
Now, on the other side, again, I talk to a lot of folks, not trying to be critical, but they have the attitude of, “You know what? Kids are going to make their choices. We did the best we could. We raised them in a good environment, and I don’t bear any responsibility whatsoever for the way my kid turned out.”
You want to be gentle in how you encourage folks like that. The idea there is that faithfulness and parenting has absolutely no correlation to how our children turn out, and I don’t buy that. You do see that in the Bible these principles—we reap what we sow, and generational patterns, and things like that; but are we completely responsible for how our kids turn out? Of course not.
Matter of fact, Ezekiel 18—it’s this whole chapter on—just because the father is a godly person, does not mean the son is going to be a godly person. Just because the son is a godly person, doesn’t mean the father is going to be a godly person. In other words, at the end of the day, God does deal with us as individuals.
Dennis: And at the end of the day, our children have to grow up and have their own faith. They have to make their own choices.
Rob: That’s right.
Dennis: Some of the ways their going to learn to have faith and make right choices is by making wrong ones.
Bob: You will see this same mom and dad raise six kids, and one of them will spin out.
Bob: The other five are doing fine. At some level, you got to say the incubator—all the ingredients in the incubator were the same—that child responded differently, or mom and dad didn’t engage with that child according to their bent, or something went wrong there; right?
Rob: Well, I think I’m on a minority position on the, “incubator was the same.” I think every child is born into a different family. What I mean by that is that the parents have changed and grown from the time the first child was present or whatever.
Dennis: No doubt about it.
Rob: One child has siblings; the others don’t. It’s not that it’s radically different, but it sure has changed. So, I parent my one-year-old and my three-year-old very differently than I parented my 13-year-old and 11-year-old when they were one and three because of how I’ve changed and grown over the years.
I think, what you are saying, I completely agree with that. At the end of the day, children are going to choose whether they are going to embrace their parents’ faith or not.
I don’t like this term, “Make their faith their own.” People use that all the time, where they have to choose faith for themselves. As if they are choosing—“Well, my parents were going this way. I’m making my faith my own, and I’m going this way.” I want my children to receive the faith that I’m passing down to them. I want them to not do it exactly like me (that’s not what I mean), but I want them to take what I’m giving them and love God more than Dad.
I want them to take everything Dad knows about the Bible and believe it more and know it more. I want them to take the Gospel further than me. I’m not looking for them to chart their own course. I didn’t chart my own course. I received the faith as it was passed down to me. So, I think even that term of, “Make their faith their own,” implies this fresh direction.
Bob: We talk about it in terms of making it a spiritual hand-off—
Bob: —like a relay race. At some point, they do have to reach out and say, “I’m going to grab that baton—”
Bob: “—and I’m going to run with it.” So, it’s not that they are inventing their own faith—
Rob: It’s not a new baton.
Rob: It’s the baton that was passed to us, and we’ve bumbled and stumbled with it. Now, we want to pass it to them and ask them to bumble and stumble less than we did. (Laughter)
Dennis: Right. One of the things both of you write about in your books—I’d just like to take a few minutes here, just get your best coaching and advice for parents, for grandparents, on how to respond to someone who has “left the faith,” “drifted away,” is “a prodigal.” How do we best respond to them as they are going through this season, or in some cases decades, of wandering away from God?
Drew: Well, the first thing I’d advise, is make sure that that relationship stays healthy—that the lines of communication are open. Sometimes, we can overreact and cause this person to push us away. When that happens, then, we are deprived of future opportunities to speak into their life.
There will be those moments down the road—those moments of heightened receptivity, where they, maybe, hit a low point or something changes in their life—and they’ll want to have that spiritual conversation—then, just making those gentle, persistent in-roads into their life.
Rob: One of the things I’m convinced of is that—in the Bible, as it gives instructions to parents, that those instructions don’t expire when your kids leave the home. The principles that we find there, even though they are not magic formulas—it’s not, “One, two, three, four, do this, and everything is going to work,”—but there are principles that, no matter what stage of life you’re in, that you can apply.
The four that we walk through with parents—I’ll do them briefly. The first one is offer your heart to the Lord. In Deuteronomy 6, we find the great commandment, where it is, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength. These commands I give you are to be upon your hearts.” After all of that, comes the command, “impress them on your children.”
Another biblical principle is from Malachi 4 and Luke 1 of turning your heart to your child. This is a very powerful principle of basically asking God to make it the mission and passion of your life to help your children get safely home to heaven. I think there are some barriers there that parents face.
I would encourage you—a lot of you may be in this situation, where your children have done things that have deeply hurt you. As a result of that hurt (we don’t like to admit it), you actually have a lot of bitterness and anger toward your own children because of the choices they have made. Maybe they’ve said horrific things to you.
I remember telling my mother I hated her once in a moment of anger. I was able to ask for forgiveness for that, and we worked through it. What a horrible thing for a parent to have to hear from a child.
The Enemy wants to use the hurt that you’ve experienced from your child to get you bitter. If you are bitter and angry toward your child, that’s going to be a ball and chain around your ability to reach them for Christ. So, if there is baggage there, you need to ask God to give you the grace to forgive them, to work through that.
The third principle is drawing your child’s heart to yours. That comes from
Proverbs 23:26, “My son, give me your heart.” Now, in Christian life, we usually talk about giving your heart to Jesus. I don’t mean to trample on that sacred phrase, but you won’t find that in the Bible anywhere. People use that phrase to mean, “Trust Christ,” or, “Give your heart to Christ,” (I understand that).
In the Bible, you find this phrase that God wants children to give their hearts to their parents. God wants children and parents to have a heart connection with one another. This is what Drew has been talking about—of restoring your relationship with your child—is the precursor to having spiritual influence with them.
So, seeking to understand where they are at, communicating respect for where they are, communicating to them that they are allowed to disagree with you, they are allowed to have a different life. They are allowed that you’re going to love them no matter what. “There is nothing you can do that’s going to make me love you any less. There is nothing you can do to make me love you any more.” Children need to hear those things.
Then, the fourth principle—so, it’s offer your heart to the Lord; turn your heart to your child; draw your child’s heart to yours—then, finally, point your child’s heart to Christ. On that one, I just encourage you, “Do not be ashamed of the Gospel.” The Bible says in Romans that the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes.
It’s worth the risk. Your child’s soul is worth the risk. It’s worth the risk of all these awkward conversations. It’s worth the risk of rejection. It’s worth the risk of getting hurt again as you try to reach out to your child because their soul is worth it.
Dennis: You’ve both said it in different ways, but all roads lead back home to the mom and dad or the single parent who is raising the next generation. In the imperfect condition of your family, you still have the responsibility to open the Book, teach the Book to your children, and live the Book out in front of your children.
Then, importantly, pray and go before the Lord God Almighty when your child begins to drift or if they wander away from the faith. Ask God for favor. Ask God to protect that little one’s soul, their steps. Beseech God to go ahead of you and surround those children as they grow up with the right kinds of influences, that they’ll encounter others who call them to step up in their faith for Christ when you’re not there because you can’t always be there.
I just want to say, “Thanks,” to both of you for your books. I think they are going to be used by God to encourage a lot of people to better understand what’s happening to a generation who is leaving the faith. Also—I think most importantly—assume their responsibility as parents and grandparents in the lives of the next generation. Thank you, guys.
Bob: One of the things I think our listeners are going to appreciate about the books that you guys have written is that you don’t just offer an analysis or diagnosis of what’s going on in the culture, but you really do give us some very practical wisdom to help us understand what we can do preventively as our children are growing.
Then, also, help us understand how we interact with young people who have kind of said, “That’s not for me anymore.”” How do we have conversations with those folks, and how do we represent Christ in that setting?
I want to encourage our listeners to get copies of both of your books. Drew has written the book, Generation Ex-Christian. Rob has written a book called When They Turn Away. We’ve got both of those books in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com for more information about how you can order either or both of those books.
You can order from us online if you’d like. Again, that’s FamilyLifeToday.com; or call toll-free. The number is 1-800-FLTODAY. That’s 1-800-358-6329; 1-800 “F” as in family, “L” as in life, and, then, the word, “TODAY”. Get in touch with us. Let us know which of those books you’d like, and we’ll get them out to you.
I had the opportunity, recently, to be with some of our listeners. I was travelling, actually, on the west coast. It was in San Diego and, then, in Seattle—met with pastors and, then, with a number of our radio listeners. It is always encouraging for me to hear from folks about how God is using the ministry of FamilyLife Today in their own lives.
Particularly, encouraging to hear pastors who talk about how they’re grateful for this program or how they’ve partnered with FamilyLife in helping to maybe host an Art of Marriage® event at their church, or to take a group of folks from their church to a Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway, or use our Homebuilder® studies. We really do hope that what we’re doing here at FamilyLife can help strengthen and support the local church.
I know from time to time you’ll hear us talk about our financial needs here on FamilyLife. I want to make sure you understand that we believe that your first priority, when it comes to giving, ought to be your local church. That’s the first place that you ought to be considering as you make financial contributions or gifts. As you are able, beyond that, to help support the ministry of FamilyLife Today, we so much appreciate it.
In fact, this month, we’d like to send you a thank-you gift for your financial support. It is a copy of a book Barbara Rainey has written—a devotional guide for families called Growing Together in Gratitude. Barbara recounts seven stories in this book that are designed to be read aloud to families at the dinner hour or in family devotions. All of these stories reminding us of how we can cultivate a heart of gratitude and why we ought to be thankful, as followers of Christ.
Along with the book, we will send two Thanksgiving prayer cards to you. Again, we are so appreciative of your financial support of this ministry. Thanks for listening and thanks for donating to keep FamilyLife Today on this station and our network of stations all across the country.
We want to encourage you to be back with us tomorrow. John Fuller, who is the co-host of Focus on the Family, is going to be here. We’re going to talk about the experience of being a first-time dad. John has just written a new book on that subject. It’ll be a treat to have him here with us. Hope you can be back as well.
I want to thank our engineer today—his name is Keith Lynch—and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.
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