Pastor John and I recorded a handful of episodes live and in person in Nashville this summer. And we ended our live recording session with an audience question about parenting non-Christian teenagers. Here’s the question and Pastor John’s response.
“We’ve got some really important, valuable emails from people in this room who are parenting non-Christian teenagers, teenagers who have not made a profession of faith. A number of questions have to do with enforcing church attendance. We heard from a woman named Angela who grew up going to Roman Catholic mass every Sunday. Her dad made her go. She started to resent Christianity. She later came to the faith, married a godly man, and is now involved in a wonderful church. But she looks back on that and wonders, as you’re parenting teens — especially in the mid- to late-teen years, and they have made no profession of faith, and don’t have any interest in the gospel or church — how much do you enforce church attendance? Where do you draw that line between expecting them to attend a church meeting on Sundays and being patient with them and not making Christianity come across as though it’s something being enforced upon them?”
Parent from the Womb
I can’t just jump in to 16-year-old, 17-year-old behavior without backing up a little bit. And I know that’s not the question being asked, but let me just say: We’re not God, and we do not create our teenagers completely — but partly we do. We start rearing teenagers when they’re in the womb — how we pray for them in the womb. We affect the behavior of a teenager when they’re 2 years old.
I watch a lot of young parents today. They seem to believe you cannot control the behavior of a child, or that it’s wrong to. The child makes an absolute mess or chaos of every relationship, every dinner meeting, every grocery store, and the parent seems powerless. That’s not helpful for teenagers. It’s coming, you know, 12 or 13 years later.
A little child needs to feel profoundly secure; profoundly loved, cherished, enjoyed; and profoundly under authority. And those are not contradictory, and every child knows it. Children want boundaries and massive love inside the boundaries. And so, there’s the setup that I would love to see happen, so that even when, at 14 or 15 or 16, a child starts to question and says finally, on one scary, awful night, “Daddy, I don’t believe this anymore; don’t think I ever did,” the structure of parenting at that point is such that they may not be a wild-eyed rebel against the family, but almost a brokenhearted rebel against the family.
Maybe. I mean, it’s all a continuum, right? We’ve got kids who are just viciously opposed to Mom and Dad for whatever reason, and others who are compliant but unbelieving. And what you do on that continuum in the middle is really difficult.
You’ve got to avoid rage here, because I’ll tell you, everything in you will just collapse at that news. My child that I’ve invested in for 15 years has just told me that the most precious thing in my life is not precious to him. That’s just about as bad as it gets. That’s worse than death. It’s worse than death.
So they tell you, and you’ve got to avoid rage and dig in and try to draw out and listen with everything you’re worth, because stuff is going on that you don’t know. You do not know what’s going on in this kid. You don’t know what he heard at church. You don’t know what he heard at school. You don’t know how his friends are treating him. You don’t know anything because he hasn’t come forth, and you’ve got to patiently dig in, and then firmly resolve, “I’m going to love you no matter what. You’re my son, you’re my daughter, and I’m going to love you no matter what.”
Set Christian Standards
Then you say, “This is a Christian home. Mom and Dad set the tone here. Mom and Dad are the authority here, and this is a Christian home. We have Christian standards. We have Christian practices. While you’re part of this house, we don’t expect you to be fake. We’re not saying that the behavior we expect is a covering, a hypocritical covering for faith, so that you can look good to the world and make us look better. We want nothing to do with that kind of hypocrisy. We just want you to comply with these standards while you’re here. If by the time you’re ready to go, they’re not yours, we’re still going to love you. You’ll go and you’ll set your own pattern.”
And see what you can get. I mean, a kid who’s big and strong — I’m thinking boys now, because I had four boys and a girl — won’t go if he doesn’t want to go. He’ll just get in the car and drive away, or he’ll leave some other way. If they’re that rebellious, you can’t make them, but I think you should try. And you do it in a real, honest, face-to-face pleading. Give meaning to it:
Here’s what going to church would mean for you as an unbeliever with us on Sunday morning at age 15. Here’s what it would mean. It would mean “I respect my mom and dad. They brought me into this world. They invested in me for 15 years. They’re paying for my food and lodging. They’re probably going to help me go to college. I owe them some respect. They want me to go to church, then I’m going to go and sit there. And they know it doesn’t mean anything to me, and I know it doesn’t mean anything. And so does the pastor. And I’m there and the hope from my parents is that I’ll hear something that would lead me to Christ. My hope is that I can survive and get out of there as soon as possible.”
That’s the kind of negotiation you would do. But I will admit that there are going to be situations where you say to a 16-, 17-, 18-year-old son or daughter, “We do not have boyfriends or girlfriends over to sleep here in this house. We don’t do that. If you insist on that, you can’t live here.” So you will draw a line eventually.
God Has an Answer
But one of my pastoral strategies, and I’ve found it so helpful, is that people would come to me at the end of services with the most mind-boggling situations in life that I’d never even thought of, and I would generally see them conceiving of them in dualities: “This horrible thing or this glorious thing is going to happen. Help me decide how to navigate this.”
And I would say, “God is God, and he’s never shut into those two things. There’s always a third option.” I would say, “Let’s pray to see if something you’ve never even imagined could happen right here.” And we just pray together, because I didn’t have an answer for them. But God has an answer.