How Not to Raise Atheist or Prodigal Children

The key is accepting God’s grace for yourself and then demonstrating grace to your children !

This is a very difficult topic. Many loving Christian parents are suffering broken hearts and sleepless nights because their adult children are not walking with the Lord in faith and life. While no parent can force a child to accept Jesus, when we older parents look back with hindsight, often while lying awake at 2 AM, , we can often see ways that we could have done better. I’m not here to shame or blame anyone who has made mistakes , I want to offer guidance to younger parents. Thankfully our children are believers, but we made a lot of mistakes! So here are some intentional practices that may prevent heartache later. And remember, it’s never too late. Keep praying. God loves your children!

The number one way to raise atheists is to be a hypocritical or double minded Christian. Examine yourself honestly. How does your faith impact your financial decisions and career choices and social life? How do you talk to your friends on the phone when your kids are in the room? What movies do you watch? Are you kind to strangers? Do you argue or disrespect your spouse or parents? Do you complain or are you grateful? Are you fearful or faithful? Are you more concerned about God’s will or keeping up with the latest fads? What personal struggles are weakening your faith? How do you react to trials and temptations? Life is not always easy or predictable. How do you spend your free time? These things reflect the true state of your heart and whether you really believe God is real and active in your life.

Note that unless you are humbly submitting yourself to God, you are not going to be able to live the way Jesus wants you to live. God changes us through His supernatural power.

1. Know what you believe and why you want to share it with your children. This seems obvious but many young parents really don’t have a solid understanding of the gospel and the Bible. So you may have to build your own faith and grow with your children. And that’s okay! Be humble about this. Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know, but let’s find out together!”. You don’t need to present yourself as an expert. They naturally think you’re the smartest person in their lives. Instead, help them see that you are still learning and do make mistakes and how to handle it. Let your children see your dependence on a living and growing relationship with Jesus. They will respect you much more money if you are honest and humble. But be as diligent about studying and seeking wisdom so you can help your children learn as you would be about learning how to do your job. Take this very seriously!

2. Beware the common practice of leaving Jesus at the church. True Christian life is a 24/7 way of making decisions, setting goals, relating to people, choosing how to spend money and time, etc etc. . Being a Christian means we belong to Jesus now, not the world. It should be obvious that we have been changed when we believed in Jesus. We cannot separate our faith from our actual life. This is the most dangerous and common way to raise atheists and prodigals because children are experts at spotting hypocrisy. If you say one thing in church and do another at home and work and with your friends, kids learn that faith doesn’t really mean very much to you. It’s very confusing.

3. Demonstrate your faith during difficult times. In this very judgmental culture, Christians are put in the spotlight, even with our own children, especially once they hit the teenage years of questioning and seeing their parents as fallible humans for the first time. But this age can be very stressful for them and they desperately need to know that Jesus is real, so your Christian walk matters even more as they get older. Unfortunately, due to the way popular culture and social media and even school purposely draws teens away from adults , they will be spending less time with you in these very vulnerable years. So your example and brief moments together become even more critical. Yet this often coincides with a difficult stage of life for parents as life is changing for us as well when our kids are getting older. During all of these normal life stresses and changes, we need to model how we are praying and trusting God to help us cope with peace and hope even in uncertain situations. This example can leave a lasting impact on your children.

4. Beware of teaching legalism, rather than grace. This one is so important. Before you can get it right, you have to make sure you understand the difference between being saved by grace versus by your own good behavior. If you’re trying to “be good” so God will love you or not punish you, that’s legalism. Grace is a free gift that we cannot earn or buy. Grace is being forgiven and redeemed while we are still sinners. After forgiveness, God begins to change us as we submit to His authority over our daily lives, thoughts, and relationships. Grace offers true freedom, while legalism keeps us anxious and can make us prideful and critical of others that we don’t think are as “holy” as we are. Legalism makes us into judges, something Jesus said not to do. Being legalistic is almost a guaranteed way to push your children away from God.

5. Become an active and intimate member of the church you attend. Simply visiting church is not the same as being part of the body of Christ. To truly grow and flourish and serve, you need to join a group of other believers. This can be difficult if you aren’t truly submitted to following Jesus. All kinds of excuses will present themselves for why you don’t really need to go to church or participate in church life. And even if you do some activities, there’s a risk of not being connected to your fellow believers. If you have some emotional walls, insecurities, or pride, you can unintentionally set yourself apart from others even in a group. This is why self-awareness and humbly asking God to reveal your true motives and thoughts is so important. Humans are experts at lying to ourselves and making excuses for our own actions. It is truly miraculous how God is able to change our hearts! But when He does, you now have a powerful testimony and memory that can help you in difficult times. If you have been a Christian for a long time but feel like your faith is weak, it may be that you are holding something back from God. This can hinder your relationships with other Christians.

7. Discipleship matters. So as you can see, raising Christian children is often more about modeling your own Christian walk than building theirs. But there are some habits that are important for them. Take them to church. Talk to them about God often. Pray with them. Let them see you spending time reading the Bible on your own. Tell them how your faith in Jesus helps you in daily life. Don’t keep it to yourself. Ask them what they think about Jesus and let them tell you so you can see if they’re confused. Help them share their chore money with the church. Teach them to memorize Bible verses, but be sure this is connected to an overall understanding of the gospel of grace. Be sure they understand why you want them to know Jesus. Be careful how you speak around them, using words that show you believe God and Jesus are real, they care , and they’re helping you. Ask them , what do you think Jesus would want us to do about this? Train them to think like a disciple. Model the behavior that you want them to adopt. This means you have to give up your own bad habits because children naturally pick those up easier than good habits.

Take it one day at a time , but be intentional. Let God guide you by the Spirit. May God bless you.

You may also want to listen to the podcast in this post.

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4 comments

  1. If I may add one more …
    Even if you are doing all these things, know that your children may still walk away. The Lord has given them their own will and mind. Constantly asking what you did wrong is a waste if emotional energy. Instead, assume that child has such huge potential that the enemy is firing back with his strongest weapons. Just know that God’s weapons are stronger and fire back! As you say, Paula, parents should never stop praying. Consider what Franklin Graham has accomplished after he went astray. (Yes, the son of Billy Graham went through a season of rebellion!)

    • Thank you, I heartily agree. Franklin Graham is a great example. Sometimes the most godly parents end up with the most rebellious children. I should have mentioned that children have to make the choice to follow Jesus. We can’t do it for them. And even those who accept Jesus as children can have ups and downs once they get out in the real world.

  2. I think it’s also important to not hide your own struggles with faith. It’s not easy to believe when things get difficult. They need to see that. Don’t pretend everything’s a breeze, in other words. I believe the same about marriages. No, I don’t believe it’s healthy for kids to witness constant fighting, but my parents’ generation liked to take that all behind closed doors. There has to be some openness or kids will grow up and wonder why they struggle with having faith or a good marriage when their parents clearly never did.

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