I hope this isn’t true for you, but for many, it’s a reality: 

Sunday after Sunday, parents across Canada feel the anguish of sitting in church alongside an empty seat – the place where their teen once sat, worshipping with them. And there are a lot of those now-empty seats.

According to a 2011 study commissioned by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, half of Canadian young adults (ages 18-34) who were raised in Evangelical Protestant churches no longer attend church regularly. Two-thirds continue to self-identify as Christian, even though a big chunk of those are now church no-shows.1

That leaves a lot of parents wondering, Which group does my no-longer-in-church child fall into? Is he or she merely disinterested in traditional church, or are they seriously struggling to hold on to faith?

Parents are worried, yet they’re reluctant to pose the question to their young adult. There are a number of reasons for that reluctance, say religion and culture experts Alex McFarland and Jason Jimenez, authors of Abandoned Faith.2

Parents assume it’s too late to influence their now-adult child. Or parents are intimidated; they’re afraid they can’t match their child intellectually in debating God’s existence. Some parents hesitate to demand time from kids who already have a packed schedule. There are solid reasons, however, why you shouldn’t hold back. You have more clout than you might think.

Millennials want close relationships with their parents – and need their support too

Unlike our generation, who tended to see our parents as authority figures, Millennials see parents as friends, helpers and cheerleaders. They’re more than just open to hearing their parents’ advice and encouragement: they crave it.

Take, for example, Bring Your Parents to Work Day. Launched by LinkedIn in 2013, this initiative is already hosted in 80 companies across 18 countries, and has been heartily embraced by Millennials as a way to encourage parents to keep sharing their advice and life experience. Millennials who participated in the program said that, even though their careers were well underway, they still felt mom and dad “stepped back too soon” from sharing their wisdom.3

Parents are far from irrelevant to their adult kids, say McFarland and Jimenez. Their kids need them. Seen as a whole, Millennials can appear resilient: they’re highly educated, tech savvy and seem poised for impressive careers. But parents need to remember that Millennials are also highly stressed, in part because they can’t find entry points for those careers. In Canada in 2014, one third of 30- to 33-year-olds, and 73 per cent of 25- to 29-year olds, had not been able to find full-time work in their field.4

A youth’s need for a parent’s influence deepens the longer they live, says McFarland. “You get out there in the crucible of life and you’ve got all of these responsibilities and stresses, and I’ve heard so many late-20s saying, ‘I wish I could have one more conversation with my dad.’ ”

Take advantage of that desire for guidance, McFarland tells parents. “On spiritual and moral and life decisions, mom and dad have the most clout of any voice in the life of their young person. They really do. . . . I believe – and this is designed by God – that influence . . . that a parent can have, it does remain, and we need to leverage that.”

Issues parents need to be ready for 

Pew Research once dubbed Millennials “the least overtly religious American generation in modern times.”5 Yet Millennials are still searching for God. “They are very spiritual,” says Jimenez, “but they are misguided.”

When Millennials who were raised in church are asked why they now struggle in their faith, they give many reasons. There are, however, some common themes that emerge. David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, laid out some of these themes in his book You Lost Me.6

If your own child seems only lukewarm in their faith, it’s important to get to the heart of the specific issues they’re struggling with. Here are four common issues – among others that Kinnaman identified – that you may need to be ready to address.

1. Millennials are looking for a real experience of God

Millennials have a “prove it to me” mindset. In their spiritual life, that often translates into an expectation that God will reveal Himself to them unequivocally and on their terms. Relying on God’s promises alone isn’t enough.

What’s striking about the EFC study is that church attendance by young adults exactly mirrored the degree to which they had encountered God tangibly. Although they struggled to describe what the experience was like, nearly all the young adults who continued to attend church said they’d experienced God’s love for them personally. They claimed they’d felt Him.

Heartbreaking to read, in the EFC study, are comments from other young adults who felt they’d pursued God, but never found Him. Others rejected God when He did not answer fervent prayer for themselves or loved ones.

“Unfortunately,” write the study authors, “many believe that only two options exist when God does not answer their prayers in the way they expect. Either God exists and doesn’t care for them, or God does not exist at all.” Both options bring bitter disappointment and pain. “In many cases, in the absence of other explanations, young adults choose to stop the pain by deciding God does not exist.”

That’s an important message for parents to grasp and consider how to address. On the surface, your young adult may project aloof indifference to God, but underneath they may harbour deep disappointment, or even the belief that God exists, but has rejected them specifically.

2. Millennials expect believers to make a difference in their community

Millennials are highly altruistic. They are concerned about social causes and strongly motivated to help others in need. In Canada, a 2016 study by the Environics Institute found that one in four Millennials interviewed had been actively engaged in a cause or issue in the past year, mostly involving social justice, the environment, politics or health care.7

Today’s emerging adults disdain churches that appear too self-absorbed, or too afraid of the outside world to get out there and set about making it better. If your Millennial is not plugged into a faith community, they may need help to find a new church living out a vibrant sense of community engagement. Look for non-traditional, ambitious outreaches – or a church that’s willing to try something startlingly different. “Edgy” appeals to Millennials. “Many desire to take on truly great challenges to make a difference. They want to be heroic,” says Jimenez.8

Don’t be shy, either, about talking about the “good works” you are doing, both large and small. It speaks to your young adult about the authenticity of your faith.

3. Millennials need their doubts addressed

“A lot of the [Millennials] that grew up in the church – when you talk about the ones who abandon the faith later on in life – they had a lot of doubts early on and did not feel safe expressing those doubts,” says Jimenez.

Parents can’t assume that just because apologetics wasn’t necessary for them – because they were able to take everything on faith – that their kids will be able to take everything on faith too. Apologetics is important for Millennials. Today’s young people are seeking answers to big questions, and we need to have those answers ready.

“Don’t make excuses,” McFarland tells parents. “Be able to answer the questions that your sons and daughters might have about the objections they’ve heard out in the world or out on the campus.”

You needn’t wait for issues to come up. You can casually drop ideas into your conversation too with comments like, “I was reading recently about how the Bible was put together . . .”

View some of our apologetics resources
Mere Christianity audio download

4. Millennials struggle with conflicting views of sexuality

For Millennials raised in the church, their natural temptation to explore their sexuality leads to intense conflict between their personal values. On the one hand, Millennials highly value authenticity (the antithesis of hypocrisy) and the freedom to decide for themselves what’s right. Both are cultural norms strongly championed by our sexually permissive society. On the other hand, however, Millennials also highly value their relationship with God, and their relationship with their parents. 

If they become sexually active – and some American studies suggest as many as half of Christian young adults are – a sense of personal hypocrisy makes it difficult to for them to remain in the church, or even in the faith. 

Parents shouldn’t assume either choice, sexual purity or “sleeping over,” are easy choices for their young adult. If your son or daughter has abandoned their commitment to sexual purity, it’s a moment to carefully consider your next steps, because the possibility of more loss hangs in the balance. 

Here’s what I mean by that: sometimes young adults see their sexual activity as a “deal breaker.” They’re so certain that God is going to reject them, they reject Him first. They’re so certain their parents are going to reject them, they push their parents away first, opting for a more distant relationship. 

When that happens, parents need to work hard to break through those false assumptions – to reassure that their love, and God’s love too, is unfaltering. Parents need to stay close alongside, now more than ever, because sexual activity outside a committed relationship so often leads to heartache and emptiness. And many young adults, once they reach that place, are ready to reach again for Christ.

“God is moving on this Millennial generation,” says Jimenez. “They are talking about the Bible. We’re seeing this happen. And a lot of them are going back to their moms and dads and they’re wanting to have spiritual dialogue with them that they’ve never had before. So there is hope. So we are not to give up.”

1. James Penner, Rachael Harder, Erika Anderson, Bruno Désorcy and Rick Hiemstra, Hemorrhaging Faith: Why and When Canadian Young Adults Are Leaving, Staying and Returning to the Church. EFC Youth and Young Adult Ministry Roundtable, 2012.

2. Alex McFarland and Jason Jimenez quotes (unless noted otherwise) are from the Focus on the Family broadcast, “Helping Your Millennial Child Reconnect With God.” Click here to hear the broadcast.

3. Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz, “Bring Your Parents to the Office. No, Really,” Chicago Tribune, November 4, 2015. Last accessed April 12, 2017. http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/ct-take-parents-to-work-1105-biz-20151104-story.html

4. Rob Carrick, “Gen Y’s Lack of Financial Independence Is Striking,” The Globe and Mail, May 26, 2014. Last accessed April 12, 2017. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-investor/personal-finance/household-finances/gen-ys-disconnect-with-reality-and-financial-independence/article18856295/ 

5. Millennials: Confident. Connected. Open to Change, Pew Research Center, February 2010.

6. David Kinnaman, You Lost Me. Baker Books, 2011.

7. Canadian Millennials Social Values Study, The Environics Institute, February 2017.

8. Jason Jimenez, quoted from Alex McFarland and Jason Jimenez, Abandoned Faith. Focus on the Family, 2017.


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Related reading:

Catherine Wilson is an associate editor at Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2017 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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