"SEAN made a Christian commitment at a Crusader camp in his
early teens, and when he went off to study at Nottingham he
attended the Christian Union, at least for the first year," Rob,
who is married to Cathy, says. They have two children: Sarah, aged
35, a committed Christian and an active member of a pioneering
congregation in west London; and Sean, 33, who today describes
himself as an agnostic.
"Friendships and sport were very important to him, and
eventually he admitted that the CU people were 'boring' in
comparison with his other friends," Rob says. "At the same time,
the then pastor of the church he had been attending sporadically,
for whom he had a high regard, resigned suddenly in questionable
circumstances, and we believe that this may have had a significant
impact on Sean's view of the importance of faith in life. He soon
went on to let us know that he was no longer a believing
"When Sean and Sarah were young, we had regular family times
spent praying together and reading the Bible. We were members of a
lively church, with great children's and youth work, and we did our
best to encourage open discussion and questioning. Of course we
wish Sean had found faith for himself, as Sarah did, but there are
Rob and Cathy's experience is far from unique. Reliable
statistics are difficult to come by, since a person's faith is not
fixed and cannot be empirically measured, but, in 2005, a study
funded by the Economic and Social Research Council suggested that
half of children raised by two religious parents reject church as
adults; and research conducted by the Barna Group between 2007 and
2011 suggests that nearly three in five young Christians
disconnected permanently, or for an extended period of time, from
church life after the age of 15. To state the obvious, belief does
not pass through the placenta.
"Of course, your hope is that they'll want to go to church,"
Joanne, whose daughter Leah is an atheist, says, "but they have to
make up their own minds. We try to keep supporting her and loving
her no matter what, and we are genuinely proud of her - she has so
many qualities we can celebrate and affirm." Joanne's philosophical
approach seems to be rare. More common are feelings of fear, guilt,
and shame that can put family relationships under immense
MICHELLE OBAMA famously said that a mother is only ever as happy
as her saddest child. The ultimate goal of parenthood may well be
to launch independent adults into the world, but a parent's sense
of well-being will almost always be entwined with theirs, to some
degree. If someone walks away from the faith he or she was were
raised in, the ones who did the raising will inevitably be
Graham's son Ben recently told him he no longer considered
himself to be a Christian. Graham is still reeling: "My
overwhelming emotion is one of guilt. I keep going over the past,
over things I have said or things I have failed to do, and asking
myself 'What have I done wrong?'"
Other parents in the same situation say that they feel ashamed,
and wonder if their fellow Christians are judging them. Rachel's
son hasn't come to church with the rest of the family since he was
14 years of age. "When I look at other families with all their
children in the pew with them, the fact that Tom chooses not to
come with us makes me feel rubbish," she says. "Comments from other
parents make me feel like we've messed up in our parenting."
The chairman of the charity Care for the Family, Rob Parsons,
counsels against this in his book Bringing Home the
Prodigals (Hodder & Stoughton 2003): "So many parents are
carrying a heavy load of guilt they have no right to bear. That's
not to say they have been perfect parents. They have just been
parents - parents who have given this task their very best
When children do not identify themselves as Christians, among
the other emotions that this can produce in their parents is a
profound sense of rejection. "I know Elliott has rejected our
values and not us," Megan says, "but sometimes it feels as if the
two are intertwined; our faith is so much part of our
IN SOME instances, of course, there is a degree of rejection
involved. Children watch their parents and other Christians as they
grow up, and perhaps do not like what they see. "Based on outside
observations of Christians, there's no way I would want to become
one of them," Dan Kimball says in They Like Jesus But Not the
Church: Insights from emerging generations (Zondervan, 2007).
"I wouldn't want to become an angry, judgemental, right-wing,
finger-pointing person, [and] I wouldn't be saying that out of
rebellion against God or the Church."
But often, instead of rejecting their parents - or even God -
adolescents and young adults find that it is a particular Christian
sub-culture, or straitjacketed orthodoxy, that fails to fit their
sense of how the world works.
And, sometimes, the word "rejection" is itself an overstatement.
In Disappointed With Jesus? Why do so many young people give up
on God? (Monarch Books, 2010), Gavin Calver writes: "The young
person feels trapped [by religion, tradition, and church], but
their hope cannot be taken away. Hope that there's something else;
hope that within all the tradition, legalism, and hypocrisy that
they encounter within the Church perhaps there is some truth in the
Feelings of guilt, shame, and rejection are amplified by certain
underlying assumptions. Perhaps the chief of these is the belief
that Jesus is exclusively "the way, the truth, and the life". Many
Christian parents want their children to embrace what they see as
not just the only way to peace with God, but the only way to
fulfilment and a meaningful life.
Those who believe that anyone who does not follow Jesus will
endure eternal punishment are understandably even more anguished
about the faith choices of their children. Their certainty may set
an agenda that can threaten healthy family relationships.
Sally is not concerned about her sons' eternal destiny. "Neither
of my sons are churchgoers, and actually I am proud that I raised
sons who feel free to go their own way," she says. "When I see
grown families all sitting there together in a service, it makes me
wonder what manipulation has gone on - whether they've really been
allowed to grow up and become their own people."
ANOTHER belief is that God promises the faithful that their
children will mirror their parents, as in the book of Proverbs:
"Start children off in the way they should go, and when they are
old they will not depart from it." When the children do depart from
the way, some parents become angry with God for breaking his
Others assume that, since God is perfect, they must be the ones
to have failed. Addressing this issue, the psychiatrist John White
writes: "Many parents get hurt because they find false hope in the
Bible. I do not mean that the Bible is unreliable, but that, in
their concern for their children, parents may read the Bible
through magic spectacles."
From the point of view of the adult child, things can be just as
complex and painful. While a teenager may turn against God as a way
of separating from his parents, in order to find his or her own
identity, loss of faith in the long term is unlikely to have
anything to do with a desire to hurt or rebel against anyone.
"I lost my faith when I started university, on being challenged
to question my beliefs," James, an accountant in his 30s, says. "I
discovered that I had no reasons of my own for believing. I've been
very aware of how my parents felt - and still feel - about my
apostasy, and have been at pains to explain to them that it was an
intellectual realisation that made belief impossible, rather than
me rejecting God, or them. I'm not sure if they've ever fully
In many ways, it could be easier for a child to avoid this
issue. Life might be much easier, basking in parental approval,
with a loving God looking on, securing a benign eternity. It takes
courage to follow where conviction leads.
ALFIE has four siblings, all of whom are committed Christians.
It has been hard for him to reach the point where he feels he can
be honest about the spiritual conclusions he has come to. For
years, he found it easier to allow them to assume that he was still
on board. He attended church, and said the right things. When he
finally came clean, he felt a sense of release, but it has not been
"Admitting that I am not a Christian has made me feel separate
from the rest of the family. I am massively outside of something
which they all share, and there is nothing I can do about that.
"After taking the plunge, and telling them all I did not and
could not believe, it was hard. For a few years, they could not get
their heads around it. There was a lot of tension around small
things, from not going to church with them if I was visiting to
bigger things like moving in with my girlfriend, and being
unmarried - shock, horror! I think they hoped that I would 'come
round' at some point; and I was made to feel like I was hugely
letting them and the family down.
"From my point of view, it is my decision about a religion, and
in no way a reflection on them - or, to be fair, to do with them. I
am aware that it affects them, but I don't think it's fair to make
me feel like I've let anyone down - but I do, hugely."
HANNAH, a vicar's daughter from the Midlands, has never been
made to feel that she has let her parents down. Nevertheless, she
resents it that they view themselves as failures, because neither
she nor her sister is a Christian. "They feel they weren't good
parents to their girls as teens. They wanted to hold on tight to
us, to push us forcefully into belief. They think they ended up
pushing us away. I wish they didn't blame themselves, because that
undermines the fact that we can think and decide individually."
No parents with strong religious convictions are likely to stop
hoping that those they care for will come to see things in the same
way. But while some cannot let go of a sense that they are somehow
responsible for the faith choices of their children, others see
their position as less central.
"While Jonty drifted away - more of a lifestyle choice - Lauren
is more academic, and made a decision not to continue with her
faith. We haven't had the con- versation as to what was at the root
of them drifting away. They might tell us one day," Caro says. "Our
relationship with them is still strong, and we try hard to enter
their world, and understand the things they are passionate about.
It is hard, sometimes, to see other families where children are
engaged with their faith, but God has spared us the risk of being
proud, and thinking it's anything to do with us."
A parting of the ways over spiritual matters is not inevitable
among families. But my research for Keeping Faith: Being family
when belief is in question suggests that it is not at all
uncommon. The families who coped best were those where
relationships were conducted with mutual respect, and a willingness
to accept difference.
Jo Swinney, with Katharine Hill, is the author of a new
book, Keeping Faith: Being family when belief is in
question, published by Scripture Union at £7.99 (CT Bookshop,
£7.20); 978-1-84427-737-7. The names of the people quoted
in this article have been changed.