Why Children Leave the Church When They Leave Home

{Heads Up! September 4th, I’ll be launching a brand new website, and no longer posting here on Mother of Pearls. In fact, you can take a look now at Cheri Dee Johnson. For those who subscribe, I’ll be send you a free printable: The Nonbiological Mom’s Declaration of Truth.}

To this day I remember how I landed …

stunned and pouty, on the floor where my mother had suddenly plunked me. I hadn’t realized I had been so squirmy, nor that the sanctuary was stifling hot in the crammed pews. All I know is that I was suddenly surrounded by big shoes attached to adult legs. Adults who sat transfixed by a captivating awareness of God.

When I was four- and five-years-old my dad was on staff at a church that experienced a move of God so powerful it impacted the entire town—the news of it landing bold-faced on the front page of the paper. Even as a young child, the overwhelming, loving presence of God was so palatable, it changed my life forever.

I remember. I remember sitting in church (most of the time on the pew) and watching faces glow and tissue boxes empty as people shared their life-changing stories. I remember seeing my mother on her face, weeping before God. I remember telling my grandmother how we had a peace in our home we hadn’t had before. (Yes, even church leaders and their families need life-changing encounters with God.)

I believe the reason many children raised in church grow up and leave the church is because they are missing two important ingredients. They don’t encounter God at church and they don’t experience Him regularly at home. It’s not that church is irrelevant – although that might be. But frankly, God is irrelevant.

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Photo by Angello Lopez on Unsplash

I know full well that revival (as they called this move of God) can’t be manufactured. It’s not the result of following a set of formulated steps.

But somehow we need to usher our children into tangible experiences with God if we want them to follow Him the rest of their lives.

I have a couple suggestions for you.

Make sure you’re in a church where the leadership visibly practices humility before Christ (the Head of the church). It needs to be a place where people linger before God. A place that puts God’s Word as the foundation. A church that’s not in a hurry to accomplish the Sunday morning routine and then go home.

He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything.
Colossians 1:18 (NASB)

And I cannot urge you strongly enough, the best place for your children to encounter God at church is in the worship service with the adults. I can testify loud and clear, that sitting in the sanctuary, even as a four-year-old, and seeing God change lives right before my very eyes, is what set the course for my lifelong lean into the Savior. I love the way John Piper explains it in this podcast: “Should Children Sit Through ‘Big Church’?”.

Then in our homes, our personal walk with Jesus has to be real, endearing, and top priority. We have to demonstrate more than just a commitment to an organization. We have to model more than just following a set of spiritual disciplines. Our children need to witness our hunger for the person of God. They need to watch us walk in daily relationship with Jesus. The need to smell that this relationship is fresh—not packaged. Something we breathe moment by moment, drink until we’re satisfied, and feast on as if we’ll never eat again. We must offer our children much more than leftovers thrown down like dog food in scheduled increments.

I’m not saying to not follow a routine or to ignore the disciplines. I’m saying use them as a means to experience, and model, an irresistible relationship with Jesus.

But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death;
Philippians 3:7-10

Now, let me say …

this is one area of parenting I feel like I totally failed at.

Partly, because I was so overwhelmed in running a household of seven, while attempting to keep a lid on trauma-induced behaviors. And partly because if children can’t attach to a parent, they can’t attach to God, and I had no idea how to get this message across.

But, I can also say, it was still clear that following God and living according to His Word the best we knew how was of utmost importance to both Bob and me. Our kids got to watch us do so for the four to twelve years they lived in our home.

More importantly, even though my children are all grown up with their own families, this modeling is something I can still do. Just because I’m an empty-nester doesn’t mean I’m a hollowed-out shell. Neither do I have to stalk my kids for opportunities to pry the gospel into their thinking. I just need to live it. Day in and day out.

This is a simple answer to a complicated question. But in truth I think it boils down to …

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When it comes down to it, it’s not church that offers redemption. It’s Jesus. And when Jesus is alive and real in a person’s life, they tend to want to hang out with other Jesus-lovers. Church just happens to be a great place to find such people.

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We All Want a King

He’d been our pastor for eight years. He’d called us heroes for taking in children from orphanages. He’d counseled us, encouraged us, and prayed with us on several occasions. I truly felt our family was still intact because of his kind and wise support. But then he retired after pastoring most of his adult life—thirty of those years at our church. As a pastor’s kid and grandkid, I was used to this routine of pastors following the Lord calling elsewhere. But this time I cried. I felt the loss and wondered, “What are we going to do now?”

Most of the church felt the same way. How do you even begin looking for another pastor after thirty years? I can tell you this, it was a painful process—like having to use muscles that hadn’t been used in a very long time. As expected many people left the church, the interim was highly criticized, and the next pastor didn’t last long. But eventually the church settled into a new identity and began growing again.

Incidentally, we were some who eventually left, but more because of parenting issues rather than pastoring issues. One of the thoughts that occurred to me during the church’s transition was how much we all want a king—even when we claim Christ is our King.

And here we are again as a country, crying out for a new king.

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We want someone to fix everything. We expect someone to make us prosperous. We hope for a leader who will take us to some utopia. We chant for our enemies to be destroyed and cheer for a president to unify us. Never mind that we can’t agree even among family members, church members, friends or neighbors on what needs fixing, who deserves to prosper, what utopia should look like, or who our real enemies are.

And that’s why—that’s why—there’s only one King!

Only One who will protect us. “You are my hiding place; you will protect me from trouble and surround me with songs of deliverance” (Psalm 32:7, NIV).

Only One who will provide for us. “He provides food for those who fear him; he remembers his covenant forever” (Psalm 111:5, NIV).

Only One who triumphs over the enemy. “You have delivered me from all my troubles, and my eyes have looked in triumph on my foes” (Psalm 54:7, NIV).

Only One who heals us. “He sent out his word and healed them;” (Psalm 107:20, NIV).

Only One who brings unity. “…the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, … to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (Ephesians 1:9-10, NIV).

Only One who leads us into His Kingdom of kingdoms. “’The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever’” (Revelation 11:15, NIV).

This King cannot only lead a nation, He rules the heaven and earth. He isn’t just the Head of the Church, He’s also the Shepherd of our souls. And He doesn’t just bless the fatherless, He also gently cares for the mothers (Isaiah 40:11).

But He can’t do any of this until we bow to His lordship. He’s not pushy, bossy, or showy. He’s gentle, humble, and quiet. When other hopefuls bluster for our attention, or shake foundations for our loyalty, or ignite fear in search of our subjugation, He waits and stills (1 Kings 19) and gently leads us to quiet waters and green pastures (Psalm 23:2-3).

It matters not what we need, hope for, and groan for, He alone satisfies. “You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing” (Psalm 145:16, NIV).

So whatever results show up in your newsfeeds tomorrow—whether you like what you see or not—remember those results represent human beings, not God. God is in control of your city, state, and country, not elected officials. Jesus is the Head of the Church, not your pastor. And God has charge of your family, not you.

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