For Christian parents, one of our biggest fears is that our kids will renounce their faith. It’s hard to imagine anything more heartbreaking than a child walking away amidst a crisis of faith—one we hold intimately.
And yet for a growing number of parents, that fear is reality: children who have asked their small groups not to contact them, scoffed at a parent’s references to faith, and closed their Bibles in disgust for the last time.
Studies show that for every religious conversion, four others undergo a religious deconversion. Nearly one-third of those deconverting are doing so before they turn 30 years old. If this trend continues it will translate into 35 million youth by 2050 who once identified as Christians, raised in at least nominally Christian homes, who no longer follow Jesus.
As disheartening as the statistics are, there is hope. Although no silver bullet will ensure our children will continue faithfully following Jesus, there are things we can do that—from a human perspective—increase the likelihood of enduring faith.
It might surprise you to know the biggest influence on whether a child remains a Christian later in life isn’t their friends, youth leader, or pastor. It’s … wait for it … their parents.
What can parents do to increase the likelihood of their children following Jesus?
An Ancient Crisis of Faith
After listening to dozens of former Christians share their stories and reading hundreds of deconversion testimonies, I’ve become persuaded there are four things we can do as parents to help impart a lasting faith to our children. To frame those four, consider the parable of the Sower (see Matthew 13), where Jesus explains why some people accept His message and others don’t. In the story, a farmer spreads seeds on four different soils. Why did only one accept the seed, whereas the other three didn’t?
According to Jesus, the determining factor was the condition of the soil, the human heart, on which the seed fell. Only one of the three soils was what he called “good” and thus was able to receive the seed. The other soils were too hard, rocky, or filled with thorns for seed to take root.
Farmers are confined to the location of their farms. But they can condition their soil. How can parents hand their kids the best chance, humanly speaking, for hearts which will receive the Word?
1. Choose only the right seed.
Farmers know a successful harvest begins with planting good-quality seeds. And as we select our “seeds” as parents, it’s important to understand one of the most common reasons young people reject their faith. Many parents raise children in a tradition where the seed of basic Christianity and rigid fundamentalism are so tightly bound together the children can’t differentiate between them.
If these children reject the rigidity of their fundamentalist tradition, they also reject basic Christianity. They assume they’re the same.
We need to ensure the seed of faith we instill has a hard center of the essential truths of Christianity, but soft edges of second- and third-level doctrines that ought never to be raised to the level of non-negotiables.
For countless young people, it’s hard enough to continue to affirm the core tenets of the historic Christian faith amid an increasingly hostile culture. And requiring them to also affirm particular positions on nonessential doctrines forms a recipe for disaster.
Am I saying that the second- and third-level beliefs don’t matter? Not at all! But those remain secondary. When they aren’t, the house of faith becomes inflexible and fragile, like a house of cards. Pull out one, and the entire house collapses—and there’s a crisis of faith on your hands.
2. Prepare the soil.
Farmers prepare soil for planting by removing rocks and weeds that would hinder seed from setting roots that sustain a plant in adverse conditions. When it comes to deconversion, unmet expectations often prevent good seeds from taking deep root.
Once, early in our marriage, I questioned my wife Nancy’s love for me because she didn’t pack me a lunch for a three-hour drive I was going on. Why? Despite her never telling me she’d make a lunch, when she didn’t—like my mom used to do for my dad—I was at a loss to understand. (I was a jerk.)
When others fail to meet our unstated expectations, disappointment is inevitable—sometimes to the point it can do serious relational damage. For many in a crisis of faith, God didn’t meet their expectations: for a spouse, healing, a child, or a job they deeply desire. They came to believe that God did them wrong.
But God has never promised many of the things we expect.
As parents, we must instill appropriate expectations and beliefs about God in our children’s hearts but also uproot unwarranted expectations.
God is good, and they can trust Him. But God’s goodness doesn’t translate into a pain-free life of material blessings. God will allow hardship, suffering, and pain to touch their lives. They’re likely to experience heartache and loss to such a degree that they might question God’s goodness or even existence.
When doubts creep in about God’s goodness in the face of life’s hardship, Jesus’ death for us proves God has our ultimate good in mind. Why else would He allow His Son to be publicly humiliated, tortured, and killed?
Children with healthy expectations about what it means for God to be good, and who look to Jesus on the cross, have a much better chance of enduring faith.
3. Provide nutrients.
Whether nitrogen, phosphorus, or potassium, farmers provide nutrients at the right moments for lush growth. What’s the most important nutrient that the hearts of children need? A warm relationship with us.
In 2017, University of Southern California professor Vern Bengtson published a landmark study that followed 350 families over four decades to discover which families succeeded in passing faith to the next generation. His study revealed parents play the most significant role in faith transmission. And those who interact in a warm, affirming, and respectful manner in children’s formative years were more likely to pass on their faith than parents who were pious, but lacking emotional and relational warmth.
What does this look like? Being unconditionally supportive. Providing consistent religious role modeling. Raising, but not forcing, religious beliefs and practices on our children.
A related nutrient stems from what psychologists refer to as CREDS, or Credibility Enhancing Displays. These are choices with a personal cost, motivated by faith commitments. Studies clearly show that when parents live their faith in ways that cost them something, it contributes to their children remaining Christ-followers: What mom and dad believe needs to be seriously considered given what they sacrifice.
Costly displays don’t have to be grandiose. They’re more likely to be those small choices we make daily. It’s loving football but choosing to go to church rather than watching the game. It’s sending money to a missionary or giving it to a charity instead of buying a coffee, even though you love coffee. It’s getting up early and reading your Bible when you could be sleeping. When children observe these displays, it enhances our credibility that Jesus is the way—and may short circuit a future crisis of faith.
4. Respond to threats.
Insects, disease, and drought can damage seeds to the point they’re unable to thrive. Insecticides, herbicides, and irrigation systems aren’t foolproof measures, but give the seed a fighting chance.
Philosophical objections, moral criticisms, and historical challenges to Christianity are more accessible and abundant than ever. Scores of former Christians attribute their loss of faith to information they stumbled upon online that challenged the truth of Christianity. The Internet has bloomed a thousand atheist apologists, damaging the faith of Christian young people.
Apologetics, like irrigation, isn’t a surefire answer to intellectual doubts. It can’t prove that Christianity is true, but it can show Christianity is reasonable to believe. Not all questions need to be answered to become or remain a Christian. But our children must know it’s okay to have questions and ask them. Certainty, not doubt, is the opposite of faith. Nor is faith a blind leap in the dark. Instead, faith is acting on the hope that you have sufficient reason to believe it is true (Hebrews 11:1,6). Apologetics can help provide those reasons, diffusing intellectual threats to a growing faith.
A Crisis of Faith—or a Harvest of Righteousness
As parents and as the church, we’re raising our children in challenging times. Statistically, we’re on the cusp of potentially witnessing the single largest generational loss of souls in history—those raised in the church yet no longer calling themselves followers of Jesus. While these critical measures won’t guarantee, they will set up children to hear, understand, and receive the gospel in a way that will endure.
Copyright © 2023 by John Marriott. All rights reserved.
Dr. John Marriott is the Director of the Biola University Center for Christian Thought. He teaches in the Philosophy department at Biola and teaches at Talbot School of Theology. John serves as a consulting editor for the theological journal, Sacrum Testamentum, and acts as the Director of Cultural Engagement for the Renaissance Group. Learn more at www.johnmarriott.org, and visit www.losingmyfaith.org for more resources.
 “The Great Opportunity: The American Church in 2050” https://www.thegreatopportunity.org
 Vern Bengtson, Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down Across Generations. (Oxford University Press, 2017).
 Vern Bengtson, Families and Faith.
 The Great Opportunity, pg.9