W Publishing Group
There’s nothing that hurts a mom’s or dad’s heart quite like having a child who is going astray. It is a constant ache, and sometimes it’s worse than the pain you feel for a child who is seriously ill or contending with some kind of disability. Those problems aren’t of the child’s choosing. But when your son or daughter is consciously turning his back on God, or is hell-bent on rejecting the value system you have tried so hard to give her, it’s like a sucker punch to your faith. To think that your son or daughter would deliberately choose a path that can only lead to disappointment and regret; well, it’s a hurt that can seep its way into the deepest crevices of your soul.
And it tears you up to see what kids’ rebellion does to them personally—to their relationships, to their health, and to their potential. They lose credibility as fast as they are losing emotional and spiritual momentum. Many of the kids who take on a mantle of rebellion put together a series of bad choices that place them in bondage to their mistakes—bondage they often can’t get out of on their own. Yet when you try to help them, they react like a cat stuck in a tree, snarling and striking out at you as you attempt to coach them out of the mess they are in.
Most of the time these young people are closed to your reasonable ideas. Sometimes they are closed to talking at all. They won’t let you inside their heart long enough for you to get a glimpse of the contradictions that are tormenting them. When they finally do speak up, you not only face their hostility, but you often hear a child spewing out a philosophy of life that bears no resemblance to the one you thought you gave them. It hurts to see them making a 180-degree turn away from the direction they were going during most of their childhood. It’s as though the little cherubs who sat on your lap and basked in the Bible stories you read to them have suddenly enrolled in Osama Senior High.
Wendy’s daughter serves as an example:
She couldn’t decide which distressed her the most: the hurt, the resentment, or the fear. Each was fighting for mastery of her heart as she watched her daughter disappear across the front lawn. The screen door still quivered from the power with which the girl had slammed it as she stormed out of the house. It was so hard to believe that the fifteen-year-old who had just fired those F-bombs at her was the same girl who, only a few months earlier, had arrived home from a mission trip with her high-school youth group ready to change the world. How could one child regress so far in such a short time?
This teenager had thrived on her family’s church activities. She had loved her youth group, her youth leaders, and her friends from church. Now she wanted nothing to do with any of them. While she was at it, she had decided she wanted nothing to do with her parents, either—and she especially didn’t want to hear any of her mom’s spiritual insights. “Save your homily for someone who gives a (expletive),” was the last thing Wendy heard before her daughter rushed out of the house.
The only thing Wendy’s daughter seemed to be concerned about now was her boyfriend—a young man who was the polar opposite of everything their family stood for. Wendy’s heart sank as she considered what all of this meant. How could this girl, who had been handed Christianity on a platter, suddenly reject everything? What kind of horrible path would her daughter’s antagonism lead her down?
Rebellious Christian kids often share a lot of similarities. They are blocking God out of their lives, you annoy them, and your family life ticks them off. They are capable of being stubborn, obstinate, argumentative, aloof, and moody. They often seem embarrassed by your outward commitment to God and disinterested in your spiritual advice. They are no longer fans of church and Sunday school. These kids have no problem making a series of dumb decisions that will get them into trouble. When you inquire about their thinking, it seems almost as though someone has sneaked in and erased most of the spiritual programming from their soul’s hard drive. And it’s not uncommon to hear them offering the most illogical and irrational reasons for their behavior.
Some Christian kids’ rebellion is a short-lived parenthesis of stupidity that they get through rather quickly. It’s just a brief little jaunt down the wrong side of the spiritual street and then they’re over it. It’s an isolated “My kid got suspended from school for being a bonehead” type rebellion (an exercise I put my parents through twice), or a “My seventeen-year-old daughter bought a thong bikini for the church pool party and can’t seem to understand why I, as her mother, can’t stop hyperventilating” type of spiritual crisis. These are the kinds of incidents that jump-start our relationship with God. It’s as though, during these crises, God puts two spiritual cardiac paddles on the sides of our hearts, yells “Clear!” and gives us a jolt of reality. As difficult as they are, these incidents can be used to create a greater bond between struggling teens and their flustered parents.
Other than causing parents to temporarily wonder if they are losing their minds, these brief excursions usually do little long-term harm, and leave everyone slightly better off for the exercise. They are like mini pop-quizzes on what you believe and how sincerely you believe it. Parents that grade a C or above on these little tests of their faith learn that God indeed is who He says He is, and that His grace is truly sufficient.1 Most families go on to live happily ever after.
But there’s another brand of Christian rebellion that has the potential to sear a hole in the entire family’s belief system. This more debilitating brand of rebellion has, among other things, the potential of wrecking a child’s view of God for the rest of his life. As serious as that consequence is, it’s just the beginning of many things that can have a long-term negative effect. Debilitating, toxic rebellion can set up young people for relationship nightmares that can dog them for decades. I’m talking about the kind of rebellion that can create babies or destroy them, create marriages or destroy them, or plunge kids into deep financial debt, depression, and even jail time. It can permanently rob young people of their future earning potential in the marketplace.
It can even kill them.
I buried a young man whose poor choices led him to take his own life. My children buried a dear friend whose rejection of God’s best for him ended in an overdose. In both of these cases, the abrupt end to these young lives was like putting a period before the end of a sentence. Both were bright, decent young men whose spiritual choices cost them everything. There was great potential for a better story to be told, but death stole that story from them and from us. When it comes to these more serious incursions into the world of rebellion, there’s nothing funny about where some of them can lead. Martin can testify to that . . .
He sat alone at his son’s desk. With his face buried in his hands, he fought his conflicting inner urges to either explode in anger or implode into the sense of helplessness that churned inside him. His visit to his son’s dormitory had been unannounced. The boy’s roommate was nice enough to invite Martin to wait until his son returned from class. They exchanged the obligatory small talk for a few minutes before the roommate came up with a polite reason to leave. Then, in the privacy of his son’s dorm room, Martin had enough time to validate all that he had feared.
The alarms had actually started going off in his (and his wife’s) heart for more than a year and a half. It seemed to them that their son had put his spiritual life on autopilot somewhere around his junior year of high school. He wasn’t antagonistic to the things of God, although he didn’t appear to have the same spiritual passion he’d demonstrated in his early teenage years. But when he came home for Christmas break, it seemed he had shut off the autopilot, slammed on the brakes of his spiritual life, and had actually shifted into reverse.
For a kid who had left home with a lackadaisical attitude toward Jesus, he seemed to have arrived back home with a clear ax to grind with Him . . . and with them, too. Martin and his wife had assumed their son would change a little when he went off to college, but they never figured he would change so dramatically in one semester. During Christmas break they encountered a boy who had no interest in calling or connecting with any of the close Christian friends he’d left behind. He responded with a deliberate, glazed-over look the few times either one of them mentioned anything about God or church. He seemed annoyed by his mom and dad, as though they had suddenly morphed into alien entities with which he shared no common ground.
Now, in this tiny room that served as a microcosm of his son’s value system, Martin could see the evidence of a boy who was heading down a road that bore no similarity to the one his parents had encouraged him to take. The woman on the screen saver of his son’s computer was probably scanned from one of the pornographic magazines neatly stacked on his nightstand, next to an opened box of condoms. Martin’s “supposedly” virgin son had been busy. He’d taken up drinking, too. The sculpture of beer cans that covered half the window wasn’t just dorm-room decoration. There was enough evidence in this room to indicate that a fire was burning in the boy’s soul. But it wasn’t the fire of spiritual passion. Not now.
Martin had seen this same thing happen to a few of his friends’ children. He had heard the excuses they made and the blame they passed around. They tried to put the responsibility at the feet of the universities. In one case, it was an ironic accusation, since the daughter had enrolled in an elite Christian college. Other parents had felt that the lack of adequate programming in their church during their children’s teenage years was the reason their children had fallen away from their spiritual moorings. Martin wouldn’t make that foolish mistake. He felt three specific people were responsible for what was happening. One was somewhere in a class across campus, the other was back home waiting for Martin to call and give her a report, and the third was sitting in his son’s dormitory room, wondering where he’d gone wrong.
And then there are those textbook Christian kids who go through all the right motions, learn all the right truths, make all the right choices, and appear to be great candidates for becoming excellent Christian parents themselves. Yet they never seem inclined to make any spiritual difference in the world once they become adults. The fact is that rebellion isn’t always outward and hostile.
Sometimes adolescents’ rebellion reveals itself as a lack of passion, a lack of concern, a lack of motivation. These can be the symptoms of kids who have been raised in a spiritual greenhouse. They’ve heard the truth and accepted it. They’ve learned the principles and believed them. They’ve seen God work in many miraculous ways and enjoyed it. They just haven’t invested these gifts from God into a life that shines for Him. They’ve put their trust in a God who would actually sacrifice His Son’s life on their behalf, but for some reason, His gift of love hasn’t motivated them enough to be a living sacrifice for Him in return.
This attitude invariably leads to indifference or even a low-grade cynicism, attitudes that pollute the child’s view of God and his attitude toward the Christian community around him. It reminds me of a scenario I heard from a Christian school principal . . .
Dr. Evans stood in the hallway just outside his office as one of his high-school students passed by. The boy wore the uniform of the Christian school, and if you looked at his report card, you’d see that he had given all the correct biblical answers and theological responses to the tests he had taken over the years. He had even represented the school at a Bible memory competition and had brought home a huge championship trophy that stood in the glass case in the gymnasium entrance.
But as he watched this young student stroll by, the question “What’s wrong with this picture?” kept repeating in his head. This young man may have known all the answers to the Christian belief system his school taught, but there was nothing about him that reflected any appreciation for what Jesus had done for him on the cross. He was dead center in the daily sports, social, and academic lives of this Christian school, but his attitudes and actions reflected that he was really just a walking contradiction of everything for which the school was established. There were no signs of a genuine heart for God—just a bunch of carefully rehearsed answers that had been drilled into his head.
Dr. Evans knew how much this young man teased and taunted the handful of students on campus who were seriously trying to live out their faith in God. He was a spiritual “Eddy Haskell”—saying the right things around his teachers, then mocking them behind their backs. His mannerisms reflected the behavior his parents had put him in Christian school to avoid, and his conduct outside the school indicated that he was devoid of spiritual direction. The principal knew that, in spite of all this young man knew about God, his unvarnished actions were evidence of where his heart really was. What a shame, he thought. His parents have tried so hard and spent so much money, and all they are getting back is a son who couldn’t care less about God.
Dr. Evans couldn’t expel the young man, even though he was poison to the rest of the students. The boy wasn’t breaking any stated rules of conduct; in fact he was turning in excellent academic work. Besides, the principal didn’t want to throw him out. He wanted to help him. But he just couldn’t get the equation to add up. How could someone who had been given so much embrace so little? He’d had his faith spoon-fed to him, but all his parents and this Christian school got in return was an overindulged Christian brat.
As the student disappeared around the corner, the principal wondered whether the word Christian was little more than an adjective in his life—a mix of biblical platitudes and spiritually canned behavior that had never taken its position as a noun in his young heart.
There’s something about a Christian environment that can actually set a child up to become a spiritually mediocre adult. Kids from Christian homes often grow up going to church only if it’s convenient. They serve others if it doesn’t put them out too much, they tip God with the leftovers of their money, and they remain mute about their beliefs. These homegrown Christians can go for months, even years on end without deliberately studying their Bible. They never graduate from an elementary understanding of what they believe. They may be Christians for fifty years and still feel unprepared to lead a Bible study or explain to those around them the hope within them.
After preaching to some congregation, I have found myself confronted by an older adult who chastises me for not using the right translation of the Bible, or for using a tattered, dilapidated Bible to speak from. This adult assumes these things mean I don’t respect God’s Holy Word, or points out that because I didn’t wear a tie, I failed to dress appropriately for a sacred hour of worship. When these types of incidents happen, I always like to gently inquire about my critic’s belief in Christ, and how long they have held those beliefs. It’s not uncommon to hear they’ve considered themselves to be Christians for twenty, thirty, or forty years. Yet, for all the time they have supposedly been “walking by faith,” they come across as small, petty, and spiritually underdeveloped.
You can’t help but wonder if people like this are merely “technical Christians” who don’t understand what it truly means to be a follower of Jesus. They might be able to find the book of Obadiah in their Bible, but they can’t find the time to take their gay neighbor out to lunch to figure out how to pray for him. Jesus saved them so they could some day walk the “streets of gold,” but meanwhile they seem satisfied to live holed up at the spiritual Sesame Street address they had when they first came to know Christ.
Rebellion doesn’t always have to be ugly. Sometimes it’s just lazy.
It’s also contagious. Most people have heard about “the sins of the fathers” curse in the Bible.2 But sometimes, as we’ve seen, the sins of a rebellious Christian kid can plague the youth group or the Christian school. Rebellious boys and girls can become a negative fungus to the Christian kids around them. So much of a child’s life is “reflective” rather than “original,” and too many fragile kids have a tendency to mirror the attitude of the people they gravitate toward, rather than being the force that fuels others’ faith.
You might be wondering, “Are the people in these stories real or did you just make them up?” Yes and no. Yes, they are real, but no, their names aren’t Wendy, Martin, or Dr. Evans. When you are writing a book about children who make utter disasters of their lives as well as their parents’ lives, you’ve got to change names and locations to protect the innocent and to avoid embarrassing the guilty. But these scenarios are real. In fact, they are some of the tamer examples I could have shared with you.
They remind us why we need a Savior.
They also remind us why we need to have a keen and accurate understanding of our own propensity to break God’s heart. Within the heart of every human being is a desire to do our own thing and to go our own way.3 Rebellious Christian kids are following that inclination, which rages inside them. There are a lot of reasons why, and we’ll get into them later. There are also some specific things we can do to help them get safely back into the fold. But none of the explanations make sense and few of the solutions work if we maintain a choke hold on our pride and refuse to see our own inclination to make dumb choices, too.
When we can’t see our own capacity for rebellion, we are blocked from being part of the solution to our children’s problems. Our kids see us as haughty, arrogant, and envision themselves as being somewhere far beneath us. Pride causes us to make excuses, blame others, and refuse to search our own hearts for any part we might have played in the choices they make.
Of course, if you are a parent looking down the barrel of your child’s rebellion, you probably have very little pride left intact. Rebellious kids do that to you. There’s nothing like a child turning his or her back on your Christian lifestyle and value system to help you develop accurate and balanced theology. A kid’s rebellion knocks us off our holy high horses. It gives us a street-level view of life and an attitude that is far more savvy, sympathetic, and forgiving than it might have been before. Actually, that’s not so bad.
These scenarios not only remind us of why we need a Savior; they also remind us of why we need grace in our homes. It would be so easy to give up, to write off your rebellious daughter or troublemaking son as a lost cause, and wrap yourself up in self-pity. Grace helps us rise above these defaults in our weak human nature. Grace keeps us going, keeps us believing in a greater good for our children, and keeps us focused on God rather than on ourselves.
A sober swig of reality teaches us that there’s a bit of the prodigal in all of us. You were born with it,4 and your ability to admit it is one of the best tools you have for minimizing your child’s likelihood of making wrong spiritual choices. Your willingness to acknowledge your own feet of clay is one of the best starting points when it comes to helping your children, especially when they have chosen to embrace an attitude of rebellion against you, or God, or both. A realistic view of ourselves forces us to lean on God and helps us look at our rebellious children through His loving and grace-filled eyes. It also comes in handy when we are forced to pay the piper for our children’s rebellion. When our kids need help, we need grace.
When Christian kids rebel, a lot of times there’s hell to pay for the parents. You’d think I’d say few pay the price the rebellious child pays. But in reality, most of our children’s rebellion is more expensive for us than it is for them. After all, they are choosing the path they are taking; we are not. For the most part they not only want to rebel but often enjoy it. It’s just the opposite for parents. Some kids actually come out the other side as better people. That’s not always the case for the parents who had to walk through the valley of rebellion with them. The consequences of children’s rebellion against their parents reads like a checklist for a nightmare.
Sometimes the fear comes from dark shadows that lurk in some corner closet of their parents’ memory. They recall some of the choices they made as young people, choices that carved serious scars into their emotional systems. Some even carry physical scars that remind them of their young and foolish pasts. Because they are painfully aware of how devastating rebellion can be, these parents want to do everything in their power to spare their children the regret they’ve had to live with.
Many of these parents didn’t have the privilege of being raised in Christian homes. Their choices were the standard operating procedure of kids coming up through a home with either too much dysfunction or too few boundaries. When they finally became Christians, they wanted to create an environment they felt certain would spare their children the same mistakes.
Parents who have been around the block know that cause creates effect—every time. Insolence, laziness, disrespect, deception, crime, drugs, and sex aren’t stand-alone events. They have a malignant impact when they are the outgrowth of a rebellious heart. Parents’ who have faced the consequences of their own youthful rebellion are chilled to the marrow of their bones when they see their children following in their footsteps.
Our children’s poor choices and disrespectful attitudes put us off our game, and have a bad habit of wrecking the rhythm we’re trying to maintain in our family’s daily routine. Rebellion draws inordinate focus on one child when we need to be sharing our time equally with other family members. A rebellious child is like an out-of-control sports fan that has stormed the outfield of a baseball game. Everything has to come to a stop until he can be subdued. In the same way, rebellious Christian kids are first-class joy-stealers. They suck the wind out of your everyday life, your confidence, your personal goals, and sometimes your relationship with God. It’s really frustrating when you are trying everything you know to do, yet seeing few positive results.
Our kids’ rebellious behavior can give us a bad reputation. As you know, bad reputations live on long past the time they were established. Decades later, your son is now the understudy to take some great evangelist’s place, and people still refer to you as “the dad who had that boy who got that nice little girl pregnant.” Sometimes the bigger challenge after our children have passed through their rebellious years, is to forgive them for the emotional damage their actions still inflict. The smaller the town you live in or the church you attend, the greater problem this is.
Most parents unconsciously feel that their children’s behavior is a report card on their effectiveness as parents. But even if we’re mature enough to not fall into that foolish trap of turning our kids into parental scorecards, many of our acquaintances and “friends” aren’t necessarily as accommodating. When our children behave badly, it can make going to church or showing up for Thanksgiving dinner with the extended family extremely painful.
There’s an old saying, “Christians are the only people who shoot their wounded.” Actually, they eat them. Too many Christian circles connect the skill and spiritual sincerity of us as parents to the behavior of our children (even though our children are individual agents, underdeveloped emotionally, immature, naive, and born with a bent toward sin). As a result, it’s easy to end up ostracized at church.
Praise God, there are many wonderful, grace-based churches and fellowships that respond rather than react to children who may be working out their salvation with less fear and trembling than we would prefer.5 These are churches that understand basic theology about the nature of man and also realize that rebellion is often part of a child’s spiritual journey. But even in an environment of grace, it’s hard not to feel that your rebellious son or daughter is going to be the centerfold of the church bulletin, a postscript in the notes of the next elders’ meeting, and at the top of the list of your Sunday school class’s emergency Internet prayer chain. Your insecurities make you feel that everyone in the church wants to come up to your offspring, place their hands on his (or her) little forehead, and yell, “Demon, come out!” Whether the source of the embarrassment is real or imagined, its net effect is the same. It’s no fun having a rebellious kid.
Sin costs money. Paying for counseling, moving kids to another public school or into a private or Christian school, paying for damages, legal fees, and the cost of medical bills and rehabilitation can exact a huge chunk from a family’s reserves. Too many parents of rebellious Christian kids have watched their savings evaporate. It’s not uncommon for our children’s behavior to leave us in financial debt long after they have found their way back to a balanced lifestyle.
Rebellion at home can also cost us professional productivity. Kids who are acting up often require you to miss work or leave work early, to take more personal phone calls, and to operate at a distracted level for long periods of time. A rebellious Christian kid can take a huge bite out of your efficiency and cost you a bad work review, a bonus, a raise, or a promotion.
A problem child can actually cost you your job. If you are in a management position, problems with your children can cause you to second-guess yourself as a leader of others. Even if you don’t see it that way, your subordinates may. Eyebrows can be raised and whispering campaigns can be held at the office coffeepot. It’s easy for people to wonder, If he (or she) can’t keep his children in line, is he the right person to be leading this crucial part of our company?
A child’s rebellion can cause our Christian marriages to pay a high price. Since every mule thinks his load is the heaviest, it’s easy to feel that you are bearing more of the responsibility for the consequences of your child’s problems than your spouse is. Blame comes easily. Rebellion also has a way of attacking a couple’s ability to stay close, maintain a sense of romance, and feel comfortable being intimate. It’s hard to feel free to enjoy each other when someone you love so much is busy ruining her life. Many times children’s rebellion has contributed to their parents’ divorce.
One child out of control can also do a lot of harm to the other children in the family who are walking the straight and narrow. Siblings can easily feel slighted by their parents because of the inordinate amount of attention one rebellious child requires. A misbehaving brother or sister can ruin an event that was supposed to be enjoyable to the entire family. Vacations, day-outings, going out to dinner, friends coming over to the house, and even the joy of attending church can be stolen from innocent brothers and sisters by rebellious ones. Good and godly children have watched their inheritance disappear into the coffers of their rebellious brother’s or sister’s rehab clinics. Regardless of how you draw the lines or do the math, when a child rebels, everybody pays.
There’s nothing new about kids from religious homes rebelling. They’ve been doing it since Adam and Eve gave birth to their first child. As you might recall, Cain, their firstborn, was quite a piece of work.6 If anything, Cain is the patron saint of rebellious children. He caused his parents incredible grief. He cost his brother, Abel, the highest price that can be exacted from any individual—his life. Fortunately, most of what the average Christian parent has to put up with today is mild by comparison. But it isn’t necessarily less painful. And even though there’s nothing new about rebellious Christian kids, there are some dynamics in today’s contemporary Christian movement that can increase a Christian kid’s inclination toward rebellion.
When I was a teenager, we were dead center in the middle of a decade that knocked the mainstream church on its rear. I was a teenager in the 1960s. Standard, denominational Protestantism and classical Catholicism didn’t know what to do with all that was happening around them. The church had been enjoying a position of “tradition” in the average American family. The traditions wore well, like a broken-in pair of work boots. Then all of a sudden, teenage boys started to grow their hair as long as girls’, teenage girls started to burn their bras, and both genders started to burn a lot of marijuana.
Contemporary music took on the themes of uninhibited sex, protest toward government and authority, and the questioning of the status quo. In those days, the traditional church stood in clear contrast to everything that was going on around it. Programming was locked in and inflexible. The liturgy or form of worship was the same as it had been for almost a century. The music was either classical or sacred hymns that had been written by songwriters long since dead.
Meanwhile, the life we were experiencing outside the church was changing faster than most of us could process. It was the front side of the technological revolution. Special effects were starting to make their way into the movies. Television was in color. News via satellite from Vietnam was instant. Meanwhile, we’d come to church and listen to a Sunday school teacher give us a Bible lesson using a flannel graph.
Our culture posed questions that demanded answers. The mainstream church, for the most part, was caught off guard. It didn’t know how to deal with questions like . . .
1. “Why should we go off to war and possibly lose our lives to stop the ‘domino effect’ of communism in Southeast Asia, when we have a heavily armed communist country ninety miles off the coast of Florida that we are doing nothing about?”
2. “How is it fair that a woman, doing the same job as a man, gets paid less money?”
3. “Why is it that a hundred years after the Civil War, black people from our community still aren’t welcome in our churches and our schools?”
To question number 1 we heard lectures that could be summarized with the cliché “America, right or wrong!” To question number 2 we listened as biblical hairs were split to somehow justify the superiority of the male gender and the devalued nature of the female gender. To question number 3, we heard ridiculous attempts to justify a separation of races and the inferiority of certain races. (I actually heard a Bible teacher use the curse of Ham—one of Noah’s sons—as a justification for keeping Blacks in a position of subjugation.)7
Bottom line, the mainline church movement was blindsided by that era and didn’t offer thoughtful responses to all that was going on around it. To many young kids in the midst of that tumultuous decade, the church came across as irrelevant and out-of-step with where the world was heading.
As a result, there was wholesale rebellion among Christian kids during the 1960s. When the parents turned to the traditional church for help, the church defaulted to its “traditions.” It suggested that parents get their children back in step with the time-tested customs that, in the past, had brought meaning and a sense of well-being. In practical terms that meant: Get those kids to cut their hair, attend church (whether it had anything worthwhile to say or not), carry Bibles to church (whether they were reading them or not), sit together as a family (whether they could stand one another or not), strive for a “perfect attendance” Sunday school pin (whether the lesson had any relevancy to where they were or not); and for my Catholic friends: Go to confession (whether it had any bearing on how they behaved after they came out of it or not). None of these things necessarily made a person a better Christian; they simply made him a better member of the traditional church.
Obviously, there were exceptions—lots of them. There were wonderful pastors and cutting-edge churches that were stepping up to the challenge of the changing times. Despite some of the dated methodology, many strong and soothing lessons were delivered in Sunday school classes throughout the country that helped the new generation get a grip on all that was going on around them. And frankly, there was something comforting about the “tradition” of the church as the young people tried to process an era where “change” had become a constant. After all, the church is the extended family of God. It is the primary place—outside our immediate family—where He can be counted on to connect with people.
The church has always struggled with cultural relevancy because of the way it operates. For the most part, it is underfunded and staffed by volunteers. It’s usually administrated by committee. This always keeps the church several steps behind culture. This method actually works quite well as long as the church’s singular foundation is Jesus Christ and it is fueled by the power of the Holy Spirit. Unfortunately, during the 1960s too many churches were letting tradition rather than the Holy Spirit lead the way through all the cultural upheaval. This attitude didn’t provide much help to parents whose children were writing off all kinds of tradition, no matter where they found it.
But as I look back on that wholesale decade of spiritual rebellion, I smile. Many of those same kids who turned their backs on Christian tradition turned their faces to God. They may have taken an end run around the mainstream church, but many did not abandon their faith in its Head. Also, God raised up some of the finest parachurch ministries of the twentieth century to come alongside churches and help fill in the missing pieces of their messages. In spite of it all, that season of rebellion produced some of the finest parents, couples, pastors, teachers, leaders, and thinkers our country has ever known.
Spiritual rebellion isn’t the worst thing that can happen to your child. And that’s good, because as I take the pulse of the Christian movement today, I think we are in another era of wholesale rebellion. But this time it is not because the church is out of step with the culture. Now, churches are so much in step with everything going on around them that there is no attractive distinction. Perhaps in our attempt to become more relevant we’ve become a reflection of our society instead of a remedy to its ills.
Many churches, in trying to connect with the culture, have felt it necessary to temper their theology. There has been a subtle airbrushing of classical biblical doctrine to make it more appealing. Many churches have caved in to pressure when it comes to what the Bible clearly teaches about marriage and divorce, masculinity and femininity, motherhood and fatherhood, sexual purity, money, and celebrity. Whereas the mainstream church of my childhood lacked a sense of relevancy, today’s churches lack a sense of authenticity.
This is a recipe for rebellion. Our children, in an attempt to be honest with themselves, are inclined to reject a lifestyle that is defined by the conventional brokers of God’s truth—the people in the “business” of church. That means there is some good news in the midst of the bad. Some of your children’s rebellion against your spiritual lifestyle might be a necessary step in their finding an authentic relationship with God. But beware: If they find it, it might look quite different from what you’ve always thought it should be.
And more good news, some of the greatest congregations ever in the history of the church are rising to the challenge of a need for authentic Christianity. The church movement will always have its cultural competition, but there are lots of terrific works stepping up to respond to the need. These churches are helping to fill the void that often incites Christian kids to rebel.
There is one other pervasive problem, however, that is plaguing a large segment of the Christian movement today and is responsible for a significant chunk of the rebellion among Christian kids. This is less a problem of the local church and more a mind-set among the parents of the local church. It has to do with the reaction to the evils inherent within our culture.
Parents today realize they’ve got a lot of competition for their value system. It’s not just the evil that has raised its ugly head in the shadow of September 11, but also a wickedness that seems to have hijacked a generation. If you watch MTV or slip into one of the popular PG-13 or R-rated movies kids are drawn to today, it’s not uncommon to feel like you need a bath afterward. Prime-time television has also sent decency packing, and wherever you look, it is standard fare to be confronted with a hedonistic world-view.
And there’s the issue of education. Public education, in particular, has adopted many philosophies that compete with belief in God, the existence of truth, and the authority of the family. In the political arena, there has been a battle waging over the literal interpretation of the Constitution as well as an attempt to rewrite our national history. Any evidence of Christian influence on the early stages of our history has been slowly edited out of our textbooks and teaching in the name of academic integrity. These realities frighten many Christian parents. And in their fear, there has been a large-scale movement to create a safe haven in which to raise our children. As a result, we Evangelicals have got our own music, our own entertainment, our own school systems, and our own network of safe Christian families. But I want to give you a little peek at something we’re going to go into detail about later. Our frightened reaction to the serious moral crises within our culture may be the very thing that turns our kids off to our faith.
Let me answer by asking you a question. Are you a believer in Jesus Christ? If so, do you realize that, technically, followers of Jesus really shouldn’t be afraid of much of anything? Especially the degraded climate of our culture. What did Jesus mean when He said, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
Should we be concerned? Of course. But frightened? No, not really. Otherwise, our fears communicate a false message of what we believe to our kids. The fear that drives the choices we make about how we church our kids, how we educate them, the fellowship we provide for them, and how we entertain them may well be why so many Christian kids want little to do with what we are selling.
To make matters worse, our fears about our culture have helped guarantee its further descent into the depths of despair and indecency. The more we pull away from “the world,” even for the protection of our children, the more that world is left in the dark. Meanwhile, the artificial world in which we are trying to raise our children is tailor-made to create spiritual apathy at the core of their souls. In the following chapters, I hope to show you how we can counter this built-in drawback to raising strong, culturally relevant kids.
I want to flip my cards straight up for you. This book is going to give you a deep understanding of why kids brought up in a Christian environment often rebel. It’s also going to show you some things you can do to minimize some of their need to rebel. But if you aren’t open to honestly assessing the built-in liabilities of their Christian upbringing, you probably aren’t going to gain much help from this exercise. If you are certain that doing more of the things on the “Parental Checklist” is the real answer, then I can’t help you.
Maybe a reminder of some of the items on that checklist might be appropriate here:
No bad movies
No bad friends
No bad music
Frankly, ramping up the intensity of any of these things might be the very trigger that makes your son or daughter want to rebel more. Is that because there is something inherently wrong with anything on the list? Of course not. Everything on the list can serve well a child’s spiritual life. But they are just items on a list if they aren’t bathed in grace and motivated by a deep and sincere relationship with Christ. Because of this, grace is going to be our starting point, our map, and our destination when it comes to dealing with this issue of why Christian kids rebel. If you are not interested in utilizing God’s grace when it comes to dealing with your errant child, not to mention dealing with yourself, there is little help I (or anybody else) can offer you.
You need to know some things at the outset: If you have a child who is up to her nose in rebellion, the world isn’t over for you. It’s not even close. You might think you can see the end of the world from where you are standing, but it just isn’t true.
As we’ve already seen, kids have rebelled against God from the beginning of time. Just about every family has at least one child who wants to take a “different” path from what the parents would prefer. None of us do our job perfectly. All families face pockets of resistance when it comes to raising their children. So don’t feel like you are some first-class failure as a mom or a dad because of your child’s mutiny. Just get in line with innumerable conscientious parents who are trying to figure out what to do.
And that’s not to trivialize the severity of what you are facing. It bears repeating: It’s a deep-down hurt when one of your kids is running from God. And some bigger-than-life problems can accompany this time in your child’s life. But none of them are bigger than our God. As much as you are concerned for your child, He is concerned far more. As much as you want to help, He wants to help more.
He knows your fears. He knows your hurts. And although you might feel as though your child has abandoned Him, He has not abandoned your child. He loves you, He loves your kids, and He will be with you throughout your entire ordeal.
And here’s something else you need to know: God does some of His finest work in the midst of our worst crises. He’s in the business of redemption. He’s a good shepherd who pursues His lost sheep. And He knows how to comfort the bruised and the battered.
This might be hard for you to accept right now, but you may actually come to a point where you look back on this season with your errant child as holding some of the finest moments of your life. It is during these times when we need God so much that we get to know Him better and better. These times may test your resolve as a parent, but they are also custom-designed opportunities to demonstrate to your wayward son or daughter the true depths of your love. You may come to realize, as so many parents have before you, that this time of rebellion is the very time when your children’s love for you and for their Savior is galvanized.
So stop whatever you’re doing. Look around. Listen carefully. And to quote the most frequently given piece of advice from our Savior, “Don’t be afraid.”
1. Were you rebellious toward God or your parents when you were a kid? How does the fact that you were (or weren’t) rebellious affect your attitude toward your own child rebelling? Does it better equip you, or handicap you?
2. Tim gave examples of three types of rebellious kids: Wendy’s daughter, Martin’s son, and the student in Dr. Evans’s Christian school. Even though this student isn’t aggressively rebellious, Tim sees his lack of concern for spiritual things as a form of rebellion. Do you think spiritual indifference or passivity should be considered a form of rebellion? Why? Why not?
3. Tim said that rebellious kids frighten, frustrate, embarrass, and injure parents (and other family members). If you’ve dealt with a rebellious child, which one of those four effects has been the hardest for you to deal with? Why?
4. Do you think your church is a safe and supportive place for your son or daughter to work out their issues with God or with you? How about your extended family?
5. Tim says, “Spiritual rebellion isn’t the worst thing that can happen to your child.” What are some of the “good things” that could come out of their rebellion for them personally? For you?
6. What do we communicate to our children about God when they see us afraid of the culture that surrounds them? Do you think our being afraid could contribute to their rebelling?
7. Tim mentioned the standard “checklist” of things people suggest we do to get our children back on track when they rebel. Why do you think these actions have very little effect on turning them around?
8. What is one thing God has taught you through this chapter?