Research shows that the decision to leave the church happens most often between the ages of 10 and 17.
Many of us shudder when we think of our teen years—our questionable fashion choices, the social minefield, the pressures of a rapidly changing world, and the emotional highs and lows. At the same time, we can acknowledge the major changes and maturing we experienced during that time. That period of transformation and strong emotion is perfect planting ground for the seeds of a real, adult relationship with God.
The Center for the Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) recently published results from a survey on why and when young people leave the Church. Almost two-thirds of respondents who had left the Catholic faith reported that they made that decision between ages 10 and 17. A mere 13% said that they might return to the Church someday.
For several years I have worked as an 8th-grade catechist, and I come across the same question from parents of teens: How can you lovingly tend to and encourage your child’s fledgling faith to bloom?
1. Start with yourself
You’ll be hard-pressed to help fire up your teen’s heart for faith and worship if you’re not tending to your own spiritual well-being. So pray for yourself each day and speak honestly with God about the joys, pains, and hurdles of your life. You’ve been given the awesome task of guiding your children through life, and showing them the way to faith, so why not ask for His help to do it?
And don’t leave out your other teammate either. Talk frequently with your spouse about the shared responsibility of shepherding your family. Sit down together and brainstorm ways that you can create a home together that deepens the faith of the people who live in it with you. It might be as simple as reading together once a week, or creating a pretty paper mural of your favorite verses and sticking it to the fridge.
2. Make faith relevant
One of the biggest obstacles to your teen’s continued devotion to his faith is relevance. Your child may struggle on his own to understand the context of foreign-sounding scripture passages and relate adult-oriented sermons to his personal and spiritual life.
You can help your child make the Bible come alive by pointing out psalms to pray for every mood and circumstance. Flip to tales of friendship when he’s lonely, accounts of saints’ failures when your child needs a pick-me-up, and even funny passages when he needs a laugh! Show how these readings can have a very real place in his life.
Ask your child open-ended questions about his day, his struggles, and his thoughts on current events. Then really listen. Have him to talk through how he thinks Jesus would react to an issue he’s facing. If your teen is open to your input, consider sharing a relevant life experience or a pertinent Bible verse.
3. Encourage your teen to join a peer group
As much as you may want God’s voice and your own to be the only ones your teen hears, understand that peers and influential adults play a major role in your teen’s life. Instead of fighting the impact of outside forces, work with them. Sometimes a fresh perspective can jar us out of complacency and wake up our sleep souls.
Encourage your teen to join an established teen class or group at your church or another church in your area. Allow your teen the freedom to immerse herself in a teen retreat. Don’t rule out the power of online groups! Give your child unspoken permission to keep private her faith discussions with peers, teachers, clubs members, and friends.
4. Allow your teen some freedom of expression
Prayer is uniquely personal, so grant your child some latitude in developing his own approach. Expose your teen to many forms of prayer, including styles of Christian music, and see what sticks!
Also, consider shaking up your usual routine by visiting another church in your area to help your teen experience different styles of prayer and music while meeting new people. Ask your child for to compare them, and give his honest opinions about styles of prayer and worship. All of us experience different phases of our spiritual lives, so don’t be surprised if your teen transitions from traditional to modern prayer or migrates from love of contemporary hymns, or even gets enamored with Gregorian chants (though you can kind of see why that might appeal to a moody or dramatic teen).
The more you invite your child to help shape the way your family worships, prays, and celebrates faith-based holidays, the more engaged they’ll tend to stay in those activities. Let him lead family prayer, choose a mediation to read, or propose a new Christmas tradition.
5. Inspire your teen to give
Actively doing good works and forming a strong connection to your community is one of the best ways to show your child the impact their faith had on the real world. Instead of shielding your maturing child from the suffering of people in need, allow her to witness some of their pain and develop a yearning in her heart to aid them. It’s easy for teens—and the rest of us—to get wrapped up in our own needs and problems, so give your kids the gift of perspective (in an age-appropriate fashion, of course).
In working with a volunteer organization, your teen may stumble upon a true passion and perhaps even gain some insight into her role in God’s plan. But don’t forger you’ll probably need to drive your kids to all these service activities, so consider a carpool with other parents of teens who serve.
As the story famously goes, St. Monica, the mother of St. Augustine, was overwrought when her son abandoned his faith and would not listen to her. She was offered this sage advice: “Speak less to Augustine about God and more to God about Augustine.” As a result of Monica’s subsequent prayer, Augustine became a devout Christian whose words are still read today.
If Monica’s prayers for her son could bear such fruit, imagine what your heartfelt prayers and loving efforts can do for your own children!