When Kids Walk Away from Their Faith

This article includes thoughtful insights as we, as leaders, watch kids make their own choices in their faith journey.
6 min read

On a beautiful day in May while driving in picturesque northern Idaho, I pulled over on the shores of Lake Pend Oreille. With my fists clenched, I started pleading to God for “my girls” to choose Him.

My heart was in turmoil after just driving away from a weekend of graduation and parties. I no longer lived in Idaho, but the kids I had invested in when I was their children’s pastor still had a hold on my heart. I had flown across the country to celebrate their high school graduation, and in celebrating them I had seen the state of their hearts and their life choices.

It became evident that it wasn’t safe to drive. I was crying too hard. My tears were ANGRY. I was pleading with God to reveal Himself to them and allow them to choose Him. I sat there weeping and panicking because I felt as though I could see where the trajectory of their lives was going to take them.

As my sobs turned into sniffles and I finally quieted down, the Holy Spirit’s still small voice interrupted my pity party to say, “Mel, the best parts of our relationship have come out of your rebellion and choices. Why would you ask for less for the ones you love? Can you not trust me?”

Their Choices

Perhaps one of the most challenging parts of ministering to children is doing our very best to disciple them and then watching them make their own choices. As leaders, we love them and want what’s best for them.

We are not raising faith robots—we are helping to shape faith giants.

If we’re honest, we like to think we know exactly what that is. In reality, our job is not actually to choose for them but to point them to Jesus and allow the Holy Spirit to do the job He is so good at. We are not raising faith robots—we are helping to shape faith giants. And in order to become giants, they have to flesh out their faith on their own.

Asking Questions

Thoughtful Cute Girl Looking Away While Standing Against Blackboard
Image Credit: Svetlana Kramynina/EyeEm/Getty Images

As our kids grow, it’s normal and expected for them to question their faith. In fact, I think that is one of the true signs of a growing faith. I want them to ask big questions and think big thoughts because that indicates they are making their faith their own.

I used to encourage kids to ask me any questions they had about God and their faith. One day, like an epiphany, I realized that I was putting myself in a role I was not intended to hold. I was in danger of making disciples of myself instead of making disciples of Jesus.

While I can certainly answer the question, “Is Jesus real?” I would much rather they figure that out for themselves. They are working and growing their faith muscles and their identity in Christ as they wrestle with big questions.

So now I recognize that questions like these simply aren’t mine to answer:

Rather, it is my responsibility to point them to Jesus and let them know their big questions are awesome and perfect to take to a big God. Now, absolutely there are times I talk through things with them but that is only after I have made sure to encourage them to seek God’s guidance first.

Our Job

One of my favorite verses is Proverbs 22:6, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” My friends, that verse is a promise we can cling to. It also clearly delineates our job. We train up, they turn back to their training, and the Holy Spirit guides them.

Notice that our job is not to panic, not to plead, and not to try and tell the Holy Spirit the time and age we would like them to turn back. I find that when I start to feel overwhelmed with fear, it’s a warning sign that I have forgotten my role and the role of the Holy Spirit. When I realign myself with the truth, that is when I find peace and I’m able to pray, “thy will be done.”

I find that when I start to feel overwhelmed with fear, it’s a warning sign that I have forgotten my role and the role of the Holy Spirit.

Some of these little ones we pour our hearts and our souls into will walk away. In the process of making their faith their own, they will choose to walk away from their faith. I have a process I try to stick to when I see that happen.

Thoughtful teenage girl sitting at wellness center
Image Credit: Maskot/Getty Images

I Grieve

There is no way around it—it is incredibly heartbreaking to watch this happen. I try not to ignore it or make it “feel” better. I cry my little heart out and allow myself to feel the feels.

p.s. If it grieves God’s heart, it’s ok for it to grieve your heart.

I Question

I ask myself if I did my best to point them to Jesus and if I could have done things differently. If I see a change opportunity, I acknowledge it and I adjust as needed. It is important to not allow it to cripple me or stop me from moving forward. I am kind to who I was, and I move on as a wiser leader.

I Remain Available

It’s important to never ever cut kids off even though it hurts that they’ve cut God off. Remaining as present in their lives as they allow me to be is something I truly value. I do not try to convince them they’re wrong. I simply continue to affirm my love for them and the value they hold. And I let the Holy Spirit do His job.

I Pray

You better believe I pray. A lot. In fact, I often welcome their posts on social media to pop up. Even though it may be painful, it reminds me to pray. I pray without ceasing.

I Believe Proverbs 22:6

There isn’t a way to know the time. But I believe that at some point they will turn back to what they know. God’s Word never returns void (Isaiah 55:11). I continue to believe that, as the Holy Spirit calls them back, they will turn back to Him at some point in their lives.

God Is Faithful

In front of that lake, I slowly, and with great effort, unclenched my fists and pictured those girls in my hands. One by one, I released them and their stories to God. I purposely made the decision to trust that the One who made them would be faithful to keep calling them back to Him. He has never not been faithful.

I purposely made the decision to trust that the One who made them would be faithful to keep calling them back to Him. He has never not been faithful.

wonder ink

Wonder Ink

What if Sunday morning was just the starting point? Wonder Ink is a customizable digital curriculum and toolkit for creatively engaging kids and families in God’s Word. Wonder Ink sparks curiosity and guides children on a journey of faith through the wonder of God.
wonder ink

Wonder Ink

What if Sunday morning was just the starting point? Wonder Ink is a customizable digital curriculum and toolkit for creatively engaging kids and families in God’s Word. Wonder Ink sparks curiosity and guides children on a journey of faith through the wonder of God.
wonder ink

Wonder Ink

What if Sunday morning was just the starting point? Wonder Ink is a customizable digital curriculum and toolkit for creatively engaging kids and families in God’s Word. Wonder Ink sparks curiosity and guides children on a journey of faith through the wonder of God.
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  Updated on July 1, 2022

About the Author

Post Author
  • Melissa J. MacDonald is a leader of leaders, coach, author, and prolific speaker. She's considered one of the leading voices in children's ministry today. When she’s not traveling and speaking, you can find her in Iowa in her hometown leading an after school program for at risk kids and wrangling her puppy and foster son. She and her husband, Luis, have been married for 3 years and are big fans for ethnic food, adventures, and each other. Find out more at www.melissajmacdonald.com.

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