I meet at lot of Christian parents of agnostic social-justice-obsessed Millennials.
The question they keep asking me is: “What happened?” but the look on their faces asks, “What did I do wrong?”
I think they ask me because I spent the better part of my twenties as a social-justice-obsessed agnostic (I’m now a pastor, it’s actually kind of a funny story).
Their families’ stories are painfully similar to my own.
They raised their kids in the church. Like, deep in the church. Kids Club, VBS, Sunday School, Bible Camp… They prayed around the dinner table and read the Bible before bed. They watched every Christian cartoon – vegetables or miniature imaginary friends or time-traveling kids–you name it.
Then at 18 their kids grew up and left the house.
And if their children were anything like me, a year or two later, we sat you down at the dinner table and informed you (in pretty condescending tone I might add) that your most cherished beliefs were based on a bunch of made up fairy tales. That all major religions had the same stories, and that saying Jesus was your best friend wasn’t going to make the world a better place.
That we had seen poverty and racism. We had learned the world was millions of years old and it was about to flood from too much carbon dioxide in the air. That Church was just a country club and we were going to get some real work done at a non-profit or an inner-city school.
And that we weren’t eating the dinner you made because we were now vegans.
Basically: Your Christianity is small and stupid, and I am smart, so therefore I don’t need it.
For most of us this declaration was not received well. Some of my friends’ parents followed it up with shouting or the silent treatment. At my house it descended into an emotionally manipulative quiz bowl where my Dad and I went back and forth trying to poke holes in the other’s arguments. Eventually we got so exhausted and hurt we just stopped talking about it.
Regardless of how it all went down, the results seems to be the same. Eventually most parents and kids got so hurt and angry that they stopped talking about it. And their agnostic children went to work for some non-profit and the parents tried to be as supportive as they could, hoping agnosticism was just a phase.
This all must have seemed pretty confusing. Seeing us leave the house with a WWJD bracelet on and come home two years later beating you over the head with a copy of The Inconvenient Truth.
Now, every person’s life is unique so I don’t claim to speak for everyone. But for the vast majority of these parents I can confidently say, “You didn’t chase your child away from God.”
If you were like my parents, and the Christian parents of my many still-agnostic friends, you did so many of the right things. You tried to make faith real and alive. You tried to teach us the Bible and make it fun and relevant to our lives.
And I’ll be the first to admit, we could have been more diplomatic. But 20-year-olds aren’t generally known for their diplomacy.
What most parents didn’t see was the two years between leaving the house for college and having that conversation.
While life was most likely rolling on as usual for you.
We were reading books and meeting a lot of new people. We were meeting homeless people forced into shelters by mental illness. We were having late night discussions about systemic racism and public policy.
While you were waking up for your daily devo’s we were reading Gandhi’s autobiography. We started exploring the world. Some of us went to boarding schools in Africa, some of us made a gay friend, and at some point most of us picked up a sign and started marching for or against something.
And somewhere between the protests and the Bhagavad Gita and the late night discussions about Evolution – we lost our faith.
For some of us it was that the suffering of the world was too big to reconcile with a belief in a loving God, for others it was the slow discovery of cracks in the supposedly infallible Bible. For me, it was the devastating realization that every non-Christian I met thought I was a judgmental prig.
And by the time we worked up the courage to tell you we were having some serious doubts about the faith of our childhood, we were so confused and anxious and hurt that we came across a little strong.
Most of us were so eager to spiritually emancipate ourselves, we forgot we were ripping apart not only your most cherished beliefs, but beliefs you were hoping were going to be ours as well.
Now that I’m thirty, I have some distance.
And when I look back now and I see something deeper was going on, something that has been a part of every generational change that I’ve ever studied
We were over-compensating.
It’s what youth do.
So when parents ask me, “What happened? What did I do wrong?” I tell them, “You didn’t do anything wrong. You taught your kid the Golden Rule–to love their neighbors as themselves. And that is what they are trying to do.”
They just took loving people to another level.
From handing a homeless person a Bible to making sure the city has enough beds so no one has to sleep out on the streets, it’s the same impulse.
And it’s one you gave us. We just super-sized it.
And as for “Loving God with all your heart, soul, and mind,” I try to gently remind them that their kids already know all the factoids and Bible lessons. You taught them, remember?
So don’t try to win anymore arguments or come at them with Bible verses.
Your job is to be their parents.
To love them, to tell them you’re proud of them. Maybe try and find a cause you can both agree on and go to a protest, or re-post their article on Facebook once in a while.
Because it’s ultimately not your job to save their souls.
In the end, it’s God’s job. God could easily part the clouds and shout at your kid like Paul on the road to Damascus. So if God doesn’t do that, well, that’s on God.
And try and take solace in the fact that someday our kids will grow up. After years of us pushing their strollers through #blacklivesmatter protests and taking them to teen yoga classes, I’m confident that their generation will grow up, leave home, and a few years later sit us down around the dinner table and have some pretty condescending things to say about the values we raised them with.
To all you agnostics who are looking for ways to talk with your Christian parents about faith, I wrote a piece with my atheist friend Simon Reading.
Talking to Parents about your Changing Faith (or lack thereof) by Nathan Roberts and Simon Reading
A special thanks to my agnostic friends and Christian parents who helped me write this post.