Supporting Families where Children have left the Church

Some time ago I wrote an article about children leaving the church. I mentioned that we should never be comfortable with anyone, young or old, rejecting or denying Christ or His church. Leaving the church or turning one’s back on God is a slap in God’s face, a rejection of His promises.

I asked if we sincerely admonish someone who is going in the wrong direction, on a destructive path? Do we take mutual discipline seriously? Do we ask him if all is well when we find his seat empty again on Sunday? Do we approach him, or would we rather not get involved? Would we perhaps rather not get into an uncomfortable situation and prefer to leave it to others to approach him? Many of us don’t want to get into such a vulnerable situation. It is much easier not to be confronting, and instead to be ‘nice’, isn’t it?

Leaving the church has disastrous consequences, not only for oneself, but for all those close to you, as well as in the communion of saints. Rev. Rob Schouten said this in the Clarion[i] a few years ago:

“It will probably affect your faith and your life with Christ for the rest of your life. If you have a family, your decision will also affect your children and perhaps many future generations.”

Leaving the church is worse than being excommunicated. At least when you go through the process of excommunication and the various admonitions that accompany such procedure, you are still under the protection and supervision of the elders. This protection is like an umbrella. If you leave the church on your own accord for whatever reason, then you throw that umbrella away. Then you are without that protection, and you are out in the rain. Then you are without the love and warmth of the communion of saints. Then you are out in the cold.

Encouragement

This time I would like to focus on our task of comforting and encouraging families where one or more children have gone astray. This is a most difficult task, for what can we say to these family members?

To be quite honest, most of us, including myself, will be speechless in such circumstances. Why? Because we cannot even begin to imagine how greatly parents suffer whose children have decided to go their own sinful way. This suffering and anguish are increased because parents often unduly blame themselves for having been poor parents. What do these parents do, for instance, with the words of Proverbs 22:6? There we read: “Train up a child in the way he should go. And when he is old, he will not depart from it.”

Some parents go through years of turmoil after one of their children has forsaken the Lord. They will continually ask themselves: ‘Where have we failed?’ They will wrestle with the question of how to deal with a problem of such gravity. They have put much effort and time into bringing up their child. Yet after many sacrifices they still do not reap the prayed-for rewards and think they have failed miserably. Some parents can become so overwhelmed with feelings of guilt and failure that they despair. They will continue to ask themselves: ‘What did we do wrong? What is God trying to teach us?’

Remember that the salvation of our children did not and does not depend on parents. They sow and water but God gives the growth. Sadly, children may reject the Lord and His work in their lives, His covenant and all it means. But that is an active choice made by them. It cannot be blamed on the sowing and watering. If they reject Him that is not the fault of the parents. If our children turn their backs on the Lord, it is a rejection on their part of His work and promises.

The words from Proverbs do not mean that parents have failed when their child goes astray. I believe that these words from Proverbs are to be understood as a general rule. We, also in our role as parents, are fellow workers with the Lord. He works through people He has appointed and whom He has equipped for their task. It is His work. With all our weaknesses, our sins and our failings, we work together with the Lord in bringing up our children.

Yet the reality is that these parents are faced with quite a significant struggle. Sunday is often the worst day of the week because that’s when they are confronted more deeply with their child’s rebellion and disobedience. That is when the reluctance to get ready for church becomes more evident. Their child might also refuse to go to Bible Study. Finally, they express his or her wish to leave the parental home, to enable them to do their own thing without interference from their parents, and to continue their life of sin. These parents suffer much anxiety because they find it necessary to disapprove of their child’s lifestyle choices.

I am very much aware that this is a sensitive topic, and it is with much trepidation that I approach this subject. However, we hear about more and more families who struggle with the problem of wayward children leaving the church and turning their back on the Lord. Therefore, I hope that this humble submission is edifying and encouraging, and above all God-honouring.

I am also aware that human words often fail in these situations. But as these parents continue to find ways to reach out to their wayward children, they will receive strength, courage, help and support from their heavenly Father. For He it is who has promised to be their Shepherd and Defender. So where human words fail, we may point one another to the comfort of God’s Word. God’s help and support are all encompassing and apply to all sorts of problems and disappointments, as we know from Psalm 46:1, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” Says Spurgeon, “We may be as timid by nature as the coneys, but God is our refuge; we are as weak by nature as bruised reeds, but God is our strength.”

There will be anxiety, concerns and difficult times, but God’s promise is sure and reliable. We may respond to Christ’s call when He says in Matthew 11:28, “Come to me, all you who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

Prayer

Because we feel so helpless in such tragic circumstances, we need to pray fervently and frequently, asking the Lord to intervene. “Pray without ceasing,”says the Apostle Paul to the Thessalonians (1 Thess 5:17). Parents need not give in to paralysing feelings of failure and hopelessness. They need to turn to God’s Word for guidance, comfort and encouragement. Let these words from Joshua 1:9 be bound on their heart: “Be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid, nor be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” We need to remember that with God nothing is impossible, and that He is able to bring the wayward ones back to the fold. He will listen to our fervent pleas. Let us not underestimate the power of prayer when, humanly speaking, the situation seems hopeless.

Let us also pray for patience in these trying circumstances; I quote from Rev. R. Bredenhof’s book:

“Even in the times when we must wait patiently for God’s answer, or when we have not at all received what we have prayed for, God’s will is that we pray “without ceasing”. We keep praying, for the relationship between him and us has not changed: in Christ he is still our faithful Father in heaven, he still knows exactly what we need every day, and he is certainly going to keep his promise to provide.”[ii]

Indeed, God knows what we need and when we need it. Therefore, we never give up praying for there are spiritual lives at stake.

The Lord can perform miracles, as He has shown us so many times. If the Lord is able to save the criminal on the cross at the eleventh hour, then it is abundantly clear that with the Lord nothing is impossible. Our hope is in the Lord, our God: “For the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save” (Isa 59:1). Therefore, continue to pray for the wayward “for Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb 13:8). There will be great joy in the families and in the church community, as well as in heaven, when sinners repent and are forgiven and return to the Lord in joy and thankfulness. God’s grace is as wide as the ocean! So, pray for one another!

Leo Schoof

FRC Byford

(i) Una Sancta, 16th May 2020, 221

(ii) Clarion, August 11, 2017, 451 [1]

(iii)Rev. Reuben Bredenhof, Hallowed – Echoes of the Psalms in the Lord’s Prayer, 112.


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