Our kids left the church. What do we do?

By Dr. Cathleen McGreal

It is not uncommon to find parents worrying about a child who has strayed from the church. Sons and daughters failing to recognize the importance of God in their lives can be a major source of anxiety for parents. When parents desire the greatest good for their children, namely eternal salvation, they naturally ask, “What can we do to bring our child back to the church?”

Holman Hunt's Light of the world
"The Light of the World" by Holman Hunt

Reflecting on Scripture may provide insight into this matter. Artist Holman Hunt is among those who pondered descriptions of salvation in the Bible. His painting The Light of the World was based on Revelation 3:20: “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.”

The painting shows Jesus standing in the dark, the only light coming from his lantern. He is knocking on a door overgrown with vines and weeds. The door evidently has been shut for a long time. Hunt intentionally did not paint a handle on the door, saying that the door to the human heart can be opened only from the inside. More than 150 years after its creation, The Light of the World can help us sort out some of our concerns and worries.

Keep in mind that God is gentle. It is difficult when a loved one isn’t opening the door to Christ, but you can’t force open the door to another person’s heart.

Trust God to continue calling to your loved one. This isn’t a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. God yearns for the door to be opened. Remember how the shepherd sought out the lost sheep, rejoicing when it was found! (see Luke 15:3-7)

Accept God’s timing. As you pray for your loved one, remember that no amount of effort will “produce” a result. As Jesus told his disciples, “Wait for the gift my Father promised.” (Acts 1:4)

In today’s world, we are used to instant messaging, fast food and immediate gratification, but God may call us to wait in stillness.

Pour out all your own fears to God. As the psalmist said, “All my longings lie open before you, O Lord; my sighing is not hidden from you.” (Psalm 38:10)

Psychologists describe two styles of reacting to stress: problem-focused coping and emotion-focused coping. Sometimes, it is best to focus on a problem because direct action is needed.

Worrying about the spiritual journey of a loved one, however, is more likely to involve emotion-focused coping, reviewing your own feelings toward the situation. Share your emotions with Christ and be renewed in the Eucharist. When you hear his voice, open your own heart and let his peace cast out all fears. 

Dr. Cathleen McGreal is a psychology professor at Michigan State University and a certified spiritual director.