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3 Ways NOT to Lead Your Fallen-Away Child Back to the Church

November 3, 2015


If your son or daughter has drifted away from the Church, you’re not alone. The Catholic Church is hemorrhaging young people. Half of young Americans who were raised Catholic (50% exactly) no longer identify as Catholic today. Roughly eight-in-ten (79%) who shed their faith leave before age 23.

Some drift away as teenagers while searching for their own identity. Some have been hurt by people in the Church. Others slide into lifestyles that conflict with Church teaching. Many go off to college, connect with non-Christians or skeptical professors, and slowly lose their faith. Some move into the world, start a family, and get swept up in work, hobbies, and family life, losing their faith in the shuffle.

There are lots of stories but most of them share the same outcome: young people leaving the Church.

Of course, we’re all desparate to draw them back. (In fact, today I launched a free 4-part video series on how to lead your child back to the Church, which thousands of parents are using. Sign up here!)

But that desperation can sometimes lead us to pursue the right goal with the wrong methods. So if you want to draw your child back, let’s look at three strategies you should NOT use. Each of these mistakes will create a wall between your child and his return.

(To be clear, when I say “child” in this article, I’m primarily referring to young adults, not adolescents.)

1. Force him to Mass.

“Ugh! If I could only get him to start going to Mass again!” Maria complained to me, lamenting her teenage son. “It doesn’t matter what I do — beg, plead, command, cry — none of it works. A few times I was able to force him to go by threatening to lock his cell phone data or cut his allowance, but even then he just sat in the pew and clearly didn’t want to be there.”

Here’s a crucial and maybe surprising tip: stop forcing your child to attend Mass.

Counterintuitive? Sure. But if you want to make lasting progress with your child, attending Mass should be the last piece of the puzzle, not the first. It’s the final destination, the fruit and consequence of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, not the cause of it.

You have to lay down other building blocks first in order for the Mass to benefit your child’s soul. A priest recently observed to me, “If someone comes to Mass, unwilling and unprepared, he’s in great danger of spiritual sickness. As long as our agenda is simply to get people to Mass — if that’s all we’re trying to do, without any intermediary steps — we’re likely making them sicker, from a spiritual perspective.”

That idea may seem discomforting, but it goes back to St. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians. There he wrote, “A person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many among you are ill and infirm, and a considerable number are dying.”

Paul was alluding to physical pains the Corinthian people had suffered as a result of not celebrating the Mass with proper reverence, and specifically not recognizing the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. In our day, it’s rare that God strikes down someone with sickness or death just for dozing off at Mass or for casually receiving the Blessed Sacrament. But if we come to Mass unprepared, unfocused, or unwilling to participate, then we could suffer serious spiritual effects. Instead of uniting us to God, the Mass could distance that relationship.

Of course, most parents don’t intend this. When they force their child to Mass, they’re acting out of good intentions and know that 1) Jesus is present at Mass in a special way, so 2) they should do everything possible to get their child there. This emphasis is spurred on by Protestant culture, which surrounds us, in which the general worship service is viewed as a gateway to full participation in Christian life. If our Protestant brothers and sisters want to lead a fallen-away friend back to the Lord, their first move is to bring him to church. Once there, they know he will find a warm reception, a relevant and powerful message, and an invitation to join a small group community. In other words, if the path of discipleship is a funnel, Protestants place the church service at the top, the beginning of the funnel, while Catholics place the Mass at the bottom, at the end of the funnel.

So next time you’re tempted to push and goad your child to attend Mass, even when you know he’s deeply resistant, pull back a bit. Don’t force him, and don’t reiterate that skipping Mass is a mortal sin — that’s true, but mostly unhelpful at this stage. Plant other seeds first.

2. Criticize his lifestyle.

Abraham Piper, who drifted away from church as a teenager, has good advice for parents of children who make bad moral decisions: don’t lead with moral disapproval. “If he’s struggling to believe in Jesus, there is little significance in his admitting that it’s wrong to get wasted, for instance. You want to protect him, yes, but his most dangerous problem is unbelief — not partying. No matter how your child’s behavior proves his unbelief, always be sure to focus more on his heart’s sickness than its symptoms.”

Beginning with moral commandments is often a non-starter for young people. If the first thing your child hears is “stop doing that” or “change your life” or “break off that relationship,” he will quickly tune you out. You’ll never have a chance to make a more persuasive case for his return to God and his Church. This doesn’t mean you should just watch silently and passively as your child makes bad decisions. Instead, it means your first approach should be marked by gentleness and patience, not criticism.

Pope Francis has spoken out often against such a “moral commandments” approach. In his first big interview as pope, he explained how introducing someone to Jesus Christ before getting to the moral requirements that flow from that encounter is the best strategy: 

“The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you…. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow….The proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives. Today sometimes it seems that the opposite order is prevailing.”

Most young people today believe in something called “moralistic therapeutic deism”, which places a strong focus on the dos and don’ts of faith (hence the “moralistic” term). But as a parent, your goal is not simply moral improvement or behavior modification. Your goal is reversion, to draw your child into a thriving relationship with Jesus in his Church. Once you do that, the moral changes will inevitably follow.

But let’s be frank: this isn’t easy. It will involve biting your tongue many times when you feel the urge to rebuke your child, knowing that will likely drive him farther away. Yet as Bert Ghezzi pithily affirms, “The scar tissue will be worth it!”

(Sometimes, moral rebuke is necessary for a child to begin his return to the Church. Wayward children sometimes need someone to snap them out of their moral confusion and say “These decisions are destroying your life” or “You can be so much more if you choose a different path.” But it’s often better when that correction isn’t the first thing they hear and, ideally, when it comes from a trusted friend, mentor, or significant other. Your relationship with your wayward child is likely already tenuous and should be protected at all costs. Don’t risk it by leading with a strong rebuke.) 

3. Nag him.

Many parents nag, badger, and hound their children — even far into their adult lives — to get them to attend church more often or change their lifestyle. These strategies almost never work and, in fact, they usually have the opposite effect: many people purposely stay away from the Catholic Church just because their parents constantly harp on them.

So commit right now to putting away questions like, “Why are you doing this to us?” or “When are you going to stop being so lazy and come back to church?” It’s almost impossible to have your child fully feel your pain, to know how desperately you want him to return to the Church. So it’s not worth wasting your energies on nagging him or sending him on a guilt trip. 

Even worse than general nagging, though, is passive-aggressive nagging. Sarah, a young adult who had stopped going to Mass, said to me, “I can’t stand it when my mom gets on me about church but I hate it even more when she does it by making little comments, or sighs, or when she clucks her tongue. She goes on and on about how my sister goes to Mass and the feeling I get is that she’s somehow a better daughter. Ugh! It just bugs me so much. It’s worse than if she just came and out said what she thought instead of pretending she was trying to help.”

St. John Paul II, perhaps the most effective evangelist of the twentieth century, summed up a better, alternative strategy. He said simply, “The Church proposes; she imposes nothing.” Parents who successfully draw their children back to the Church don’t nag or force religion on their children. Instead they invite them, gently and respectfully, through warm conversation and unconditional love. Don’t complain about your child’s deficiencies; invite him to something better. Propose, but don’t impose.

If you want more tips like these – and want to learn the tips and strategies you should be implementing – be sure to sign up for my free 4-part video series on helping your child return to the Church. You can find the videos at: