“We all have dreams for our families,” says David Strope, pastor of Ankeny (Iowa) Baptist Church. For David and Debbie Strope, two of those dreams were for their children to know Christ and to fashion their lives not by their parents’ will but by God’s will. A child’s decision to follow a path away from faith is one of life’s most challenging circumstances for Christian parents, particularly pastors.
Leading a 2020 GARBC Conference breakout session called “When Adult Children Wander: Living and Pastoring Well in the Face of Close Departure” June 29, Strope spoke from experience. He and his wife, Debbie, faced the heartbreaking situation of one of their adult children choosing to depart from the gospel.
In his session, Strope offered encouragement and observations for families facing similar circumstances. But first he clarified that he was referring to adult children, not children who are still being raised and trained by their parents.
To parents whose adult children have wandered from faith in Christ, Strope says, “You are not alone. Scores upon scores of families are dealing with the departure of an adult child from the gospel.”
When adult children wander, inevitably parents draw their focus inward, looking for possible failure on their part. An inward focus is normal, Strope says, adding that it would be foolhardy not to admit areas of personal failure. But parents should not accept responsibly for the choices, patterns, and pursuits of their grown child; those are ultimately the child’s responsibility.
Children who depart from the gospel often create an emotional distance, placing the cause for this fellowship chasm upon their parents, Strope notes. Adult children who depart also tend to place responsibility for the changing parent-child relationship on the parent. However, the distance created, the inevitable emotional chasm, has been created by the children’s departure. This we must help them understand.
Parents can try to bridge that chasm by maintaining communication with the wayward child. Speak in love—with kindness rather than anger or out of raw hurt—without approving the child’s choices, Strope advises.
David and Debbie Strope love all of their children equally. But he says love for Christ should supersede all earthly loves. “I must decide to be happy that if my child never returns to Christ, I will still find joy and satisfaction in Christ alone.”
As a pastor, Strope had to navigate his child’s choices in the context of his church, especially since his child had previously been an active member of the family’s church. Church members need to have “a healthy perspective of those in ministry,” Strope says, echoing the statement of Mike Hess, GARBC national representative, in his keynote session of the conference. We all need to be careful about how we are viewing other families, even pastors’ families, Strope says. “Avoid making assumptions. We don’t always know what’s going on behind the veil. We don’t know some of the burdens, some of the travails, some of the difficulties that families experience.”
When asked how church members can help a pastor whose child has wandered, Strope responds that he appreciates when people mention once in a while that they pray for his child, and he is especially grateful for people who have maintained friendships with his child in order to communicate the gospel.
A child wandering from faith in Christ “takes you down a peg or two,” Strope says. But he tells families, “Don’t let the departure of a family member sway you from your own faithfulness to Christ.” He shares this quote from his former mentor, a pastor: “Problems are God’s call to personal and corporate revival.”
“That’s nonetheless true with a departing child,” Strope says. Thinking of his own wandering child, he asks, “God, how are You going to teach me? How are You going to bring me to greater love and faithfulness and obedience to Christ? What are You trying to do in my life in order to improve my ministry opportunities?”
Strope says he takes great comfort in Romans 5:2–3: “We boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”