What parents should do when their child deconstructs from the faith: Deconversion expert

Author and relationship expert John Marriott speaks in a June 2024 interview with Focus on the Family about what Christian parents should do if their children are deconstructing from the Christian faith.
Author and relationship expert John Marriott speaks in a June 2024 interview with Focus on the Family about what Christian parents should do if their children are deconstructing from the Christian faith. | Screengrab: YouTube/ Focus on the Family

What should Christian parents do when their children deconstruct from the faith? A relationship expert joined Focus on the Family this week to offer tips for what parents should and shouldn't do as they look to disciple their children with an authentic Christian faith. 

Author John Marriott, a former pastor and researcher who has penned at least five books on the topic of Christian "deconversion," said in an interview that aired Wednesday that deconstructing from the faith usually happens when someone realizes that their beliefs have just evaporated or eroded away.

This phenomenon of "deconstruction" has gained steam in the media in recent years thanks to the falling away from the faith of some well-known Christians.  

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"They haven't rejected the faith necessarily," Marriott, a faculty affiliate of The Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University's Institute for Quantitative Social Science, said. "They kind of just lost it. It is this slow loss of belief over time. And then, one day, they look down and their faith is gone." 

Marriott said when children come to their parents to tell them they have lost their faith, parents need to practice love and grace and emulate the kindness of God towards their children.

The first thing a parent should do is not to panic. 

"The second thing I think that we need to do is to say, 'Hey, thanks. Thanks for telling me that because I know that it's going to be really hard for you.' When young people come and say, 'I'm not sure I believe this anymore,' we're talking about maybe their entire identity, their group of friends, who they are, what their worldview is; this can be really traumatic. And for them to be willing to share this with you means that you have a good relationship with them, I think, which is something to be grateful for," Marriott said. 

"But, also to be able to say: 'Hey, thanks. I really appreciate that you're willing to share that with me because I know that that can't be easy.' Then, I think that the next thing to do is to listen really well and ask some very basic questions seeking understanding, but nothing more. 'How long have you been feeling this way?'" Marriott added.  

"Are you at a settled position, or are you still in process? What are some of the issues that have been challenging for you? Are you interested in inviting me into this conversation? I think those are helpful questions to ask."  

Parents need to listen more than talking when hearing their deconstructing children share their thoughts about the faith.

"I think that we listen far more than we talk as they share what's brought them to this place. Then, I think maybe the most important step of all is to say to them, 'You know, regardless of where you end up in this, whether you end up as someone who is a committed follower of Jesus like your mother and I or you say I don't believe in any of this anymore, we will still always love you. We will still be committed to your well-being, we'll still be your biggest champion. We will always be for you. We will never reject you,'" Marriott said.

The author said it is important for parents to live out their faith and share that faith with the children regularly even if their children are falling away from the faith. 

"I think we want to plant a good seed. I think that good seed, it has a solid center and has soft edges. When it comes to my own kids. … One of the things that my wife and I are intentional about doing is really trying to make sure they understand what is essential and what really is important when it comes down to what they believe as a follower of Jesus," Marriott stressed. 

"We would narrow that down to something like the Apostles Creed, that this is what is non-negotiable. If you're going to be a follower of Jesus, at least this is what you need to hold to. But, I have to recognize that not everything I believe is a non-negotiable and not everything I believe is an essential, and when I elevate those things to those levels, and I make my kids buy into all of them, that sets them up for disaster." 

Marriott, a former research and program coordinator for the Biola University Center for Christian Thought, advises parents to have their own personal spiritual disciplines that they regularly display openly to their children. 

"You will get from your kids what you are before them, and you can only be what you are before them in a deeply Christ-like way if you're connected to the source. If you are in His Word, and if you're spending time in prayer, if you're tapped into the vine, His life will live through you, and your kids will recognize and see that," Marriott said. 

"But, if you aren't, then oftentimes, what you will get is sort of a gospel of sin management or behaviorism, or living according to a set of rules, rather than living according to the life that Jesus gives us. I think that's really important."

Parents should allow children to have second authority figures that are leading them toward Christ, Marriott noted.

"​​I think another really helpful piece in all of this is finding what sometimes are called secondary authority figures, which are people outside of the family that are young people our children really gravitate towards or really like and appreciate and who can also fulfill the role of being an authoritative figure that can speak into their life and that they can share things with, that they wouldn't with us," Marriott said.  

"We have to sort of let them go and let them think. They're going to do what they're going to do anyway. The harder we hold on, the more of this sort of rebound effect will take place, … and the rebellion will come," Marriott continued. "I think having secondary authority figures in their life is going to help the parent respond well who has this conversation with your child who has been kind of secretive about the faith."

Nicole VanDyke is a reporter for The Christian Post. 

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