We try jumping through religious hoops, ceremonies and rituals in order to be good role models, but it's just not working.
A fellow blogger, Marc, did dozens of interviews with 20-somethings from the college town where he lives. He compiled the ten reasons our kids leave the church.
My research, interviews done with young adults who grew up in church, turned up 6 key relationships in life. Recognizing and cultivating these six relationships will allow someone to maintain spiritual health and continue to grow spiritually throughout their lives.
It also happens to be the key to keeping our kids from graduating from a relationship with Christ when they graduate from high school.
Each of these relationships could be expounded upon in a book of its own, but just to get you started, here they all are:
Relationship #1 - The most influential relationship one has growing up is with their parents. This relationship can influence our actions well into adulthood and even after our parents' deaths.
For years, Lauren (all names changed to protect their identities) tried to meet up to the standards that she thought her parents had for her. In her thirties now, after therapy and an understanding husband, she has learned to recognize the role her parents have had in her life. Now, she is on a journey to live her life out of love for God and those around her rather than out of a compulsive need to meet a standard that she felt her parents had placed on her.
Bill, on the other hand, remembered his mom taking in a teenager who had no place to stay. “He had no place to go. It wasn’t like my Mom said, ‘Okay I’ll pray for you.’ She said, ‘Come live with us’ and she treated him like another son. That helped teach me what grace was about.” When his mom sacrificed time, gave up her Bible, and talked about Christ, the Jewish woman she had met at the nail salon accepted Christ as her Savior. After Bill moved out of the house, he looked back on the example his parents had set and saw how God wanted him to live his life.
The role of parents cannot be overestimated. Regardless of whether their influence was good or bad, how we face that reality can have either a positive or negative impact on all of our other relationships.
Relationship #2 - The relationship we have with our parents can be supplemented by other significant adults. They can reinforce the positive attributes of our parents and serve to fill in the gaps, sometimes quite significant gaps, when necessary.
These significant adults might be a coach or teacher, a grandparent, aunt or uncle, a pastor or friend from church. Whoever they are, we rely on them when we don't feel like we can rely on our parents.
Christina put it clearly when she said, "[He] was somebody I looked up to and respected and connected to. While it didn’t matter what I did and it didn’t matter what he said or thought, he was somebody that I could sit down and have a conversation with about God or not about God. He listened and he cared and for a long time when I was fighting the whole being a Christian or not being a Christian and is it worth going through all of this. He was definitely somebody that would listen to everything I had to say, good or bad."
Other significant adults are people that we look to for acceptance and wisdom. People that we can be completely honest and open with.
Relationship #3 - Our relationship with peers begin becoming influential in our adolescent years. That's not new. But, the reality is, these relationships can give us the courage to take risk and explore the boundaries that life gives us.
As a parent, we usually want to stop our children from taking risks. But, taking risks is critical to personal growth and development.
Danielle recalled one time when she went with a friend to a church that had a female pastor. In her church tradition, pastors could never be women. That would be “scandalous”! Her parents allowed her to go and so she took a friend along for support. As a result, she felt like her faith “was more or less up to me and I think that helped that I had friends that were like, ‘Yeah, let’s go do that. Let’s go to a Christian concert that isn’t hymns.’” Her friends gave her courage to take risks and explore her faith.
While parents can provide us a secure foundation and significant adults can offer us acceptance without condemnation, peers who share a similar faith and worldview can give us the courage to explore, question and doubt.
Relationship #4 - Our relationship to our self, or our search for our identity is the next key relationship. Any or all of the first three relationships may have been lacking or completely missing (and that too can be faced in the grace of Christ.) But, everyone has oneself.
There are two forces which drive us as we seek to become an individual. The first is the desire to belong. We long for the experience of being loved and accepted and connected with another that makes us feel important and desirable. The second is the drive toward autonomy. The desire to be free of outside expectations and constraints. The captain of one's own ship.
We often vacillate between these two extremes trying to strike some kind of balance. The reality is we need to push both to the extremes and find our place in the tension.
Christina found that it was easier to be herself with her friends that she made at the bar then it was to be herself at church. It was only after she left the church that she was able to believe, "I am a good person." Similar to each of the other interviewees, she found it difficult to be honest with those in church. She felt judged and therefore was unwilling to be open about her feelings and struggles. “I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t feel like I have to go to church just to make people happy. Where I don’t care if somebody says, ‘Wow your daughter is not a very good person because she doesn’t go to church anymore.’ I don’t care. I am who I am.”
In order to grow and develop in our relationship to our self, we have to be willing to be ourselves and enter into relationships without anxiety about how they may perceive us.
Until you don't need the relationship in order to feel good about yourself, you will never truly enjoy the the person you are with.
Relationship #5 - Our relationship to God. I am a Christian, so I believe that this, too, is a universal relationship that we all must cultivate. But, I realize that not all people do. So, if it helps you to conceive of this as your relationship to the unseen forces of the universe, a higher power, this is still relevant for you.
God tends to communicate to us in different ways based on His specific relationship to us. If we are open to hearing form him through the Bible, he teaches us in those pages. If we are open to hearing him in the silent times of our prayer, he speaks. If we are more of the dreams and visions type, we will find him there. Granted, sometimes he speaks to us in ways that we aren't as comfortable with too. But, He is faithful and will speak to us in ways that we can hear.
The way to have a healthy relationship with God is to respond to Him with truth and love. He continues to extend grace and love to us day after day. Whether it is the poem, Footprints in the Sand, or the song, Amazing Grace, the way we respond to Christ's love for us allows us to face life with a clear understanding of reality.
Our initial response to Christ might be disbelief or full acceptance, but He continues to draw us to Himself. We can respond by accepting our own sinfulness, confessing it and receiving His grace and forgiveness. In acknowledging His death and resurrection and our need for salvation, we begin a mutual relationship with the God who planned for our birth and every aspect of our lives.
A relationship with Christ can often become the most influential relationship in our lives. It can fill the gaps left by all of the other relationships in our lives and propel us with purpose into the 6th key relationship.
Relationship #6 - Our relationship to the world around us. The circumstances in our lives that leave us reeling in pain or rolling on the floor in laughter. The interaction that we have with those whom we consider to be "other". As we grow up and grow in depth of our soul, the number of people whom we consider to be different or "other" shrinks. We begin to see ourselves as more similar than dissimilar to those around us.
As we wrestle with why bad things happen to us or possibly even why good things happen, we have a choice to make. How will we see the world? A place to escape from, hide from, or survive. Or a place to enter into with purpose and a mission. People to engage with love and grace or people to distance ourselves from in fear and anxiety.
These 6 key relationships are relevant for all of us, all people for all time.
We need to make some choices. We can choose to face the reality of the relationships we have and choose to build those that we can.
 Chris J. Boyatzis, David C. Dollahite, and Loren D. Marks, “The Family as a Context for Religious and Spiritual Development in Children and Youth” in The Handbook of Spiritual Development in Childhood and Adolescence, eds. Eugene C. Roehlkepartain et al., (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc., 2005), 301–2.
 The Barna Group, “Most Twentysomethings Put Christianity on the Shelf Following Spiritually Active Teen Years,” The Barna Group, September 11, 2006, http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/16-teensnext-gen/147-most-twentysomethings-put-christianity-on-the-shelf-following-spiritually-active-teen-years (accessed October 8, 2011).