Not long ago, my son had some disturbing news to share. He’d attended an event where several of his old friends who had graduated from his youth group showed up. When he asked how they were doing, too many of them explained that, since moving on from the high school ministry, they’d left the faith for various reasons.
Of course, others still had their relationship with God intact, but he was understandably sad. I’m understandably disturbed. The worst of it is, the ranks of older adolescents shifting from church to unbelief seem to be swelling.
Brett Kunkle at “Truth Never Gets Old” (conversantlife.com) compiled a number of studies confirming the problem of young people exiting the pews, and the statistical picture looks bleak.
For example, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Family Life Council concluded we’re losing 88% of our young adults. In 2007 LifeWay Research put the number at 70%; an Assemblies of God survey claimed a 66% exit rate; the Fuller Youth Institute says current data seems “to suggest that about 40-50% of students in youth groups struggle in their faith after graduation.” Barna himself claims we lose 61%, noting that “most twenty-somethings put Christianity on the shelf.”
Who’s the Villain?
Before blaming the church for this exodus, let’s remember that no program, pastor, or parent can override free will. As long as a someone is capable of saying yes or no to the faith (and its demands, which I suspect have a lot to do with all of this) then there will be those who just say no.
Nothing new about that. Jesus watched a number of His followers leave when His teaching got too heavy (John 6:66); the sower planted a good deal of seed symbolizing those who, per the Lord’s own interpretation of the parable, decided the cross was too much (Matthew 13: 1-23); many of Paul’s associates let him down in the end (II Timothy 4:16); and most of the churches in the Revelation got a rebuke. (Revelation 2-3)
The majority is often wrong, through no fault of God’s nor His ministers. People choose, and under the best of circumstances they can choose poorly. So we can’t say with integrity that when young adults depart from faith and fellowship, the fault automatically lies with the particular church they grew in, then rejected.
But the obvious question – “Have we done all we could to make disciples of our young people?” – has to be asked.
Some can and should answer in the affirmative. The youth ministry at the church we attend is, to my thinking, an awfully good one, so I’m grateful to say I’ve got no complaints there.
I can’t know how many other churches have solid, Biblically-based, creative and relevant youth programs. I suspect you can’t either. But we’ve got eyes and ears, and mine tell me, from what limited exposure I have to churches, that many are, in fact, falling short. Too much emphasis on entertainment; not enough on doctrine. Too much dumbing down; not enough challenge.
So there are three ways I wish we’d address this through what I call LAD – Learning the Faith, Applying the Faith, Defending the Faith.
Learning the Faith
Our children should be taught the basics of Christianity in their elementary school years; there’s a no-brainer for ya. Those are the times for Bible stories, age appropriate lessons, and clear, simple explanations of who God is, what Jesus has done for us, what the Bible says about both human history and the human condition, and how to be born again. The milk of the Word should, to my thinking, constitute the bulk of Sunday School material, so that by the time our children are ready for middle school, they both know and believe the basics. And, in my experience, they usually do.
Applying the Faith
Junior High marks the beginning of things getting much trickier. Learning about the faith (and specifically learning the Bible) doesn’t stop, nor should it, ever, at any age. After all, we’re not just wanting to raise Bible believing Christians, but Biblically literate Christians as well. But to my thinking, a new emphasis on applying what’s being learned should also be happening.
Because these are the years the rubber is surely meeting the road. Puberty’s kicking in, peer pressure mounts, new options present themselves. So I would hope every Junior and Senior High youth group would equip their young to apply the faith to their experience, because their experience surely is testing their faith!
They need to learn how to love the school bully, what’s OK or not OK about masturbation, how to defend the outcast, what the struggle between the flesh andthe spirit is all about, how to say yes to challenges, how to say no to drugs, sex and porn, and how God is able to help them deal with loneliness, academic pressure, weird moods, falling in love, good and bad teachers, competition, and decision making.
And that’s just for the 7th grade curriculum.
Seriously, then, our teens hopefully are learning not just what God has said, but how to apply what He’s said, what to do when you fall short of applying it well, and how to remain consistent in the faith when everything around you seems
Defending the Faith
No one stops learning; everyone needs ongoing help with the application So L and A apply for life, but the need for D also steps in pretty significantly by age 18. The College Years are years of reasoning, challenging, and broadening. By the time our kids are no longer kids, they’re in the arena of ideas and philosophies, so their beliefs will be scrutinized on all sides, even from within, and why not?
By then they should be asking themselves why they accept the Bible as authoritative, and their peers have every right to ask them the same. My hope is that we’ll always recognize the need to teach our people not just what to believe, but how to explain and defend it as well.
That’s why I’m strongly in favor of emphasizing apologetics during these years, an emphasis which, at least from what I can see, is not so strong. That’s too bad, because disciples should be able to dialogue, reasonably and securely, about Who they follow and What they believe. That’s just good stewardship.
It also answers a young adult’s need for something beyond himself, something he or she can feel passion for, something worth committing to. At that age, commitment to something meaningful seems to be an enormous need, leading countless twenty-somethings into cults and causes.
I hope we’ll respond to that need by equipping the upcoming generation to articulate the truths they’ve been learning, and to further articulate the reason they embrace those truths. I don’t think this can be stressed enough: We don’t want to be, or cultivate, people who are simply believers. We want to be and cultivate disciples as well which is, lest we forget, a critical part of the Great Commission. (Matthew 18:16-20)
Of Sadness and Sloppiness
We’re all sad to see young women and men we love walk away, not just from our churches and fellowship, but from Him. We ache; we cry and pray. And so we should, always remembering that God has an arsenal of means by which to bring the Prodigal home, so the story, statistics notwithstanding, is far from over.
Meanwhile, if they do walk, let’s at least be able to say with certainty that we weren’t sloppy; that all reasonable efforts were made to teach them the truth, help them apply it, and equip them to defend it. Saying that won’t ease the pain of their departure, but it will help answer the Could We Have Done Anything? question which inevitably comes up when we lose them.
Please, Lord, if we do lose them, let the loss be a temporary and short lived season; a blip in lives which eventually turn wholeheartedly to You, utilizing all the good they’ve been taught, getting past whatever bad they’ve experienced while with us, and searching out their own fresh and better ways to live and communicate the old old story we of all ages still love to tell.