Those Dastardly Young People Leaving Church

hipsterThe last few years have seen a crush of hand-wringing, panicked stricken articles and books bemoaning how today’s youth are abandoning traditional churches and Christianity altogether once they reach college age.

The authors of these garment rending laments are often self-appointed pop cultural analysts who believe they are on the front lines of the modern culture war assailing Christians everywhere. They are anyone from parachurch apologists to popular youth personalities, and they are sounding the alarm about the exodus of young people from Christianity who were raised in loving Christian homes whose parents took them to church regularly, taught them the Bible, and in many cases enrolled them in Christian schools or homeschooled them.

Once they leave home for the first time, those fresh young people are genuinely exposed to the “real world” and their naivete is dashed up against the rocks of secularism. They come to recognize the folly of religious faith and rapidly become embarrassed by their parents devotion to their sad traditional Christianity.

As our cultural crusaders rightly point out, the phenomena of Christian kids leaving the faith is certainly something to notice; and I would add, the church needs to consider why that is happening. A number of explanations have been offered, but the reasons suggested, I believe, are wildly off target.

With that stated, I want to respond to this article posted recently at CharismaNews Online. (BTW, CharismaNews is swiftly becoming a gold mine for quality crazy stuff on the internet that makes for excellent blog fodder, but I digress).

6 Reasons Young Christians Abandon Church

The article is a summary of a book written in 2011 by a guy named David Kinnaman called You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church and Rethinking Church. I’ll let you search it out on Amazon.  According to the article, Kinnaman, who oversees the research arm of the Barna Group, identifies six significant themes that explains why millennial hipsters are dropping traditional churches faster than a cup of Maxwell House instant coffee. The article then proceeds to lay out those themes and offer commentary as to why Kinnaman’s analysis is so revolutionary and cutting-edge, and why we old dinosaurish Christians need to take him seriously.

Because I believe the good bulk of such scaremongering commentary is vapid and needlessly hysterical, along with being misdirected, I thought it would offer my rejoinder.

It is important that we begin by considering who it is who wrote the article. There isn’t one individual person named, but apparently, it’s an anonymous theological hack from the group called Biologos.

The folks at Biologos are in essence evangelical atheists. They exist for no other reason than to push anti-supernaturalism, theistic evolution, and to be a hub for where bitter, cranky anti-creationists gather daily to hurl insults at Answers in Genesis and ICR.

The one truly bizarre thing about this article is it is published on Charisma’s website. The fact that a charismatic driven website, where the claims of God’s miracle power are posted everyday, would publish an article by a freakish religio-secular hybrid like Biologos, only continues to affirm to me the profound lack of spiritual discernment at Charisma’s editing board.

But heaven forbid I be accused of “ad hom.” I certainly wouldn’t want that. I mean, I should just ignore the source of this article. What matters are the arguments put forth, right? Who cares about those pesky presupposition filters?

Reason #1 – Churches seem overprotective. It is suggested that churches are “hiding” the truth of the world from their youth. That they are only concerned about rock music, R rated movies, and pre-marital sex. So that when the little simpletons leave home, the secularist eat them for breakfast the first day of community college class.

If by protective, they mean to say churches don’t expose their young people to every whim of doctrine, crackpot theology, and wack-a-doodle idea out there, well, I certainly want a church to protect their young people from foolishness.  They should be taught to be suspicious of seducing spirits and they should be trained with the ability to properly discern, even if the scold writing this article thinks it keeps them out-of-touch.

Reason #2 – Teens’ and twentysomethings’ experience of Christianity is shallow. I actually agree with the point here. Regrettably, the modern experience of Christianity for not only young people, but nearly everybody across the red state, evangelical spectrum is shallowness that is the proverbial mile wide and foot deep. That includes the lame worship services led by a knock-off of the local coffee shop folk band, pre-fab Sunday school lessons that teach a Scripturaless morality, and the preaching, which amounts to nothing more than a life coach giving his congregation a spiritualized TED talk.

This point captures the primary reason Christians are leaving church: the church has become the equivalent of a Vegas show and that gets boring real quick.

Reason #3 – Churches come across as antagonistic to science. The idea of “antagonistic to science” is Biologos codeword for, “Christians believing in a literal, historical Genesis, a real, historical Adam and Eve, and a young earth.”

I’ll admit right now that I love science. I love my car, my ipod, my computer, my wifi, my air conditioning, my cough syrup, and the many other uncountable areas where my life is greatly improved by “science.”

But this point is deceptive. Contrary to our dishonest author, I can affirm a historical Genesis, a real, historical Adam and Eve, and an Earth under 10,000 years of age, and still do science. One cannot, however, deny a historical Adam and the historicity of Genesis only for the purpose of accommodating Darwinianism with the Bible and remain an orthodox Christian.

One humorous note about this point is how it is posted on a website that in the side bar there is a link to an article talking about a guy raising people from the dead and trumpet sounds in the sky being indicators of Christ’s soon return.

Reason #4 – Young Christians’ church experiences related to sexuality are often simplistic, judgmental. In other words, young people don’t like being told they have to be married to have sex, and specifically to a person of the opposite sex, and they have embraced the empty headed histrionics of homosexual advocates defending same sex marriage.

Reason #5 – They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity. Under this point, one of the reasons young people struggle with the exclusivity of Christianity is that “churches are afraid of the beliefs of other faiths.” Why would young people wrestle with a concept of exclusivity? Jesus made some rather strong, exclusive statements about Himself, about God, and a number of other issues that are clearly delineated in Scripture. How exactly is that a problem?

Why would young people be troubled that their churches uphold the biblical claims of exclusivity? Are they completely oblivious to the intellectual disconnect they’ve created? On one hand they’re complaining about how shallow church is (see #2), but on the other, if the church just so happens to be deep with their affirmation of biblical Christian orthodoxy, they wrestle with that because it’s supposedly a bad thing? I don’t get it.

It seems like to me they have fallen prey to the folly of postmodern, relativistic thinking. Affirming one’s faith as exclusive is something orthodox Christianity has historically maintained and is hardly something to wrestle over. Even the progressive Christians makes claims of exclusivity when they abandon an exclusive understanding of the Christian faith and then proclaim that it is stupid.

doubtReason #6 – The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt. Honestly, the reason why a church may feel unfriendly to those who doubt, is because those who doubt are generally insincere about their so-called “doubt.” If a young person begins to express his “doubt,” more than likely he was already at a personal place of hostility with the church leadership. When any effort is giving to offer answers, the kid doesn’t want those answers, and then turns around and claims no one answered his questions. Such a person either becomes a radical skeptic, or a militant gay activist, or some other smug malcontent who complains how the church is unfriendly.

Now. I don’t want to dismiss all of those points entirely. There is some truth lurking behind them. But rather than concluding that local churches have failed in meeting the false expectations of young people that only in turn pushes them out the door and into secular irreligiousity, the primary reason they abandon the faith and leave church is that they didn’t have faith to begin with. They were never regenerated and never believed savingly upon the true Gospel of Jesus Christ. It really has nothing to do with them being overly protected or a church being anti-science. They never had faith, and college only reveals that fact.

That is not to say churches didn’t have a hand in their abandonment. The second point above rings true: If a church manufactures a shallow, atheological, abiblical, moralistic atmosphere, hardly anyone is going to be saved. Any preaching, teaching, and activities geared only towards moralistic entertainment, will only beget entertained moralists who will be exposed as fake Christians when they encounter the world.


20 thoughts on “Those Dastardly Young People Leaving Church

  1. I think point #1 has some credibility, but probably not in the way this author intended. I think it actually goes hand in hand with point #2. Many churches think they have to protect their children from the hard truths of the Bible (we’re all sinners, no one is good, we all deserve death and Hell, etc.) and just tell them “Bible stories”. When we don’t show that the Bible is full of real history and explains our true state before God, then we leave the door open for somebody to poke holes in everything that we have taught them. Kids can handle a lot more than most people give them credit for…and they are a lot more receptive to the truth when they are young then after they become ingrained in how to best follow their hearts.

    Good job identifying the irony of CharismaNews using an article from Biologos. I guess that they figure the enemy of their enemy is their friend…of course, one would think they could summon a prophecy to tell them better.

  2. Your position on historical Genesis is a main reason young people are not listening anymore. 10,000 years old? Ridiculous. But there is a point that is overlooked by both side. Science does not prove or disprove religion and the Bible does not prove or disprove science. But the Bible is a very important scientific tool in areas of Hebrew history, an archeological tool and a guide in social anthropology of the era of OT. Science and faith are on two different planes and the do not intersect. The Roman Catholic position on birth control is also another reason people don’t listen or attend. The sad part there is that by not attending they miss instruction on the truths of the Gospel and fellowship with a Christian community.

    You can be a Christian by giving testimony to how you live each day. It does not matter if you believe in evolution, believe in Genesis or don’t pay attention to either one.

  3. Carl writes,
    Your position on historical Genesis is a main reason young people are not listening anymore. 10,000 years old? Ridiculous.

    I would argue that the majority of red state evangelical churches from where the young people are leaving would agree with your take. They don’t affirm an historical Genesis at all, but instead embrace a view of theistic evolution, progressive creationism, or some other deep time position.

    Your assumption is that ALL Bible believing churches teach an orthodox, biblical view of Genesis. They do not. If anything, they are extremely accommodating in this area for young people, IF that were the reason young people are leaving. Obviously it is more than that. As Robert pointed out, church leadership tends to avoid those so-called “hard” truths of Scripture in order to keep from offending people.

    Science does not prove or disprove religion and the Bible does not prove or disprove science.

    It certain does not. But how are you defining “science?” If you mean a deep-time Darwinian evolutionary interpretation of history, then it certainly does contradict the Bible, because the Bible reveals an entirely different understanding of earth’s history than what is proposed by Darwinian evolution. They are wildly in conflict with one another, and to ignore that, or dismiss it as irrelevant, is foolish.

  4. Carl writes:
    “You can be a Christian by giving testimony to how you live each day. It does not matter if you believe in evolution, believe in Genesis or don’t pay attention to either one.”

    So, in other words, you can be a have a shallow understanding of the Gospel and still be a Christian? Jesus believed Genesis. Paul believed Genesis. But hey, who cares what they believed! A historical Adam? Paul not only believed in a historical Adam, he maintained that it is through Adam’s act of disobedience that we all are born sinners and under the curse of sin. Paul even referred to Jesus as the second Adam. Without a historical Adam, the Gospel really doesn’t make sense.

    I suppose you can be a Christian and not believe in Genesis, but only to the extent that you can have a marginal (at best) understanding of the Gospel and still be a Christian.

    “Your position on historical Genesis is a main reason young people are not listening anymore. ”

    They aren’t listening because they are dead in their sins and trespasses. They love their sin and refuse to repent. A historical Genesis is just an excuse. In many cases, their churches aren’t even talking about a historical Genesis.

  5. Excellent piece Fred! Biologos is an abomination.

    Also, I’ve talked to literally hundreds of these kids and you are exactly right. They are immoral rebels almost to a man who couldn’t care less what God says about anything if it interferes with their hip n groovy worldliness and carnality

    Two lessons in my life that I’ll be forever grateful to the Lord for. My peace increased anhundredfold (on one hand, I care deeply for the lost) the day I realized that most people aren’t going to get saved. I got another large boost when I realized that it’s not my job to figure out how to save anybody. It’s my job to faithfully preach the gospel in purity and the power belongs to Holy Spirit. Not my ingenious inoffensive cultural packaging.

  6. Thanks for your excellent conclusion Fred. I’ve been reading and hearing much about these studies, but the take that says, “Christians actually don’t leave the faith..” has been sparse..not surprisingly these worrisome articles are coming from seeker evangelicals, or Catholics. I wonder if the thought ever occurs to them that these kids are unsaved? Theology matters, and how your theology affects your ecclesiastics matters.

  7. Nice article well thought through but I would say science and technology are surely the catalyst for the decline in the numbers following Christian religions. Take the analogy of an 8 year old child learning about the biblical stories such as Adam and Eve, Noah’s Ark, Heaven and Hell and the creation of the planet in 7 days and then he goes home and watches the news and the landing of a space probe on a meteorite in space and the scientists are excited to learn from this probe how some of the elements came to earth to produce the first life forms and in fact there is more evidence that other life forms may exist on planets closer to earth than we thought than any evidence to suggest a deity exists. This is not to mention the developments in the medical fields that produce artificial hearts, livers, kidneys and lungs etc.

    The argument has gone beyond Darwin and evolution and the child is soon to realise that God is just like father Christmas when he was a young believer. Science will diminish religion and the next generation will see a huge decline in Christianity but unfortunately a rise in Muslim extremists.

  8. Ignoring the bike-riding Evolutionary Evangelists, I’ve actually come to similar conclusions and have realized that a large foundation of the problem lies in youth pastors and youth ministry.

    Now I honestly and seriously don’t hate youth pastors or youth ministry, but the church has committed seppuku in adopting the whole youth ministry framework that was invented in the 1950’s. I actually see youth pastors as victims of a counter-biblical system that evangelicalism has built and continually tossed them into.

    You pastors are expected to glorified babysitters and semi-peers to young people in churches who are less educated, less mature, less skilled and less elder-qualified than “real” pastors. We’ve somehow allowed a non-existent biblical category of leadership to infiltrate a majority of evangelical churches. We have a whole cadre of “pastors” who would likely fail any serious ordination exams, aren’t usually elder-qualified, and aren’t generally seen as the guys in the church who someone would turn to for actual pastor help or to resolve theological or practical issues.

    1. Youth Pastors are often the folks who bring “every whim of doctrine, crackpot theology, and wack-a-doodle idea out there” into the church. They’re often guys who naively utilize Youth Group material from companies like Youth Specialties, blissfully unaware that companies like Youth Specialties are run by people with horrible theology and a serious agenda to spread that theology (i.e. Youth Specialties was behind some of the biggest selling emergent-church/neo-liberal literature of the past 2 decades).

    2. The main reason why “teens’ and twentysomethings’ experience of Christianity is shallow” is because it is…and the youth pastors who teach them are the shallow wells from which they draw. The reason why church has become a Vegas show for many is because far too many youth pastors don’t have anything of actual substance to offer their youth groups.

    3. The church is antagonistic to science because often, the youth pastors that kids have teaching them don’t have any serious understanding of issues related to creation or other scientifically related issues (i.e. eschatology, the resurrection, etc.)…as well as not having the theological/exegetical tools to arrive at a position.

    I say this as a guy with a B.A. in Youth Ministry who was under one of the biggest names in Youth Ministry. In my Youth Ministry degree, I was taught diddly squat about the Bible because the guys who taught me didn’t think it was needed for “real” ministry.

    4. Kids have shallow views of sex because, again, most youth pastors do. I remember having a conversation with a youth pastor once about premarital sex and why it was wrong, and after an hour or more he admitted that he didn’t really know WHY it was wrong, but he was sure THAT it was.

    Not much of a help to a young, hormonal kid.

    5. See point 4.

    6. The doubt issue arises for the reasons given, but I’d suggest that kids are also not taught any solid doctrine of scripture from a young age so when they get older, they have little qualms about tossing the Bible out the window.

    That, and my experience is that most youth pastors I meet secretly have serious doubts about the faith that they either (a) are scared to face, or (b) don’t have the tools to face.

    That’s probably why most of the guys I graduated from Bible College with aren’t in the ministry anymore. Well, that and a lack of understanding of, or theological framework for work through, suffering.

    When churches incinerate their youth pastors for failing at an impossible job with insufficient tools and understanding, they’re understandably burned.

    What’s worse though is the ones who survive generally tend to graduate up the ladder to senior pastors at some point, having learned precious little and having cultivated a long-standing experience in doing ministry in a contra-biblical way. That’s also probably why so many churches are doing so poorly.

    A ill-trained guy with 10 years experience doesn’t magically become properly trained without getting training somewhere along those 10 years.

    Again, I don’t hate youth pastors.

    I don’t think the solution to the mess is family integrated ministry.

    I’d dare suggest that the solution is to take the “youth” part out of “youth pastors.” Let’s train them properly; give them the sufficient theological and exegetical tools and training to do the job of a pastor, and then give them actual pastoral work to do and expect them to shepherd, preach, teach and oversee the ones with whom they’re charged.

    Let’s make them into real pastors who are biblically articulate men, wise beyond their years, worthy of respect and able to confidently discharge the works of their ministry.

    Let’s stop making them into glorified camp-counsellors and getting mad at them when they act like it.

  9. I wholeheartedly second Fred Lyndon. Very good indeed. The thing is, in churches where this is prevalent (huge%), the senior leadership is usually only a bit incrementally trained and mature than the “youth leadership”. That’s how this happens in the first place.

  10. Now. I don’t want to dismiss all of those points entirely. There is some truth lurking behind them.

    I doubt that.

    Great article.

  11. From what I’ve seen, a corollary to the second point is the formulaic ‘Gospel’ presentation. That is, the ‘poor Jesus has done all He can and is standing outside wringing His hands, close your eyes and bow your heads, repeat this prayer and take Jesus into your heart, and raise your hand’ and you’re in. Nothing else required. Welcome to your false sense of security. It’s a staple of many SBC churches for both the youth and adults.

    And Lyndon, quit lumping us cyclists in with the nutjobs.

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