I hadn’t planned writing a follow up to my previous post, but I started thinking about what I wrote and I thought I should offer a more comprehensive reason why I believe people are leaving church.
I say just people, rather than “young people,” because currently, alarmist types want us to believe it is college aged young people freshly set free from the concentration camps of their stifling and non-thinking fundamentalist churches and rigid homeschooled families who are running away from Christianity in vast numbers. But people of all ages leave church on a regular basis. In fact, generations of “young people,” upon leaving home for college or moving away from their parents after getting married stop attending church, so it’s not like this is a recent epidemic or something.
There were a ton of kids in my youth group at the church I attended when I was in high school. They were all actively involved, because simply put, mama and daddy made them go, and I am sure the food and games had an appeal as well. Most of them were phony anyways, because when they weren’t at church participating in puppet shows or singing in the youth choir, they were throwing down at the weekend kegger party and engaging in various forms of teenage debauchery.
If I had to guess, I would say maybe just a handful of my high school youth group peers acted the least bit “Christianly” throughout their high school experience. Of the 20 or 25 friends at my group, I’d imagine just 2 or 3 still attend church today in any serious manner. A few more may have returned once they had kids, but for the most part, while they may live externally clean lives, they are practically irreligious and remain unchurched.
So what are the real reasons the so-called Christian youth are leaving Christianity? Contrary to the polls of self-appointed experts on American youth culture, their departure really has nothing to do with those typical tropes like coming from a sheltered home-schooled family, or not having the right apologetic thinking, or the church being “anti-science,” or Christians rejecting gay teens.
Let me lay out 7 thoughts to show you what I mean:
1. The kids aren’t saved. It’s too simple, I know; but that’s reality. They are not regenerated, and thus do no possess saving faith. Hence, when they are confronted by the culturally brutal and harsh world, their non-existent faith is exposed as just that, non-existent.
No amount of feeding them the right apologetic answers to skeptical critics of Christianity will help that at all. If the kid isn’t saved, it doesn’t matter if he knows all the proofs of God’s existence, or can defend the historical Gospels, or shoot down the Zeitgeist youtube movie. He has no love for Christ; and when sin confronts him, he may resist at first, but will eventually give in and it’s all down hill from there.
But is it more than just saying the kid isn’t saved? Certainly. There could be a number of factors that have converged to have driven the kid away from church.
2. The kid comes from a moralistic family. In other words, the family may indeed attend church, perhaps be involved to a degree, but the faith of the parents and the kids is no more than a set of conservative morals untethered from Scripture and the worship of God. Morals alone are not enough to keep a young person faithful to Christ. Only a regenerated heart can do that.
3. The parents are self-righteous hypocrites. By that I mean they pretend to be spirit-filled, serious-minded Christians at church, but at home, it’s an entirely different matter. Mom and dad bicker and snip at each other, they complain about everything, maybe are dishonest with their dealings with others, gossip about people and situations at church. They basically instill an attitude of disrespect in the hearts of their children toward not only church, but even themselves.
4. Church leadership intentionally avoids difficult subjects. They won’t talk about those subjects that supposedly clothesline the young person when he gets out in the real world. They mistakenly believe young people would be bored with their discussion, or perhaps the subjects are way over their heads and raise too many hard questions their little minds can’t handle right now.
Instead, they focus on teaching simplistic things like keeping your virginity before marriage, figuring out God’s will for your life, and what spiritual gifts you may have. Any difficult topics they leave for the occasional expert to handle. That expert who usually comes in the form of a prepackaged DVD message on Wednesday nights. Many times those experts are really unlearned and inexperienced, and hardly know what they are talking about.
5. Church leadership is lazy. If they don’t intentionally avoid difficult subjects, they won’t even take the time to educate themselves on those topics that will challenge their young people. Paul told Timothy that godly men must prove themselves workman (2 Tim. 2:15). The important word in workman is work. Studying the Scriptures, exegeting the Scriptures, applying the Scriptures, teaching the Scriptures takes hard work.
Today’s youth need leaders who will do the hard work of shepherding them, confronting them, teaching them the Word of God, especially when it comes to those difficult subjects they encounter or will encounter. They don’t need leaders who will only put forth minimal effort feeding them pablum, while providing them soft beds to cozy up in. They need to come face to face with the holy God of Scripture who will rock their world, but will also save them through the blood of Christ. That experience only comes when leaders shake off the stupor of laziness and do the hard work of lifting high the God of Scripture by taking the time to handle it rightly.
6. The youth pastor is basically a young, inexperienced and spiritually immature guy. All my life as a churched kid, practically every youth director has been an early 20s something post-graduate. He’s probably no more than 5 or 6 years older than the oldest kid in the youth group. Not to disparage a person’s youth, or even youth groups for that matter, because I happen to know a number of mature thinking young guys in their early 20s, and there are churches with great youth groups teaching their kids to think biblically. Regrettably those are the rare exception and sadly not the rule.
The vast majority of youth pastors are placed in the positions because the church, as well as parents, mistakenly believe only a young guy can “relate” with their kids; plus they are expecting nothing more than sanctified baby-sitting. The youth pastor is merely required to create an atmosphere of wholesomeness that includes directing fun activities, so they are not necessarily known for being theological giants. In fact, the youth pastors are notorious for being the gateway for introducing wack-a-doodle heresy into the church, along with immature behavior on the part of the kids, and that is due primarily because he is a spiritually immature and unlearned novice.
Additionally, if the youth director happens to be a mature young man who wants to bring substance to the youth group, when the teenage goats begin leaving because they hate the teaching of God’s Word, the parents freak out and accuse the young man of quenching the Spirit. He’s then kicked out and replaced by a more pliable hireling.
I remember once at my college church when our youth pastor had a guest speaker come in to preach at the high school group. That evening, they were particularly rambunctious and rowdy, and the guest speaker told them that he believed most of them were lost because they had no respect for the teaching of God’s Word. He was absolutely correct with his assessment. Now guess what happened? Did the kids become gripped with conviction upon hearing those words, repent of their sins, and beg to be saved? Do you think their moms and dads were mortified as to what happened and dealt firmly with their teens? Of course not! Don’t be silly! The next week, the poor youth pastor was deluged with mobs of angry parents demanding a reason why he let such a horrible man tell their precious hellions that they were lost, because they know their little devils asked Jesus into their hearts after they walked the aisle when they were four.
7. The Church leadership and youth pastor doesn’t evangelize the kids. Oh, don’t get me wrong. They “evangelize” them in the sense that they preach to them an anemic, “God has a wonderful plan for your life, Jesus wants to be your buddy and make school great for you” false gospel, or a gut-wrenching “Red Asphalt, kids die in car wreck after a drinking party and get dragged straight to hell” presentation that is designed to emotionally manipulate an aisle full of sobbing teenage girls to pray a prayer to accept Jesus into their hearts. Decisions are certainly made after those evangelistic presentations, but they are theologically vapid, empty of any serious biblical content, and not empowered by the Holy Spirit to save souls.
Having said all of that, can a kid come from a household of hypocrites, attend a church with lazy leadership who coddle the youth group with a 20-something rock climber guy as the pastor who preaches a lame Gospel message? Yes. God is great and transcends all of those problems. However, if we consider those reasons, I think a case can be made that what college age kids are leaving isn’t necessarily biblical Christianity, but some syrupy sentimental version of the Christian faith. That would only mean that the vast numbers of college age kids never really left Christianity and church to begin with.