I was intrigued by this article that somebody pointed me to: top 10 reasons our kids leave Church. Now I’ll be honest that I naturally default to scholarly analysis when it comes to observations about broad sociological trends (here is one example with respect to deconversion), but there’s something about the feedback of a guy who’s sat down and chatted with dozens of ex-Christians at his local College that deserves consideration. Sure, it would be easy to poke holes in Marc’s less-than-perfect methodology, but it’s not as though he’s writing for a psychology journal. Based on what I’ve read elsewhere (see previous link) and from conversations I’ve had with ex-Christians it seems he’s at least roughly in the right ballpark.
So if he’s in the ballpark of the top ten reasons why our kids leave the church, I want to propose the flip-side of his article. Here are the top ten things the church needs to do in order to get our kids to stay in Church.
I need to start by throwing a little disclaimer out there. Not all churches are the same. When I say “the Church” I do not have any specific group of people in mind. Rather, I’m thinking of this from the perspective of common trends. It is entirely possible that your particular church gets some / all of these things right. Congrats, if you do. With that said, though, what does it mean to get it right? What should we be doing?
10) Help our kids to think beyond “relevent.” As Marc points out, many churches seem driven to take our “2,000 year old faith, [dress] it in plaid and skinny jeans and [try] to sell it as cool.” It doesn’t work. That should be obvious to everybody except the people in plaid and skinny jeans.
But there’s something noble behind the effort, I’ll grant that. There is an understandable motivation to take the Biblical truths which have been delivered to us in the garb of an ancient culture, ancient language and far-away land and meaningfully transplant it into our present context. Frankly, this is precisely what we do every time we open an English translation of our Bible. The Bible was certainly not written in English so whenever we read it in English some kind of translation process has taken place that usually includes more than just linguistic translation. I cannot knock the impulse to be “relevant” too quickly because there is some merit in the idea.
However, the urge to be relevant, like so many other noble urges, can go overboard. This, I believe, is what Marc is addressing. It’s one thing to translate the Bible into our spoken and cultural language and quite another to sift through our present cultural language and try to ‘find God’ in it. What we get in the end is not the Biblical paradigm translated into our present cultural context but, “a cheap knockoff of the world.”
If I spend a lot of time and energy dressing like the culture, learning what style of multimedia presentation is most cutting-edge within the culture, adjusting the Gospel to cultural references and so forth then that sends two messages. First, where I dedicate my energy is a clue to where my heart really lies (Luke 12:34). If we spend a lot of our energy on the outward appearance of our ministry then people will naturally suspect that it’s all show and no substance. The message of the cross has become subservient to the method of presenting the message of the cross.
But there is a second message implicit in our yearning to be relevant to the culture; that culture is something to be sought after. It is a worthy prize to attain. To be in with the ‘cool kids’ is a lofty goal. Some of this tendency is quite probably a reaction to previous generations that very much looked at culture as something to be fled from; something we should insulate ourselves from. Indeed, that was an error, but so is this. In fact they both represent the same fundamental error; the mistaken belief that those around us are fundamentally different from us. One response shuns them, the other worships them. However, God sees them the same way he sees us; broken sinners in need of a savior.
Our focus needs to be on our savior and not on the admiration and approval of those he came to save. We should neither worship them nor shun them, instead we should teach our youth to seek God’s approval first and man’s approval as a very distant second. And if we do earn man’s approval it should be for the right reasons; our character, our integrity, our transformative impact on those around us. It should have absolutely nothing to do with our jeans and lattes.
Rather than being relevant our youth need to be counter-cultural. Those around them should marvel at how different they are even if they happen to wear some of the same clothing and drink the same caffinated beverages.
The Church is savvy enough to be relevant, but is it bold enough to be different?
9) Show them real life. Part of the kicker here is that the world does not offer them real life. But the Church can, if it chooses to. Part of real life, though, involves carefully reflecting on what ‘real life’ is and what it ought to look like. Analyze life. Get philosophical. Let them see the blood, sweat and tears of the daily grind instead of isolating them from it and artificially extending their childhood. As Marc advises, let them “see the full timeline of the gospel for every season of life.”
Maybe we could start helping our youth out by minimizing the ‘youth oriented’ aspects of Church. Instead of having a ‘Youth Sunday’ when the youth lead worship, integrate individual members of the youth into Sunday morning worship on an ongoing basis. Rather than having ‘youth life group’ assign the members of the youth to other life groups within the church hosted by people from various generations. Maybe even some of the older-than-youth people in your church could proactively situate themselves precisely in the middle of the ‘youth section’ of the sanctuary every Sunday morning (most churches have a ‘youth section’) so they get to experience worship from the perspective of somebody other than their peers. As Marc suggests, let them experience “a fussy baby and a senior citizen on an oxygen tank.”
The youth have much to learn from those who have gone before, and their exuberence can be an inspiration to a generation bogged down in diapers, college funds and eventually retirement and old age.
8) Get them smart. Asking the tough questions of Faith is like talking about sex; if you don’t teach them they’ll learn a messed up version of it in the school yard. Somebody is eventually going to challenge them on Hell. They will eventually have to wrestle with the reality of evil in the world. How are they going to deal with the fact that the majority of scientists shun religion? How will they respond when somebody points a finger at them and accuses Christianity of being intolerant of other religions?
If these issues are not discussed, dissected, turned over and carefully analyzed within the Church I guarantee you they will be very carefully analyzed outside the Church. And if the Church not only doesn’t have the answers, but frankly gives the strong impression of being unwilling to even ask the questions (when’s the last time you’ve heard a sermon on Hell, for instance) then our youth will naturally be drawn to whoever not only asks the questions but presents seemingly reasonable answers.
When we take time to work through these issues, we…
7) Arm them. They need to be prepared. They need to have a better answer then a blank stare followed by, ‘let me go ask my pastor!’ As Marc bemoans, “most of our churches are sending youth into the world embarrassingly ignorant of our faith.”
And we must not engage these issues only in a reactive setting. Don’t take the approach of ‘if they ask then we’ll look at this stuff.’ If the Church takes the approach of don’t-ask-don’t-tell then even when the questions surface in the minds of the youth they will already get the sense that these questions are somehow wrong. Nobody else is asking them and the youth pastor isn’t saying anything about it. Asking the deep questions seems increasingly out-of-place and eventually they are assumed to be off-limits.
Take a proactive approach. Throw the questions at the youth. Force them to confront the issues. Even if they haven’t wrestled with these issues when the youth pastor brings them up, at least they are somewhat prepared when the issues get brought up at school, College, work or across fences in their neighbourhood.
But what if we, the leaders that the youth are looking up to, are not prepared to address these issues? Marc observes, “I’ve met evangelical church leaders (“Pastors”) who didn’t know the difference between justification and sanctification. I’ve met megachurch board members who didn’t understand the atonement.” Raising our youth is the job of the pastors, youth pastors, parents, uncles and aunts; everybody. If what Marc just described represents you, then wake up! Don’t think to yourself, “I don’t have to know this stuff.” You have two incredibly hard jobs ahead of you. The first is the most difficult, humiliating, painful thing you need to do; admit your ignorance to yourself and others.
If you are able to take that first step then the second should be much easier; dedicate hundreds of hours of study, research, analysis and dialogue on these foundational issues so that you are personally very well acquainted with them and able to intelligently share that knowledge with others. If we don’t know this stuff then what in the world would ever lead us to think that our youth will figure it out on their own?
6) Help them understand the proper role and limitations of our feelings. Per Marc, “You’ve tried your best to pass along the internal/subjective faith that you “feel”. You really, really, really want them to “feel” it too.”
When we talk about how much we love God and how he’s the best thing that’s every happened to us we automatically intimidate / exclude anybody whose experience has been different. What about those who never feel God, or are never really sure if what they feel is God or just the burritos they ate last night? What about those who are so beat down in life that God feels utterly absent? I am reminded of C.S. Lewis’ observation in Screwtape Letters (chapter 8),
Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.
Feelings come and go; even our feelings about God. We should embrace the mountaintop experiences when they happen, but let them go when they fade. Our faith needs to rest on something more solid, transcendent and permanent than our emotions. We need to give our youth such a foundation instead of fooling them into thinking we are able to set up camp on the emotional mountaintop overlooking the valley.
5) Teach them the right role and boundaries of Church community. Community is important, and the Church is supposed to play a significant role in the life of the believer. Even the early Church placed a significant emphasis on the community of believers. But, as with ‘relevance’ this can be taken to an unhealthy extreme.
When Church becomes a place for you to escape the world – a substitute for it – instead of a place within which you prepare to engage the world, then something is wrong. As Marc writes, “When our kids leave home, they leave the manufactured community they’ve lived in for nearly their entire life.” I think what he’s getting at is that the Church community becomes something of an isolation ward that separates us from the world and attempts to ‘protect’ us from it. I doubt that was the intent, but that seems to have happened. Furthermore, with the highly transient culture we live in (job relocations, etc) it becomes remarkably easy to slip out of the Faith altogether when one’s only experience of Faith is indistinguishable from ‘community.’ Lose the community and what’s left of your Faith? It would be unwise to be Lone Ranger Christians, of course, but to swing to the other extreme of being incapable of imagining Christianity without the specific little circle of Christian friends you have surrounded yourself with in order to mutually protect each other from the buffeting winds of ‘the world out there’ starts to sound a little like a cult. Heading off to college, for instance, will be a very rude awakening.
When we speak of faith to our youth, help them to understand that our ‘faith community’ is a result of our faith, it is not identical with our faith. The Church is a living body of believers spanning the globe and millenia of history, but even that is a localized expression of something even larger and more transcendant. Always point them back to God himself and Jesus’ life on earth as the root of their faith and help them understand the proper role of church in their lives. We are the bride of Christ; teach them to remain focused on the groom.
4) Teach them to think in terms of Truth. This ties in with point 6, previously, but I’m working with Marc’s numbering system here so bear with me. Marc writes, “When they leave home, they realize that they can be “spiritually fulfilled” and get the same subjective self-improvement principles (and warm-fuzzies) from the latest life-coach or from spending time with friends or volunteering at a shelter.”
If it’s all about the feelings (and in many ways we keep implying that it is) then Marc is right to observe that the Church can never do any better than keep up with the world. Many times we lag far behind. But the Church has something the world simply could never touch in its wildest dreams; we have Truth. If we help our youth understand that feelings have their place and are certainly not to be shunned, but they can also be deceptive and fleeting, then we can push them toward a better standard. Rather than being tossed by the winds and waves of our emotions, we can cling to the unchanging truth of Christ and his Church. With the firm foundation we will be more like a windmill generating power during the gusts instead of a leaf tossed about by forces beyond its control, ultimately coming to rest in a place not of its choosing.
But, once again, this is counter-cultural. Culture focuses very heavily on feelings and the Church (trying to be ‘relevant’) has played by the rules of Culture’s game. If we help our youth to understand that the game is rigged from the outset and that true victory lies in setting our sights elsewhere, then they will once again stick out, once again come across as counter-cultural, and once again open the door to the possibility that we will transform the world around us instead of coming across as a “cheap knock-off.”
3) Show them that Faith in God bleeds. I always find it interesting when Christians talk about what Marc describes. “Best life now”, “Every day a Friday”, “God’s great plan for your life”, “hap-hap-happy all the time”. It makes me think of Moses. If he were to sit across the table from a Christian who firmly believed that God’s primary ambition for his life was to make him happy, how long before Moses would start asking if the Christian had even a slight familiarity with what Moses went through. Forty years – Forty years – in the desert with millions of whining Israelites who all blamed him for their woes and begged him to take them back to the persecution that he had worked so hard (on behalf of God) to rescue them from. Forty years of a diet that consisted only of what God provided from heaven. What’s on the menu today? Same as yesterday and it isn’t a nice juicy burger with a freshly tossed salad. Do you think any of his days, even his Fridays, felt like Fridays? Was this his “best life?” Was he “hap-hap-happy all the time?”
Don’t even get the Apostle Paul talking about his experiences! (2 Cor 11:23-28)
Fundamental to the Christian Faith is the concept of duty. God is our sovereign. He is our master. The New Testament uses the imagery of slavery to describe our relationship to him. He is a “friend of sinners,” certainly, but in no way should we draw from that metaphor of ‘friendship’ the delusion of grandeur that suggests equality. He reigns and we obey.
And sometimes obedience sucks. Big time. The youth should read through Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. They should be shown a Christianity that has parties and celebrations, but is something more than parties and celebrations. It is work. It is sacrifice. It is costly. You will lose friends. You may lose employment satisfaction; perhaps even your employment itself! We have obligations to God and, by extension, our fellow humanity. Our family. Our friends.
We need to take our responsibilities seriously and recognize that the primary purpose of a celebration is to give us a well-deserved break from hard work. Fridays are special precisely because they are preceded by four other days of work. If every day is a Friday then the entire concept of Friday becomes meaningless.
Our youth need assignments. Duties. Tasks that truly stretch them. They need failure. They need defeat. They also need success. They need to experience the richness of life that comes from accomplishing something rather than having entertainment fed to you from a silver spoon. As Chesterton observed, “Meaninglessness does not come from being weary of pain. Meaninglessness comes from being weary of pleasure.”
2) Teach, and exemplify, the full depth of the Gospel. There are certainly many admonitions in the New Testament to live a life worthy of the Gospel, but notice that the worthy life is in response to the Gospel. It is an effect of the Gospel. We tend to focus on the effect without making sure that it follows the Gospel. Marc writes, “As they get older it becomes “Good Kids do/don’t” and as adults “Do this for a better life”. The gospel appears briefly as another “do” to “get saved.””
The fullness of the Gospel would include declarations about our moral duties toward God and each other, certainly, but it would never be reduced to that. Rather, that is a natural byproduct of it. But how carefully are we teaching the Gospel? Are we spending too much time telling them how far is too far with their girlfriend / boyfriend or are we explaining the full picture of God’s design for us, human nature, the role of sexuality within that nature, what an honouring relationship looks like and so forth? Are we just telling them ‘Christians don’t drink’ or are we exploring the concepts of human freedom, how alcohol alters our decision-making abilities, the relationship between mind and body, the dangers of addiction and so forth? And I haven’t even gotten to the part of the Gospel that talks about Jesus saving us from sin! How deep is our presentation of the Gospel to our youth? If it is as works-oriented as Marc observes then we truly have a problem on our hands in part because it is erroneous and in part because it is insultingly simplistic.
By High School the youth should be able to understand algebra, trigonometry, world history, Shakespeare. Some even learn multiple languages, or how to rebuild an automobile transmission or program computers. What in the world would cause us to be reluctant to approach subjects like Soteriology, Hermeneutics, Ecclesiology, Theology, Philosophy, and whatever we need to discuss in order to instill in them a thoroughly Biblical framework for understanding all of life?
1) Show them that Christianity is something we all need. It’s not ‘true for me.’ It’s not merely that it ‘works’ (sometimes it really doesn’t!). As mentioned before, it’s a matter of truth, not just feelings. Abandon Christianity and you’re not merely swapping one emotional high for another one, you are letting go of truth. You are accepting error. You are believing that which is false.
And the truth is not merely propositional, it is incredibly personal. They are sinners in need of salvation. They are broken humans in need of healing. If they reject their savior and shun his medicine they are accepting some very dire consequences.
We need the truth because it is true rather than popular. We need it because it is fulfilling rather than emotionally stimulating. We need it because we are broken rather than merely uncool. We need it because we are God’s creation and he intends to redeem us. Wear skinny jeans, drink lattes and throw pizza parties – all good and well – but make sure these outter dressing are understood to be precisely that; dressing. Make the message so clear, and stretch the youth (indeed your entire church community) so far that people who visit will hardly notice your attire or what is served at your coffee corner. Their attention will be so mesmerized by the utterly counter-cultural folks (who happen to be wearing plaid) that they will naturally be drawn to the God who motivates, calls, informs and fuels them.
The reality is that the church is bleeding and has been for a long time. The Church has not fully grasped the cultural forces that have lead to this bleeding and our response has revealed our naivety. We need major change and I believe Marc pointed us in the right direction. May we start the process of change for our youth by taking a good long look in the mirror.