Why Our Kids Are Leaving the Church
70% of kids leave the church after high school. Less than half ever come back. This is not simply a "product of the times" or an inescapable conclusion of 21st century Christianity. Instead, the path of American youth who grow up in the church is laid with an ever increasing number of distractions, diversions, and outright condescension. Sadly, these three things are no longer confined to the secular world. Instead, all three are brought to them by the church itself.
Endless pizza parties, Young Life sing-alongs, and rock star worship leaders have oversimplified the faith.
A feel-good understanding of God's love coupled with a disregard for Old Testament laws has undeserved our kids.
And skinny jeans-wearing pastors preaching "Bible appreciation" over "Bible education" have disrespected their minds.
Do they know what Christianity is?
If we take a quick look at the history of Christianity, we find at its roots an intricate, rapid expansion of the story of Jesus Christ's resurrection through the various interwoven cultures of an ancient world that even the most well read scholars of today struggle to piece together. Mind you, all of this revolution and conversion was taking place on a grand scale with entire nations attempting to shuffle and reorganize their world view, sense of morality, and daily lives based off of the traditional Jewish books of the Old Testament coming into combination with the stories of Jesus Christ's life and teachings.
Therein lies our first issue: the Church is too simple. Let's admit it, Jeremiah 29:11 is a lot easier to preach than Leviticus 18:22, even to an audience of "experienced and developed," middle-aged Christians. But, we aren't talking about 6-year-olds here either. The teenage years find us giving all kinds of things to our kids: responsibilities, jobs, younger siblings for babysitting, car keys, later and later curfews, you name it. Between 13 and 19, our children are expected to...well...stop being children! So, it only makes sense that as our kids mature, so should their gospel. But, can we honestly say that's the case in our Sunday Schools and Bible studies today?
We can understand not wanting our young children to hear that the author of the majority of the New Testament (Paul) was responsible for the stoning deaths of many Christians prior to his vision from God. That makes sense. The kindergarten class probably shouldn't choose to act out Exodus 32:26-28 at this year's talent show. That makes sense. But, when does this "fostering a loving relationship" between our kids and God take the next steps into full-fledged Christianity? When does a song about Jesus' love turn into an honest discussion about homosexuality in the Bible? When does Bible trivia turn into Bible understanding? And when does "learning to be a Christian" stop being so simple?
We cannot continue boiling the thousands of pages in our Bibles down to two or three messages.
Too often, the Old Testament gets translated as, "If you drink, smoke, and have sex...you're going to hell."
Then, the New Testament starts to sound like, "Jesus loves you. Now, just be exactly like Him, so you can go to heaven."
Do this, stop doing this, do this, let's not talk about that...
This honestly worries me, folks. Are we more interested in having "good kids" or "God's kids" because I know only one of those two options will find eternal life.
We place our young ones on a never ending cycle of mistakes, half-redemptions, and unexpected shortcomings. The Bible gives us a "Law for obeying and a Jesus for saving", but the removal of the intricate, complex, and beautiful areas in between (a.k.a. the Bible) leave our youth chasing after bumper stickers instead of God's heart.
The Real World
Now, the brief history of the church from earlier does not begin to mention the half-century period after the crucifixion when the Apostles were nearly destroyed. The slim number of Christians (nearly 100 in all) who were witness to Jesus' resurrected form were consistently and harshly pushed toward extinction and only survived by tirelessly supporting one another as a remarkably tight-knit community fused together by a common belief in Jesus Christ as the one and only Lord and savior.
To make things even worse for these early followers, this "savior" advocated a life of radical discipleship, selflessness, and a level of "material discomfort" that makes us squirm even today.
Just imagine how difficult spreading this "good news" was for the earliest followers:
What would their argument be for becoming a follower of Christ? "Come. Follow Jesus. This man was the son of God who came down in human form to fulfill the prophecies of the holy books. Though this very same son of God has come and passed through this world without a single statue or monument declaring his glory, and without a single one of the highest, most well educated Jewish priests acknowledging his status, and even though he died like a common thief in a far, forgotten corner of the world's largest empire...we promise...THAT was the son of God."
Jesus challenged his followers to make "disciples of all nations" right? Through the power of the Holy Spirit? We've heard and preached that a thousand times.
But, just imagine our kids out there trying to convert a non-believer. What would one of our kids say? One of your kids say?
"Hey, Jesus is great and he loves you and we have free pizza on Wednesday nights if you want to get baptized?"
"Hey, Tebow's a Christian? You can be one too! Our pastor even wears skinny jeans, and his favorite restaurant is Starbucks!"
(I was once asked to come to a church here in North Carolina and the first big selling point honestly was), "Our pastor is so great! He's a converted Muslim!"
Are these now our big selling points? Pizza and Skinny jeans? Isn't that pastor a great Christian first and a "converted Muslim" second? Apparently, we don't need to advertise the work that the Holy Spirit is doing in our congregations because our pastor has been blessed by the "Abercrombie & Fitch Over 40" collection.
Our kids have to realize that the real world is not a supportive community of 300 other Christians who look like you and sound like you. The real world is full of other massive, historically significant, deeply entrenched religions. Every time one child is born to a Christian mother, two other children are born to a mother that subscribes to a different faith. And yet, many of our kids won't leave high school knowing the difference between Buddhism and Hinduism.
The Lord does not call us to bring the gospel only to our friends who drink and party too much or to the kids who get sent to the principal's office too much. No. The Lord calls us to reach "all nations and all peoples" with His beautiful words.
But, if that's the case, what's the problem? When they graduate high school, our kids are free to go out into the world preaching and sharing the love of Jesus Christ that we spent 18 years teaching them, right? Isn't that 70% of kids who dropped out of church after high school overseas on a big missions trip? I don't think so.
In a recent study, 97% of Church dropouts claimed a "Life change" as a reason for leaving the church. The biggest life change I can think of that happens after high school is one of two things: college or work. The last time I checked, neither of these arenas treat our kids like kids. In the workplace, our kids become adults. In college, our kids become adults. The Atheists and Agnostics that we so commonly associate with the schools we are shipping our kids off to actually treat our young ones like equals...possibly for the first time in their lives.
See, of those 70% of kids who dropped out of church after high school, only 1/5 of them had planned to stop going once they got to college...That means 80% of those young people just drifted away, maybe a few tough questions or a few lingering doubts at a time.
"How do you explain dinosaurs?"
"How can you explain the world being 5 billion years old?"
"Why is there evil in a world created by a 'good God'?"
I heard all these and more in just my first year at school...in North Carolina! Would we, as adults, even know how to answer these questions? Can we honestly say that our kids would be ready at a moment's notice to defend their faith? Every non-believer I have ever met has had these kinds of questions on hand, ready to fight for his convictions. Will our children be able to say the same?
Do Our Kids Need the Church?
So, if we have not brought our kids an understanding of the beautiful, complex world of Christianity held within God's book and if we have not given our young people the tools they need to be prosperous, outreaching Christians in today's world...what have we given them? Wherever and whenever you are reading this, another crop of millions of kids are only a few months away from graduating high school and leaving their churches behind. So, we must ask ourselves the hardest question of all: do our kids still need church?
The answer is not as simple as we would like it to be. Obviously, our kids need God as much as anyone does. More than anything. Thus, they need the church if and only if the church is giving them God.
Here are some of the major ways the church is built to bring God into our lives:
2. Influence from elders
4. Understanding and Love
5. History and Structure
Let's see how the church can fail to bring these to our kids:
1. Teachings tend to be from the New Testament with a focus on sweeping generalizations of God's love and expectations instead of the critical, textual analysis that the Bible deserves.
2. The elders in the church (as mentioned before) are trying to be as cool as the kids they are preaching to, trying to keep an ancient religion "in style." Church will never be as cool as the thousands of outlets our kids can find in high school and college these days. When has that ever not been true though? Let's stop pretending like that's a bad thing. It's laughable.
3. The community that Jesus envisioned for his church does not quite fit with the one we find in youth groups today. Lock-ins, pizza parties, and softball will not (and should not) compete with keg stands, bon fires, and football games. Church isn't a "do" it's a "be," we cannot expect our kids to take church seriously after high school if it was simply a squeaky clean version of the other communities they can choose to be a part of.
4. The teenage years are hard for many of our kids. However, that rarely softens up the positivity rhetoric of many of today's churches. Instead, the first sign of doubt or depression from our teens is met with a barrage of happiness that overshadows the struggles of Christianity. Jesus loves us, but the Bible never promises us happiness. It's time we start acting like both can be a fact in Christian life.
5. When's the last time our kids recited a creed or learned the difference between Calvin and Luther? That's like going to the NBA without ever hearing of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. It just shouldn't happen. Christianity has a deep history, and it is very difficult to overstate the influence that our faith has had on our society and the world as a whole. How can we move forward without first looking back?
A very wise man once asked, "If you could go to heaven, with all the happiness and kindness and riches and all of the pain in the world gone and all of the wonderful things we have heard all of our life about heaven, would you go to heaven for eternity if Jesus wasn't there?"
I believe this is where we have gone wrong with our kids and our church. We teach ways of getting into heaven, we create a community based on pizza and skinny jeans, we neglect our past, we blindly embrace the future, and we get so busy with the worship concerts and the t-shirts and the Facebook pages and the day-to-day struggle of bringing our young people to church as often as possible and for as long as possible...we get so busy...that we forget Jesus. Our kids don't need church because our community is awesome. There's better ones out there. They don't need church because our moral compass is set just right. They know we're all hypocrites (we even preached it to them!) They don't need church because we are the most consistent, structured, and loving part of their lives, that's what family and friends and dorm rooms and boyfriends and wives can offer without asking for any tithes!
Our young people will only ever need the church for one reason. They will need the church in the same way the Apostles needed the church: it was the first and last place they found Jesus Christ.
Can your child say the same about your church?