Why Are Young People Exiting Church?
I just discovered a new writer, Jack Lee. He blogs at THE CHORUS IN THE CHAOS.
It’s long; so there goes a large audience. But it is critical, and I urge anyone concerned with the church overall, and its youth and young people in particular, to make the time to read it…here it is:
A recent article on the Wall Street Journal titled, “Young People Say Disconnect Keeps Them From Church,” pointed out that roughly half of the people surveyed (ages 13 and 25) say they feel out of sync with churches on issues like race, gender, and immigration. Adding that the “biggest disconnect” emerges around LBGT rights, and that only 44% of churches care about such issues. It is for these reasons that churches have seen memberships fall over the past several years. The survey was conducted by the Springtide Research Institute and touched about 10,000 youths.These statistics and takeaways are hardly earth-shattering. Such trends and observations have been made repeatedly made over the past couple of decades. Across America, church attendance is generally falling, and it is getting harder for churches to retain young people. So why bring up an article stating the obvious? Well, what struck me was the commentary from some of the individuals they interviewed on why they feel disconnected from church. It evidences the need for churches to speak boldly, clearly, and directly to youth about the power of the gospel, the relationship between the church and the world, and the holiness of God.
It is now clear that broad evangelicalism has largely miscalculated how to engage the youth with our evolving, sexualized culture. 30 years of emphasizing purity over faith and repentance, entertainment over meditation, and games over catechisms have left scars. The Exvangelical movement, for all its faults, has highlighted this truth. Those who grew up in such theologically derelict conditions are walking away from the faith in droves, and it should be no surprise to anyone that their kids are following.
Here are a few of the comments in the article from those surveyed:
Jesse Brodka, 22, said that “I hear what priests and pastors say at the pulpit and I say to myself, ‘No, that is not what I believe in my heart.’” He goes on, “The fact that Christian faith has become a symbol of judgment speaks to the gap between religious organizations and the non-judgment that we value as young people.”
Amethyst Rose, a self-identified non-binary person, said she has stopped attending their Baptist Church when homosexuality was declared a sin. She clarified, “that sets you up for eternal damnation. I was afraid to live my life.”
Christian Camacho, 22, said, “I don’t accept the teachings when it comes to discrimination” and that when it comes to going to church he and friends “have no reason to go”.
There is much that can be said about this commentary. However, if anything stands out is that there is no fear of God before their eyes. Whereas the debate for decades centered around whether or not God even existed, today it seems to be swirling around a personal freedom for licentious behaviors and ideals. What changed? How did we get here?
In the ’90s, many evangelical churches operated on the practical assumption that if we want young people to stay in church then we need to make church fun. This often meant fun youth trips, games, pizza parties, etc. The thesis, if not stated directly, seemed to be that if we entertain them, and keep them coming, genuine faith will come along eventually. This entirely man-centered approach to evangelism drove churches to became less about worship, faith, and repentance, and more about Christian-themed activities and programs. Parents would choose churches not on the quality of their doctrine, preaching, polity, and sacraments, but instead, on the vibrancy of their youth groups and program.
Largely, the first half of the plan worked; kids did show up. This effort was fueled and aided by Christian marketing agencies who caught on and flooded the space with new music, books, bracelets, t-shirts, and so on. It was big business. Furthermore, parents were generally supportive of programs that focused on abstinence, purity, and piety. As long as outward sin was avoided and piety was maintained things seemed to be on the right track. Yet, as we are seeing, it was largely posturing. Perhaps that’s too harsh. If it wasn’t outright posturing, it was at best empty instruction that lacked theological substance. Because of this it should be no surprise that so many that grew up in such conditions have left the faith. We had the process backwards. Instead of hoping the outward would change the inward, churches should have focused on the inward (justification) changing the outward (sanctification).
Let me quickly clear up that there is nothing wrong inherently wrong with building community, having fun in youth groups, and church programs. Gospel-centered community is a wonderful aid for Christians of all ages. The problem is that while some churches created a nice environment for kids to hang out, they failed to also teach an entire generation about worldview, repentance, faith, and at the risk of overstating things, the glory and holiness of Christ. We made idols out of various aspects of the Christian life, while ignoring more weightier matters of the faith. Instead of worrying so much about attendance, we should have been teaching them concepts like inevitable persecution and what it means to suffer for Christ. After all, scripture is clear that “all who desire to live a godly life will suffer persecution” (2 Timothy 3:12).
An entire generation has now graduated to adulthood without substantive guidance on how to live and exist faithfully to God’s word in a world that hates the gospel. While I don’t like it, I understand it. Cultural evangelicalism offered little in their training up. So when they went out and were challenged with hard, cultural, social, and moral issues, they’re unequipped to think critically and biblically.
As I continue to muse on the commentary of the young people mentioned above, I am saddened because these individuals, who appear to have spent some time in church, still have no idea what it means to be a Christian. They’ve flip-flopped the value system. Rather than looking to Christianity to understand the world, they look to the world to understand Christianity. They fundamentally view the church as the flawed entity in need of more modern moral interpretation. Therefore, the church must change to accommodate the culture. This false hermeneutical approach undermines every word and doctrine of the Bible. The moment we determine that scripture is unreliable on any moral issue, we will abandon its credibility on all of them. This is, as the overused expression goes, a very slippery slope.
The truth is, scripture is wholly sufficient on issues like sex, race, gender, and immigration. Whereas some act like the church has never thought about such things, in reality, these issues are not new to our world. We have thousands of years of insight woven into God’s word for guidance. Yet, so many are afraid of what the Bible says because it is unpopular. News flash: it has always been unpopular in the world. Jesus wasn’t crucified because He said things people liked. Since day 1, the church has been fighting a battle to redeem the culture for Christ and His kingdom. It will remain this way until Jesus returns. Moreover, Jesus’ beauty and the kingdom of God is worth every sacrifice that one might for Christ. It is as the Jesus once said that “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13:44). Are we teaching the youth today what this treasure is and why its of infinite value? We must contend for the culture with the gospel and proclaim the the glory of Christ.
A very good friend of mine recently commented to me that he thinks the focus of the church right now ought to be to “love people” and not “fight a culture war.” I respectfully, yet firmly, disagree. In our current social climate, I would consider it unloving if the church were not to speak clearly on the issues that face our culture. Love doesn’t coddle and it always speaks the truth. If the church isn’t willing to stand her ground and offer something different than the world, then what’s the point? The quotes above are proof that lost souls are searching for meaning, identity, and life. The church, by the grace of God and the love of Jesus, can speak truth on these issues. Christianity offers more life, peace, hope, joy, and love than any other ideology in the universe. In Christ, we have answers for all of these hard questions.
If any good thing can be said about the recent surge of exvangelicals and flood of social issues in our society, it is that serious issues are now at the forefront of the minds of our youth. Young people are now being forced to address issues like sexuality, race, gender, etc. at younger ages. Because of this, they are more prepared than you might think to discuss hard topics. They have questions and want more than to be entertained. If we are unwilling to speak hard, biblical truths to young people, they will continue to view the church as little more than a small group of judgmental conservatives with antiquated worldviews. However, if are willing to train up this new generation on the weightier matters of the law and faith, they will see the substance of a church that has withstood every fiery arrow hell has ever thrown. Moreover, they will see the beauty and power of Christ Himself.
Let us prepare the minds and hearts of the generation tomorrow by equipping them with the Word of God today.