What Can Church and Parents Do to Stop Our Young People from Leaving?
Mike Matthews, editor of Answers magazine, spoke with Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, about one of the most pressing questions in the church today: “With so many children leaving the church by their twenties, what are we doing wrong, and what solutions can the church and parents implement?”
MIKE: Statistics indicate that six out of ten children who grew up in conservative churches are now leaving when they reach their twenties. What seems to be the problem?
The pattern of young people leaving the church is different than it was even in some recent generations, where it was more temporary. It now appears in the lives of millions of young people, raised in our churches, to be a rather permanent alienation from the church and from the truth claims of Christianity.
We know the touch points. They’re easy to understand: entry into high school at about age 13–14; graduation from high school, 17–18; graduation from college, at about age 22. Those are times when young people are making very big decisions. And the reality is that many of them are simply opting out, which tells us that they never really understood or were committed to what it would be to be a faithful disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ.
In terms of what we understand about the importance of worldview, their worldview was evidently not shaped adequately by biblical truths such that they were able to withstand the tide of the secular culture and the allure of the other worldviews around them.
We’re in a world of competing lifestyles, worldviews, and even expectations and pictures of what the good life would be. The reality is that many of our young people are simply following into a peer culture—and then disappearing into a larger secular culture.
MIKE: You raise the issue of a secular culture. Does the church need to change its strategy, recognizing that we’re fighting a postmodern world?
You know, our apologetic challenge is more complicated than it has ever been before. It is true that we live in a new age. We’re trying to figure out what to call it, and postmodern is probably as good as anything else. Postmodernism as an ideological movement is especially important for our consideration of these things because one of its primary tenets is the relativity of truth.
When you are talking about the gospel of Jesus Christ, in contrast, you’re talking about the Word of God. You’re talking about the revelation of God to us as God speaks to us in His Word. It’s completely incompatible with a relativist understanding of truth.
But we’re not really in a postmodern age. We’re just kind of in “postmodern moods” because we still live in a world shaped by the Enlightenment, as well. A lot of what we face, for instance in the battle over science and origins, a lot of what we face in academic debates, and the new atheism, most of that is really not postmodern.
It’s really the same old arguments going all the way back to questions of how we can know that something really happened. How can we know there really was a Christ? How can we know these things? Those are old Enlightenment questions, and they are still around.
So we are really going to have to be sophisticated enough to be able to fight something like a two-front war. I know there are parents out there going, “How am I going to do that?” Well, not alone. But you should at least be somewhat familiar with what is going on. If you’re sending your children into the schools, you better have a pretty good idea of the worldview that they are going to be receiving there.
MIKE: What is the church doing wrong in this “war”?
Well, I think we can easily diagnose several problems that desperately need to be fixed.
Problem #1: Churches are doing too much for young people.
Churches in many ways have actually, I think, added to the problem by doing too much for young people. The idea of the church is as a full-service entertainment and activity center, where you take children away from their parents and you just put them in a different peer culture. Now it’s a church peer culture, and you are very concerned to give them all the right entertainment and activities. What happens when all of that gets old?
What happens when they grow out of that? What happens when you all of a sudden discover they simply don’t have the faith, the knowledge, the beliefs, the convictions, and the commitments that you had hoped for?
I think one of the problems with too many churches is they have a “youth program.” Well, the youth need to be integrated into the totality of the church program.
Just a few years ago, I saw this at work, and it just reminded me of how absent it is elsewhere. I was in a very large church pastored by a dear friend of mine. As I was talking to him, there was a knock on the door; it was a 16-year-old boy. He came into the pastor’s office. He obviously knew him well, and he said, “Excuse me but I knew you told me to come by this afternoon. I’m on my way to do something else; this is the only chance I had.”
It showed the importance of this pastor’s investment in young people that his secretary ushered him right into the office. They had a brief conversation. That’s when I discovered this 16-year-old boy was going to be leading the entire congregation in prayer in a service and he was coming in to make sure that he had everything together.
This is a church that takes teenage boys and brings them into the leadership of the church, saying, “We want you to learn how to read the Scripture. We want you to learn how to be a husband. We want you to learn how to be a teacher of the Scripture. We want you to learn how to make decisions based upon biblical truth. We want you to learn how to pray in front of people.”
You know, the average 16-year-old kid has a hard time shaking your hand and looking you in the eyes, much less getting in front of 4,000 people and saying, “Let’s pray.”
Now that just impressed me in an incredible way. The expectation level is completely different from what I see in most churches.
Problem #2: Churches teach a therapeutic, moralistic view of God.
A research team led by Christian Smith found that the majority of teenagers and young twenty-somethings in our churches actually hold to a faith that he identified as “moralistic, therapeutic deism.”
Deism is the faith that there is a God but He’s not too involved in your everyday life. This is a God who created the world in some general sense and is out there. A well-intentioned deity, but that’s it.
The moralistic part is that most of these young people believe that God does exist and He wants them to behave, but in a rather general sense. It’s moralistic.
It’s also therapeutic. Their faith is that God wants them to be happy. They simply imbibed from the educational philosophy, from the way many of their parents have parented them, from the messages of the world, the advertisements on television, and the music they listen to. The entire cosmos around them tends to be communicating, “Your happiness is the great goal in life.”
So we have a generation of young people who believe that there is a God, but they don’t have any particular god in mind. This is not necessarily any kind of understanding of the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
God is not merely the Creator who is uninvolved in creation. He is the Sovereign—in control of every atom and molecule in the world. He is the judge who is not moralistic; He is holy. He does want our happiness, but that happiness is nothing like what the world describes as happiness. It’s the joy and contentment from being united with Christ through the gospel and coming to know the one true and living God.
You know, when I was growing up, I was at church upwards of eight hours a week. That meant every week. Nowadays with soccer games, little league practice, ballet, and all the rest, kids are spending a very small amount of time actually even in the church activities that they would count as keeping them highly active. Many of those activities have very little theological, biblical, spiritual content.
So you reduce it down to what they get. What’s the message they get? I had one young person who told me, straight-faced, an 18-year-old from a fine evangelical church: “What I learned is, that I should love Jesus and not to have sex until I’m married.”
Both of those things, by the way, are true. But they are not isolated. If that’s all he got, that’s all he heard, it just might be, in some cases, not because he wasn’t listening.
MIKE: What steps can the church take to do better?
Solution #1: The church needs to focus on expository preaching and teach how to think biblically.
The pulpit has to take responsibility. In far too many churches there is just no expository preaching. There isn’t the robust biblical preaching that sets forth the Word of God and then explains how the people of God are going to have to think differently and live differently in order to be faithful to that Word. So it’s really a multi-level thing.
We also need help even outside the local congregation, just in order to stay attuned to a conversation that isn’t just about where we live. That’s why we need good organizations doing research; we need think tanks on behalf of the Christian faith. We need book publishers publishing really quality material and authors writing them. We need organizations like Answers in Genesis and many others.
I believe this includes the seminary where I serve, in order to help turn out people, turn out material, and turn out programming and information to help Christians know how to process these things, think about these things, and yes, teach their children.
Solution #2: The church needs to show the seriousness of church, including personal accountability.
The local church must be a robust gospel people. It must be a warm fellowship of believers. It must be a fellowship of believers who are really living out holiness and faithfulness to Christ, and being mutually accountable for that.
Where you have no church discipline, where you have no honesty about what sin is and how it operates in our lives and how it is to confronted, then our kids are going to get the message: “You talk a lot about sin, but it’s really not all that important to you.” Or they will think the gospel is simply about moralism. They’ll think that all God expects of them is that they behave with XYZ and that they don’t break these rules, when the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ is about salvation from sin and we are already condemned as sinners, as we’re told in John 3.
Solution #3: The church needs to give answers about current issues.
We’re not giving our kids adequate information on some very crucial issues. Consider the questions that the average teenager is facing, “Why aren’t you having sex with your girlfriend?” “Why don’t you believe in evolution?” “Why don’t you accept this worldview?” “Why won’t you go in this direction or accept this lifestyle?”
If we aren’t giving them intellectual material, intellectual knowledge, fiber, and confidence, we shouldn’t be surprised they’re going to go with the flow because that is the way the tides work. It picks up the stuff, and they become the flotsam and jetsam of the cultural movement. I don’t want to lose my children that way. We can’t afford to lose our children that way.
Solution #4: The church needs to explain how the gospel is unfolding through real history.
There is another big failure. I really want folks to understand this because this works from cradle to grave. We are missing in our churches the understanding that the gospel is a story.
We are speaking of propositional truth as if oftentimes it’s an outline to put up on an overhead projector. The Christian faith, the Christian truth claim, the gospel, is first of all a master narrative about life, about God’s purpose to bring glory to Himself. It has four major movements: Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation.
It starts with Creation. God for His glory created this world, creating human beings as the only creature in this universe who is made in His image, able to know Him consciously. If we really do bring our children into this story, the creation-evolution debate is not just some kind of intellectual argument. It’s a way of understanding that if you get the story wrong from the beginning, you are never going to get to the right place. The only way to understand the great story of the gospel is to begin with the fact that God is the Creator and He is the Lord of all.
But you can’t stop there. The second of the four great movements is the Fall and sin. Eventually we’re going to have to explain to them how sin explains everything that goes on in the world, from tsunamis and earthquakes and hurricanes and cancer to mosquitoes and just about everything else they experience as evil. We’re going to have to explain how the Fall explains why things aren’t as they should be.
The third great chapter or movement is Redemption. At the end of the second chapter we’ve got to say, “There is no way out of this. We can’t solve the problem.” We, through our sin, brought this catastrophe onto the cosmos and onto our own lives. With sin came death, and that explains the totality of the problem. We can’t do anything about it, but God did. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Redemption is that essential third part of the story that explains why we have hope and why our identity is in Christ. It explains why the only identity worth having is in Christ.
The fourth chapter is Consummation, or completion, or new creation. That is God accomplishing His purposes, first of all for His redeemed people, the church. God accomplishes His purposes in a new heaven and a new earth, a new creation, a new Jerusalem. God brings everything in history to its proper end—God judging and God making whole. Creation is returned to the situation with Adam and Eve in the Garden not only prior to sin, but now glorified to be greater than ever before because we now know God not only as Creator but also as Redeemer.
If we don’t anchor our children in that story . . . if they think that Christianity is merely a bunch of stuff to believe . . . if they don’t find their identity in that, in which they say, “Yes, that’s my story; this is where I am; this is where history is headed; this is where I am going in faithfulness to Christ,” then they are going to fall away.
You know, they can fall away and still hold in their minds to a whole lot of Christian truth. They just don’t connect the dots. They never see the big picture. And they are easy prey for all the competing worldviews and ideologies around us.
MIKE: In one sense, there is nothing new under the sun. Get back to the Scriptures, and walk with God in faith . . .
Yeah, and have your eyes wide open to the questions that the world is presenting to us. That’s why I do my radio show the way I do it. That’s why you guys [Answers in Genesis] exist. Because we are answering questions and trying faithfully to help others give the right answers to questions that are natural, that are inevitable in this world.
If you get the creation issue wrong, you get everything after that wrong. If we treat the gospel as anything less than propositional truth, we’ll lose the gospel. It’s established in the historic act of God in Christ—in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
But it’s more than propositions, because we don’t just know about Christ, we come to know Christ. That makes all the difference in the world.
MIKE: Is there a misunderstanding or a short-sightedness about the mission of the church?
In creation God gave us the gift of marriage and family. In the Christian home the parents have that first responsibility. The parents are the first teachers, the first nurses, the first physicians. They are the first coaches. They are the first judges. They are the first police force. They must invest themselves as first teachers in grounding children in the biblical truths. You can’t just franchise that out to the church.
But parents also, on the other hand, are not fully equipped to do that alone. We need each other in the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. And that’s why the only shape of the church in the New Testament is a church shape. It’s not autonomous Christians living on islands of faithful Christianity. It’s Christians banded together in the body of Christ, living under mutual accountability to the lordship of Christ and to the authority of God’s Word, exhorting one another. You look at a passage like Colossians 3, exhorting one another to good things.
We should be doing a reality check as Christian parents in the church. How are we doing? How are you doing with your kids? What have you learned?
Here is my struggle. We should be exhorting each other, helping each other, equipping each other in this task. Christian young people should be drawn into the church, not in a way that isolates them with other young people.
The church is the intergenerational people of God. The church is the only place on the planet where you should have 6-year-olds, 16-year-olds, and 60-year-olds singing the same songs, which means they are each going to have to give a little and learn a little in order to do that together. But that is what the church is to be.
MIKE: What are parents doing wrong?
Problem #1: Parents are failing to convey the gospel and ground them in the Scriptures.
We’ve got to start treating young people as a mission field, not just assuming that mere nurture would lead them into Christian discipleship and into Christian faith. There is a deficit of the gospel in far too many churches and in the attentiveness of far too many parents.
Parents need to take a big responsibility here. The one thing we know from the entirety of the Scripture—just take one passage like Deuteronomy 6—is that parents have the non-negotiable responsibility to train, educate, nurture their own children into the faith, to confront them with biblical truth, to ground them in the Scriptures.
Problem #2: Parents have bought into a secular understanding of parenthood.
We also have on the part of many Christian parents a buy-in to a new secular understanding of parenthood. Many Christian parents would be offended to hear that because they’d say, “Look, we’re Christians, we have boundaries and rules and expectations—we have our children at church to get the right influences. We try to keep the wrong influences out.”
We are letting our children make big decisions far too early. So, when you have a 14-year-old, 15-, 16-, 17-year-old, making decisions about whether he or she is going to participate in church activities, be at church . . . that’s a child who is making decisions that should be made for her, should be made for him.
The reality is that the peer culture of adolescence is now more important in the lives of many children than their parents themselves. That’s something that parents need to be certain they are not just surrendering to.
MIKE: What steps can parents take to do better?
You know, if you are a general and you’re responsible to lead an army, one of the most important things you do is brief your troops. You don’t just send them out. You give them the information that they need. You ground them in the mission. You invigorate them in the task. You inspire them to courage, heroism, and bravery. A good general throughout history knows exactly how to do that. Unfortunately, we’re sending our kids out into the world with too little information, too little grounding, too little inspiration, too little self-identification as the faithful of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Parents need to teach all the time, in everyday life.
I think one of the things parents need to do is to understand that this is not something that you can do once a day, once a week, and say that’s done. That’s why I go back to Deuteronomy 6. Deuteronomy 6 talks about parents teaching in their going out and in their coming in. It’s in the sitting down and in the standing up. That means in everyday events of life.
One of the most important things we can do is make certain that we are spending time with our children. As we are spending time with our children, it is a constant teaching opportunity. I don’t mean a piece of chalk and a blackboard. I mean the kind of opportunity that comes from having seen something together and saying, “All right how do we figure that out? What does that mean?”
Having seen a movie or television show with a child, especially a teenager, say, “All right, what was going on there? What were the worldviews represented there? How are we going to respond to that?”
Read together. I think one of the most important things that parents can do, is to read, especially with teenage children. Read some of the same things. And as children get older, let them choose some of the things to read. Read it together, and then talk about it together. Then come back and say, “All right, we need to talk about what’s going on here.”
Watch the news together. Talk about the news together.
And yes, talk about the Scriptures and teach the Scriptures. A family devotional time is very important, but it is in its formal sense a fairly recent development in the history of the church, especially in the Puritan movement. There is much to be admired and much to be gained there.
Another thing you can do is, when you come home from church on Sunday, have a conversation. Reinforce that Scripture lesson. Talk about what it means and how it is going to translate into your lives, the lives of your children, and the lives of your family.
MIKE: What subjects must be taught and at what age to better equip kids for what they are going to face, with their friends thinking that life is all about having fun and that truth is relative?
I think one of the things we must understand as parents is that children really do move through successive stages of learning and intellectual development, and maturity. So it wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense to put the Encyclopedia Britannica in the crib. That just doesn’t work.
How should parents teach younger people?
When children are very young, we need to make certain at that very earliest stage of intellectual development that they are surrounded by the things of God, that they are hearing Scripture with their ears, that they are seeing in their parents and receiving in the home that constant reinforcement of the fact that we do not exist for ourselves. We received you as a gift from God, and we’re going to raise you in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. You just communicate that in an age-appropriate way.
You also discipline them. You explain to them you’re doing this because you’re going to train them to know the difference between right and wrong and do the right and avoid the wrong.
How should parents teach school-age children?
The next stage of life, about school age, when they really are putting on the backpacks and going off to school, that’s when they start asking some different questions.
At that stage parents need to be really, really constant in conversation; really, really constant in terms of saying, “You need to read this. I’m going to read what you’re reading, and we’re going to be talking about this.”
At that stage children are not suspicious. They are not critical thinkers, and they’re not trying to figure out whether they really exist or not. They’re not postmodernists; they’re not moral relativists. They are just trying to figure out how am I going to get through this stage of life, and will I make the little league team and all that.
How can parents help adolescents think through the big questions of life?
Adolescence is the crucial point. For the first time, they are not only thinking, they can think about themselves thinking. For the first time, they can imagine themselves in other contexts, being raised by other families, living other lives, having to follow other rules.
For the first time they’re beginning to think the big questions of life. When the lights go out at night, they’re trying to figure out, “Do I really know the meaning of life? Do I really know who I am?”
At that stage, parents need to both back off and get close. That may sound confusing. But to back off is this. Don’t be afraid if your kid is asking questions. Far too many Christian parents are scared to death of their teenage children when on the way home from school, the kid says, “How do we really know that Christianity is true?”
Be very, very careful to make sure your kids know you are the safe person to ask. Even when panic begins to set in the back of your mind, don’t let it show on your face. Say, “That’s a good question. We need to think about that. We need to go find the answers together.”
When someone comes up, when they see a same-sex couple holding hands, and say, “What does that mean?” you’re going to have to talk about that. You can’t just say at that stage of life, “That’s wrong.” You’re going to have to explain a much larger picture that gets back to the basic truths of the Christian faith. Understand that your children are asking those questions on the inside, if they are not asking them where you can hear them on the outside.
Create safe places, safe times when your kids can ask those questions. I used to pester my parents with questions late at night. My parents were kind enough and loving enough that they let me ask questions when I think they would have rather gone to bed.
My son tends to have the best conversations in a moving vehicle. That’s true for an awful lot of boys, by the way. You get in the car, you can talk. Take the kid fishing. Take her to the museum. Do whatever you have to do. Get into a situation where they feel free to ask these kinds of questions.
Another issue that really becomes very, very important with all of these stages of life is: don’t be afraid to say, “I know there is a good answers for that. I’m not sure right now I’m prepared to give the right answer for that. So we’re going to go find it together.”
MIKE: Do you have anything else to add?
I want to speak to parents as a parent. I want to share some good news, and that is you are absolutely incompetent. That is the best word I can give you.
You know it, and I know it. You look in the mirror, you look in the crib, you look at your child sitting there, and you go, I am not equipped for this. And that is true.
We are incompetent, but we know from a Christian worldview that we’re incompetent to do everything important. The preacher is incompetent to preach. The teacher is incompetent to teach. It is Christ who makes us competent. Our competency is from the Lord.
The Lord does not send parents out to fail. He does not send Christian parents with this task and then say, “You are on your own.” We have the indwelling Christ, we have the ministry of the Holy Spirit, we have the Word of God, we have the fellowship of believers in the church, and by the grace and mercy of God, we actually find a competency to do what in ourselves alone we’d never be able to do.
The most important of all things we are called to be is the only couple before God who hold the responsibility to bring these children to the very gates of the kingdom. We need to give them everything we can possibly give them to bring them there. And we trust that Christ, and Christ alone, can keep them there.