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?”
Statistics indicate that around two-thirds of children who grew up in conservative churches are now leaving by the time 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.
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.
Interested in reading more? See Does Church Need Change? (Expanded Version).
You raise the issue of a secular culture. Does the church need to change its strategy, recognizing that we’re fighting a postmodern world?
We’re not really in a postmodern age. We’re just kind of in “post-modern moods” because we still live in a world shaped by the Enlightenment as well. A lot of what we face in the battle over science and origins, in academic debates and the new atheism, most of that is really not postmodern.
It’s 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.
What is the church doing wrong in this “war”?
Churches in many ways have actually, I think, added to the problem. They promote the idea of the church as a full-service entertainment and activity center, where you take children away from their parents and just put them in a different peer culture. Now it’s a church peer culture. What happens when they grow out of that?
Kids are spending a very small amount of time in church activities, and many of those activities have very little theological, biblical, or spiritual content.
Kids are spending a very small amount of time in church activities, and many of those activities have very little theological, biblical, or spiritual content. As a result, we have a generation of young people who believe that there is a God, but they don’t have any particular god in mind.
We should be exhorting each other, helping each other, equipping each other. Christian young people should be drawn into the church, but not in a way that isolates them with other young people.
What steps can the church take to do better?
- 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 [teaching that expounds on a particular text of Scripture]. 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.
- 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.
Otherwise, 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.
- Give answers about current issues.
We’re not giving our kids adequate information on some very crucial issues. Look at 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 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. That is the way the tides work. It picks up the stuff, and they become the flotsam and jetsam of the cultural movement.
- Explain how the gospel is unfolding through real history.
There is another big failure. We speak of propositional [objective] 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—a true story—about life, about God’s purpose to bring glory to Himself. It has four major movements: Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation.
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.
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.” 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.
What are parents doing wrong?
We’ve got to start treating young people as a mission field, not just assuming that mere nurture will lead them into Christian discipleship and into Christian faith. Parents need to take a big responsibility here. The one thing we know from the entirety of the Scripture 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. We also have, on the part of many Christian parents, a buy-in to a new secular understanding of parenthood. 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.
What Steps Can Parents Take to Do Better?
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. 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.
- Teach God’s Word all the time, in everyday life
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. 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. As children get older, let them choose some of the things to read. Read it together and then talk about it together.
Watch the news together. Talk about the news together.
And yes, talk about the Scriptures and teach the Scriptures.
- Help adolescents think through the big questions.
Adolescence is the crucial point. For the first time they’re beginning to think about 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, don’t be afraid if your kid is asking questions. Far too many Christian parents are scared to death of their teenage child 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.
Create safe places, safe times when your kids can ask those questions. I used to pester my parents with questions late at night. And my parents were kind enough and loving enough that they let me ask questions when I think they would have rather gone to bed.
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 answer for that. But 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.”