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Behind the study that has turned into the best-selling book, Already Gone.
During the past thirty years of traveling the world and speaking in churches, I have been deeply burdened by distraught parents pleading for advice on how to reach their children who were brought up in the church but no longer attend. “How can I reach them? How can we get them back to church?” I have been asked time and time again.
I often thought how I would like to get into the heads of these young adults who have left church to understand how they are thinking. What caused them to walk away from the church they were brought up in?
Thirty years of teaching thousands of children and adults in churches has given me a big picture understanding of a number of issues—some of which greatly trouble me while some thrill me. For instance:
As I saw such patterns across America, Australia, Europe, and the United Kingdom, I was sure there must be a connection. Could it be that the lack of teaching apologetics in our churches, youth groups, Sunday schools, and Bible studies is a major reason why young people leave the church? But how do we determine if this is so, and when in their lives is this becoming an issue?
As I talked with parents, an overwhelming number of them admitted they didn’t know how to answer their children’s questions—whether about dinosaurs, the age of the earth, or the origin of the Bible. I also found that most parents believe their children’s Christianity won’t come under attack until college.
A supporter of Answers in Genesis wanted to help us obtain real data from a respected and trusted researcher, who could do a statistically valid study that had to be taken seriously.
So we contracted with Britt Beemer, from America’s Research Group,1 to formulate questions and survey one thousand twenty-somethings (ages 20–29) who had gone to church regularly as children but no longer attend. They had to have come from a conservative church background so the results would reflect what’s happening to children from Bible-believing churches. And what did we find?
The study found we are losing our kids in elementary, middle school, and high school rather than college.
Overall, the answer is the lack of teaching apologetics. The younger generations are not being raised to be able to answer the skeptical questions of our time, and so they begin doubting from a very early age whether they can trust the Bible.
“Sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear” (1 Peter 3:15). Introduce apologetics curricula at all levels in church programs and at home. Parents need to take responsibility for their children’s education and teach them from the moment they are born.
They want Bible teaching. It is not music that will bring them back to church but solid teaching that makes the Bible relevant.
Those who attend Sunday school are more likely to think God used evolution to create human beings, premarital sex is acceptable, and church is not relevant.
One of the shocks of the study was that, of these twenty-somethings surveyed, those who went to Sunday school were more likely to be antichurch and defend gay marriage and abortion than those who didn’t go to Sunday school. Again, the basic reason comes down to being taught the Bible as a book of fictional stories rather than real history that can be defended in this scientific age.
As I have been explaining the survey results during interviews, some radio hosts have asked me, “But why the disconnect—after all, surely the churches are teaching the gospel to these children.”
My answer is something like this:
“Yes, that is true, but let’s consider where we get the message of the gospel. How do we know Jesus rose from the dead? We were not there to see the resurrection, and we do not have a movie of it, so how do we know it happened? We know because we trust the authority of the book from which we get the gospel—the Bible.
“We take the words of that book as God-breathed, letting them speak to us from God. But these young people have been brought up in a culture where Genesis, in particular, has been attacked. They have been taught the world was formed in millions of years through evolution. And sadly, most Christian leaders (Sunday school teachers and others) have told these kids that Genesis doesn’t matter, that they can believe in secular history over millions of years as long as they trust in Jesus. Ninety percent of these kids go to a public school where God, the Bible, and prayer have been thrown out. They are being educated in a secular philosophy—in naturalism.
“These children have been led to doubt that the Bible can be trusted in the beginning. They are not being taught how to take a stand for its authority from the very first verse. They are not taught the answers to the skeptical attacks on the Bible. So when the message of Jesus is taught to them, they don’t really believe it because they don’t believe the Book from which it comes.”
I pray the book Already Gone will challenge the church to return to the authority of God’s Word. The next generation in the church needs to be taught not just what to believe as Christians, but also why we believe what we do, and how to answer skeptical questions. Let’s begin equipping the next generation to stand solidly on the authority of God’s Word!