I’ve heard it time and time again.  The church is losing its young people.  If this trend continues, within a few generations, the church will be dead.Devoted Christians are losing their children to the world.  As soon as they go to college, it seems, they fall away.  Why?  Why is this happening to us?

Well, to start with, it is absolutely a fact that the church is losing its young people.  Some statistics in polls of youth groups show that as many as three-fourths of teenagers intend to leave once they are out of their parents’ home.  That’s not even the highest statistic.  J. Warner Wallace in 2012 collected a lot of good data about this, and in one of the studies he cited from 2002, 88 percent of children in evangelical homes left at the age of 18.  There is a case to be made that these children are not leaving, but that instead Jehovah never had them, as a minister said in an article from the Christian Chronicle in 2007.  So in that case, let’s rephrase the question.  Why aren’t the hearts of our young people, who grow up knowing and seeing so much of the grace of Jehovah, being led to Him?

Christians have seen this problem for a long time.  And what’s the proposed solution been?  More youth groups, pizza parties, movie nights, and amusement park trips.  Instead of filling them with the love of God, we fill them with entertainment and teach them that church is the place to get it.  And we’re so ignorant, so short-sighted, that we don’t realize that we’re adding more fuel to the fire.  Because the root problem in some of these situations is that their heart is given to fun, not to Jehovah, and by adding more fun in the name of God, we’ve just driven them even farther away from Him.

Our culture emphasizes fun for children.  It says that children’s purpose is simply to have fun and to be served.  So when Junior wants to pick up a job to make a little extra cash at age 15, instead of valuing his hard work initiative, we say “Oh no, Junior, this is the time of your life that you’re supposed to have fun.  You’ll have to work your whole life, have some fun right now!”

So guess what?  That’s what he does.  He lives to have fun, as he’s been told to do.  And what’s fun?  Pizza.  Laser tag.  Movies.  Music.  Pop culture.

You’ll notice that Bible study, prayer, and serving others as Christ served us isn’t on that list.  Why?  It’s simple.  Those things just aren’t fun.

Fun is about me.  It’s about me enjoying myself.  That’s not inherently wrong in all instances, but it’s self-focus when it becomes the point of your life right here right now.  And that self-focus becomes a downward spiral, because as they go to the fun things, the entertaining things, they go to entertainment.  Big surprise, right?  And what does entertainment teach them?  Several things, but the prevailing film topics at present are be yourself, don’t let anyone control you, live sexually unrestrained, and do what makes you feel good.

So we’ve told them to go have fun.  So they go have fun instead of seeking Jehovah.  And as they seek fun instead of Jehovah, they’re bombarded with messages that are the opposite of those they receive in the pew on Sunday morning.  Contrast this with what Paul says we’re to do:

“So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.  Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.  Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.  Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” – Phil 2:1-8

Entertainment isn’t always wrong.  But to make your life all about it is.

But that’s only half of the problem.  The other half is illuminated by J. Warner Wallace in the same post.  This is Warner’s findings based on the book The Teen Guide to Global Action: How to Connect with Others to Create Social Change:

“More teens are embracing a nebulous belief in God. Yet there’s been an ‘explosion’ in youth service since 1995 that Lewis attributes to more schools emphasizing community service.”

This illuminates what is a problem not by outside sources influencing those inside the church, but rather a problem within our own ranks of Christ-believing men and women.  We’ve created an entire Christian pop culture, which is not very much different except we take out sex and paste God’s name across it, but it’s still fun-focused.  And within that realm, when we try to create serious Christian works, such as books and movies, they’re less a thoughtful exposition of serious and adult themes and more a message to “just have faith and everything will be wonderful.”

Look at popular Christian films.  In Facing the Giants, we see several miracles that never happen to most Christians.  Fireproof tells us that going to Christ will save any relationship (and turn any unwilling partner into a cooperative convert).  There are wonderful things in these films that we should appreciate.  But they also promote the idea of the world that Christianity is shallow and has no real cognition to it.  Why don’t we ever see a film about an atheist studying his way to faith?  Or a book about keeping faith while being persecuted for it in Africa?  Because those wouldn’t be feel-good films, and if Christian media these days is about anything, it’s about endorsing the feel-good moments and ignoring absolute evil that needs to be confronted.

So the end result, then, is that while we’re telling our young people to just have fun, they look for fun in places away from God instead of seeking God with all their hearts.  And then, in those moments that they do think on more serious things, they aren’t going to look to God, because we’ve taught them, even if unintentionally, that Christianity is for the shallow and ignorant, not for serious thinkers.

The remedy is two-fold, and simple.  Push our children and peers to seek God instead of living for fun, and start confronting head-on the difficult questions of theology and truth instead of pretending following God makes all of your problems disappear.  That’s the call, and it’s the way to reverse this trend.

Follow me on Twitter: @loganrjudy

30 COMMENTS

    • I’d forgotten about this piece until you brought it back up; thanks, Michael! These findings are very important. I was very offended as a high school student at the assumption that I wouldn’t be interested in spiritual things, so I need fun thrown at me to get me to church. I wasn’t alone in that, either. There are several young people that want spiritual depth, but they’re driven away because we try to give them something else. Inevitably, they’ll go somewhere else for answers when we say “It’ll all be fine, now have some more pizza.”

  1. When the church has pews full of 18th-century idolatrous behavior, a deceiving and 21st century world is right there.
    GOD JUDGES THE HEART

    God judges the heart.
    Our words shalt not matter.
    As long as it’s praise,
    The Lord they shalt flatter.

    Chorus:
    Too foolish to practice,
    At work, school, and home.
    God judges the heart.
    Let’s praise Thee alone.

    Like humans, we know,
    God’s ways sure get olde.
    To witness Him more
    Would be rather cold.

    So when we are with
    Our friends that have faith,
    Practice bad habits.
    Just trust and obey.

  2. Haha this is great but I think you’re wrong. How about kids leave the church at 18 because they were FORCED to get up early every Sun. morning when they were dead tired and now hate going to church? Instead of a relationship with God all they learned their while lives was this is something we do to be good and by the time the kids are adults they are sick and tired of it!

    • That’s an interesting idea. I’d like to ask you a question in return. Your parents probably forced you to brush your teeth when you were a kid as well. So are you sick and tired of that as well? What about taking a bath? Or doing your homework?

      The idea that taking our kids to church drives them away from God makes about as much sense, frankly, as the idea that having them take care of their bodies drives them away from good hygiene habits. Now certainly they must be taught the right reason for why we do that. That’s it to worship God, because we love God and we want a relationship with Him, not just to check a box. But as long as that is done well, that is not what is driving our children away from God.

      • I grew up in the Lutheran faith went to school and church at the same place. School everyday five days a week, with bible study 1 hour every day. Chappell every Wednesday for 1 extra hour. Also church every Sunday 8 am sharp for about 1&1/2 hours long. Everything constant rigor felt almost militaristic. Now I love God but I will tell you after 18 years of this I could not wait to end this.
        One more thing I believe, you say it is not about me it’s about giving to God. I feel it is about my walk with God.

        • So if you do indeed love God, and believe that worship is about your walk with God, then why could you not wait for the habit of going to worship to end?

    • It is a patents job to teach their children. I am so tired of the I was forced to church excuse for not attending church now. If your parents didn’t take toy then you would blame then for not taking toy and sharing Jesus.

      • I don’t know that those people would necessarily say the reverse (blame them for not taking them), but I agree with you that the excuse in and of itself is a poor one. And these examples aren’t by any means representative of all churches. The church I grew up going to had morning services at ten o’clock, which is hardly the crack of dawn. I have a friend who preaches at a church that has one Sunday service somewhere from 11 to 1 (I can’t remember the exact time), and a church that my parents visit from time to time has one service at 2. I would venture to say that an 8 a.m. service is atypical. So even if it were a valid excuse (which I don’t think it is), it’s not representative of all Christian churches. It could only go so far as to say that you should perhaps look around for a congregation that fits your schedule a little better.

        But as is, you’re right, it is a parent’s job to teach their children. Nobody argues that parents should never provide educational opportunities for their child because they might dislike school later on, so why would we make the same argument when it comes to spiritual instruction?

    • In that case people have the wrong idea about what church is supposed to be, and are not going for the right reasons. Entertainment is about me. Going to worship is, or at the very least should be, about God. It’s not supposed to be about us. So those who have the mentality that they are going to worship services to be entertained need to reevaluate, because that’s not the purpose of God’s church.

  3. Dawn, that is a poor example. Having two teenagers myself I know that if we were going to the beach, amusement park, mall or movies and the car was leaving at 8 am, you and most kids, including mine, would be up, showered, fed and ready to go every time. The issue is you (them) have not realized the NEED for Jesus to navigate us through this life, and until you do, you remain at the mercy of this world. 🙁 Seek him Dawn, and you will find Him

  4. As a young father this is an important question to me. My faith is deeply important and my greatest desire, after my desire to personally know God more, is to lead my family into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ. I was never given much depth in spiritual things as a child and my family was only nominally Christian. This is why I study theology and apologetics fervently in my spare time.

    I was not a Christian while I was in the military nor when I was putting myself through my undergraduate degree. I know first hand the hard life which is imposed by sin upon the unrepentant sinner and I know the vicious lies that our culture tells the lost about how to find happiness. It would break my heart if, while she were in her late teens and twenties, my daughter made the same mistakes that I made.

    Ultimately, whether or not she comes to faith is not my decision. Whether we are Arminians, Calvinists, or confused, the Bible teaches that God knows what will happen and that he is sovereign over salvation. The only thing I can control is whether or not my family hears Christianity’s depths explained rationally and it’s truths defended by someone who has lived intensely in both the dark and the light, and therefore knows the difference intimately.

    • One suggestion I have for you is to be careful explaining your experience in darkness to your children. I have a wonderful Christian friend who before coming to Christ was very sexually active and a ‘party’ animal in college. His son is now going off to college already turning away from the faith saying “I want to be able to party like you did dad and live it up in college”

      Start collecting data from outside the Bible to help your children see the truth beyond simply ‘the Bible says so’ One of the great things for you as a dad is you can collect all the research about how devastating the sexual revolution has been to society and women in particular (STDs, depression, statistics on the more partners a woman has before marriage the higher the divorce rates once she is married, statistics on how cohabitating couples have higher divorce rates than people who wait until marriage to live together etc etc).

      There is so much research on how tragic these things have been to children (of divorce) and society in general that you simply present the data from this 50+ year experiment of ‘if it feels good do it’ and then compare that to God’s intention for marriage.

  5. The problem really lies with what is happening in the home. The parents, who are responsible for teaching their children the way they should go, should be teaching their kids how to have a relationship with their Savior and Lord. The reason for this is because most parents go to church on Sunday, come home and fail to pick up their Bible during the week and read it for themselves. The Word of God is living, sharper than any two edged sword. It is powerful and useful for teaching. Sadly too often, parents find themselves looking to the church to teach their children, not realizing that they themselves were assigned by God to do that job. Parents, let your children catch you reading the Bible daily, praying daily, and use what you read that day to talk to your children about what the Bible said and how it applies to you and your kids today. Encourage them to have their own personal quiet time with the Lord, reading the Word of God for themselves (like you are) and teach them how to follow in your footsteps.

    It is not the church’s responsibility to win the hearts of the children for Christ, it is the parent’s responsibility to lead them to the cross by example and show them why it is relevant to their lives. The church has created an atmosphere for the children to have fun so that the kids will be interested in what they have to say, but we are losing this generation because they just truly don’t understand why a relationship with Jesus is relevant to them

    • It is true that it is the responsibility of parents to train their children, but when we speak of the church, we’re speaking of God’s people, not an impersonal institution. So in that way, they are mostly the same. The same people that are creating that atmosphere of “just have fun” are often parents themselves, so that same atmosphere is getting promoted at both places. I’d also point to the fact that churches are trying, rightly so, to not just win children of churchgoers, but also young people who do not come from spiritual backgrounds. In that scenario in particular, it is the church’s teaching and how they approach that demographic that is going to determine or at least help determine their spiritual direction, since they aren’t getting it at home.

      Ultimately, I’d say that you’re right, it is the responsibility of the parents, but that will never mean that it is only the parents that have an effect in this situation, nor is it to say that the church and the parents are completely separate in this instance.

  6. The fact of the matter is: until a person has a spiritual hunger, they’re not going to be ripe for the Gospel or for Jesus Christ. I had a student who at age 16 told me, “MY mother has BIBLED me to death!” That very same year, she knowingly committed fornication with another student at her Christian school, who also had been reared by a devout mother. Not until she was 27 did she actually come to Christ and start taking that life seriously.

    I myself was reared in a non-Bible home; we went to church once/year at Easter only while I was in grade school. I also had to suffer thru confirmation lessons for a year and then the ritual itself. None of that had any life in it. So I developed a HUGE distaste for anything religious. But I did have a SPIRITUAL appetite, and I was appalled by the Holocaust, so those 2 things eventually led to my becoming a believer shortly before I turned 21.

    If you are elect, God will do whatever it takes to bring you to Himself. If you are not elect, no matter how much your parents (and others) pray for you and model godliness, your heart will remain a stone. If find it more dangerous for young kids (who’ve not yet truly received Christ) to learn by heart a catechism where right from the beginning, they’re parroting “I am a lamb of Christ’s,” than for someone to grow up in a nominally Christian home or even a religiously-neutral home, because the first type of kid is in danger of thinking they’re “saved” just because they know the catechism by heart and it tells them they’re “one of Christ’s lambs” and they went to church faithfully with their parents. Much harder to convince a pseudo-Christian they’re not than someone who’s cognitive of not being saved.

    • I agree with everything you said here. The solution, then, is not to overwhelm the children in our care on Sundays, Wednesdays, etc. but to teach them why Christianity is true and let God choose His elect. It’s really not that difficult; just a paradigm shift in how youth group is typically “done”.

    • I also think there’s an error in thinking that because some kids become disenchanted with Christianity through things like Sunday school or other religious activities, that the answer is somehow the opposite of that. It isn’t; the problem lies not with the category but with the heart of the activities. I think what Nate said is key, that we need to teach our children why Christianity is true. It’s the shallowness of entertainment-centric (or even just a ritual-centric) Christianity that drives young people away from Christianity, not religion in and of itself, if that makes sense.

      So I guess what I’m saying is that we need to do a better job of meeting what you identified as your spiritual appetite. Many churches have ceased driving what you call the religious aspect of things (ritual-centric), but have replaced it with an entertainment focus instead of a spiritual focus. And your story, like so many others, just proves that even at the young age of 21, or even 16 (when I became a Christian), people do still long for spiritual depth.

  7. Ooops, erratum in my previous comment: meant “cognizant” rather than “cognitive,” of course. (This comes from posting way too late at night, LOL!)

  8. I can attest that this is true.. We left our former church, because it became more of a seeker-sensitive style in preaching and practices and purely programs and cool activities. Now we found out recently that 2 of our former churchmates, one who is a very close to us became an atheist. We talked to her and found out she was longing for deeper and solid Word of God, because there are questions in her mind regarding verses in the bible, sadly her leader and “professed youth pastors” just told her that her questions are non essentials and the only important thing is “personal relationship”. She used to be part of the “praise and worship team and a discipleship leader for teens. Now she is no longer attending our former church (youth group became pragmatic and entertainment-driven). Good thing me and my wife talked to our “women senior Pastor” and asked permission to leave. We told her the reasons for leaving and one of them is this “entertainment practices” that we find no longer biblical. Sadly young people and young pros have no spiritual growth and maturity. The youth group is just a social club every sunday and their so-called bible study.

    • That’s sadly the progression of many churches in the past several years. It’s especially sad because the people that are coming up with these programs don’t realize that what they’re meeting is largely fantasy. Many are longing for deeper and solid Word of God, but aren’t getting it. I sincerely hope that more teachers and ministers realize this and change the focus of their youth ministries. It could make an enormous amount of difference.

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