Why the church is losing young people

February 11, 2013

Here’s a thought-provoking blog post by “Marc5Solas” called “The Top 10 Reasons Our Kids Leave Church.” He says that 70 percent of our youth drop out of church after they graduate high school, and only half of those will ever return. He doesn’t cite a source for these numbers. Are they anecdotal? Regardless, they seem reasonable to me—even a little better than I would imagine! One question I have is, Are these retention numbers worse than before so many evangelical churches adopted this Disney World approach to youth ministry?

I made this point in my mostly positive assessment of Andy Stanley’s book Deep & Wide, but it bears repeating: I worry that Stanley’s approach (and perhaps the approach of many megachurch pastors) is to overemphasize that one moment of decision to follow Christ and to be a bit cavalier about what happens next—the hard work of sanctification, which the Holy Spirit accomplishes in cooperation with us. Stanley concentrates his pastoral efforts on the first part while “outsourcing” the other part. (Yes, I’m aware that United Methodist pastors like me often err in the opposite direction.)

As I’ve said in more than a few sermons, deciding to follow Jesus is the easy part: “becoming a Christian,” however, is a lifelong process. It’s no wonder so many kids drop out!

That being said, to Solas’s point, the church shouldn’t make it so easy to do so!

The post is filled with wisdom, but here are some parts that I especially like:

We’ve taken a historic, 2,000 year old faith, dressed it in plaid and skinny jeans and tried to sell it as “cool” to our kids. It’s not cool. It’s not modern. What we’re packaging is a cheap knockoff of the world we’re called to evangelize.

Our kids meet the real world and our “look, we’re cool like you” posing is mocked. In our effort to be “like them” we’ve become less of who we actually are. The middle-aged pastor trying to look like his 20-something audience isn’t relevant. Dress him up in skinny jeans and hand him a latte, it doesn’t matter. It’s not relevant, It’s comically cliché. The minute you aim to be “authentic”, you’re no longer authentic!

From a Noah’s Ark themed nursery, to jumbotron summer-campish kids church, to pizza parties and rock concerts, many evangelical youth have been coddled in a not-quite-church, but not-quite-world hothouse. They’ve never sat on a pew between a set of new parents with a fussy baby and a senior citizen on an oxygen tank. They don’t see the full timeline of the gospel for every season of life. Instead, we’ve dumbed down the message, pumped up the volume and act surprised when…

8. They get smart:

It’s not that our students “got smarter” when they left home, rather someone actually treated them as intelligent. Rather than dumbing down the message, the agnostics and atheists treat our youth as intelligent and challenge their intellect with “deep thoughts” of question and doubt. Many of these “doubts” have been answered, in great depth, over the centuries of our faith. However….

7. You sent them out unarmed:

Let’s just be honest, most of our churches are sending youth into the world embarrassingly ignorant of our faith. How could we not? We’ve jettisoned catechesis, sold them on “deeds not creeds” and encouraged them to start the quest to find “God’s plan for their life”. Yes, I know your church has a “What we believe” page, but is that actually being taught and reinforced from the pulpit?

You’ve tried your best to pass along the internal/subjective faith that you “feel”. You really, really, really want them to “feel” it too. But we’ve never been called to evangelize our feelings. You can’t hand down this type of subjective faith. With nothing solid to hang their faith upon, with no historic creed to tie them to centuries of history, without the physical elements of bread, wine, and water, their faith is in their subjective feelings, and when faced with other ways to “feel” uplifted at college, the church loses out to things with much greater appeal to our human nature.

Rather than an external, objective, historical faith, we’ve given our youth an internal, subjective faith. The evangelical church isn’t catechizing or teaching our kids the fundamentals of the faith, we’re simply encouraging them to “be nice” and “love Jesus”. When they leave home, they realize that they can be “spiritually fulfilled” and get the same subjective self-improvement principles (and warm-fuzzies) from the latest life-coach or from spending time with friends or volunteering at a shelter.

We’ve traded a historic, objective, faithful gospel based on God’s graciousness toward us for a modern, subjective, pragmatic gospel based upon achieving our goal by following life strategies. Rather than being faithful to the foolish simplicity of the gospel of the cross we’ve set our goal on being “successful” in growing crowds with this gospel of glory. This new gospel saves no one. Our kids can check all of these boxes with any manner of self-help, life-coach, or simply self-designed spiritualism… and they can do it more pragmatically successfully, and in more relevant community. They leave because given the choice, with the very message we’ve taught them, it’s the smarter choice.

3 Responses to “Why the church is losing young people”

  1. Mary Fletcher Says:

    Certainly thought provoking, but not sure I see what should be differently. My husband and I were raised in churches with about the same foundation and returned to our roots (actually, I never left the roots).

  2. Nelson Says:

    A powerful message, Brent. Having worked with out youth program for a number of years I am really please with where Turner and Jay are taking the youth group at AFUMC with a solid Biblical foundation. Yet still we lose some youth as they travel off to college.

  3. Deen Uwin Says:

    Reblogged this on When I Pause and commented:
    Another interesting read that makes you think…
    Keep on pausing and learning

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