Everyone is asking the same question, “how do we keep our young people?” We are reading books about keeping young people faithful and why they leave. The statistics from Barna are frequently cited as we research why the exodus is taking place. There are seminars held and lengthy social media discussions, but still, we are left puzzled as to why young people are leaving their faith behind as they enter adulthood. Though I do not have all the answers, let me suggest a few reasons young people are leaving the church.
The Bible teaches that individuals have a choice as to whether they will serve God (Josh. 24:15). When we discuss teens and college students leaving the church we often assume it is because the church did something wrong, but many times this is not the case at all. The world and its pleasures are enticing and sometimes young people are drawn to these things and choose to reject the way of faith (1 Jn. 2:15-17). In the days of Elisha, there were young people that mocked the man of God for fun (2 Kgs. 2:24). Times haven’t changed.
It should be our desire that none of our young people fall away, but if we believe the Bible we should also realize that this is a potential reality. The way to heaven is still narrow, Satan still blinds the eyes of people, and some still want to go back to their old way of living (Heb. 6:4-6). One of the reasons young people sometimes leave the church is because they want to, and as sad as that is, it is still true. Sometimes, no matter what parents do or how much effort the church puts forward, the seasonal pleasure of sin wins out in their hearts.
Failed by Parents
Young people that are raised by Christian parents often leave the church to the surprise of many. After all, if your parents always brought you to worship services and took you to Bible camp, you will remain faithful in the years to come. By now we should all be willing to admit that simply bringing children to worship and introducing them to religious activities is not enough to keep them faithful in the long haul. Parents that do not talk about God, study the Bible with their children and teach them biblical principles of morality are setting their children up for failure in their later years (see Deut. 6:4-9).
We can hire a slew of youth ministers and have all the youth activities we want, but if faith is not real to a young person’s parents it won’t be real to them. Instead of asking “where is this young generation headed?” we would be better off asking “where did they come from?” Most of our youth are headed in the exact direction their parents pointed them towards (Prov. 22:6). If we emphasize sports, academic excellence, and recreational activities to the neglect of love for and devotion to God, we should not be surprised when we see them walk away from faith.
Many parents wouldn’t send their child to school without a backpack or to basketball practice without the right shoes but will send them to worship without a Bible and never ask them what they learned in Bible class. A parent’s lack of emphasis on spiritual matters communicates to a child that such is not important. If we want to keep our young people, we must first be sure we truly have their parents. If not, we will only see them at Easter and Christmas if at all.
Nothing got under the skin of Jesus more than hypocrisy (Lk. 12:1). Young people can sense this quickly as they are doing their best to decipher between things that are genuine and things that are not. Those of us who lead and instruct them would do well to examine ourselves and make sure we are being sincere and truthful. Our integrity is rightfully called into question when we teach that non-sinful things are sinful. When they find out we have deceived them they will question everything we ever taught them.
If they know we really care about them they will listen to what we have to say even if they disagree with us. We need to show a genuine care and concern for them as human beings, answer their questions and objections honestly and listen to them. They are probably right about some things. If we talk a big game about wanting our youth to grow and flourish and do not follow up with proper actions, they will leave.
Where’s the Challenge?
Christianity is a religion of growth. Perhaps we have lost some of our young people because we have not challenged them enough to stay. Teach them to doubt their doubts. When all of our Bible classes are on trendy, topical things and we never push them to read a book of the Bible or study the text, they will view Christianity as fluffy and empty of the deep substance needed to retain their attention. There is a time for basic lessons, and we need to teach the fundamentals, but we also should go on to mature matters and push them to think through difficult things for themselves (Heb. 6:1-3; 1 Pet. 2:2).
If teens and college-age students know that something will be required of them when they come to a Bible class more than just answering yes or no questions and reading a verse, they will prepare ahead of time. Teach them to memorize scripture, dialogue openly about the Bible with friends, and answer the skeptic’s criticism to the best of their ability. When we tell our young people that Christianity is easy (and we teach them as if it is) when they find out it is hard they will be more willing to quit. Challenge them and follow up with encouragement so that they can meet the challenge.
Lack of Involvement
If young people sit in the pew and do nothing, this says to them they are not valuable and no one would miss them if they left. We need to heed the words of Paul and not look down on young people due to their age (1 Tim. 4:12). The more we can involve them in the work of the church and allow them to serve, the better it will be in the long-run. Too many times young people are ignored and the first time we look up for them is when they’re heading out of the door. We should be proactive in training them to lead the church now and in years to come.
Older women should build relationships with younger women and be an example to them (Tit. 2:2-3). Older men should build relationships with the younger men and be someone they can turn to for advice and help. When we do not involve young people or when we segregate them to only the “youth group,” they will not feel like a part of the church and will leave as they phase out of the group they have been consigned to. Use them to read scripture, lead singing, lead devotionals. Don’t limit them to a youth Sunday or youth gathering, but make them feel as much a part of the church as anyone else.
Jesus called children to him and wanted them to follow him (Mt. 19:14). We should be doing our best to bring them to Jesus today. Why do young people leave the church? There are many reasons. Sometimes it is not our fault at all, and sometimes it is. May we continue to instill biblical faith in the generations to come so that fewer will leave the Lord.