Why Do The Youth Leave The Church?

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This story is all-too-common, and illustrates a key dynamic driving the youth out of church.

I’ll never forget the incident from years back when two youths my wife and I knew well abandoned the church instead of being baptized. I was training to be an elder at the time. In that denomination, before a person was baptized, the pastor or the elders had to examine them. This was not some dour faced, legalistic church, but rather enjoyable people who took doctrine seriously and would be shocked to be identified as legalistic. The two youths wanted to be baptized and become Christians and asked their parents about baptism. Their parents sent them to the elders for examination to be baptized. The elder examining them asked the kill-shot question, “Do you still desire to sin?” Their answer was a true confession; a shy, sheepish, somewhat embarrassed but honest, “Whyyy, yes I do still desire to sin.” The elder replied, “You are not ready to be baptized and become Christians”. This was a pivotal moment for those two youths. A few years later they, predictably, left the faith. In reality, they left the faith that very day. As far as I know today, they are still atheist/agnostics. I told my wife at the time, “But that was a true and honest confession. If I’m at all honest I still greatly desire to sin. To say otherwise would be flat out lying to everyone and fooling me. Maybe my baptism was false too.”

This story is all-too-common, and illustrates a key dynamic driving the youth out of church.

First, our teaching gives them a sense that Christianity is not connected to reality. The real atheist maker is not the mythical liberal professor teaching evolution, nor the failure of the church to even counter the teaching of evolution, but a garden-variety church leader who doesn’t understand Christian doctrine himself. This was my own experience as a pre-teen in becoming an atheist.

The youth hear a description of what a Christian is and it doesn’t match their experience. The sinful desires still remain. The problem simply becomes either “God doesn’t care for me” or “no God exists.” Evolution or some form of secularism afterwards merely gives the already constructed reality a reasonable intellectual framework. If you’ve seen this happen or catch an atheist/agnostic in a moment of emotional non-defensive honesty not guarding the real reason why they left the church in their younger years, you will find this is the real reason.

Secondly, the most common discussion in our church makes the youth not only imagine that Christians don’t desire to sin. It tells them that Christians don’t feel physical desire! At the time in their life when the reproductive urge is raging, sex is the church’s perpetual “example sin” and the most deeply embarrassing personal issue to discuss with anyone. We teach or imply “you shouldn’t have the desire to sin,” and since sex is the example sin, they conclude that they should no longer have any physical craving for sex. This becomes their picture of the Christian faith. We’ve presented to them that the Law shows you what you should be able to do and can do with a little help from the “spirit” or some other Christian religious fuel. And it doesn’t match their reality.

However, Saint Paul could not be clearer. The Law is not there to tell us what we can do with a little help. The Law is to tell us just the opposite: that our desires are not right and that’s why we need Christ constantly. Furthermore, Paul says in an oft (I suspect on purpose) over-looked little phrase in Romans 2:1, “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things”. Ooopps! We should think about that next time we point out and “amen” against our favorite sexual immorality of another!

Third, we tell the youth at the prime of their procreative life in their late teen to early adulthood years to “hold off”, go to college and get a degree, get your life, career and finances in order first. Oh, and don’t mess up and sleep around until you’ve graduated, have a career and then get married. Then if they do “mess up”, the church will be the first to shame them to death and devour their consciences alive.

We create this huge period of temptation for our youth. Then if/when an out of wedlock pregnancy occurs we shame them to death and ignorantly wonder why they leave the church. If I’m a young person and that’s going on, you bet I’m afraid and embarrassed to go back to church because I’ll be carrying my “shame” on my hip in the form of a child every Sunday. Who wants that kind of constant silent stone casting and burdening of conscience? The prodigal would have NEVER come home. It’s willful blind ignorance for us to wonder why teens and young adults leave the church.

We need Christ not just at conversion but for the rest of our lives!

Getting older, fat and too lazy to engage so much in the sins of my youth ought not to be mistaken for the power of the Holy Spirit taking away my sins and sinful desires. And finally, much of our advice to the youth about how to live is cultural and not Christian at its base. We put burdens on their backs about delaying marriage that Scripture never suggested. We are like the teachers of the Law that Jesus spoke of who bound men under heavy burdens and did not lift a finger to help.

Over the years I’ve seen too many kids grow up across the denominational spectrum and leave the church. They leave because the Gospel gets lost, has limits, or tucks tail and runs at the first sign of any real sin. This is replaced with moral preparedness. That’s not the Christian faith, not even close.

The church is the family of forgiven real sinners, in the present palpable on-going tense. I am as ever and worse the sinner now as I ever was even before conversion. This was Paul’s confession. A familial relationship, a real one, always forgives. That’s the picture we have in the prodigal story. Christ’s forgiveness waits like the good father on the edge of His seat to forgive. Do we mean what we point to on the altar?

The body of Christ, broken for you. The blood of Christ, shed for you. The waters of one baptism have washed you clean. Dear children and ex-youth, Christ has not forsaken you even if the “church” has. This is most certainly true!