Why You Shouldn’t Be Freaking Out That Young People Are Leaving the Church
I hear about it and read about it all the time: young people are leaving the church. Usually the language used is meant to create some sort of panic among Christians. It’s said that there is a “mass exodus” and a “sharp decline” among faith in young people. They leave “never to return” and because they “abandon the faith they grew up with”.
Let me just come out and say it: this is nonsense. Is it true that a high percentage of teens stop their involvement with church when they hit the college/university age? Yes. Are they gone forever? Some. Should I lose sleep at night worrying about it? No.
Here’s why: We should expect it. Firstly, a whackload of young people stop going to church when they hit that age because they never wanted to be there in the first place. Their faith was never their own from the start. Parent’s brought them to church, or they had friends in youth group, or it just seemed like the thing to do at the time, but in reality they never followed Jesus for themselves. Most researchers who recognize this put the blame on the churches. It’s assumed that their lack of faith is our fault. Maybe we weren’t accepting enough. Maybe we never gave them a place to belong in the church. Maybe they were spoon-fed Christianity. Those things might be true. But it’s also highly likely that solid, healthy churches are doing most things right and young people are still choosing to walk away.
I agree that some churches hurt the faith of young people through fundamentalism, liberalism, hypocrisy, judgmentalism, or whatever. And I am grateful for every healthy church that brings the Kingdom of God to young people in a more accurate way. But at the same time, we can’t deny the fact that the path to life is narrow, and only a few will walk it. I remember some guy saying that somewhere 😉
I’m really being honest here. There are kids that are involved with some of the youth ministries I oversee at my church and in the schools, kids who I know are not following Jesus for themselves. I work with my leaders and other students to pray and strategize and do everything we can to get them into a genuine faith with Christ. Sometimes it works, most of the time it doesn’t. I’m not sure it’s a failure on our part, but simply that the gospel is falling on ears that don’t want to hear it.
This is the reality for many young people. They are not born again, and we can’t force them to be. Church involvement is not the goal. Conversion and discipleship is. And that is a work of God. It’s our job to do everything we can to create an environment where Jesus is lifted up, where the gospel is proclaimed and lived out, but in the end it’s up to God to throw the switch and make someone a follower of Him.
That’s why I get annoyed at this talk of young people bailing on their faith. It’s obvious they never had real faith to begin with. Is that sad? Unbearably so. Should that inspire us to do everything we can to change it? Like crazy! But at the same time, it shouldn’t surprise us.
Think of the parable of the sower in Luke 8:5-8. The man sowing is sharing the gospel with people. Have you ever noticed that three of the four seeds he sowed did not end in real fruit? That’s probably a close figure to what most people suggest about the abandoning of faith by young people: roughly 75% of teens in the church grow up and walk away.
Notice also that two of the seeds started to grow for a while, but later withered or were choked out. That’s 50% of them. I’d roughly estimate that to be true, that nearly half of the people who hear the gospel start to show some signs of fruit that later on in life fades away.
I don’t think Jesus had percentages in mind when he shared this parable, so I know that I’m stretching it. The point is though that the Bible is consistent with it’s message that true followers of Jesus are more rare than common. It’s painful, but it’s true that we should expect a lot of our young people to eventually walk away. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t care. In fact, we should do everything we can to get 100% of our people to really follow after Christ for the rest of their lives. But in reality it won’t happen. Jesus said so.
To me, this issue is to be as faithful as you can, to pray like you mean it, to do everything in your power to point people to Jesus, and in the end leave it to God. I agree that there is a “crisis”, but it’s one that the Bible warned us about ahead of time. We should expect it. So rather than think the Church is going down the drain, let’s just focus on the mission at hand and give God all that we’ve got until we stop breathing or Jesus returns.