I recently had someone ask me to try to answer the question of why so many young people are leaving the church. Yikes. Talk about a large, loaded, deep question. After this, I’ll take on the issue of life on Mars. But I’ll give it my best shot.
While there are others who are certainly more qualified to answer that question, I did grow up in church and have seen many of my friends leave the church, so I may have a bit of insight into the question. I’ve seen friends get hooked on heroin, get entangled in sexual affairs, get slapped with handcuffs, renounce God, and turn their backs on all things Jesus. Why does this happen?
I don’t have any shiny bar graphs or fancy regression analyses. I don’t have a Barna survey of 1,000 angsty, disaffected youth. I don’t have a three-ring binder full of demographic data about today’s youth.
But I’m not sure I need all those things, helpful as they are. I think the answer as to why the church is hemorrhaging young people might be simpler than we think.
It’s all about the affections.
We no longer have a commonly accepted morality. People don’t go to church just because their parents went to church. “The Bible tells me so,” doesn’t mean much any more. We live in a society that increasingly locates ultimate authority within ourselves. My desires and my biology and my dreams are the ultimate authority. As long as what I want doesn’t hurt anyone else, it’s okay. You can’t tell me what to do and I can’t tell you what to do. Keep your morality out of my bedroom. To quote Sheryl Crow, “If it makes you happy, it can’t be that bad.”
We may be able to keep our kids sheltered from this blunt-force existentialism for a while, but eventually they will come to a crossroads of intellect and desire. They will experience strong desires that run counter to what they have been taught at church and in the home. The idea of “it’s wrong” can only hold out so long against the onslaught of desires. If the mind thinks it’s wrong but the heart isn’t so convinced, the heart will win in the end.
I know a young woman who lived with her boyfriend for many years before she got married. She knew it was wrong. Her dad had faithfully instructed her in the ways of the Lord, but her desires trumped her knowledge. I know a pastor’s kid who got sucked into porn and drugs and bunch of other stuff. His dad had done all the “right things”. Desires won.
So what is the solution? First and foremost, we depend totally on the Holy Spirit to cause our children to become born again. I can’t cause Charis, Ella, or Gwendolyn to become Christians. Salvation is not some sort of mathematical formula, where good input always equals good output. Jesus Story Book Bible + Faithful Discipline + Shepherding A Child’s Heart does NOT equal Salvation. Salvation is a work of God. God must save my kids.
If we don’t want our kids to leave the church, the best thing we can do is pray, pray, and pray some more. We must pray that God causes their hearts to become alive with holy affections.
Additionally, we need to dazzle our kids with Jesus. I don’t want to simply import biblical information into my kids, as if I’m installing a computer program. I want them to see that Jesus is better, sweeter, and more precious than anything else in life. I want them to see that their daddy loves Jesus with all his heart. I want them to hear me talk about how grateful I am that Jesus is my righteousness. I want them to understand the preciousness of grace. More than anything else, I want my children’s affections to be stirred up by Jesus.
As James K.A. Smith says in Desiring The Kingdom:
Being a disciple of Jesus is not primarily a matter of getting the right ideas and doctrines and beliefs into your head in order to guarantee proper behavior; rather, it’s a matter of being the kind of person who loves rightly— who loves God and neighbor and is oriented to the world by the primacy of that love.
[Tweet “If we don’t want our kids to leave the church, let’s seek to dazzle them with the Jesus.”] Let’s help them to love rightly.
Charles Spurgeon said:
I am afraid that many Sunday school addresses have no gospel in them. I do not see why the same gospel should not be preached to children as to grown-up people. I think it should. To stand up in a Sunday school and say, “Now be good boys and girls and God will love you” is telling lies.
It’s easy for our parenting and our Sunday school teaching to become nothing more than moral instruction. Be good. Do this. Don’t do this. When we teach this way, we reduce God to nothing more than a rule giver and we suck all the sweetness out of the gospel.
Let’s go the other way. Let’s dazzle our kids with Jesus.