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Churches Are Hemorrhaging Young Adults – Why?

Soberly consider this statement and question:

Evangelicals have failed to pass on to our young people the evangelical Christian faith in an orthodox form that can take root and survive the secular onslaught. In what must be the most ironic of all possible factors, an evangelical culture that has spent billions on youth ministers, Christian music, Christian publishing and Christian media has produced an entire burgeoning culture of young Christians who know next to nothing about their own faith except how they feel about it. Our young people have deep beliefs about the culture war, but do not know why they should obey Scripture, the essentials of theology or the experience of spiritual discipline and community. Coming generations of Christians are going to be monumentally ignorant and unprepared for culture-wide pressures that they will endure. Michael Spencer from: Coming Evangelical Collapse

If we can’t retain our children in the faith, what is really going on in the church? Richard Ross

The statistics vary concerning the dropout rate for churchgoing young adults (ages 18 to 30), but they don’t vary enough to dismiss the reality that we are losing our children at alarming rates. In Essential Church? Reclaiming a Generation of Dropouts, Thom and Sam Rainer report that 70% of young adults drop out between the ages of 18 to 22 years. If you have attended enough meetings you will find that others estimate the number is closer to 90%. Any percent is one percent too many, but for certain the alarming numbers beg the question, “What can we do?”

I agree with Jeremy Freeman (Evangelism: Making Converts vs. Making Disciples), I don’t think that the solution to this problem is a denominational fix. As a matter of fact, I think the solution to this particular challenge is going to have to start at a much more fundamental level – in the home. The church should and will have to  play a big role in equipping parents to get the gospel to their children, but until we have Spirit-filled and empowered parents taking the primary responsibility for making disciples of their children, we are going to continue to see an evangelical collapse.

I recently attended the Missional Ministry Conference in Norman, Oklahoma and during one of the optional times I inadvertently ended up in a youth minister’s breakout. The time was led by Richard Ross who has been doing youth ministry for 30 years and is now a “professor to the next generation of youth ministers” at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. He began the session by alluding to the alarming drop-out rate of our young adults who have exited our youth groups and said, “We have found out that pizzas and lock-ins didn’t do it, so what is the problem?”

The problem is youth ministers and youth ministries have been seen by many as the primary strategy or means for making disciples of children and youth. The home should be the primary place and parents should be the primary teachers. Ross illustrated this by using chairs to describe three kinds of parents and the kind of children they raise.

Categories of Parents

  • Chair 1 Parents – Chair number one parents deeply love Jesus and it shows in all their life. These parents look at everything through the lens of scripture in allegiance to Jesus and make decisions accordingly and their children see it. They are not perfect parents but they live all of life for the praise of God’s glory.
  • Chair 2 Parents – Chair number two parents are good people who mildly enjoy church. Ross calls these people, “good ‘ole Baptists.” They go to church and may be somewhat active in serving and giving, but at home their life does not reflect a comprehensively biblical faith that is devoted to God’s glory through Jesus. In the life of these parents their children see a disconnect between everyday life and church or spiritual life.
  • Chair 3 Parents – Chair number three represents “pagan parents” or openly unbelieving parents. These parents go with the flow and have no interest in religion or faith as evidenced for example by their lack of connectedness to any church.

Results of the Three Parent Categories

It is worth noting that there are exceptions to these generalizations about parents and children, but Ross pointed out that the research he was using revealed the following results.

  • Chair 1 Results – Parents who are first chair parents tend to have first chair children. Again, sometimes first chair parents will have third chair children and most of us have seen this, but they primarily raise first chair children.
  • Chair 2 Results – Second chair parents raise third chair children. Ross asserts that this often is not seen immediately in the life of the child, but later on in life this child becomes a pagan person and parent instead of holding the middle ground.
  • Chair 3 Results – Third chair parents raise pagan kids –  with “wonderful exceptions.”

Why? Why is there no middle ground for parenting if we want to raise up disciples instead of “pagans” or unbelievers? Ross says, “Profession without life is a disconnect for children. There is no middle ground.” It would concern me if any seasoned Christian were surprised by this since Ross is essentially echoing the Bible and Deuteronomy 6:1-9 when Moses writes that the word of God and the application of it is to be a part the life of the family at every opportunity. In verse 7 the Moses instructs that the people of God are to diligently teach their children the word of God. Surely, if that has changed it is only in our minds and not in the word of God. Christian parents ought to be the primary disciple makers in their family. The book of 1 Timothy illustrates this point in the NT by asserting that a man must be able to manage his own house if he is to hold an office of leadership in the local church. It makes perfect sense doesn’t it? Why would we put someone in leadership over others in the local church if they can’t even discipline themselves to make disciples in their own home?

Ross also referenced the George Barna Research Group as saying that the foundations of faith are crystallized by the age of 13 years. Obviously that does not mean a child will be set doctrinally and theologically by that age, but even Richard Dawkins, “the world’s most famous atheist”, knows that if you can “indoctrinate” a child early on, they will have a faith foundation for the rest of their life. Children need to see and know that God is real in the lives of their parents and that in seeing it visibly lived out they also can bank all of life on the God of the Bible just as mom and dad have. If they don’t see a devotion to God in the lives of dad and mom why would they be more devoted? Christianity is not a half-hearted religion or faith. God demands that we love Him with all of our hearts and the reality is that we simply cannot hope that our children will be something that their parents are not. Life just doesn’t work that way. As the saying goes, “If you want the people you lead to bleed (Jesus), then you are going to have to hemorrhage (Jesus).

I am not saying that parents in the church I pastor are not trying to make disciples of their children (I know quite the opposite) and I of course can’t speak for other churches entirely, but I can connect the dots and I have been enough places to know that we are not winning the battle for the hearts and minds of our children in our “Christan” homes the way that God intended in His Holy word. Neither am I saying that evangelical Christianity (The Church) is on the verge of collapse for this reason alone, but I have to believe that this has as much to do with it, if not more, than our methodology deficiencies or need for denominational restructuring and reform. What I guess I am saying is that we have to help families do what the Bible says they need to be doing, and perhaps more than anything we need the Spirit of God to bring about a revival for loving and doing the word of God in our homes.

I want to tack on one other thought in defense of youth ministers. I am a pastor who has the privilege of working with a fantastic youth minister. He loves Jesus and loves our students and works very hard for God’s glory, but it is not his job to be the primary disciple maker of youth in our church body. It is the parents job. I’ll say it again, it is not the youth minister’s job, biblically speaking, to disciple the children of Christian parents. He may be an important influence and supplement in the lives of youth, but the parents should be the primary disciple makers in the life of their children. If the parents are ill equipped to make the home the primary place of discipleship, it is the churches place to equip and train and encourage them to be the kind of teachers and models that God intended them to be. If we have children and youth who have unbelieving parents, it is the churches job to take on more of the responsibility. If a home is a single parent home, it is the churches responsibility to partner with that single parent as much as they can to get the gospel to that person’s children. I am not trying to get the local church off the hook, but lets not make it so the youth pastor is beating himself up trying to keep children out of the third chair because the parents are doing a second or third chair job. Alvin Reid, Professor of Evangelism and Student Ministry at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, says that parents are the anti-drug because studies show that if a parent is involved in the life of their child and will listen, the child will be less likely to do drugs. Parents have influence even if they don’t know it, and they should use it to point their children to Jesus.

Ministries for children and youth should be supplemental. Christian parents must take responsibility to disciple their children, and pastors and churches must help them see and live this. If we do not grasp this with a deep and life-changing conviction our churches are going to bleed to death because we did not retain young adults. And all of what I have said only begs other questions. For example, if a person walks away from the local church made up of people Christ died to forgive, is that person really even a Christian. But that will have to be for another time.

Brent Prentice

Author: Brent Prentice

View more articles by Brent Prentice.

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  • Ralph

    …then why have we brought so much of the world into sanctuaries such as Falls Creek. Rock bands versus participative youth choirs.

  • Troy

    The basic purpose is to attract non-Christian youth and get them to attend Christian programs and hear the basic message about Jesus Christ, their Saviour. We do have to be careful and not go to far in using the pop culture for the purpose of attraction.

  • Andrew

    I could be wrong, but as I understand it the time of worship through music at Falls Creek is highly participative. If that is the issue, I’ve heard these students walking back to their cabin singing those songs full of words about Christ.

    But I think there’s a bigger issue. When, yes, worship becomes a concert, it becomes void. But, at the same, what protects youth choirs from the same mistake? The bigger issue that I struggle with is depending on music to bring me to worship rather than depending on the Spirit. I’m convicted because I’ve been led to believe God is in the music when, in fact, he needs no music at all.

    When we connect this to the discipleship that Mr. Prentice wrote about, we’ve all got our hand in the cookie jar – the local churches, the church body as a whole, the parents, the body members, and the students themselves. Why isolate it to music? It’s more than that, it’s more than pizza, we need God. Participation and discipleship wouldn’t be an issue if God was the source. We are responsible for the dumbing down of our youth and we need to repent.

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Evangelism: Making Converts vs. Making Disciples

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