Why are Young People Leaving the Church?

My wife and I are the proud parents of two wonderful young men, both in their twenties. I vividly recall the first time I buckled Aaron in his car seat and realized, “O my God, I’m totally responsible for another human being!” The day Aaron was born, I became a man. When we stood in an altar and dedicated our sons to God, Sharon and I took that very seriously. We determined that we were going to disciple our children. As they grew older, it became a battle of the wills, but I knew what was at stake – their eternal salvation. Parenting is a tough gig; it’s definitely not for wimps. What was my greatest concern during my parenting years? I did not want my sons to depart from the church, or the faith.

In a recent blog, Tim King, suggested that young people are leaving the church because of hypocrisy. I understand his view, but I’ve been around a lot of young people and I have discovered that they too can be hypocritical. Some Christian thinkers have suggested that young people are leaving the church because of “antiquated views on sex,” especially homosexuality. As a pastor I can attest that many twenty-somethings do indeed leave the church because of sex, but I would never suggest that we should compromise the biblical injunctions about sanctification – “flee immorality.” I have a different view on why young people leave church.

First, most churches miserably fail in their efforts at discipling teens. Teens are too often treated as children who must be entertained. If teen ministry is about entertainment, then teens will never take Christian discipleship seriously. Teens don’t need to be treated like children; they need to be treated like adults. They need to be given serious responsibilities. When they enter their teen years it’s time to be an adult. Teen ministry in church must be about work and service. Teens must be engaged. They should be included in greeting, ushering, and they can serve as assistants in Sunday School classes and children’s church. Teen groups can be responsible for cleaning the church facilities, and doing church lawn work. Teens should be involved in service projects, like visiting the elderly, childcare, and civic duties. Teens should be involved in evangelism in the schools and neighborhoods by conducting sidewalk bible schools. Teens should be active in leading the worship of the church through singing, dancing, and making music. Any high school teacher will affirm that the best students are those who are engaged in extra-curricular activities. The more engaged, the better the student. Christian discipleship is about being engaged in the mission of Jesus Christ.

Second, discipling teens must include serious conversations about the issues that are important and significant to teens. Too many student pastors are not properly trained to engage students in serious conversations. The serious questions that students ask are often deflected. Teens are inquisitive and things need to make sense. They will ask questions about the Bible and science and the pastor that dismisses the role of science in the search for truth will not be taken seriously. Teens are talking about sex – a lot. That should not be discouraged, but encouraged. On several occasions I have been asked to speak to student groups in high schools. When I do a Q&A, most of the questions I get are about sex – masturbation and homosexuality. These young adults need answers about sexuality from a Christian perspective. Anyone who works with teens better be prepared to have serious conversations, or they will not have a voice.

Finally, the responsibility for the discipleship of teens begins with the parents, not the church. Of course the church plays a major role, but it is the parents who are charged to rear children “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4; Deuteronomy 6:1-9). Parents must set the standard of love and discipline so that the home is the school of Christian discipleship. Parents must be engaged in the lives of their children. If the church really wants to make a difference in the lives of young people, maybe the first place we should begin is to disciple parents. The discipleship of our children must be a joint effort of church leaders and parents.