Our title for this article is actually the title of a book by David Kinnaman, who has written several books on this subject in recent years including You Lost Me and UnChristian. (For a review of UnChristian see our September/October 2010 issue, page 23, or online at doesgodexist.org.) Kinnaman’s material comes from surveys by the Barna group, a research organization that has been gathering and publishing data on religion since 1984. You can go to their web site at www.barna.org for more information on their work. According to Barna, across the broad spectrum of “Christianity” fifty-nine percent of Christian young people are leaving the church. Some are becoming atheists, some are embracing New Age or Eastern religions, but a majority are simply becoming “nones” — not embracing any religious or anti-religious position.
Several periodicals have printed data from Kinnaman’s book but you will find the most recent data is on their website. This is a study with a sample base of nearly thirteen-hundred 18- to 29-year-olds during the time period from 2007 to 2011. It surveyed young people who were regular church-goers during their teens, but left the church after age 15. Kinnaman identifies what he calls “six significant themes” as to why they left. You can rationalize his conclusions away by saying that his sample did not involve young people from your congregation or that the interviewer led the young people to their comments. However, our experience is that Kinnaman’s points are valid for the most part, and need to be seriously considered by church leaders. In this article, we would like to list Kinnaman’s themes and add our own observations to his conclusions.
REASON 1— CHURCH SEEMS OVERPROTECTIVE.
Kinnaman says that much of the experience of young people was fear-based, and twenty-three percent of the sample said that everything outside of the church was demonized, and twenty-two percent said the church ignored the problems of the real world. “Hell fire and damnation” preaching may be the source of some of this, and in some denominations that may be an issue. Where we have seen this problem in our work with young people is in their concept of what God is like. Every week we get e-mails which say that the reason they have left the church is that they cannot serve a God who allows innocent people to suffer and die in horrible ways when he could prevent it.
You cannot scare people into long-term service to God, and you must answer the big “why” questions about human pain and suffering. A large percentage of our e-mails from searching young people are about the issue of why bad things happen to good and/or innocent people. We find that passages such as Ephesians 3:9 –11 and 6:12 which talk about the spiritual battle we are in and our purpose in existing are not passages young people have considered. Job’s experience is frequently studied from a literary standpoint, but not a practical viewpoint.
It is also important to look at what Christianity has done to address the “problems of the real world.” We have not done enough to show young people the positive things that have come to humankind from Christianity. I have found that Alvin J. Schmidt’s book Under the Influence, which does this in a good way, has pretty much flown under the radar of most churches (reviewed in this journal March/April 2003, archived at doesgodexist.org). The story of Liberal, Missouri, and what happens when the influence of the church is removed has not been widely publicized and yet is well documented (“Is Your Faith Growing Or Dying,” July/August 1989). Many congregations have involved young people in work in foreign fields and in poverty-stricken and depressed areas, and the benefit to the young people is as much of a justification for such mission works as what it does for the mission field itself.
REASON 2 — THE EXPERIENCE OF CHRISTIANITY IS SHALLOW.
Thirty-one percent of the departing young people said that “church is boring.” Twenty-five percent said that church was not relevant to their career or interest. Twenty percent said, “God is missing from my church experience.” If the only experience that a person has with “church” is to walk into an auditorium and hear a sermon, all of these statements are understandable. Christ never said that the sum total experience of being a disciple was to sit and listen. When Jesus presented material to his disciples, his methods involved things like washing their feet and telling them to do likewise. Jesus posed questions to his listeners and engaged them in dialogue on relevant questions about life. Jesus pushed his students to move out of their comfort zone and deal with the real world. We need to follow his example and use his methods in reaching out to our own children and their peers.
REASON 3 — CHURCHES SEEM ANTAGONISTIC TO SCIENCE.
The Barna data shows that twenty-nine percent of young people leaving the church consider the church to be out of step with the scientific world in which we live, and twenty-five percent say that Christianity is “anti-science.” The study found that young people whose professional calling was in a science-related industry felt that it conflicted with their faith.
As a public high school science teacher, I found this to be the case when I started teaching science in 1959. I was looked upon somewhat dubiously by many adult church members because I was involved in science. However, many young people felt that my combination of science and belief in God and the Bible as the Word of God was attractive and something that they wanted to have themselves. This was what started the Does God Exist? ministry in 1968 as I began to make presentations in coffee houses, campus centers, and churches.
The Bible challenges mankind to look at the evidence and act on what the evidence shows. Romans 1:19 – 22 encourages us to “know there is a God through the things he has made.” The Psalmist repeatedly made reference to the world around us to reinforce our faith and relationship to God. “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, …” (Psalm 8:3). “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1). Proverbs 8 talks about the role of wisdom in various aspects of the creation. Theologians and philosophers have created a climate of animosity between science and faith, and the casualties of that climate are young people with an aptitude and interest in science.
Churches need to turn away from negative approaches to science and science-related questions. Twenty-three percent of the young Christians in the Barna study said that they had been turned off by the evolution/creation debate. There are definite conflicts between naturalism and faith in God, but naturalism is a philosophy or a belief system which uses science in an unfortunate way. Christianity needs to be informed about science, and approach the issues of evolution in a positive way, looking for points of agreement and cooperation, and not looking for things to attack. Out of context quotes, inaccurate quotes, and quotes of people not trained in science are destructive to the faith of young people. Atheists are quick to use these unfortunate mistakes by fundamentalists. The recent claim by a leading creationist that Darwinism caused the Crusades is a classic example of how bad some approaches are to the evolution/creation question. Foolish claims destroy the faith of bright young Christians who are interested and informed in science.
REASON 4 — CHURCH EXPERIENCES RELATED TO SEXUALITY ARE SIMPLISTIC AND JUDGMENTAL.
My own experiences with church leaders and parents on the subject of sexuality has been that sex is either presented as something evil or something that is too private to talk about. When Richard Pettus wrote his book As I See Sex Through the Bible in 1973 I thought it would revolutionize the church’s approach to sexuality. Instead, I was chastised for recommending the book, even though it was written by a Christian doctor, and very accurate and biblical in virtually every way. Sex is a creation of God. It is a beautiful thing and the concept of oneness in marriage is a biblical concept that is the foundation of family life. In recent years there has been a number of other books written to help Christians with this subject, but they have not been best sellers even though they were dealing in practical ways with this vital subject. Some of them like Gregg Jantz’s book Too Close to the Flame (Howard Publishing, 2003) dealt with the need of youth workers and ministers to pay attention to their own sexuality and how to deal with temptation.
On a practical level, the church must have classes that deal accurately and completely with sex. Homosexuality needs to be discussed and explored from a biblical, not homophobic, perspective. Our job as Christian adults is to help young people deal with their feelings. That means knowing where the feelings come from and why God has given us a way of expressing our sexuality that is positive. We have had articles in this journal over the years on this subject. (See our indexes for complete articles or use the search engine on our doesgodexist.org web site in the bimonthly section.) Classes, workshops, retreats, and seminars can help as well. Masturbation, oral sex, anal sex, the effects of drugs including alcohol on sexual behavior, and sex in marriage need to be explored openly, completely, and honestly.
One of the issues in this subject area is that there have been some unfortunate statements by people who have misused the Bible in the past. Some have taken Genesis 38:9 where an ejaculation is “spilled on the ground” as a condemnation of masturbation. The condemnation in that passage is for Onan avoiding having children with his brother’s widow as God had commanded, not for the fact that his semen was wasted. The Bible teaches positive things about recreational sexual experience between a husband and wife. Proverbs 5:18 –19 tells a man to be satisfied with his wife’s breast. First Corinthians 7:3 – 5 tells Christians to not deprive each other of sexual pleasure. Hebrews 13:4 tells us outright that what happens in the marriage bed is pure. God created and designed sex for our enjoyment and pleasure and gave it to us in his word in a way that brings maximum joy to the participants. The tragedy of promiscuous sex is not only the issue of disease and unwanted children, but the fact that it reduces a beautiful, holy thing created by God to a mechanical meaningless act of selfishness. Young people need to see that and have it explained by mature Christian leaders in a way that glorifies what God has given us — not in an evil or naïve framework.
REASON 5 — THE EXCLUSIVE NATURE OF CHRISTIANITY.
We live in a pluralistic culture which tends to teach our young people that all belief systems are equally valid. We also tend as a nation not to see the difference between tolerance of all views and accepting all views as valid. We seem to have forgotten a statement by a statesman of the past who said, “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Twenty-nine percent of the departing young Christians said that they felt the church was afraid of other beliefs. If the statement read that churches are afraid of the consequences of following other beliefs, it would be accurate. Another old statement from an unknown source is, “You shouldn’t have to put your finger into the fire to know it is hot.”
All religions and political parties are exclusive. No one would believe that a single candidate would be a front-runner in both the Democratic and Republican parties at the same time. Most Muslims and most Jews are very vocal about their belief that their religion is the only true religion. The Koran speaks disparagingly about “the people of the book” (Christians and Jews). Story after story in the Old Testament tells of the consequences of “following after other gods.” Gentiles in the New Testament were sometimes described in negative tones because of the pagan practices they were involved in.
While Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6), there are also incredibly tolerant teachings in the New Testament. The early Christians were taught, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 through 7 Jesus talked about turning the other cheek, about not returning evil for evil, about going the second mile, and about loving your enemy. It is important that these teachings be brought to the attention of our young people.
Twenty-two percent of the young people said that churches are like a country club serving only insiders. It would seem to this writer that this is a reflection on what we are doing in worship and in church activities. We cannot out-entertain Disney, Hollywood, and rock concerts. When Jesus washed the feet of his disciples in John 13 and told them to do likewise, he was not talking about entertaining one another, but of real service to others in a general sense. It is important for churches to engage young people in serving others outside the walls of the church building. Every city has people in need. Delivering food, helping people with their property, visiting nursing homes and hospitals, participating in community service projects, learning to sign for the deaf, and helping care for people with disabilities of all kinds are all ways that young people can see the concept of serving others in action. This is not to say that we cannot entertain one another, but that cannot be the sum total of our Christian experience.
REASON 6 — THE CHURCH FEELS UNFRIENDLY TO DOUBTERS.
Instead of being unfriendly to doubters we must be ready to answer doubter’s questions. That is what Does God Exist? is all about. For more on this read the previous article.
I hope that it has been obvious in this discussion that there is not any one issue that is causing the erosion of young people from the church. It is not that there is not evidence for God’s existence and for the validity of the Christian system. We believe these causes are ones that can be addressed and that the church can build a healthy base of young people to reach out to a lost and dying world by answering the questions and addressing the needs that young people are conveying to us.
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