Losing our Youth
It is evident in many congregations throughout our nation today, and it does not bode well for the future of the historic Christian churches in the United States. The faithful within the churches are graying, and the youth are leaving in droves — many of them with no plans ever to return again. While there are some exceptions to this trend, just take a look on any given Sunday morning at the congregants in your typical Christian congregation in America today. You might notice a few younger families with children and teenagers, as well as some in their 40s and 50s, and plenty of “seasoned saints” occupying the pews. But, with some notable exceptions, I would venture to guess that in your average American congregation you will find the percentage of congregants in their 20s and 30s far below the percentage of those who are older. In spite of massive efforts by many churches and denominations in the past 30 to 40 years to attract and retain their youth through high-energy, “cool” youth group programs, contemporary worship, young, hipster pastors, and “relevant” felt-needs preaching, on the whole the youth in the churches seem massively unimpressed; and they are showing it by walking out the church doors once they leave the nest. Sadly, many of them are not only leaving the church; many of them are leaving any profession of Christian faith altogether. Why is this happening, and what should the church do about it?
I do not claim to be an expert on these types of trends, but I believe Pastor Jonathan Fisk is on target in the comments he offers about this trend in his book, Broken: 7 “Christian” Rules that Every Christian Ought to Break as Often as Possible.” (Yes, I know that I have been referring to his book extensively in my recent posts. The reader will have to forgive me for this, but it really is a very timely book, in my opinion.) Fisk writes:
“The effect of all such unbridled worship of Freedom becomes most apparent in those who benefit most from a firm ground of traditions: the children. Ironically, it has been in order to better reach the young that “the freedom to get rid of the rules” has been sold to countless congregations and denominations over the last half-century as the one unassailable golden rule of youth ministry. It is claimed that in order to reach the young, we must imitate their world, speak their language, do what they do, and think what they think, which means jettisoning anything of the past not part of the context they are being sold at the mall and on YouTube. Teaching them to embrace a culture of the past is out. The only true rule is that by the systematic shedding of all rules and connection points with previous generations shall the next generation be able to learn the faith. If anything is difficult, strange, or boring, it is anathema. What matters is keeping their attention, and nothing grabs attention like breaking all the rules.
“The results couldn’t be more disastrous. The Church in America is in a total crisis. Far from keeping our young, we’ve entirely lost them. It is a painful fact to admit, but a careful glance around any local congregation on a Sunday morning will make it plain. The faith once for all delivered to the saints has simply not been passed down to a super-majority of the upcoming generations, those very children who grew up under the super-tradition of getting rid of traditions.”(1)
“But,” it will be objected, “once they grow up, get married, and start having children of their own, many of them will eventually return to church.” Well, that may be true of some, but that doesn’t seem to be the overall trend. Again, to quote from Fisk:
“There is an old wives’ tale told around the baptismal font to justify the consciences of guilty mothers and Sunday School teachers, a poo-pooing of this stark news with the insistence that once these drifting children have their own kids and a mortgage, then they will inevitably trickle back into the pews as well (or at least into the stadium seating at the Church of What’s Happenin’ Now down the street). It’s a lovely little myth. After all, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). The problem is that if we take a closer look at the way we have trained them, we find this is precisely what has happened already.
“Forget the fact that the current generation is not having kids. Forget they’re already paying mortgages as they cohabit in “friends with benefits” partnerships. Even without these problematic trends, the dilemma remains that the reason people under forty are sleeping in on Sunday (or getting up to do any number of other wonderfully fulfilling hobbies instead of going to Church), is precisely because they’ve embraced the way we’ve trained them to go. They believe confidently in the spirituality of Freedom. Ask any one of them, and you will quickly learn their deepest conviction is that people need to do what is right for them. “To each his own.”…It turns out the children have been listening to everything we say, and we’ve taught them only too well. They are practicing freedom to the full by staying at home on Sunday morning. Taught that “the Gospel” means the freedom to follow your dreams and ignore any stuffy warnings of the past that happen to cramp your spiritual style, those who have drifted away have done so because they have taken the lessons to heart.”(2)
“The Church of any era before our own would have had no trouble calling this glorious new religiosity exactly what it is – spiritualized immaturity. The die-hard commitment to pleasing Me, the zealous insistence on exerting my will, the undying passion for doing what I want, these are the religious equivalent of the stalled out, lazy, dysfunctional mentality of high school senioritis.”(3)
So we have indoctrinated the younger generations in the narcissistic spirituality of “follow your heart” and the culturally-dominant “tradition” of despising, mocking and violating all past sacred traditions. Often unintentionally we have burned into their consciences the inviolable “rule” that teaches them that rules (even if those rules happen to be found in God’s Word) are “legalism,” and thus all rules should be broken (except, of course, the inviolable “rule” that all rules should be broken). How do we reverse this trend? How do we retain our youth, and draw other youth to Christ and into the fellowship of His church?
There is no “silver bullet” answer to this dilemma. We must remember that ultimately Christ is the One who builds and grows His church. Even if the churches in the United States end up being much smaller in membership and attendance than they were in previous generations (and, barring a mighty work of God bringing multitudes into His church, that looks like where the churches in America are headed), such a “pruning” of Christ’s church could have a spiritually refining effect in the long run. Nevertheless, God uses means, and I think there are a number of ways that Christian parents and Christian churches in this nation can do a better job of passing along the Faith to future generations. Here are some suggestions:
(1) Christian families and Christian churches must seek to ground the younger generations in the biblical gospel.
American culture today is seriously unserious about life. Many Americans today are uptight about being “casual” and “cool.” Anyone who seems too serious about life is exhorted to “relax, man!,” or chided by the accusation, “You take life too seriously! Lighten up!” This casual approach to life has impacted the life of the church. But when the church (often in the name of attracting or retaining the youth) tries to present itself as “casual” and “cool,” it inevitably ends up misrepresenting its Divinely-revealed message. Ironically, many youth today are leaving the church and even Christianity itself because the churches they grew up in were lacking in a serious message. To paraphrase a recent quote from Michael Horton of a young person who had left Christianity for atheism, “The church I grew up in was all ‘Kum-Ba-Ya” and holding hands. The message was shallow, not serious. No one took my questions seriously, and instead of being given serious answers to my serious questions, all I got was trite slogans and cliches.” The true, biblical gospel of Jesus Christ teaches us that life is dead serious business. It is a serious fact that none of us leaves planet earth alive. We live once, and then we die and face God’s judgment (Hebrews 9:27), a judgment that will result in an eternity spent either in heaven or in hell. Only the Lord Jesus Christ can reconcile the holy Creator God and sinful mankind. He did so by His death and resurrection, and now through the gospel He summons all to repent and believe in Him, promising that those who believe in Him will not perish, but have everlasting life (John 3:16). Christian parents and Christian churches need to stop offering the church’s youth superficial fluff, hollow entertainments and sentimental trivialities. Ground them in the gospel, and they are much more likely to stick around!
(2) Christian families should be encouraged to practice family devotions.
This is one of the most important and effective ways of grounding our youth in the gospel, and thus of retaining our covenant youth. The regular, disciplined practice of family worship is certainly not a “silver bullet” that guarantees our covenant children will continue in the Faith once they leave the house. But when a family regularly (ideally, on a daily basis), and over the long haul, worships together as a family, a structure is offered and a pattern is set that will likely remain with our children into their adult years. A family that reads the Bible together, prays together, sings Psalms and hymns together, and converses together on a regular basis about sacred topics, is a family that is doing its part to pass along the Faith to future generations.
(3) Christian parents who are habitual church-shoppers should repent, find a faithful church to join, and stick with that church for the long haul.
I am not here being critical of Christians who leave one church for another church for biblical and principial reasons (for example, over doctrinal issues). I am rather speaking here of Christians who approach church attendance and membership from a consumer mindset. I am speaking of believers who are always looking for “the next big thing,” who are constantly on a quest for the perfect church. To such Christian parents I say: Stop it! By your practice of “church shopping” you are raising a future generation of church shoppers. And what often seems to happen to the children of church shopping parents when they grow up is that they eventually get tired of “shopping,” so they just stop going to church altogether. Having learned from their parents’ example that being committed for the long haul to an imperfect church is not an important priority, they feel free to have no commitement to the church at all.
Sorry if I’m stepping on some toes here, but it needs to be said. Stop trying to find “the perfect church.” Find a local church where the Word of God if faithfully preached, the sacraments are rightly administered, and biblical accountability is maintained (which means, among other things, find a church that actually requires you to become a member, and which will lovingly hold you accountable to the standard of God’s Word if you fall into false doctrine or scandalous sin). Even if the pastor isn’t as “hip” as you might like, or even if you don’t prefer the “style” of the worship music, or even if it doesn’t have a “rad” youth program, or even if ______ (fill in the blank), find a faithful church, join it, and stick with it unless and/or until it becomes unfaithful to the Word of God! One of the biggest reasons we are losing our youth today is because they see no commitment or persevering loyalty to the church on the part of their parents. Parents, as Joshua Harris has put it in one of his books, let us stop “dating” the church; instead, let us “take the plunge” and get “married” to the church, “for better or for worse”!
(4) Catechize your children.
It is well for Christian parents and Christian churches to pass along the Faith to covenant youth by grounding them in the truths of God’s Word. A wonderful tool for doing this is a well-written and time-tested catechism (which summarizes the truths of God’s Word in a question and answer format). As an Orthodox Presbyterian I highly recommend the Westminster Shorter Catechism. (I would also recommend the Heidelberg Catechism, a wonderful, heart-warming and pastoral Reformed catechism.) Memorizing a good, biblically-faithful catechism is a great tool for grounding covenant youth in the Faith, and thus of making it more likely that they will continue in the Faith into their adult years.
(5) Pray, pray, pray!
As I said earlier, ultimately it is Christ who builds, preserves and protects His church. In the covenant of grace God has promised to be God to us and to our children after us, in successive generations (Genesis 17:7; Acts 2:39; etc.). Yes, God chooses to use the ordinary means of the Word, sacraments, and covenant nurture in the home and the church, to carry out His covenant promises. But we dare not rely on our own faithfulness in using these means, as if they were an absolute guarantee that our children will continue in the faith into their adult years. This is why, above all else, we must pray – earnestly and often – for our covenant youth! Let us pray…pray…and pray some more! And may God in His mercy hear us. Amen.
(1) p. 207, (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, copyright 2012 Jonathan M. Fisk)
(2) ibid., pp. 207-208
(3) ibid., p. 209. Seriously, reader, you should get this book!