Culture At Large

The real reason kids abandon faith

Daniel Darling

If you work in Christian ministry, undoubtedly you’ve seen variations of the following marketing headlines:

Kids are leaving because Sunday-School teachers are telling the stories wrong. Get this new curriculum (three easy payments). Save your church!

Kids are leaving because your church doesn’t contextualize. Subscribe to our service and never be without the latest cultural observations. As a bonus, we’ll throw in a year of edited movie clips. Save your church!

Movie clips and vapid worship music is destroying your church. Attend this Gospel-centered preaching conference and learn how to do church God’s way. Save your church!

So maybe I’m exaggerating slightly. But if you think about it, there seems to be clear agreement among all facets of the evangelical church that we are losing a generation and if we don’t act quickly, the church in America will die.

I wonder if, in all of our alarmism, we’ve missed a simple truth. Could it be that when young kids leave the faith, it’s not a one-time epidemic or the fault of a particular approach to ministry?

As a child of the church, I believe this is less a matter of having the right curriculum or perfect ministry. I think perhaps there is something in the DNA of a generational believer that isn’t present in those who freshly come to faith as an adult.

When I talk to friends who have abandoned the faith, I hear little in their stories about the typical catalysts of rebellion: abuse and neglect and hypocrisy and unfaithfulness. Mostly I hear: “It wasn’t anything anyone did. It was simply my own desire to run away.”

The Scriptures reminds us that natural man is completely depraved with a natural bent away from God. Only the work of regeneration gives us the ability and desire to please Him. Even kids who grow up in the church. Even kids raised on a steady diet of Scripture. Even kids who were taught right theology.

There is within us a heart “prone to wander,” a natural GPS that leads us down the way of wickedness. For Christian kids, perhaps this desire to rebel is even stronger. Consider that first-generation believer, who comes into faith fresh from the fires of the enemy. He has no desire to go back because he has already experienced the sorrow of sin. But his children have not seen that life. They’ve been greenhoused in a spiritual environment. They’ve only known the truth.

So there’s a little voice that temps them, continually. How do you know it’s so bad out there? Maybe your parents were wrong. Maybe all this is untrue. Maybe you’ve been deceived.

This means that no curriculum, however finely tuned, no system, however tweaked, will produce disciples who don’t struggle against the heart’s pull of rebellion.

I’m thinking we need less fear-based approaches, less top-down, systematic approaches to discipleship. Instead we need to recognize that every child of God, even the best Christian kid, fights a war within.

We might realize that every child has a different spiritual growth track, that discipleship is, to quote John Ortberg, “hand-crafted, not mass-produced.” We might allow for honest questions and seasons of doubt during the critical years of adolescence. We might not assume that our children will automatically know and understand the Gospel, but need to be taught freshly the orthodox truths of God’s revelation.

Ultimately, it is God who works in the heart of every child to woo him or her to Himself. Our job as parents, pastors and influencers is to create an authentic environment of grace, where faith can flourish.

What Do You Think?

  • Why do some "generational believers" leave the faith as they grow older?
  • How should the church respond?


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