I am a preacher’s kid who left the faith, declared myself to be an atheist, returned to the faith after a cancer scare, nearly lost my faith again and was saved by evangelical theology and apologetics. So, I am passionate about helping others avoid the decade of destructive sin and despair I spent wandering through the atheist wilderness.
A few years ago I was intrigued by David Kinnaman’s book You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church…and Rethinking Faith (Baker 2011). Kinnaman argued that there are at least six reasons why men and women between 18-30 leave the faith behind. He posted a summary of the six reasons on the Barna website and they were:
Reason #1 – Churches seem overprotective.
Reason #2 – Teens’ and twentysomethings’ experience of Christianity is shallow.
Reason #3 – Churches come across as antagonistic to science.
Reason #4 – Young Christians’ church experiences related to sexuality are often simplistic, judgmental.
Reason #5 – They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity.
Reason #6 – The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt.
One may argue that these findings are more perception than reality in most churches. For example, I would be unpleasantly surprised to learn that most evangelical churches still spend much time decrying pop culture as if they were the town council from Footloose. Also, I rarely hear sermons on sexuality at all anymore and growing up most condemned all sex outside of marriage but did so fairly graciously. However, I think reasons #2-3 and #5-6 are probably valid. Also, from my own experiences, I would add that some young people simply feel the faith doesn’t work.
Too many churches do in fact present a shallow faith that skips doctrine and apologetics for “how to…” sermons that are little more than self-help talks with scripture sprinkled over them. The refusal to learn theology and how to defend the faith as well as to spend the time thinking about how to present them in a clear and winsome manner is at the heart of all four of the valid objections by young people to the evangelical church. Pastors must simply take this responsibility seriously and put in the time and effort. There is no other answer.
Deeper sermons, however, are not THE answer although they will help. All church members of every age must be discipled and that includes training them to be lay theologians and apologists.
Det. J. Warner Wallace has argued that we have to T.R.A.I.N. Christian students rather than teach them but I think we need to train all of our fellow Christians (and he would agree). Training is harder than teaching. We need to remember that it takes at least seven times for the average person today to hear something before they retain it. Also, most people do not truly understand something until they put it into practice. Thus, pastors must be trained in order train congregations to truly be lay theologians and apologists. The pastors must then challenge the congregation to use their skills reach out to the lost and help each other. And all of those trained must all help to look after the young to insure they know their faith so well that they do not fall for the poor arguments for atheism. This means pastors must implement rigorous programs for the people God has entrusted to them.
I will recommend resources I believe every pastors and church leader should check out later but for now suffice to say that if you want your congregation to produce disciples instead of easy targets for atheists–train your people, especially those in your youth group! Please note that the days of just focusing on butts, buildings and budgets are over. We do not live in Jerusalem anymore but are an exiled people in Babylon. If we continue to try to entertain rather than train, dilute rather than deepen, evade rather than engage, we are ice skating up hill.