In September of 2006 George Barna released what must be among his most influential studies. Following interviews with more than 22,000 adults and 2,000 teenagers from across America, he revealed that the majority of twentysomethings who are raised as Christians subsequently abandon the faith. The study found that “most twentysomethings disengage from active participation in the Christian faith during their young adult years–and often beyond that. In total, six out of ten twentysomethings were involved in a church during their teen years, but have failed to translate that into active spirituality during their early adulthood.”
Another survey, this one commissioned by LifeWay, found that “Seven in 10 Protestants ages 18 to 30 — both evangelical and mainline — who went to church regularly in high school said they quit attending by age 23.” Still another study from Church Communication Networks said that up to 94 percent of Christian teens leave the church within a few years of leaving high school.
These statistics are alarming, and particularly so to those of us who are raising children and earnestly praying that the Lord would save them. It has often been my prayer that the Lord would save my children while they are young, long before they desire to taste the world’s pleasures as unsaved adults. According to these reports this is unlikely. Statistically speaking, I can have little hope.
Each of these studies appears to show that Christians are doing a very poor job of reaching the children in their midst. Ironically, the statistics are used to support solutions that reach from one end of the spectrum to the other: they vary from more programs for teens to fewer programs to teens to abolishing all programs for all children.
These statistics are widely quoted, widely believed, but I remain unalarmed by them. I remain skeptical about the results. Allow me to explain myself.
Let me say from the outset that it is tragic when any child abandons the faith; let’s not downplay this. What is equally tragic is that so few of them really had much of a chance to encounter the true gospel–the only gospel that saves. Looking at the evangelical landscape in the United States (where these studies were performed) and in Canada, I see that the majority of children, and probably the vast majority of children, are raised in churches where what they hear is a false gospel or a gospel that has been emptied of all that makes it the power of God for salvation. We should not be at all surprised that children abandon this kind of a counterfeit gospel as soon as they are able to. I would do the same.
Shortly after my son was born a friend gave me this little bit of wisdom: “Kids are amazing bull—- detectors.” A bit crude, but the point was well-taken. Through 11 years and 3 children I’ve seen that this is exactly the case, though I do not express it in quite the same way. Children are amazing at unmasking hypocrisy; they are not easily fooled. You may fool them for a moment, but not for a lifetime. They will believe in Santa and the Tooth Fairy and Jesus when they are young. Sooner or later, though, they need evidence that these characters truly exist.
If 7 in 10 young people leave the church it may well be because 7 in 10 parents are not immersing their children in the gospel from a young age. They are not preaching that gospel to their children and they are not living as if that gospel is true. That may be an overstatement, but I do not want you to miss the point. Many, many children, a disheartening number, are raised to believe they are Christians by parents who just as erroneously also believe that they, the parents, are Christians. Many more are raised by parents who never model the beauty of gospel living. Such children barely stand a chance.
I have been in churches for my whole life, and what I have observed is that the Lord is faithful. The Lord works through the gospel. And where is the gospel? It is in [some] churches. And it is in the families that compose those churches. Where the gospel is absent, we should not be surprised that children abandon the faith en masse.
Of course the Lord is sovereign and the Lord has purposes that are all his own. The best of parents–parents who have lived lives that exemplify gospel living–have seen children fall away. The Lord offers us no absolute guarantee that he will save our children. There is no magic formula we can use. But what is true and easily observable is that the Lord tends to work through families, from one generation to the next, and that where the gospel is present, he tends to save. Why would we ever be surprised to see the Lord working in environments that are drenched with the gospel? And why would we ever be surprised to see the Lord not working in environments where the gospel is absent?
What Is the Solution?
If there is a solution to this problem of children abandoning the church it must be a solution that depends upon the gospel. Programs are not the answer. Family integration is not the answer. The gospel is the answer. Where churches and families, where pastors and parents know the gospel and proclaim the gospel, children will be saved. This is true. It is not universally true; there are some children who grow up with every possible favor the Lord could bestow upon them and who reject it. But by and large where the gospel is preached and spoken and whispered and celebrated, the Lord works.
I wonder how many of those 7 out of 10 kids who abandon the church, how many of the 94 percent, how many of the 6 of 10–however you want to interpret the numbers–I wonder how many of them have ever truly encountered the true gospel. I wonder how many have heard that gospel and then seen it consistently lived out in the lives of parents and friends’ parents and pastors and young people and old people. I have no doubt that 60 or 70 percent of young people do, indeed, abandon church. But I have no doubt that far, far fewer than this abandon the church when they have been raised in homes and churches that treasure and model and celebrate the gospel.
I am convinced that the reason so many young people abandon the church is that they have seen far more hypocrisy than gospel; they have had their emotions stirred but never their souls. This can be true in churches that are full of programs–the kinds of churches where every youth event is big and loud and exciting. This can be true in churches that are quiet and controlled and which exposit the Bible.
The Lord works through the gospel. The Lord has always worked through the gospel. The Lord will continue to work through the gospel. If you want to retain the children, if you want to see children saved, if you want to see them passing the faith from generation to generation, immerse your church, immerse your home, immerse your children in the gospel. Adorn your life with the gospel. And then expect the Lord to work.
So tell me, am I on the right track here? Has your experience been the same as mine–that generally speaking, where the gospel is present, children do not abandon the faith in the same numbers?