When your sheep wander

Can you name 10 high school students in your local church? OK, five if your congregation is small. Go ahead; write down their names and picture them in your mind.

Soon they will leave the nest to enter college or the work world. In the process, a significant number of them will drop out of church. Some will never return.

Why? Life experts say there are many reasons, but they all point to deficiencies in the discipleship process of many churches. Specifically, churches are 1) failing to teach the Bible as historic and propositional truth and 2) neglecting to teach young believers that the local church is God’s biblically mandated community whose goal is to reflect His glory.

“Christianity has never been just about me and Jesus,” says Mark Dever, senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., and president of 9Marks, an organization that helps local churches re-establish their biblical bearings and re-think their Life methods.

Dever says God’s intention from Scripture is that those who are devoted to Christ join others with the same devotion to create a community that reflects God’s nature and character.

So when church leaders express concern over an exodus of young adults from the church, they are not simply lamenting fewer warm bodies in the pews, but addressing a failure to fulfill the purpose for which God calls believers.

Author and Christian apologist Frank Turek doesn’t mince words: “We haven’t lived up to the greatest commandment to ‘love the Lord with all your heart, soul, strength and mind.’ We haven’t lived up to 1 Peter 3:15 to ‘always be ready to give an answer for the hope that is within you.’ We haven’t lived up to 2 Corinthians 10:5 to ‘demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and [to] take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.’ We just haven’t done what the Bible tells us to do. Is it any wonder why our young people are leaving?”

Turek is one of many Christian leaders who are sounding an alarm over the exodus of the “millennials,” those who began to come of age around the year 2000.

The trend has been reported in a number of studies, some as early as 2002. Research by the Barna Group (2006) and Lifeway Research (2009) has attracted widespread media attention leading to the working assumption that over two-thirds of church-going young adults drop out between the age of 18 and 22.

Although Millennials, A Portrait of Generation Next, a study released this year from Pew Research Center, does not specifically address church dropout, it did find that “Americans ages 18 to 29 are considerably less religious than older Americans. Fewer young adults belong to any particular faith than older people do today.”

While youth experts acknowledge there is nothing new about young adults dropping out of church when they leave home, the large numbers are forcing some church leaders to take a critical look at their Life philosophy and methods.

But what changes are called for? And what Life weaknesses lie beneath the statistics?

“There are a variety of reasons why young adults are leaving the church,” Turek says. “One is because the church has not done its job in showing our young people that Christianity is true. It’s easy to leave something you’ve doubted your whole life. But it’s more difficult to leave something that you know is true beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Turek is particularly concerned that hostility against Christianity on many university campuses and classrooms can undermine the faith of those unequipped to defend their beliefs.

His presentation and book by the same name, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist, offers evidence for the truth of Christianity. Turek frames the presentation with four questions: 1) Does truth exist? 2) Does God exist? 3) Are miracles possible? and 4) Is the New Testament reliable?

In Essential Church? Reclaiming a Generation of Dropouts, co-author Sam Rainer III writes that there is a common theme in the various reasons young adults give for walking away from church. Simply stated, that theme is that the dropouts don’t see church as essential in their lives.

Conversely, Rainer contends that churches that are retaining their young adult members are the ones that have “demonstrated biblically the New Testament reality that God intended for congregations to gather, worship, disciple, minister and evangelize. Their church members see the local congregation as a biblical fellowship that they deem critical for their lives.”

Rainer, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Murray, Kentucky, says young believers often discover that their church leaders are unprepared to take them to the next stage of growth. He contends discipleship requires that the church have a simple and clearly stated process in place for when church members ask, “What’s next?”

The process at his church, Rainer says, can be summarized in this back-to-basics slogan: “We worship, we grow, we give and we go. All on the foundation of prayer and care.”

He explains that regular attendance in worship is expected, as is involvement in a smaller gathering, such as a Sunday school class, Bible study or home care group. Rainer is convinced that these smaller groups are generally the context in which a believer’s faith grows deeper.

“We also expect members to give of their tithe and time to the local church,” he said, “as well as participating in at least one Life of the church that is outwardly focused.”

Joey Stewart, director of Reformed Youth Ministries (RYM), and a veteran of youth Life in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), says that churches must do a better job at connecting teens to the local church and see that connection as a key way to grow in Christ.

“What we seem to do is segment the teenagers from the rest of the congregation by giving them their own Bible studies, their own music, their own fellowship groups, their own retreats and their own activities,” he said. “Typically, there is not much contact across generational lines.”

Although Stewart is a believer in age-specific education, he warns against exclusive age-specific education.

“The net effect has been that we have actually fostered an environment where teenagers do not see their significance to the covenant community as a whole and the covenant community doesn’t see the young people as significant to the body,” he said. “They don’t feel connected to the local church. So when they graduate from high school and go to college, they are not looking for a local church. Rather, they are looking for another peer group like they had in high school youth group. Then once they graduate from college, many look for the same experience of their college fellowship group.”

But convincing teens of their significance to the body of Christ is going to require a shift in both Life philosophy and method, he added.

Because each local church operates in its own unique context, Stewart is quick to say that all methods will not fit every congregation. However, one strategy that worked well in a church he served involved asking some older people in his congregation to meet once a month with a young person. “All I asked the seniors to do was to go out for a cup of coffee with a young person in the church, talk about his life and pray with him.”

Stewart said suddenly the teens began seeing the older member as a “real person rather than an old fogey.” He also noted that, although some programming was necessary at the beginning, the relationships became “highly organic in their lives.”

Duffy Robbins, professor of youth Life at Eastern College in St. Davids, Pennsylvania, notes the irony of segmentation of age groups in the church. “Families come to church together, then everyone splits up and is taught the importance of family and being together,” he says.

However, he doesn’t endorse the opposite extreme in which all teaching is family-based. That approach can minimize the importance of the larger community of believers, he says.

Another component of the church dropout problem, according to Robbins, is a failure of churches to recognize that adolescence now reaches into the mid-twenties.

“The church has a lot of Life for young children and teens,” he explains. “But you better have your faith fully formed by the time you get out on your own, because generally the church stops doing Life at age 18. However, people don’t cease to be adolescents until 25 or 26. So there is a Life gap that exists almost everywhere.”

It’s that gap that RYM attempts to address with its close connection to the PCA’s campus Life , Reformed University Fellow. “We want to swell the ranks of RUF because our campus Life is the primary feeder of our local churches,” Stewart says.

And as Dever teaches, the local church matters. After all, it’s God’s idea. 

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