The Real Reason Young People are Leaving Church

The last few years have seen a crush of hand-wringing, panicked-stricken articles and books bemoaning how today’s youth are abandoning traditional churches and their Christian faith once they reach college age.

The authors of those garment rending laments are often self-appointed pop cultural analysts from various apologetic ministries.  They tell how the youth were raised in loving Christian homes by parents who took them to church regularly, taught them the Bible, and in many cases enrolled them in Christian schools or even home schooled them.

Once they leave home, freshly set free from the concentration camps of their stifling, non-thinking fundamentalist churches and rigid home school families, those clueless youth are awakened like Neo out of the Matrix, genuinely exposed to the “real world” for the first time. They bump up against atheist class mates and skeptical professors who criticizes their values and convictions. They hear what is perceived as intelligent challenges to Christianity.  In essence, they are easy marks for fast talking atheist con artists like Bill Nye. Because they have no solid answers in response, they conclude their religious faith is fallacious, and rapidly become embarrassed of their parents devotion to their sad, traditional Christianity.

The phenomena of Christian kids leaving the faith is certainly something to notice.  I would further add the church needs to consider why it is happening. But this should not be viewed as a recent epidemic resulting from the proliferation of Youtube hack atheists and smart skeptics teaching from Howard Zinn books.

This may come as a shock to some, but people of all ages leave church on a regular basis. In fact, generations of young people, upon leaving home for college or moving away from their parents after getting married stop attending church. That has been happening since the founding of the church on the day of Pentecost.

There were dozens of kids in my high school youth group at the church I attended. They were all actively involved, because simply put, mama and daddy made them go (and I am sure the food and games had an appeal as well). Most of them were phony anyways, because when they weren’t at church participating in puppet shows or singing in the youth choir, they were throwing down at the weekend kegger party and engaging in various forms of teenage debauchery.

If I had to guess, I would say maybe just a handful of my high school youth group peers acted the least bit “Christianly” throughout their high school experience. Of the 20 or 25 friends at my group, I’d imagine just two or three still attend church today in any serious manner. A few more may have returned once they had kids, but for the most part, while they may live externally clean lives, they are practically irreligious and remain unchurched.

So what are the real reasons the so-called Christian youth are leaving Christianity? Contrary to the polls of self-appointed experts on American youth culture, their departure really has nothing to do with those typical tropes like coming from a sheltered home schooled family, or not having the right apologetic thinking, or the church being “anti-science,” or Christian parents kicking their gay teens out of the house.

Let me lay out eight thoughts to show you what I mean:

1. The kids aren’t saved. I can already hear William Lane Craig fans snorting, “that’s just too simplistic,” but that’s reality. They are not regenerated, and thus do not possess saving faith. Hence, if they are convinced to abandon Christianity after reading some atheist crank’s blog article on Mithra, their non-existent faith is exposed as just that, non-existent.

No amount of feeding them the right apologetic answers to skeptical critics of Christianity will help that at all. If the kids aren’t saved, it doesn’t matter if they know all the proofs of God’s existence, or can defend the historical Gospels, or shoot down the Zeitgeist Youtube movie. They have no love for Christ. When sin confronts them, they may resist at first, but will eventually give in and it’s all down hill from there.

But is it more than just saying, “the kid isn’t saved?” Certainly. There could be a number additional factors that have converged to drive young people away from church.

2. The kid comes from a moralistic family. In other words, the family may indeed attend church and they may even perhaps be involved to a degree in Sunday school, or choir, or youth related activities. But the faith of the parents and their children is no more than a set of conservative morals untethered from Scripture and the worship of God. Morals alone are not enough to keep a young person faithful to Christ. Only a regenerated heart can do that.

3. The parents are self-righteous hypocrites. By that I mean they pretend to be spirit-filled, serious-minded Christians at church, but at home, it’s an entirely different matter. Mom and dad bicker and snip at each other, they complain about everything, maybe are dishonest with their dealings with others, gossip about people and situations at church. They basically instill an attitude of disrespect in the hearts of their children toward not only church, but even themselves.

4. Church leadership intentionally avoids difficult subjects. And I don’t mean they refuse to talk about the dangers of porn. They avoid talking about hard doctrine that requires a person to think through Scripture and take a stance. Such things as the doctrine of election, the problem of evil, charismatic issues. They mistakenly believe young people would be bored with discussing those subjects, or perhaps the subjects are way over their heads and raise too many hard questions their little minds can’t handle right now.

Instead, the focus is upon teaching superficial things like staying pure before marriage, figuring out God’s will for one’s life, and what spiritual gifts a person may have. Any topics considered difficult are left for the occasional expert to handle. That expert usually comes in the form of a prepackaged DVD message on Wednesday nights or an outside apologetic specialist who is really unlearned and inexperienced and hardly knows what he is talking about.

5. Church leadership is lazy. If the leadership is intentionally avoiding difficult theological subjects in youth groups, more than likely they aren’t even taking the time to educate themselves on the exact same issues. Paul told Timothy that godly men must prove themselves workman (2 Tim. 2:15). The important word in workman is work. You know, studying the Scriptures, exegeting the Scriptures, applying the Scriptures. Which is to say, teaching the Scriptures correctly can be hard.

Today’s youth need leaders who will do the hard work of shepherding them, confronting them, correcting bad doctrine, teaching them the Word of God, especially when it comes to those difficult subjects whatever they may be. They don’t need leaders who will only put forth minimal effort feeding them pablum, while providing them soft beds to cozy up in. They need to come face to face with the holy God of Scripture who will rock their world, but will also save them through the blood of Christ. That experience only comes when leaders shake off the stupor of laziness and do the hard work of lifting high the God of Scripture by taking the time to handle it rightly.

6. The youth pastor is basically a young, inexperienced and spiritually immature guy. All my life as a church kid, practically every youth director (except one at the Methodist church who was a middle aged woman) has been an early 20s something post-graduate. He’s probably no more than four or five years older than the oldest kid in the youth group. Not to disparage a person’s youth, or even youth groups for that matter, because I happen to know a number of mature thinking young guys in their early 20s, and there are churches with great youth groups teaching their kids to think biblically. Regrettably, however, those are the rare exception and sadly not the rule.

The vast majority of youth pastors are placed in the positions because the church, as well as parents, mistakenly believe only a young guy can “relate” with their kids. They are really only expecting nothing more than sanctified baby-sitting. The youth pastor is merely required to create an atmosphere of wholesomeness that includes directing fun activities and giving the occasional Christianized lecture about the glories of sexual purity. They are not necessarily known as towering, theological giants. In fact, because the youth pastors are unlearned novices, they are notorious for being the gateway that introduces all sorts of wack-a-doodle heresy into the church. They are the ones turning young folks onto Clayton Jennings, Hillsong Music, and Passion conferences.

7. Parents refuse to support a solid youth pastor.  If the youth pastor happens to be a mature young man who wants to bring substance to the youth group, when the teenage goats begin leaving because they hate the teaching of God’s Word, the parents freak out and accuse the young man of quenching the Spirit. He’s then kicked out and replaced by a more pliable hireling.

I remember once at my college church when our youth pastor had a guest speaker come in to preach at the high school group. That evening they were particularly rambunctious and rowdy, and the guest speaker told them that he believed most of them were lost because they had no respect for the teaching of God’s Word. It was one of those Paul Washer, “I’m talking about you” moments. I was there as an eye-witness, so he was absolutely correct with his assessment.

Now guess what happened? Do you think the kids became gripped with conviction upon hearing those words? Did they immediately repent of their sins and beg to be saved? Do you think their moms and dads were mortified when they heard about what happened and dealt firmly with their teens? Well, of course not! Don’t be an idiot! The next week, the poor youth pastor was deluged with mobs of angry parents demanding a reason why he let such a horrible man tell their precious baby hellions that they were lost, because they know their little devils asked Jesus into their hearts after they walked the aisle when they were four.

8. The Church leadership and youth pastor doesn’t evangelize the kids. Oh, don’t get me wrong. They “evangelize” them in the sense that they preach to them an anemic, “God has a wonderful plan for your life, Jesus wants to be your buddy and make school great for you” false gospel. Or one of those gut-wrenching Red Asphalt sermons with kids dying in a car wreck after a drinking party who are dragged straight to hell that is designed to emotionally manipulate a congregation full of sobbing teenage girls to walk the aisle and pray a prayer to accept Jesus into their hearts. Decisions are certainly made after those evangelistic presentations, but they are theologically vapid, empty of any serious biblical content, and not empowered by the Holy Spirit to save souls.

Now.

Having said all of that, can a kid come from a household of hypocrites, attend a church with lazy leadership who coddle the youth group with a 20-something rock climber bro as the pastor who preaches a lame Gospel message?

Yes. Emphatically, yes.

God is great and transcends all of those problems. However, if we consider those reasons, I think a case can be made that what college age kids are leaving isn’t necessarily biblical Christianity, but some syrupy sentimental version of Christianity. That would only mean the vast numbers of college age kids never really abandoned Christianity and church to begin with, because you can’t abandon what you don’t truly believe.

6 Comments
  1. Profile photo of Tim Hurd
    Tim Hurd 7 months ago

    “you can’t abandon what you don’t truly believe”- YES, great article.

  2. Profile photo of Adam Staub
    Adam Staub 7 months ago

    Awesome Points @fredbutler!

  3. Anthony 7 months ago

    I enjoyed reading this very beautiful article. Thanks a lot.

  4. Profile photo of Coleen Sharp
    Coleen Sharp 7 months ago

    I did a lot of research on this topic a few years ago. I had run into a friend I attended church with during my teen years and he had left the church. I was surprised because he was from that family that looked on the outside like they were doing everything right, so I asked him what happened. This is what he said verbatim, “I could never be good enough for my parents, so I was I ever going to be good enough for God?”
    His response shocked me because the church we attended together preached the gospel clearly, so how did he not get it?

    Having spent years in conservative homeschool circles where the children I’ve known for years are graduating and leaving home, I have watched the worst rebellion coming from so many of these children. But why? These are good Christian parents who have tried to raise their kids right.

    I think some in my generation of Christians, who grew up in the 70’s & 80’s, patented out of fear. We’re the ones responsible for the growth of the homeschool movement. My friend I mentioned in the beginning, his parents were pioneers in the movement. The problem is, the legalism some of us tended towards, was not helpful long term. In many cases, the gospel was absent, or an afterthought.

    I had started a project, got sick and was unable to finish it. I had interviewed several people who left the church. In most cases the people I spoke with fit into one of two categories, either they came from a legalistic home or they came from a home where the parents were Sunday Christians, where the parents weren’t living out the faith or teaching it in the home. There are a couple other things playing into this also. Ultimately, many of them didn’t really understand the gospel at all.

    I think your article brings up some really good points. I’m wondering if we should be surprised. When so much of evangelicalism has exalted experience over Biblical truth, parents oftentimes aren’t looking for youth Pastors or even Pastors who are preaching God’s Word correctly. We have parents who don’t know Scripture, who can’t recognize theological error, who have no discernment. They’re definitely not teaching their children Biblical truth at home, and I doubt they’re living it in many cases. I think a lot of young people, including some I’ve spoken with, think the whole thing is a joke.

    My husband had parents who attended church on Sunday, and that was it. When he was young, he thought church and Jesus was something parents used to get their kids to obey. As soon as he was old enough, he was done with church. Thankfully a couple years later he heard the gospel, became a Christian and His life was changed, by God’s grace. I think there are many today with experiences similar to my husband. There’s several girls in my group, including my podcast co-host with stories very much like my husband’s. Grew up in the Church, thought they were Christians, some left for a time. Most say they never understood the gospel.

  5. Profile photo of Fredman Author
    Fredman 7 months ago

    The idea of performance based spirituality could certainly be a ninth point. We insist our kids, who are not regenerated at all, act like Christians, and those times when they certainly don’t act like Christians, we guilt and shame them as if they are not good enough for both parents and God. Terrible way to raise kids.

    Your investigation into why kids leave church sounds interesting and you should revisit it. I personally would like to learn as to why homeschoolers leave. I think you are correct that we homeschoolers often school and parent out of fear, but our methods often times produce the bad fruit of youth abandoning the faith.

  6. Jim 6 months ago

    I have read that the secularized churches are the ones losing membership and the evangelical churches are still growing.

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