I started reading about young adults leaving churches when I was working at Randall House in 2009. Then it was more about stats and ideas. Now that I’m a pastor, it’s hitting home. This is about real people.
I’ve had several conversations with young people who have grown up in church and who are now either abandoning orthodox Christianity or are considering leaving. They’re wondering whether or not God exists, whether there is validity in other religions, and whether or not they can trust the Bible. Others don’t express their doubts as honestly as their peers, but show where their heart is by their apathy toward Christ and His church.
Lynsey and I were talking when we both wondered aloud: “Why is this happening? What’s so different about their upbringing than ours?”
I don’t know the answers to those questions, and I don’t know if we ever will. Perhaps seeking those answers is futile in some ways. The milk has been spilled, so to speak. This does not mean I am giving up on these young people. I pray for them regularly. I express to them that they are welcome to ask hard questions of me, our church, and of God.
At the same time, I acknowledge one thing (of many) churches must do if they want to seriously deal with this issue of young people leaving Christianity:
Make membership matter.
Who’s showing true evidence of conversion in their life by devotion to Christ in repenting of sin? Those people should be members. Those whose lives profess something other than Christ should not be members of local churches. The next generation depends on it in part.
This doesn’t mean Christians are perfect or that if you’re a sinner you’re not accepted at our church. In fact, if you deny you’re a sinner, you’re not going to fit in very well (in fact, you’ll never be a Christian until you do). But those of us who have trusted in Christ to save us are repenting sinners–people who acknowledge their sinfulness but by God’s grace and power, seek to turn from their sin to obey their Savior. This is a Christian, and this is a church member. Those who deny their need to repent by their consistent refusal to do so show they want no part of Christ, and should not be affirmed to be in Christ by being received as members in a church. It will help those who are searching to know who is really in and who is really out.
If no one knows who’s in or out, how is a young adult supposed to know what a real Christian is supposed to look like? Perhaps it is foolish to assume that college students who grew up in church will follow Christ when many of the church members they’ve observed throughout their lives haven’t been.
One of the main reasons I’m a Christian today is because I saw how real my parents’ faith was. I always knew they weren’t perfect people, but I knew they were repenting people. I saw the tears on their faces when I walked in the living room to see them reading their Bibles. I was humbled when they would apologize to me and my siblings for letting their anger get the best of them.
Not every child or student who walks through the doors of a church will have parents like mine. We can’t equip parents who don’t want to disciple their children. And not every student who has parents like mine become true disciples. There is not one determining factor we can point to that decides whether or not someone follows Christ. But there’s one factor we can control better than we have: we can make sure the members they do see at church are true disciples.
Then at least they’ll have a better idea what a Christian really is.