Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Why they leave

(This entry speaks of a phenomenon within evangelicalism, but should be of interest to non-Christians who have ever thought that Christians are hypocrites or no better than the rest.)

Mark D. Roberts is starting a series on the new TNIV translation of the Bible. As he reports, part of Zondervan's rationale for a new translation (their NIV isn't exactly archaic yet) is this:

Perhaps the most important reason to produce a new translation is to reach today's generation of 18- to 34-year-olds, a generation that is leaving the church in record numbers. According to research, four out of ten people leave the church after high school, and another eight million twenty-somethings will likely leave the church by the time they turn 30. (barna.org)

This has been phenomena for longer than a recent poll. I've seen it happen. A good friend of mine who is a pastor told me that he's seen it for a long time. A teenager faithfully attends church and even goes to youth group, but when they turn 18 poof! they disappear. We puzzled over this together, and I continue to puzzle over it. As an elder in my former church (we moved recently) I felt it was my responsibility to at least try to understand what was causing it. I share here not a definitive answer (surely such an answer could come through several doctoral dissertations) but a few short observations and suggestions. These are offered with trepidation, knowing that my own kids are coming of age.

What is most evident to me is that, when you look closely, you get a feel for which kids will remain in church and which will not. You look close enough, you might see it even when everything looks good on the outside. Sometimes it is apparent: a kid is dragged along unwillingly to church by parents and puts up with it until it's time to leave and go do something that matters. Sometimes the signs are more subtle. How involved is the teen in church activities that he or she is not forced to attend? What do they talk about when they talk about whatever they want? They might listen to Christian music (especially if secular is frowned upon) but do they ever engage the lyrics, or is it just an occasion to shake their groove thing? Is their Bible worn from use or because they toss it around like a dead fish? They might go on a weeklong mission trip to Mexico to help the poor, but are they more excited about that or about the layover at Disney Land on the way back? They might speak using evangelical lingo, but what attitudes are conveyed with it?

God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” 1 Samuel 16:7

We can't see the heart of another. Not really. But we can infer some things from clues as to what's going on within.

For each tree is known by its own fruit. For men do not gather figs from thorns, nor do they pick grapes from a briar bush. The good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth what is good; and the evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth what is evil; for his mouth speaks from that which fills his heart. Luke 6:44-45

Sometimes kids grow up in the church mouthing the right answers, but those answers aren't real to them. They've just learned that saying that stuff elicits a positive response from their "owners", perhaps as a gorilla is taught to dab paint on a canvas. There comes a point when each of us are faced with the choice of accepting the Christian gospel as true or not, and the claims of Jesus Christ: who He is and what His claims are on us as individuals. I think that some teenagers who leave have not come to that point yet, because nobody becomes a "new creature" by osmosis. Some are faced with the choice after they are on their own. Some make the choice to become a Christian, and some make the choice not to. Some (including myself) belonged to a dysfunctional or legalistic church and had to leave for a time in order to learn to separate the wheat of God's revelation from the chaff of human tradition and hypocrisy.

Some have had a genuine personal encounter with Christ while growing up but are enticed away for a while to "sow their wild oats". These often return, sometimes scarred from the experience.

Some too, if they have an inquisitive or introspective turn of mind, might get discouraged and leave if their church is not the same way, and the leadership commands unquestioning faith and obedience rather than "lov[ing] the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. (Mark 12:30) I include this too in my own experience.

What can be done? I don't think that a fresher Bible translation will do it, even if endorsed by the uber-cool Peter Furler. My own suggestions:

Parents: You have the most important role. Taking kids to church, and even reading the Bible and praying as a family are good. But where is your heart? Do you make day-to-day choices tht reflect the reality of what you say you believe, including the transitory nature of this life and the permanence of the next (what some call "the eternal perspective")? Have you given thought to how the teachings of the Bible pertain to different aspects of your own life? Do you embrace them, or rationalize to yourself why you don't or can't? Simply put, is it real to you? If it isn't, your kids will see it. They're not dummies.

Are you equipping your kids? Feelings of certitude will only take them so far. Are they becoming Biblically literate? Are they critical consumers of the messages they are bombarded with every day? If they are not homeschooled, then what are they learning in school? Do you even know? There are many fine public schools, but there are also zealot teachers who use the classroom to proelytize for alternate lifestyles, postmodern relativism or even overt, specific rejection of Christianity. How is your kid dealing with it?

Are you and they in a healthy enviroment? The Christian radio you listen to, the books you read, the church you attend, what are their focuses and goals? Is Christianity a mere source of Rated G entertainment or aid to "clean living"? Is the worship service focused on God or on providing an experience for an "audience"? Is the focus so much on Left Behind/black helicopter fare that you have become fearful and paranoid, or irresponsible? (This is not to deny the Second Coming, but a Christian life should be balanced.) Even if you are into defending the faith, do those you learn apologetics from make their case in a respectful and loving manner (1 Peter 3:15), or do they model self-confidence, sarcasm and disdain? A Christian life involves integrity: not just a lack of dishonesty but an embracing of the implications of what we say we believe. (Example: you believe that even an atheistic, evolutionary scientist is created in the image of God, right?)

That kid you love so much is not perfect. They sin sometimes. You don't do them a favor if you either ignore or rationalize it, or punish them in anger and denigrate their personhood.

If you want it to be real to your kids, then model it yourselves. If you don't, then don't be surprised if they bail.

Pastors and leaders: If you are told to exercise oversight of the flock, then how well do you know each one? Are you a shepherd among them, or just a speaker in front of them? Are you there to equip and strengthen them, or are they there to serve and affirm you? Do you have concrete plans to promote biblical literacy and correct handling of the word, or do your people have the notion that they can't understand the Bible themselves and must look to you to explain it? Are you equipping them to assess contrary truth claims and worldviews? How do you treat the world outside those church doors: with compassion, hostility or indifference? Are you a servant or an employee?

Oh. And all the stuff I said to the parents about Christlike character, integrity, eternal perspective and healthy balance? That applies to you too; you more than anyone must show the reality of what you say you believe. If you're just a symbol manipulator, most of the kids will get bored and leave.

We have enough Bibles. We have enough sermons, Christian music, books, church growth and mamagement programs, activities and fellowship. What we need is more reality. Then maybe, by the grace of God, more of our kids will see it and want it.