I was at a gathering of denominational leaders a few weeks ago, and the question on the table centered around the common statistic that "70% of teens raised in a Christian Home who attend a Christian School that go off to a Secular University; REJECT THEIR FAITH by the end of the first year in college."
It's an alarming statistic, and those of us in the Youth World understand the implications all too well. Unfortunately the attrition has been on the rise for the last 10 years and the church is just now feeling the impact of the original Jeremiah Films Project study today.
Of Course there have been many studies to follow up and watch the trends of youth in our culture today, and the numbers are staying the same, or going up in some cases. So what's the deal? Why are teenagers leaving the faith in droves? Isn't the Bible True? Isn't God still sitting on the throne?
The leaders of the church began to address the problem with potential solutions. "We need to have more of a draw. The Church needs to become relevant in relation to the world." One man claimed. "What do kids like to do today? Play Video Games? Maybe we need some Godly video games to replace the one's the kids are playing. That way they'll want to come to the church for the source instead of Microsoft." Another chimed in.
"I think we need to have more Bible study."
"I think we need to train the kids better in God's principles on Sex and Dating."
And the room began to spin for me.
I sat in the back of the room wondering if any of these men and women had ever been involved in the REAL TIME ministry of today's youth. I responded….
Teenagers aren't going to buy some Cheesy Jesus knock off video game and come back to church. We've been attempting to "equip" them with knock off product for years, and the numbers continue to decline. We're not going to truly see life transformation through the next great entertainment event, because the mega church has been doing that since the mid 80's and even the GURU, Bill Hybels, confessed it didn't work.
Teens are interested in a good party gathering, but as soon as the party moves across town i.e. the next mega church in your town pops up, they're going to leave and join the next big show.
I sat there even wondering what question we were trying to answer. Were we really concerned with the fact teenagers are leaving the faith, OR were we more concerned with the fact teenagers are leaving the pews of OUR church? Was it about the heart of the teenager, or was the meeting turning into a clever marketing scheme so we could put kids back in the seats to listen to us preach or be counted among our converts?
The National Study of Youth And Religion, headed by Dr. Christian Smith of Notre Dame, has done some incredible work in helping us understand the heart and the minds of today's youth. The findings confirm the 'on the ground' work I've been doing for years. It's not that teenagers are disinterested in spiritual things, in fact the opposite is true. Teenagers today are asking hard questions about the viability of faith, rather than the necessity.
They want a faith that will work when life gets messy, and the normal evangelical answer "give it up and give it to God" just isn't working in the minds and hearts of today's youth. The crisis of spiritual understanding needs to be explored from a few different angles.
- Apologetics. Some of my peers beleive apologetics is a harshness about the truth of the Bible, and I would tend to agree. However; without a fundamental foundation surrounding the truth of the Bible, the Philosophy of God's working in the hearts and minds of man, and the real evidence we might prove for the validity of faith, then we're really not answering questions. It's certainly not the end game in helping teenagers understand faith, but it's an essential part we need to start teaching. We need to start answering, Is the Bible True? Are the Authors who they say they are? Is history in agreement with Biblical accounts? How do we reconcile an evil world with a good God?
- Practical Living. If the Faith is real, then it ought to prove out to be useful in day to day life. We need to teach and confirm through our own modeling that the message the Bible teaches is still applicable to today. If it's not working or isn't valid, then we shouldn't be trying to cram it down the collective gullet of a generation that wants to be authentic. If it's true, we need to live it. We need to hold our own personal stories to the mirror of morality and make sure we're actually modeling a life consistent with our belief. The NSYR found that most problems in the Crisis of Spiritual Understanding are concurrent with the modeling adults have been doing for years. It's time we have real leadership in places where our youth can see valid working faith. It doesn't mean you have to be perfect, but it does mean we have to put faith in to practice.
- Caring and Compassion. In order for teenagers to see what the faith is about, we have to be a people who are about the business of God. His caring and compassionate nature for those who are in the world outside the religious rulers of the day is evident. Our lives should ooze compassion for people. We should, "Love your neighbor as yourself" as one of the greatest parts of our faith (Matthew 22). And when a cause generation sees the core energy of helping others as a Biblical Message, transformation can begin. The gospel message can't be reduced to how many people agree with you. Rather; the center of the message is about God's redemptive reconciliation play on the earth today.
It's not an easy fix. There's no immediate strategic plan we can put in place to see results by the end of the first quarter. But if we care for the heart of our culture growing, we need to stop removing all ways teenagers can grow in spirit, and begin mentoring to help them see the value of deep spiritual understanding.