A troubling reality that the church faces today is the alarming number of young adults who forsake the faith, despite their Christian upbringing. If you were raised in church or attended a Christian school, I’m sure you can think of some examples (I know I can). We could spend a lot of time considering all the contributing factors for this troubling trend, but I want to focus on one factor specifically: the way we describe the world to our youth.
I think we paint a picture of the world that’s way too ‘evil.’ I say that as someone who believes in “total depravity.” I say that as someone who agrees with the many Scriptural passages that list off all the vices of a unregenerate world (2 Tim 3:1-5; 1 Cor 6:9-10). However, in our attempts to expose the wickedness of the heart and promote righteous living to our children, we have left them ill-suited for functioning as believers in the world.
Do you remember that song from the Disney movie, Tangled, called “Mother Knows Best”? Rapunzel is locked away in a tower, isolated from the outside world. Her adopted mother tries to intimidate her from leaving the tower by singing to Rapunzel,
Mother knows best
Listen to your mother
It's a scary world out there
Mother knows best
One way or another
Something will go wrong, I swear
Ruffians and thugs, poison ivy, quicksand
Cannibals and snakes, the plague
Also large bugs
Men with pointy teeth, and
Stop, no more, you'll just upset me…
But when Rapunzel finally leaves the tower and ventures into the big, bad world on her own, she doesn’t meet “men with pointy teeth”--she meets Flynn Rider, smolder and all. The world was nothing like the way her mother described.
We often teach our youth that the ‘outside world’ is full of repropate, evil monsters, and that the moment you graduate from Christian school and step onto a college campus or into a workplace, you’re going to be attacked from all sides--persecuted, mocked and ostracized. And although that might be the experience of some, the vast majority of youths will step into world for the very first time (a sad reality in and of itself) and realize, these are a bunch of really nice people! Where are all these evil, godless monsters? They aren’t out to get me--they’re normal, nice, polite, moral people. What was I so scared about? In fact, they may even discover that their new unsaved friends are more loving and kind than many of the Christians they grew up with. Suddenly, there is seemingly no necessity to cling onto the Christian faith in the face of intense opposition.
I think there are two main aspects to this problem: it’s not only an incorrect understanding of ‘total depravity,’ but it’s also an incorrect understanding of what makes Christians different than non-Christians.
The Scripture clearly teaches that those who are without Christ are totally depraved. But what does that mean? Does it mean that every human being's behavior is as debauched and perverted as possible? No. The Scriptural understanding of ‘total depravity’ is ‘total inability.’ That is, the unredeemed heart is unable receive and accept the Word of God (John 14:17; 1 Cor 12:3; Eph 4:17-18) and unable to please God (Rom 8:6-8). The heart of the ‘totally depraved’ person is a heart that has no room for God (Psalm 10:4; Rom 3:11), is diametrically opposed to God, and indeed "desperately wicked" (Jer 17:9). That does not mean that a unsaved person cannot act morally. On the contrary, unsaved people feed the poor, sacrifice for others, adopt orphans, and donate to charity. Although morality is fundamentally inconsistent with a godless worldview, godless people (created in the image of God) are capable of borrowing from the Christian worldview. They are capable of kindness and respectfulness. But someone can appear moral while rebelling against their Creator. They can respect others while rejecting God.
What makes the world a wicked place is not fundamentally their immorality--it is their unbelief. They are seeking happiness and purpose apart from the Almighty. They are depending on their own works--their own morality. Yes, the heart of every man and woman is deceitful and desperately wicked (Jer 17:9), but while some unbelievers manifest their unbelief through unthinkable abominations (Rom 1:21ff), others often manifest it through good deeds. Don’t give your kids the impression that all the ‘good’ people are the ones in church and all the ‘bad’ people are in the world; teach your kids that the church is filled with formerly dead sinners who have been redeemed, regenerated and reconciled to their Creator, and the world is filled with people who are hopeless without that redemption.
We need to instruct those who have been raised in church what true ‘godlessness’ is. Depravity doesn’t always look like Hitler. Sometimes, it looks like Ghandi or Mother Theresa. If we instruct our youths properly, they won’t be shocked when they meet unsaved people who are nice. They will understand that no matter how moral a person may appear, their fundamental problem is their rejection of Jesus Christ.
If we teach our children that the key distinction between saved people and lost people is morality, how will your child respond when he meets an atheist who is more moral than many Christians? How will your child respond when it seems like other belief systems are doing a better job at producing moral people than Christianity is?
The key distinction between the saved and the lost is not morality--it is devotion. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, saved people have a love for Jesus Christ and the Word of God and the world does not. Yes, devotion results in morality, but that morality is the fruit, not the foundation.
If we do not teach this distinction clearly, the “good” kids in our church will see no need to hold fast to the faith when they enter a world full of “good” people. I fear that the church often assumes that young people in our church love Jesus. We assume that the kids who pray the sinner’s prayer, do well in Awana, say their memory verses, obey their parents and teachers, and don’t doodle in church clearly love Jesus. Instead, we focus our attention on the “trouble kids” who goof off in Sunday School and mouth off to their parents, and completely fail to instill in the hearts of the “good kids” a heartfelt love and devotion for their Savior.
We have a lot of kids, teens, and young adults in our churches who have figured out how to receive the approval of their church but have never personalized their faith. They have never made their parents’ faith their faith. The seed of God’s Word has fallen on stony ground and they have “no root in themselves” (Mark 4:16-17). And while this rootless Christianity will most certainly succumb to “affliction and persecution” (v. 17), it will also succumb to the kindness of the world.
Charles Bridges once wrote, “The kindness of the world is far more formidable than its enmity. Many, who were prepared to stem the torrent of its opposition, have yielded with compromising indulgence to its paralyzing kindness.”
Parents, pastors, and Sunday School teachers, I urge you: be extremely careful how you teach the kids in your church. Be careful to define depravity carefully; be careful to instill devotion faithfully. The fate of their soul may depend on it.
Aaron Berry earned both his undergrad and MA in Bible at Bob Jones University and most recently completed his MDiv at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary in Allen Park, MI, where He, his wife Hanna, and daughter Brooklyn, currently live. He also serves as the Director of Recruitment at DBTS and is a pastoral assistant at Inter-City Baptist Church. You can follow him on Twitter @AaronMBerry
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