When I was in college and grad school, people would often ask what I wanted to do with my Bible degree. At the time, I would tell them, “Youth pastor.” They would normally then ask, “Interesting. So why do you think we’re losing the next generation?” It’s a common question—one that I’ve given a fair amount of thought to. It’s a personal question—I have names and faces of people who grew up in the same Christian environment I did who have taken very different paths. And it’s a critical question: Why are we losing the future of Christianity?
In all my time pondering this question, I have come up with what, in my mind, are two primary reasons we are losing the next generation. There are no doubt other factors, and I might be overstating my case, but I want to take a minute and share with you why I think I see why my friends leaving Christianity.
Those Responsible to Train Them to Love the Lord Have Not Done So.
Question: When you read that sentence, who comes to mind? Who is responsible? I often see the question phrased, “Why is the church failing the next generation?” But whom do we mean when we say “the church”? Too often, we think of pastors, Christian school teachers, or youth sponsors. So let me ask you a follow-up question: whom does the Bible task with raising the next generation?
It isn’t the youth pastor, it’s not the Christian school—it’s the parents. Deuteronomy 6 and Ephesians 6 have the same message: it’s the parents’ job to teach their children to love and live for God.
Deuteronomy 6:6-7, 20-24
And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.
“When your son asks you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the rules that the Lord our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say to your son, ‘We were Pharaoh's slaves in Egypt. And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. And the Lord showed signs and wonders, great and grievous, against Egypt and against Pharaoh and all his household, before our eyes. And he brought us out from there, that he might bring us in and give us the land that he swore to give to our fathers. And the Lord commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as we are this day. And it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us.’
Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
Both of these passages say the same thing: it’s the job of the parents to disciple their children. If we want to know why so many young adults are turning away from the faith, the answer should be obvious. In this crazy-busy world, the discipling of children and teens has too often been outsourced to church programs. Now, to be clear, kids and teens need the help of the whole body of Christ to grow in grace. They need the preaching and teaching just like their parents do. But that doesn’t change the fact that Scripture teaches that the members of the church who hold the primary responsibility are the ones who are called "Mom" and "Dad." When Mom and Dad think that all they have to do is drive their kids to church three times a week, we’re missing something. The Church, which should have been a powerfully helpful supplement to the work of the parents, has now been asked to do what it was never designed to do. This doesn’t mean good parents can't have kids who go astray, or that bad parents will inevitably have children who jump ship, but it does mean that, when we see a larger cultural pattern of young adults walking out, we should lay the blame where Scripture lays the responsibility—with the parents.
This isn’t to belittle youth pastors. I was planning on being one, and though my course in life has been different than I was expecting, I’m all for youth pastors and children’s pastors. The key is how they see their role. Our church has a youth pastor and a children’s pastor, and they both understand their role as helping and supporting parents. This shows up in their ministries in a number of ways I don’t have time to outline (another blogpost another time perhaps), but the key is that they realize discipleship needs to happen in the home or it’s far less likely to happen in church.
But that leads us to our second reason:
They Have Not Seen the Mighty Works of God.
One of the saddest passages in all the Bible, and one I can’t quite get out of my head, is Judges 2:7-10. In Judges 1, there is still much work to be done, and Israel begins finishing the conquest. Things go well for the first half of the chapter, but by the second half, there is a more discouraging note. Israel stopped trusting, stopped obeying, and stopped seeing progress. Then we come to chapter two and read these sad words:
And the people served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great work that the Lord had done for Israel. And Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of the Lord, died at the age of 110 years. And they buried him within the boundaries of his inheritance in Timnath-heres, in the hill country of Ephraim, north of the mountain of Gaash. And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers. And there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel.
The nation of Israel raised a generation who didn’t know God or what he had done. The parents hadn’t done a good enough job teaching them about the past, but more than that, as chapter one shows us, many of these young Israelites hadn’t seen God work. What they did know of God was a distant history lesson that hadn’t done any good, as far as they could see. Too often, churches pass on a doctrinally-correct Christianity that isn’t seeing the works of God. God is not moving and, as in the book of Ezekiel, the Spirit has departed and we don’t even notice (Ez. 10:4, 18-19; 11:22-23).
Some churches recount their history with fondness. With almost a twinkle in their eyes, they’ll ask, “Don’t you remember the good old days?” They look back and rejoice in God’s past faithfulness, of bursting auditoriums, of lost people getting saved, and of a spirit of excitement about what God was up to. But they stop there. While we all should be grateful for God’s work in the past, we must stay hungry for him to keep working in the present. A godly heritage is a wonderful blessing, but a generation that grows up not seeing the movement of God is a generation that will lack the most powerful argument for God’s existence they can wield in a world of doubt: experience.
Hold on a second, is experience really the best argument? That was the invitation of Christ to two of John’s disciples: “Come and see” (John 1:39). That was the message of the apostles who told the authorities of their day, “We cannot but speak of the things we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). All the apologetics in the world, while helpful, won’t convince a teen that God is real quite like an actual relationship with him and a front row seat to watch him do incredible things.
Teens and young adults need to see God on the move. They need to see him making a difference in the home. They need to see him making a difference in the church. They need to see him making a difference in the community. And, if all we ever do is tell them stories of the glory days, they’ll eventually become disillusioned and leave. They, like Israel, need to see a fresh display of the power and work of God in their generation.
As I write this post, I have been occasionally looking over at my daughter. Her name is Kaylin. She’s a beautiful, lively, sometimes fussy but always adorable bundle of joy. She’s going to live somewhere forever. She’s one day going to decide if she is going to follow Jesus or live for herself. I pray she chooses Jesus.
That means it’s my job to teach her. It's not primarily the job of Sunday School or junior church (though those are very helpful!). It's not the primary duty of our children’s pastor (who is a good friend and is doing a great job!). No, God has tasked my wife and I with discipling her to love and live for God. And she had better grow up seeing God at work in her mom and me. She had better see the gospel change us, change people in her church, and ultimately change her. Because, if she grows up watching a dead orthodoxy, with everyone saying everything right but living without any power, it wouldn’t surprise me if she decided she’d rather just live for herself. Enough people have.
Ben Hicks went to Bob Jones University for college and stayed on for grad work, recently graduating with his Master of Divinity. Ben is the Young Adults Pastor and oversees the Single Focus ministry at Colonial Hills Baptist Church. Follow him on Twitter @HicksBen
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