The facts about teenagers and young adults leaving the church are uncomfortable. To know that so many young people would seemingly throw away their faith as they transition into adulthood is tragic. Yet it still continues to happen. Most surveys and polls on the subject suggest that about 70% of high school aged youth stop attending church once they graduate. Only half of them ever return to the church.
There seem to be a number of reasons for this. Some teenagers, belonging to a religious family, want to “free” themselves of the influence of their parents after they move on to college. That influence would include their religious upbringing, so they abandon it. Others feel like they need to “grow up,” as if graduating high school signals the time to graduate from religion and move on to something better. Still others move on to attend liberal universities, where the core of their faith is attacked by professors and peers who may question and deride the authority of Scripture, the authenticity of their faith, and the account of creation given in the Book of Genesis.
However, I believe the issue has roots spreading much deeper. While we can’t deny that the world and its powers relentlessly attack the faith of young Christians, perhaps a big part of the issue is that they aren’t being properly equipped to stand up against these attacks. While American culture may be growing more hostile to the Christian faith and its virtues, the reality is that hostile challengers of the Christian faith have been targeting young Christians since the church began. Perhaps the church environment in which children are being raised doesn’t properly convey the necessity of staying in the church for life. I believe that this issue of the youth leaving the church is linked to the question: What does the church offer that the world doesn’t?
A Firm Foundation
Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 11:3 that “I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.”
The Christians Paul is writing to in this letter were just a few years removed from the actual resurrection event, had come into contact with God’s appointed apostles, and had seen miracles performed by Paul, yet Paul still felt that they could fall away from the faith. Persecution, doubts, and the sinful influences of the world have always been working contrary to the faith of Christians.
Contrary to the Calvinistic “once saved, always saved” doctrine, Lutherans acknowledge that it is possible for a person to have saving faith in God, but then later fall away from the faith. God’s Word is exceedingly clear on this issue (see this collection of verses and also 1 Timothy 1:19).
When it comes to assurance of our salvation, it is necessary to acknowledge that God is ultimately in control. Trusting in Him to guide and direct our lives is very important for our reassurance. Proverbs 16:9 tells us:
“The heart of man plans his way,
but the Lord establishes his steps.”
Martin Luther summed this up poignantly by saying, “I have held many things in my hands, and I have lost them all; but whatever I have placed in God’s hands, that I still possess.”
The Influences of Culture
While the Lutheran church may not be as heavily affected and influenced by pop culture and modern trends as other Christian groups (such as non-denominational churches), all Christian groups need to be on the guard against culture’s negative influences. As soon as churches let the culture dilute our doctrine and our message, it makes it easier for the falsehoods of the world to break down the foundations of our children’s faith. There are far too many instances of our culture influencing the church, and not the other way around. (If you want some entertaining yet depressing examples of this, check out Chris Rosebrough’s Fighting for the Faith.)
This isn’t to say that the church cannot adapt to become more efficient in our modern age. There’s nothing wrong with incorporating things like contemporary instruments into worship, so long as the music itself is still doctrinally sound (which often ends up not being the case). There’s nothing wrong with using modern technology and media to further the message of the church, so long as we don’t turn the church into an experiment in logistics or let church become nothing more than a social club.
Here’s the real crux of the issue: when church just becomes another outfit or iteration of American culture, why would we not expect our kids to leave when they discover they can access the culture in better ways – ones that don’t involve all of that old, stuffy religion stuff?
You see, the church is actually church when it offers something the culture and the world does not. The world doesn’t offer forgiveness of sins, the sacraments, the pure Word of God, or real fellowship with other believers in Christ. And as soon as those things become diluted or absent from the church, what makes our churches different from any other social institution?
Here’s what parents and the church as a whole need to communicate to our youth: Here, in the church, you will find something that you cannot find anywhere else in the world. Here, you will find the very words of God Himself, spoken and given to you. Here, you will find forgiveness of sins in baptism and the Lord’s Supper and absolution. Here, you will find the Bread of Life that cannot be found anywhere outside of the church.
May we never lose sight of the fact that church is something different, something sacred. Let us always train and equip our children to withstand the attacks of the world and its sinful institutions. Let us always communicate what is essential: the church is most definitely worth staying in for life.