One of the great issues that troubles christians today is the loss of youth interest in the faith. As many young people are growing up and going off to college and university, their faith in the biblical stories in which they were raised seems to shrivel up and die. Although this is not exactly the case in all christian contexts throughout the US, the concern seems to linger everywhere. Where are our youth going? Why? Different churches respond in different ways. Some churches try to wall themselves off from any “worldly” influence and education. Others try to amp up the “cool factor” of their youth ministries by trying to mimic the current ideas of what is attractive to young people. And yet, no matter how much action is taken, it will in the end be futile, unless the heart of the issue is seen first.
The central question must be asked: what does it take for a young person to throw off the whole system of beliefs in which they have grown up? How is it that they come to a place where all faith content in which they have been nurtured ceases to be seriously believable? This is no small matter, and it doesn’t happen over night. Thus, it is key to see that the exodus is the fruit, not the root; it is the result of a process that has been working for an extended period of time. And yet when it hits, it seems to surprise parents. Why is that? Because the world we young people live in is very different than the world our parents’ generation knew.
A Different Generation
Our parents grew up in a time when their faith was challenged from various outside pressures. But in many instances, these pressures didn’t truly shake the core foundations for their christian beliefs. This is especially vivid in my Russian christian community. The Communistic pressure on the church was harsh, but it never offered a compelling alternative to faith in God. The pain challenged the reality of their faith, but not its foundations. People had to ask themselves, “Do I really believe this to the point that I am willing to endure pain?”. In all this they didn’t face any serious alternatives to their faith. The humanistic Soviet Union was a corrupt wreck, and was not a compelling option for life and happiness. In many instances, it only served to strengthen the convictions of the christians.
In the US the process was a bit different, yet still similar in certain aspects. The parents of my generation grew up in an America that was filled with various challenges to the christian faith from the outside. Yet despite this, many people still retained the basic framework of faith. Words like God, church, prayer and Scripture could still be heard in public conversation, and perhaps gave a false comfort to some that this is still a “christian nation”. They did not see a direct challenge to the core of their faith in the questions that surrounded them.
But over the past few decades, the humanistic ideas have trickled down from the academic world into the everyday world of art, popular culture and public education. Today that process has soaked down to the common population almost completely. Even if they want to, many people today find it utterly impossible to seriously consider the claims of christianity. The common public has settled into this notion that faith is a private matter, that you believe whatever you want, that science has disproved the Bible, that the very idea of a God who communicates objectively is primitive and impossible to consider. This is a culture in which every single belief is ultimately challenged down to its very core.
If we can imagine faith as a building we can says this: our parents generation assumed the building stands on solid ground. Their focus was the building itself. They passed on to us the various details of our faith. Modern culture however, comes along and puts a massive question mark on the whole foundation of the building. What is the ground on which it stands? Why do you need God if science explains everything? Is it possible to be an educated, reasonable person and still take the Bible seriously? In this context, when a person hears no strong alternatives, it becomes nearly impossible to believe.
To add to this, modern culture, with all its sparkle and beauty, shows young people that they don’t need God to be happy, fulfilled and successful. These messages are subconsciously channeled into our hearts 24/7 through the music, movies, news, TV and so on. Little by little it wears away, destroying one’s capacity to even take their religious upbringing seriously. It all starts to appear quite silly and most of all, unnecessary. College only delivers the final blow to this weakening structure, and suddenly it all crumbles.
Taking A Step Back
As we notice the major shifts in cultural thinking, we start to see that no matter how many rock bands, hip preachers with cool hair-dos or fair-trade organic coffee you serve it will not help to keep young people in churches. This is also why it is not enough to merely teach young people to respond to “common objections to faith”, as if the questions are singular and isolated. The challenge today is a comprehensive view of life. It is a society that says that God is simply unbelievable in any serious sense, and most importantly, that he is unnecessary.
What we as christians need to do today is to take a step back and see the big picture, to seriously hear the questions and to consider them. Francis Scheaffer once observed that, “The basic problem of the Christians in this country…is that they have seen things in bits and pieces instead of totals.” This is true, not only of christians but of all people. Rather than building carefully thought through perspectives of life, we tend to absorb them passively through our surrounding world. Young people leaving the church usually don’t do so as a result of a carefully constructed view of life. Most often it’s the result of the many various ideas that they gather in bits a pieces.
Christians need to learn to see the various messages and questions of modern culture as a whole. In light of the surrounding challenges, we also need to learn to see the biblical story as a whole. Do we understand the big ideas that shape our world? Do we understand how the story of Scripture stands in contrast to the story that society tells? Do we clearly demonstrate to our young people how and why the biblical message is infinitely more reasonable, historically rooted, powerful and satisfying?
Tell a Better Story
These questions are not “out their in the world”. They are here, in your home, in your church, in your young people. As Paul went into the market place to listen, think and converse with the Greeks of his day, so christians need to be living in the world of ideas, stories and pictures that shape life today. If the culture says that christianity is old and irrelevant the ball is in the court of the christian to demonstrate otherwise. When the church fails to address the core cultural questions it indirectly communicates to everyone around (including its own children) that it does not have a answers. If that is the case, why shouldn’t they eventually leave?
Today’s young generation is unique. They are not merely searching for answers that make logical sense. They are in search of answers that are beautiful, answers that grip the heart and inspire the senses. Yes this is a challenge to the church. But it is also an immense opportunity. As we seriously consider these things, it pushes us to reexamine the roots of genuine historic christian faith. It is a chance for more sleepy christians to wake up to the power of the answers that they hold. Jesus really does tell a better story, and this is the time to learn to tell it all the more.
Today’s Unavoidable Opportunity
One of the greatest reasons I love working with youth is because this is an age when everything is on the table. This is the time when we are forming into the people we will be for the rest of our lives. One of the most heartbreaking things for me to see is how so many young people spend these critical years filling themselves with ignorance – ignorance of the big questions of the culture today, ignorance of history, ignorance of science and, most tragic of all, ignorance of the compelling nature of the biblical story.
If this characterizes your family, church or youth ministry then you can expect them to leave. The stories that the culture tells are plugged into their ears and at their finger tips everyday. Unless they stop and seriously consider what is being said and why, their faith will continue to erode. The answers that the Gospel of Jesus Christ presents are real. Every generation needs to hear those ancient answers afresh. Today’s generation perhaps presents the most comprehensive challenge. And yet, it is also a most comprehensive opportunity to show that, as it has stood the test of 2000 years, it continues to do so today. The young people need to hear that today. Moreover, they need to witness it in the life of the church down to its very heart.
Francis A. Schaeffer. A Christian Manifesto (Kindle Locations 59-60). Kindle Edition.