Why Are Young Christians Leaving the Church? It’s Simple Math
- J. Warner Wallace Author, Cold-Case Christianity
- 2014 2 Feb
Last weekend I had the opportunity to speak to an engaging group of Christians in Elgin, Iowa at the First Baptist Church of Elgin. The congregation was a wonderful combination of young families and older members who understand the challenges facing the younger Christians in their midst. I shared the overwhelming statistics chronicling the growing number of young Christians leaving the church during their college years, but many in the audience had already seen the departure firsthand. The dilemma was personal, and they were ready (and eager) to examine the causes (and the possible solutions). Before I shared my T.R.A.I.N. paradigm, I took a minute to describe the causal factors leading to the departure of so many young Christians. This isn’t rocket science; three simple truths combine to create the situation we see today:
Our Christian Teenagers are Inarticulate and Uninformed
Unfortunately, most of the young Christians who graduate from our youth programs and enter college are surprisingly inarticulate about their Christian beliefs. Sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Denton did an excellent job of reporting the problem in Soul Searching: The Religious Lives of American Teenagers. They discovered Christian teens have the ability to be articulate about a number of issues, but are seldom articulate when it comes to their Christian beliefs. Most could not describe simple principles and claims of Christianity, and even those who could, struggled to provide simple responses to typical skeptical objections they will surely encounter in college. Our students have not been trained with the university battlefield in view.
University Campuses are Generally Hostile to Christianity
And make no mistake about it, the university setting will likely be a battlefield populated with people opposed to Christianity. Sociologists Neil Gross (Harvard University) and Solon Simmons (George Mason University) conducted a study in 2006 revealing 1 in 4 university professors are atheists or agnostics (nearly 5 times the ration in the general population. And according to an Institute for Jewish and Community Research survey of 1,200 college faculty members, only 6% of the professors say the Bible is “the actual word of God,” 51% say the Bible is “an ancient book of fables, legends, history & moral precepts,” and more than half of the professors surveyed have “unfavorable” feelings toward Evangelical Christians.
Young Men and Women Are Eager to Chase Their Desires with Liberty
Most of us, if we’re honest, understand the temptation facing young Christians, because we’ve also experienced such enticements. As fallen humans, we’ve all experienced the temptation of youth. For many of our Christian students, their college years are the first opportunity they’ve ever had to be free of their parent’s consistent oversight. It’s also a place filled with attractive young people, many of whom don’t share their Christian worldview. Consider the strength of the temptation and imagine the selfish value of an alternative worldview allowing young students to chase their passions and desires without restriction, inhibition or guilt. For many, atheistic naturalism, with its alternate creation story, moral code, materialistic values and goals, is an incredibly attractive alternative to Christianity. The fallen inclination to chase our selfish desire is common to all of us, but it’s a critical driving force for many young students.
It doesn’t take a researcher with a PhD to understand the forces at work here. In fact, the dilemma can be characterized with a simple equation:
Most of us ought to be able to predict the sum in this equation; it should be easy to anticipate the outcome. Take a closer look at all three “addends” being added in this equation. Which of these three additive realities can we, as parents, youth pastors and leaders, impact or change? We can’t change the hostile nature of the university campus or the human nature of our young Christians. If we want to alter this math equation, we’re going to have to get involved with the first addend. We’ve got to do whatever it takes to inform, equip and engage young Christians in a rational, evidential investigation of Christianity. It’ll be tough enough for our students to resist the temptation to abandon their Christian worldview when tempted by their own desires; especially given the nature of university life and the encouragement they will receive to pursue their passions. But, it will be even easier to walk away if our students aren’t even sure why Christianity is true in the first place. It’s time to align our churches and ministries to engage the most important demographic within the Church: young Christians. It’s time to get in the game, redirect our efforts and start training.
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