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3 Ways Churches Give Young People the Opposite of What They Need

Patricia Engler

This story wraps around the world, but it begins in a greenhouse. Walk down the rows of plants, and you’ll notice their showy blooms. But bend a little closer, and you may discover their leaves appear wilted. What’s the first fix that comes to mind? Pour more water on the flowers. That’s the obvious solution.

But sometimes, the obvious solution is not always the best solution. If you look even closer at the flowers, you’ll realize their soil is already soaking. The plants don’t need more water—they were overwatered until their roots rotted. That’s why the plants are wilting: they’re missing roots. Adding water would be the opposite of what the plants need.

Now, let’s exit the greenhouse and enter a church. Walk down the rows of pews, and hopefully, you’ll notice youth attending. But bend a little closer, and you may discover their faith—their active relationship with God, founded on a biblical worldview—appears wilted. What’s the first fix that comes to mind? 

Maybe churches should pour more entertainment on the youth. Maybe young people are dying for fresher music. Fresher leaders. Fresher coffee. Maybe lighter theology and heavier bass could help suppress the exodus of youth from Western churches. 

Or maybe the youth are missing roots.

A Deeply Rooted Issue

For years, researchers have known that Western Christian youth are wilting. Barna research from 2006 revealed that two thirds of American young adults attended church as teens but became “spiritually disengaged.” Between 2011-2019, youth dropout rates rose from 59% to 64%. Currently, just 10% of church-raised young adults in their twenties embrace a vibrant Christian faith. Gen Z, meanwhile, is twice as atheistic as other generations.

With their comparatively malleable worldviews, youth are especially easy to influence en masse through mainstream media and education. Look at the messages these platforms promote, and you’ll glimpse tomorrow’s society. And right now, tomorrow looks more hostile, more humanistic, more lost than ever. 

What Young People Really Need

How can churches and families support youth to keep a vibrant faith into adulthood, even while being bombarded by anti-biblical messages from classrooms and secular culture? That’s what I wanted to know. So, I backpacked 360° around the world interviewing Christian students and campus ministers in 17 countries. I asked what challenges students face, what advice students need, and how churches can better support students. 

While answers to the first questions varied, answers to the last two often sounded uncannily alike. This means the problems Christian young people face differ by culture, but the solutions look largely identical. So, focusing on these solutions could positively shape the global church’s future. They all come down to helping youth develop three types of ‘roots:’

1. Spiritual foundations (Psalm 119:2): a close relationship with God and heart-level familiarity with His word.

2. Intellectual foundations (1 Peter 3:15): Training in critical thinking and apologetics—the study of why Christianity makes rational sense—to defend a biblical worldview.

3. Interpersonal foundations (Hebrews 10:25): a godly support network including family, friends, and older mentors. 

These are the ‘roots’ that anchor youth to a biblical worldview, as multiple studies confirm (see the references below for some examples). But church dropout rates suggest that overall, youths’ roots are lacking. Based on empirical research and conversations with students worldwide, here are 3 ways churches may be giving youth the opposite of what they need—and what we can do about it:

bible verses about modesty

Photo Credit: ©Kikovic

1. Focusing on Entertainment Rather Than Biblical Teaching and Discipleship 

I’ve heard students around the globe highlight the importance of biblical teaching. But understandably, not one student shared this story: 

“You know what really helped me keep my biblical worldview strong at university? It was because my church featured cool lighting, heart-pumping music, and killer cappuccinos.” 

To be sure, there’s nothing inherently wrong with these things (and I appreciate espresso as much as the next millennial). But when it comes to raising youth who follow Jesus in the real world, such tactics might not be inherently helpful either. A primary emphasis on entertainment may even promote an individualistic, “me-centered” religion that’s less about serving than being served. 

This version of Churchianity might lure some youth to hang around for the short-term. But in the long run, young people don’t need gimmicks. They’re not asking for entertainment. They’re asking for discipleship. 

For instance, when I asked an art student in Paris how churches can support young people, she answered, 

"By having a solid foundation on the Bible. Churches should really teach students what the gospel is. If students are not really sure what they believe in, any time a question comes up, they’ll be less able to defend themselves.”

A campus minister in New Zealand likewise urges churches, 

"Teach the bible, and how the gospel should be lived out, and how it impacts the rest of lives. I see that as lacking in some churched students’ upbringings. They don’t really know what the bible says, how to open it up and see what it’s saying, or how to link the gospel to daily living."

Response: Practical Ways to Boost Youths’ Spiritual Foundations:

  • Teach a wholistic biblical worldview—the big picture of what Scripture says from Genesis to Revelation, and how to make God’s word the basis for our thinking. 
  • Teach youth how to study, memorize, and meditate on Scripture.
  • Teach youth how to find biblical answers to their questions.
  • Guide youth to pursue a close relationship with God, including using prayer to develop “conversational intimacy” with Jesus.
  • Strive to help youth “taste and see that the Lord is good (Psalm 34:8),” so their praying and Scripture reading stem from a hunger to know God rather than a sense of religious obligation.

(PS – in my own teen years, stories of how missionaries like Brother Andrew, Corrie Ten Boom, Gladys Aylward, and George Muller walked with God were what inspired me to pursue that walk myself.)

2. Avoiding Tough Topics and Real Questions Rather Than Teaching Youth How to Find Biblical Answers

You know Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code and Origin? You may be familiar with these books’ fictitious but bestselling jabs against Jesus’ divinity and Genesis’ historicity. But did you also know that Brown grew up attending church? He explained his turning point at age 13: 

"I went to my priest and I said, 'Hey, there's a problem here. You're talking about Adam and Eve and the seven days of creation, and I'm learning about evolution. Which story is true?' And this particular man said, 'Nice boys don't ask that question.'"

Unfortunately, numerous campus ministers I met perennially witness such stories. As a pastor in Dubai observed,

"Not only are more and more young people questioning their faith, but we are also not equipping them enough to stand firm when their faith is questioned. For example, many youth groups might tell students, ‘don’t ask how God created in 6 days, because that’s not important.’ But the first question they get from a nonbeliever at campus is, ‘Really? You believe God created the world in 6 days?’

They don’t have a logical answer, because they didn’t get one in youth group.”

Questions, doubts, controversies, and concerns regarding science, relationships, technology, mental health, ‘hot topics,’ and other issues do not disappear when churches and families ignore them. Ignoring them is the opposite of what young people need.

But on the flip side, I’ve also seen ‘success stories’ of students equipped to handle such issues biblically. One such student in Holland encourages other young people,

"When you do have questions, don’t be afraid of them. Instead, start looking for answers. Accept that you have questions, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Read solid Christians books, articles and blogs to keep connected with your faith and keep learning more."

Response: Practical Ways to Fortify Their Intellectual Foundations

  • Equip youth with biblical apologetics answers to top questions about Christianity and show youth resources including websites, books, and streaming platforms where they can find biblical apologetics answers themselves.
  • Teach youth about other worldviews and beliefs (including atheism) from a biblical perspective.
  • Encourage youth to ask tough questions. Even if you don’t know the answer, you can seek a biblical response together. 
  • Remind youth that it’s okay (and inevitable) to not understand everything. The reasons to trust the Bible far outweigh the uncertainty of our unresolved questions. 
  • Teach youth critical thinking skills to help them reason like apologists—to process challenging messages and find biblical, logical answers themselves. 

3. Segregating Ages Rather Than Fostering Intergenerational Mentorship

While I didn’t expect this, a top theme I heard students emphasize across cultures is their need for older mentors. As a student in Thailand explained,

"Spiritual mentors at church help the young people through all their questions and do personal Bible studies with them. I think that is the most efficient way for youth to keep their faith and grow in Christ. I’ve seen so many people drift away because no one took care of them; no one spent time with them; no one was praying with them."

But wait—do only credentialed ‘super-Christians’ qualify as mentors? Not at all. A student ministry leader in Holland observed, 

"Whether they’re a homemaker or a CEO, everyone has a perspective that students don’t have. And that’s the main thing students crave. The best thing that can happen to a Christian student is being mentored by someone who is proof that God is faithful."

Multiple studies confirm the difference mentors make in students’ lives. Recent Barna research, interviews of over 3,000 Canadian young adults and ministry workers, and the National Survey of Youth and Religion all cited intergenerational mentorship as a major factor predicting whether churched youth retain their faith. 

But tragically, I suspect many churches have swallowed the lie that church members’ age is proportionate to their relevance. Believing the age groups within the body of Christ are better off separated, such churches may stifle opportunities for intergenerational connections. And research confirms that’s the opposite of what young people need.

Response: Practical Ways to Bolster Their Interpersonal Foundations:

  • Coach congregates to make friends outside their age group. For instance, encourage youth, “If you notice Christian adults who walk especially close to God or serve in interesting fields, say hello, ask questions, and learn all you can!”                                                                                         
  • Welcome older adults to participate in student ministry, for example, by sharing their testimonies, leading a Bible study, helping with events, being involved in a Q&A evening, or joining youth for prayer and outreach projects. 
  • Host men and women’s events intended to promote inter-generational connections.
  • Develop mentorship projects connecting congregants and students in the same career fields.
  • Provide opportunities for students and seniors to serve together.

Reinforcing Resilient Roots

Imagine the future we’d build if every church and family intentionally bolstered youths’ spiritual, intellectual, and interpersonal foundations. 

Walk down the rows of pews in such a church, and hopefully, you’ll notice youth attending. Bend a little closer, and you may discover their faith—their active relationship with God, founded on a biblical worldview—is flourishing. What’s the first reason that comes to mind?

Maybe, the church is pouring biblical discipleship into the youth. Maybe, young people are receiving solid teaching. Solid answers. Solid mentorship. Maybe less gimmick and more gospel is suppressing the exodus of youth from Western churches. 

Maybe the youth have thriving roots.

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Ridofranz

Patricia Engler is a Christian apologetics speaker, writer and Youth Outreach Coordinator for Answers in Genesis Canada. After 12 years of homeschool and a B.Sc. degree, she backpacked 360°around the world documenting how Christian students keep their faith at university. You can follow her stories and get connected at www.patriciaengler.com or answersingenesis.org.