Do our twenty- and thirty-somethings stop attending church because they were not engaged at six, ten, or fourteen, either?
Ken Ham, of Answers in Genesis, and Britt Beemer, of America’s Research Group, ran a survey of 1000 “20–29 year olds who used to attend evangelical churches on a regular basis” but now rarely if ever attend church. Their question: Why do church kids go off to college, and never come back to the corporate church?
Reading Already Gone 13 years after it was published, and several decades into the “Great Deadening,” as we might call this generational falling-away, several things struck me from my unique perspective of being raised in the heart of the church, yet outside the Church culture.
Children of Caesar
First, let’s deal with the elephant in the room. The Educational Industrial Complex. A good 60% of Ham and Beemer’s sample attended Sunday School as children, yet its effect on their spiritual growth was “meh” at best, and detrimental at worst. In fact, the product page for Already Gone on AiG’s website contains these bullet points:
- Those who faithfully attend Sunday School are more likely to leave the church than those who do not.
- Those who regularly attend Sunday School are more likely to believe that the Bible is less true.
- Those who regularly attend Sunday School are actually more likely to defend that abortion and gay marriage should be legal.
- Those who regularly attend Sunday School are actually more likely to defend premarital sex.
Now add in this jaw-dropping statistic: “Ninety percent of children from church homes attend public/government schools” (emphasis mine). Yes, when we want our children to learn geology, astronomy, biology, anthropology, or anything else related to “real life,” we leave it in the hands of the Godless, secular school system. This is the information relating to their diplomas, their jobs, what the smart people say on TV, all that stuff that everyone around them insists is vitally important.
Then, when it comes to matters of “faith” (which in the popular mind implies squishy, metaphysical things for which there is no evidence), Mr. Ham estimates the average student gets 10 minutes per week of “focused, spiritual input from adults” at church. The math is just against us. Would you rather talk about an afterlife you can’t touch or see? Or deal with real, hard science you could grow up and get a job with in the real world?
Or, as Mr. Ham and Mr. Beemer put it much more succinctly:
“The facts are relevant; faith is not. If you want to learn something that’s real, important, and meaningful, you do that at school. If you want to learn something that is lofty and emotional, you do that at church.“
Obviously, “the things that are seen are passing away, while the things that are unseen are eternal”…but we need to actually teach our kids this. The default of our earthly minds is to focus on earthly things – and we need to actively confront this, both in our children and in ourselves.
One of Mr. Ham’s main solutions to this epidemic is “better curriculum” – actively connect the things we see in the physical world with the history and spiritual reality of the Bible, discuss the skeptics’ challenges to our faith and our worldview, and demonstrate how to stand strong in the face of a world that cannot grasp these spiritually discerned things. Fossils and physics and galaxies are relevant, yes…but the Bible teaches us how to interpret all these things and – more importantly – the Bible gives us a detailed introduction to the God who left His fingerprints on the universe.
Or, more simply put: teach Apologetics, which is an organized defense (or explanation) of Christian theology. Great idea. One hundred percent. I just want to see his bid, and raise him one:
Teach apologetics…to the entire church!
These children were taken in by the skeptics, because they didn’t have answers to the skeptics’ questions. They didn’t have answers, because no one gave them answers. No one gave them answers, because the adults didn’t have answers, either. The adults in the church didn’t have answers, because for too long the American church has drifted along in a “grandma” religion – believing it because “Grandma said it,” without actually examining their beliefs or forming a rigorous intellectual defense of their worldview.
And what better example of this can I find than the abdication of parental responsibility?
Parents have passed the sacred, God-given responsibility of teaching and discipling their own children to “experts.” I don’t care if the “expert” is a pastor, youth pastor, Sunday school teacher, or atheist college professor… parents are the front line for forming their children’s worldview and teaching them what is important (God and His word), what it means (apologetics and theology), and how it applies to their lives (they need to surrender their lives to Him in order to find forgiveness and true purpose). But most parents panic at the very idea.
Mr. Ham charges that Christian parents have ceded credibility about tangible, secular things to the school system…and so have also ceded the right to connect spiritual matters with the facts we can see and touch. I challenge that the two are one and the same – “the heavens declare the glory of God,” and to assume you can explore one without the other is to destroy the very ground you stand on.
How could parents fix this? By using everything – from math, to geology, to current events – to demonstrate God’s very present work in our lives and in our world, and to point their children to Him. Can a great Sunday School curriculum and kind-hearted church teachers help with this? Sure – but the instant parents think the church staff can do their work for them, they’ve lost a huge battle…and a huge opportunity to be faithful, and to see God work through their obedience.
As for those youth ministers:
The American church typically segregates the youth off from the rest of the church body. Even if they don’t have a youth group for the teenagers, they surely have a children’s church, Sunday school, or nursery for the younger kids.
Why do I bring this up? Based on research from George Barna:
“Nearly 50% of teens in the United States regularly attend church-related services or activities.
“More than three-quarters talk about their faith with their friends.
“Three out of five teens attend at least one youth group meeting at a church during a typical three-month period.”
And yet Already Gone asserts:
“We are one generation away from the evaporation of church as we know it.”
How can our young people be so plugged-in to church (apparently) and yet walk away once they graduate from college and don’t just come because Mommy makes them?
“Of these thousand 20 to 29-year-old evangelicals who attended church regularly but no longer do so:
“95% of them attended church regularly during their elementary and middle school years
“55% attended church regularly during high school
“Of the thousand, only 11% were still going to church during their early college years”
“They were disengaging while they were still sitting in the pews. They were preparing their exit while they were faithfully attending youth groups and Sunday schools.”
What Mr. Ham and Mr. Beemer glean from this is: the college experience is not a magic cut-off point. Put another way – of the study participants who don’t believe all the accounts in the Bible are true, 80% had their first doubts in middle or high school.
You’d think this should go under the previous section – where I discussed the failure of Sunday school to counteract the influence of the public schools, and where Mr. Ham suggested an apologetics-based curriculum to prepare students for the intellectual conflicts of life. But this is a two-pronged problem, and the second prong is children are excluded from the life of the church.
At one point in his book, Mr. Ham asks his reader to look around on any Sunday morning, and look at all the kids patiently sitting next to their parents…then to imagine two-thirds of them gone. As for me, I can’t imagine – there are no kids in my Sunday morning congregation! That’s right: we march them away for “children’s church” where they can’t hear the solid Biblical teaching we give the adults, and they can’t see the men and women of the Christian body applying themselves – body and mind – to following God.
Knowing what we believe and why we believe it should be a part of every Christian’s spiritual development…and yet we somehow act like Christians under a certain age can only learn it among people of the same age group. Sheesh, we act that way for older Christians, too.
One of Mr. Ham’s final suggestions is mentoring teenagers to minister to other teenagers. Actually include young people in the life and work of the church? What a wild concept! Encourage them to serve alongside more experienced Christians? Insane! Provide opportunities for deeply-rooted, well-learned Christian young people to teach more childish Christians who just happen to be older than they are? Get that idea out of here!
We actually have two pits to fall into.
The first is that children are naturally innocent, and can be considered Christians just because Mommy and Daddy brought them to church since they were six months old, and they know all the right answers and never act out (even if they’ve never made an explicit profession of faith, or shown any fruit of the Holy Spirit’s work in their lives).
The second is that young people are an entirely different breed who cannot be integrated into the regular body of believers. We create youth groups and college-student-focused ministries to keep them in their own sub-culture as long as possible, instead of folding them gently and naturally into the larger congregation, where they could develop accountability relationships and learn to confront the challenges of the world from other Christians who have already experienced them…y’know, just like regular Christians.
While Mr. Ham and Mr. Beemer don’t spell out these problems in so many words, they do insist children are never too young to learn apologetics. You might have to adapt the lesson to the learner…but dinosaurs are pretty much Answers in Genesis’ signature trademark – and who doesn’t love learning about dinosaurs and how God created them on Day 6 (and told us about it in His Word)? The topics for connecting people to God are limitless… After all, He is limitless – and eager to connect with us. We don’t have to be afraid. God has given us so many answers to the nay-sayers in His word…all we have to do is open it and look for them. What’s more, Answers in Genesis and other ministries like it have plenty of resources to help us find answers to questions.
Following God is a journey – and journeys are better if you have someone to travel with. Instead of shoving children off to flounder on their own, we should be inviting them to walk alongside us as we learn how to answer the skeptics of our day and to confront lies with God’s Truth.
Church vs. “church”
One of the things Mr. Ham found most interesting in the survey data is: “12 percent of those surveyed answered all the questions correctly.” That is, they understood what the Bible actually says, claimed to hold to Christian doctrine, and still believed themselves to be saved. Yet being part of the physical gathering of God’s people is part of following Him on this earth. So why has this group “left”?
This might be a good place to comment: Mr. Ham tends to use “Church” (capitalized) to refer to the true, invisible, spiritual, omnitemporal gathering of God’s people…while at the same time confusing it with the brick-and-mortar, service-times-listed-on-the-sign “church” that most of us in Western culture associate with the word. I would have done the reverse: use “church” to mean the fundamental, intangible structure of God’s body – and use “Church” (or “Church TM”) to refer to the tax-exempt facade superimposed on top of the true church. (But even I haven’t kept it entirely consistent in writing this review, so I guess the most important point is to keep these two bodies distinct in our thinking while we examine this issue.)
So what do we make of this mysterious 12%?
“They all went to church growing up. They still claim to believe the major tenets of the Christian faith…but there they are on our AWOL list. Clearly, factors other than their belief in the Bible and traditional Christian values have influenced their decision to leave. As we crunched the data from our survey, it became apparent that commonly held stereotypes of those who are leaving the Church are not altogether accurate. Church attendees tend to blame the epidemic on those who have left. We label them as apostate, insincere, uncommitted, lazy, or indifferent. You can believe that the Bible is true and intellectually accepted but still not feel called to go to church on Sunday.” [emphasis mine]
Mr. Ham and Mr. Beemer talk about two groups within their survey: Group 1 has left the church and never comes back, and never intends to come back. Group 2 attends on Easter and/or Christmas, and is more likely to express the intention of coming back once these men and women have children of their own.
“Group 1 believes the service is boring, the agenda is too political, and that the Bible is not relevant. These people have a low level of belief in the Bible.”
In other words, they “know” the answers…they just haven’t claimed these answers as their own, nor accepted God’s view of the world over the view extended by the secularists all around them.
“When reporting what they miss about church, those respondents in Group 1 said that they miss the music … but that’s obviously not enough to persuade them to come back. … They don’t like the people and they don’t believe the message, so there’s really no reason for them to come back at all. The Bible is irrelevant to them and the people are too. They won’t come back unless something changes on this level.”
Apparently “they went out from us, because they were not of us.”
“Group 2, on the other hand, has a much higher level of belief in the Bible. Three-quarters of them believe that they are saved and report relatively high levels of belief in biblical accuracy, authority, and history. The obvious point here is that over half of the people who have left the Church are still solid believers in Jesus Christ.”
(Note: these are Mr. Ham’s words, and I don’t have a firm enough grasp on the survey numbers to understand his fraction here. I remember feeling he was too eager to count respondents who gave the “right answers” as true Christians, without knowing about any other fruit of the Spirit in their lives. If over half of the people surveyed are really “true believers,” why do they have no desire to meet with God’s people? But I think I’m getting ahead of myself here…back to defining Mr. Ham’s “Group 2”-)
“When asked what they miss about church, they report that they miss the pastor’s teaching. What they object to, however, is hypocrisy, legalism, and self-righteousness. The Bible is relevant to them, but the church is not. This group needs to be convinced that Christians in the church are living by God’s truth, and are living in a way that is relevant to their lives (such as being a positive influence on their children).” [bold emphasis mine]
Incidentally, of those respondents who miss any part of the church service, “[o]nly about 7 percent said they missed the music, and nobody was missing Sunday school”. Now can we please stop singing bad praise songs because we think it’ll draw in the “younger generation?” Okay, that’s beside the point.
Mr. Ham theorizes that this Group 2 recognizes they do not have a problem with God, just with other humans. He is hopeful that they will bring their own children to services for the spiritual instruction, and to connect with other Christian brothers and sisters to help them grow. He also theorizes that, if the Group 2 people left the organized church partly over a disagreement with other members, that they will find a new place in the corporate body once the other people have either died or left.
There is of course an alternative interpretation.
These young people may say they want their own kids to experience church because they believe in it as a cultural institution – perhaps we should say “Church TM” – and just find it healthy like a gym membership or 4H is healthy. They believe in the tenets of the Christian faith in the way they believe in niceness and a “higher power” and presents at Christmas…not in the way Peter believed in it as he ate breakfast with the resurrected Jesus or Paul believed it as he sat chained in prison for proclaiming this same Jesus.
This is something we cannot know without looking at the true hearts of people…and only God can do that, so we need to leave it in His hands. But it is true that “if you love Me, you will keep My commands” – and one of the commands Jesus left us was to keep meeting together…for encouragement, for discipleship, for corporate worship, and for mutual teaching and sharing of burdens.
Mr. Ham again quotes a George Barna report:
If people “cannot find a local church that will help them become more like Christ, then they will find people and groups that will, and connect with them instead of a local church” – and twenty-somethings are 70% more likely to take this stance than older adults.
But wait a minute…a group of people who meet for the express purpose of honoring God and becoming more like His Son? That is a church…even if it’s not tax-exempt and it doesn’t meet in a fancy building.
So perhaps we have a Group 3…a group that looks kind of like me.
This group firmly believes God and His word. They strive to follow Jesus and are listening to His Holy Spirit as He changes them from the heart outward. But they’re tired of being treated like children by the Church (TM) that spends more time making people remove their hats while indoors than confronting the skeptic questions of the day.
The young people of Group 3 want to be part of the church body and participate in the teaching and learning and mutual growth…but they’ve been told to stop upsetting the apple cart, and to get in line. Maybe they were shuffled off to youth group, when they would much rather be studying theological necessities with the adults. They want to ask questions and hold people to the standard of God’s word…but the grid-locked structure of the institutional Church and those who lead it do not allow them to.
So they find another place where they can actually be Christians and exercise their faith. Whether or not they still show up at a fancy building on Sunday mornings, their actual “church” fellowship takes place some other time of the week…in a small group with other believers, where they can be challenged, taught, and nurtured to serve and contribute as God has called them.
This discussion feels deeply personal, and is perhaps moving away from the core concerns of Mr. Ham’s book. But I feel we are still on the same page, because his ultimate solution for this Great Deadening (as I have dubbed it) is basically:
Teach God’s word and live God’s word.
Yes, yes, yes, yes.
When we proclaim God’s word, His Spirit has the power to take those words and convict people’s hearts and call souls to Himself. Who builds the church? Jesus said, “I will build My church”!
God Builds His Church!
“Britt and I are praying that one of the consequences of this book is that churches will be changed from the inside out by the Word of God. We also pray that committed believers will have the freedom to leave, if necessary, to find a group of individuals that prioritizes the sharing of the Word of God, teaching how to defend the Christian faith and uphold the authority of the Word in today’s world, and lives by the principles of the Word of God. And we are also praying that those who have left the Church will find their way back into this type of fellowship.”
This is not something pastors and Christian educators can do. Maybe they can help as parents step up to the plate and become more intentional about training their children in the knowledge of God’s truth…but ultimately, this is a battle for every single Christian believer to stand strong and be faithful where God has put him or her.
One of the funniest quotes from Already Gone is:
“Our country has forsaken its Christian soul.”
Countries don’t have souls. People do. God calls every single one of His children to read the Word for himself and practice following the leading of Jesus every moment of every day. No one else can do it for you, nor can anyone (even the Apostle Paul) follow God on behalf of someone else.
So the good news is: the world is not worse than it’s ever been. And maybe the veneer is being ripped away to expose just how naked and blind the American people have always been, so finally – finally – they will be hungry and thirsty for the Spirit of God and His righteousness. Perhaps God is exposing the cracks in the single-pastor-led, overly-crowded-congregation organizational model, so that the way will finally be open for a new “mode” of church fellowship…the church that has been meeting in homes and forest clearings and catacombs for two thousand years (or more?? Abraham??), learning and failing and worshiping and squabbling and standing washed in the blood of Jesus.
The other good news is that: if we trust God, He will clothe us in His righteousness and bring about His work, no matter how often we screw up. When we don’t teach our kids correctly, or love our church brothers and sisters perfectly, or give the right answer to an accusing agnostic, God is powerful and will fill up our failings with His victory.
Stand firm, and be obedient.
Disclaimer: Seven chapters and an introduction are available for free on the Answers in Genesis website. I’m not sure whether this is the entire text of Already Gone, but this is what I read and where I read it. I was not required to write a review of any kind.