After a five-year study, Barna Research president David Kinnaman found that 6 in 10 young people leave the church either permanently or for an extended period of time, beginning at age 15. This is an alarming statistic. Many people once thought the exodus from the faith started in college. Kinnaman found that it actually begins in the early teens.
This research does more than tell us when young people are leaving. It informs us as to why they are leaving.
In 2012, Christianity Today summarized Kinnaman’s findings into six reasons why young people leave the church.
Isolationism. One-fourth of 18- to 29-year-olds say church demonizes everything outside church, including the music, movies, culture, and technology that define their generation.
Shallowness. One-third call church boring, about one-fourth say faith is irrelevant and Bible teaching is unclear. One-fifth say God is absent from their church experience.
Anti-science. Up to one-third say the church is out of step on scientific developments and debate.
Sex. The church is perceived as simplistic and judgmental. For a fifth or more, a “just say no” philosophy is insufficient in a techno-porno world. Young Christian singles are as sexually active as their non-churched friends, and many say they feel judged.
Exclusivity. Three in 10 young people feel the church is too exclusive in this pluralistic and multi-cultural age. And the same number feel forced to choose between their faith and their friends.
Doubters. The church is not a safe place to express doubts say over one-third of young people, and one-fourth have serious doubts they’d like to discuss.
As I read through this list, two things immediately jumped out at me. First, each of these reasons relates—in some degree—to apologetics. Now I realize this may sound a little self-serving coming from an apologist, but it’s true. If the church would begin to take the life of the mind more seriously and equip its young people to understand and defend their faith, we could meet these challenges head on.*
Second, we have good answers to these challenges. Let me give you one or two practical resources to help address each of these challenges.
First, we need to stop isolating our young people. Many churches are places of isolation—small Christian islands secluded from the rest of the world. This is a mistake. We should be engaging our culture, not ignoring it. And we cannot engage what we do not understand.
So, what’s the solution? We need to stop isolating our young people and start inoculating them. My colleague Alan Shlemon put it this way:
It’s tempting to shelter young believers from false ideas. We think we’re protecting them, but we end up isolating them. This backfires because we don’t prepare them to dialogue with those who disagree with them. When they encounter a false idea, young believers get caught off guard. They’re more likely to be seduced to believe something we’ve worked hard to protect them from.
Instead, we need to inoculate young believers against false ideas. This is similar to the way we inoculate against a virus. To vaccinate against polio, for example, you ingest an attenuated (weakened, but alive) virus. Your immune system responds by producing antibodies, killer cells that seek and destroy the virus. That way, when your body is exposed to polio in the real world, your immune system isn’t caught off guard. It neutralizes the threat with its army of antibodies. Inoculating young believers against a false idea works the same way.
Here is a fabulous example of inoculation in action.
Second, we need to submerge our young people in deep theological teaching. This includes teaching them how to articulate and defend the theological truths of classical Christianity. The life of the mind plays a fundamental role in the life of the believer. In fact, engaging the minds of our young people with the rich truths of the Christian faith plays a crucial role in their continuing in the faith past high school.
Pizza parties, movie nights, and laser tag alone aren’t going to cut it. If we want to keep our young people, we need to stop entertaining them and start educating them with life-giving, confidence-building, worship-inspiring theological truth.
This is why we have created the reTHINK Apologetics Student Conferences. These two-day conferences are designed to challenge young minds to think about their faith in ways they may never have before.
Also, think about downloading the Stand to Reason podcasts. Some truths are better caught than taught. Listening to Greg Koukl think through tough topics will help you become a more thoughtful Christian.
Third, we need to show our young people that science and faith are perfectly compatible. Science is not an enemy to the Christian worldview. In fact, modern science was birthed out of the Judeo-Christian worldview. It is no surprise, then, that the heavens declare the glory of God.
Fourth, we need to teach our young people that God isn’t a sex killjoy. Rather, sex was designed with a purpose, to be enjoyed within limits. Listen to Alan Shlemon again:
But God isn’t against sex. He’s for sex, but according to the way He intended it. The Bible paints a beautiful picture of what sex is supposed to be. Remember, it’s God who made sex (Gen. 1:27–28; 2:24). Our culture didn’t give us sex. God gave us sex. In fact, it was His idea to make it procreative and His idea to make it pleasurable….
Any deviation from that God-ordained design causes damage. It’s not that God doesn’t want us to have sex. It’s that He doesn’t want us to get hurt or to hurt others, which is what happens when we attempt to have sex in ways it was not designed to be enjoyed. He cares about us, and that’s why He gives us guidelines.
Fifth, we need to balance an exclusive message with an inclusive manner. True, the gospel message is an exclusivist claim—Jesus is the only way to be saved. But this does not mean we exclude people, or treat others as less than what they are—divine image bearers. Whether it’s the transgender issue, homosexuality, or a host of other issues, we must do our best to model truth and compassion.
Sixth, we need to encourage young people to raise their doubts. Doubts that are left ignored and unanswered will only lead to despair. Consequently, our Christian community ought to be a safe place to articulate our doubts.
Once you’ve raised your doubts, don’t stop there. It’s time to doubt your doubts. This is where apologetics comes in. Try framing your doubts as questions, then search for good answers. More specifically, look for reasons to doubt your doubts. Most doubts collapse under the weight of the evidence for Christianity.
Apologetics isn’t esoteric or abstruse; it’s practical. Apologetics helps to provide real responses to the reasons young people are leaving the faith.
*I’m not saying this is the only response. However, I believe apologetics—in varying degrees—plays a significant role in responding to these challenges.