Why Are Teens Leaving the Faith?
Growing up under the watchful eye of his parents, Eric loved going to church. Like most kids, he loved the songs, his teachers, and playing with his friends. But even for a kid, church wasn’t just a social thing for Eric. He could clearly remember the summer of third grade during Vacation Bible School when he gave his whole heart to Jesus. He was baptized shortly after.
For Eric, Jesus and the Bible weren’t things you had to figure out or question. He had a child-like faith. He knew Jesus loved him and would walk with him throughout his life. The Bible was the moral compass by which he would live his life.
A few years later as Eric hit adolescence, his parents thought he would continue to grow in the faith of his childhood. He would discover even more deeply just how Jesus could make a difference to him in his high school years. He would see how his faith would define him. But that’s not what happened.
No fairy-tale ending
In the car on the way home from church one Sunday, Eric blurted out, “Why do we think we are right and everybody else is wrong about how to get to Heaven?” Over the coming weeks his questions turned to, “Is it fair that God would send everyone else to hell just because they don’t know Jesus?” and “How do we know the Bible is real?” Pretty soon Eric didn’t want to talk much on the way home from church and seemed agitated whenever anyone else would bring up faith in daily conversation.
It all came to a head when his parents asked him about his plans for the youth group’s summer camp. Eric nonchalantly announced, “Mom, Dad, I think that stuff like church and Jesus is fine for you, but I’m just not sure if I believe all that anymore.”
Discovery of self in Christ
Adolescence is the phase of life in which everything seems up for grabs. Teens discover new friendships, try out new interests, and develop new beliefs about everything from family to faith. For most, it’s perfectly natural to gravitate toward a new passion one day but then drop a lifelong interest almost overnight.
A teen’s faith is a big part in the puzzle of discovering his or her newly developing identity. Many parents struggle watching the forward-backward see-saw development of a teen’s faith. For many teens, this journey of identity will result in a deeper faith. Except when it doesn’t.
Why kids leave
Several studies have been conducted to answer that important question-why are they leaving? The results can be found in book such as “Sticky Faith,” “Soul Searching,” “Generation X-Christian,” and “Almost Christian.” All of them conclude that there is no one answer for a teen’s exodus from the faith community. At the same time, the books cite similar reasons why some young adults walk away.
1. Shallow belief system
In her book “Almost Christian,” Kenda Creasy Dean explains that many times, the Church offers nothing more than a “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” In short, we’ve taught teens that there is a disinterested divine power who wants to give them personal peace and prosperity and to help teens “be nice.” The result is a faith that cannot withstand the scrutiny of trials or intellectual questions. Parents and mentors have given teens an anemic sketch of faith at best. A robust faith is replaced by a code of conduct-we “do” these things (read our Bibles, pray, and go to church) and “don’t” do those (watch wrong movies, cuss, drink or have sex). Conduct replaces relationship with Christ.
2. No room for doubt
Those who leave the faith sometimes do so because they had questions and the church didn’t help answer them. In some cases, their questions were ignored. In others, doubt was considered a sin to be squelched quickly. Their questions varied from “Why do bad things happen to good people?” (intellectual doubt) to “If God cared about me, then I wouldn’t feel so (depressed, sad, lonely, etc.)” (emotional doubt) to “Why do Christians not believe in evolution?” “Why does the Bible contradict itself?” to “Why didn’t God answer my prayer for my parents not to divorce?” (experiential doubt). These are the types of questions the intellectual doubter needs to answer. Unfortunately, many times they either get poor answers from Christians or bad answers (which can sound convincing) from outside the Christian faith.
3. Exclusive faith
Scripture makes no apologies for the centrality of Christ. Those who turn to Christ in faith are saved. Those who do not are condemned to hell. In a culture that lauds tolerance, acceptance, and open-mindedness, claiming Christ as the only Way (John 14:6) is a hard truth to swallow. Unfortunately, many well-meaning believers twist this truth into a club to verbally (and physically) bash those with viewpoints different than theirs. Unfortunately, Christianity is often equated with bigotry, racism, homophobia, and sexism. Today’s generation wants nothing to do with that brand of faith.
4. No answers for opposition
Today’s teens are bombarded with philosophical and scientific oppositions to Christian beliefs. In science class, the teacher rails against anyone who believes in creation; the philosophy professor tells a freshman class to “prove the existence of God.” Most Christians are completely unprepared to provide logical, coherent, well-examined reasons for their belief in Christianity. When faced with opposition, these teens find that the answer is simple: you can’t be a Christian and an intellectual. Faith and science are incompatible.
Giving them room to wrestle
When my kids were little, they experienced their first act of independence as they learned to clothe themselves. Later, they learned how to wash those clothes, put those clothes away, and buy clothes with their own money. One of the big lessons my 14-year-old son has learned is if you want clean clothes tomorrow, then you better wash the dirty ones today. To learn this, his mom stopped washing his clothes for him even if it meant he had to wear dirty clothes one day.
The same is true for their faith. It’s not comfortable or fun to hear my kids question things that I am firmly convinced are true. But they are in good company. Moses did it, Job did it, and Thomas did it. God was not intimidated by Moses’ feelings, Job’s questions, or Thomas’ doubts. After their season of searching, each of them was brought to a new and deeper understanding of who God is.
The good news: faith that sticks
Recent research out of Fuller Theological Seminary examined the long-term faith of teenagers, and the results were compiled in the book “Sticky Faith: Everyday Ideas to Build Lasting Faith in Your Kids” by Kara E. Powell and Chap Clark. In their study, they followed hundreds of committed Christ followers from high school all the way through college. They found that about 60 percent of students will walk away from their faith and many of them will not return. However, (this is the good news) others had what they termed a “sticky” faith. When they were faced with real life hardships, temptations, and questions, their faith remained as firm as ever.
The researchers were quick to point out that there is no “silver bullet” to developing such grounded children, but they did discover factors common in most of the students with sticky faith. And you have the opportunity to build into your own teen’s life these components.
1. Students with sticky faith are raised in a faith culture that emphasizes a relationship with Christ as opposed to an adherence to a set of rules.
Teens (and children) need to develop a clear understanding of the Gospel and biblical faith. What does it mean to be saved by grace? What does it mean for the Holy Spirit to live in and transform saved sinners? What does it mean to walk with God? As parents, we need to evaluate whether or not our focus is on training them to adhere to a set of behaviors (do’s and don’ts). We also need to examine our own lives for evidence of a growing relationship with Christ.
2. Students with sticky faith are surrounded by an intergenerational faith community.
The “Sticky Faith” research found that when teens were involved with other age groups (like teaching younger children in VBS), the more likely they were to keep their faith. On the other hand, teens who were segregated from “big church” (didn’t worship frequently with older adults) shelved their faith, and teens with few or little significant caring adults didn’t stick with their faith (no pun intended). This underlines the need for mentoring within the church. Encourage dialogue with other mature Christians. These key people could become a safe person for your teen to ask questions of that they may feel uncomfortable asking you.
3. The most important factor by far in each of the lives of teens who developed sticky faith is a parent who is willing to walk with them through their faith journey. This type of active parent doesn’t drop his teen off at the church and say “fix her” or “teach her.” She takes seriously the charge of being the primary spiritual developer of her child.
We as parents need to evaluate not only what we say with our mouths, but also with our actions. Who you are, not just what you say or do, shapes your teen’s faith. Actively discipling your teen also means having faith conversations on a regular basis. What does this look like? Create an atmosphere where questions are welcomed and dialogue (not lecture!) is a part of everyday life. Talk about the sermon on the way home. (What did you like? What did you disagree with?) Share times when you struggled with your own doubts. Make your home a place where your teen can explore all aspects of his faith (intellectual, emotional, relational) without being preached at, lectured to, or scared back into belief (you’re going to hell if you…).
Seasons of searching
Seasons of searching can be a time of unrest for your teen, but they don’t have to be a lonely or fearful experience. Eric’s parents may not have known how to handle his crisis of faith, but you can do it differently. If you are willing to walk with them along their faith journey, and are willing to surround them with a community of believers that love and encourage them, then doubts can lead to firm conviction and deeper faith.
*Eric is fictitious but his story mirrors that of many real life teenagers.
This article “Why Are Teens Leaving the Faith?” by Brian Housman was excerpted from: Living with Teenagers Magazine. www.lifeway.com web site. July 2012. It may be used for study & research purposes only.
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”