LifeWay did a study years ago showing that 70 percent of 23- to 30-year-olds drop out of church, and only about 35 percent return later to attend regularly. Sometimes we call this a problem with discipleship, evangelism, or faith formation, but we rarely call it what I think it is: the consequence of bad ideas.
I believe there are three faith-shrinking myths driving this generation out of the church, and we must prepare ourselves to recognize them and respond.
The first myth is that God isn’t relevant to anything outside of church. Many Christians say, “I attended church because my grandparents attended and my parents attended. Now I attend because it’s what we do.”
Sometimes this ritual can get in the way of applying what we really believe. Those held captive by this myth go to church, but faith doesn’t change how they vote, how they work, or anything about their life. The study of God is called “theology.” It comes from the combination of the Greek words theos (God) and logos (thoughts). Our thoughts about God make up our theology.
Every person is a theologian. In fact, A.W. Tozer wrote that “whatever comes into our mind when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” Our thoughts don’t change who God is, but they reveal how we apply what we believe about God to everything else.
Researchers at Baylor University studied what people thought about God. They found that those who believed God is “disengaged” were more likely to believe activities like abortion and same-sex marriage are not wrong at all. They don’t believe God really cares about what is going on around us. But Paul writes in Colossians 2:3: “All the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” are hidden in Christ. All of them.
We’re finding that young adults are disengaging not because they don’t want community. They are disengaging because they don’t see how what is going on in the church is relevant to their culture. What does the church have to say about life and marriage? Young people are asking us to help them give wise answers to their friends about marriage, gender, equality, and those issues of life that mean something to them. That’s a reasonable request. We shouldn’t be afraid of those questions because God holds all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
Students studying with us this summer will go through 56 hours of learning in the classroom. They’ll go whitewater rafting, surfing, rock climbing, and have many other great experiences. They’ll hear some of the most compelling speakers on the topics of relationships, creation, gender identity, and a host of other subjects. After all this, students tell us that they feel closer to God. They tell us that they grow in their personal devotions. They grow in their understanding of a Christian worldview. They grow in their engagement with the world.
When students realize that God is relevant — things really begin to change for them.
The second myth is that faith is just about feeling. In fact, faith is also about thinking. Growing up, I went to a university with a strong Christian tradition. In one of my graduate classes, I asked the professor how he incorporated Jesus into his class. He looked at me with horror and said, “Why would I do that? I wouldn’t dare to drag him down to this level.”
I don’t understand how he could have that approach, because if all the treasures of wisdom are in Christ, then wouldn’t Christ also be in the classroom? If we are all theologians, then we are also philosophers. Again, two Greek words: phileo (brotherly love) and sophia (wisdom). If we are Christians, we should love wisdom. I understand why most Christians don’t love philosophy, because they’ve had to sit through a philosophy class and had a professor ask, “How do you know that any of you are not just made up in my imagination?”
I can only imagine all those students’ next call home. Mom says, “Hey son, how are classes?”
“Well, today I learned that I don’t exist,” the son responds.
Moms around the world should call the tuition office and let them know that their son or daughter has been told they don’t exist — then stop paying the tuition check. I promise you that the tuition office will prove their existence!
If we as Christians don’t step in and start grappling with the biggest questions of our age, then we are making Christianity irrelevant. C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, Summit’s founder David Noebel, all represent people of faith who’ve not backed away from taking on the big issues of the day.
Paul writes in Colossians 2:7, “Be rooted and built up.” There is truth. Know it and determine how to live based on it.
The final myth: Right and wrong depend on the situation. This assertion makes us all ethicists. One study says that up to 90 percent of Americans believe morality is relative to the situation. I was speaking and a student came to me and said, “My professor says all the time that morality is relative. What should I do?”
I suggested that he go up after class and take his wallet. When he asks for it back, tell him, “Professor, there are no absolutes, stop imposing your morality on me.”
“What do I do if he gives me the wallet?” the student asked me.
I suggested that he take his car keys too!
The professor who says that there are no absolute truths and then picks out the truths he wants to be true for him is being a dictator, not an ethicist. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe that this post-modern perspective means we’re all going to become rapists and murderers.
However, if the majority of people don’t know what is true, when murderers and rapists rule the world, you won’t know how to stop them or even if you should. In a world where groups like ISIS are running rampant, this should give us all pause.
How does all of this come together?
When these myths — God is irrelevant, faith is about feeling not thinking, and there is no morality — take hold, you can see why young people would walk away from the church. But, if we are truly theologians, philosophers, and ethicists, then we have an obligation to live according to our beliefs.
All these come together in times of crisis. I suspect some of the crises we’re seeing now are going to escalate. As Christians, we must determine definitively what is right and wrong. Culturally we must have an understanding of the times in which we live and a reason for our hope. But let me also encourage you that many of these crises happen in homes on your street rather than the White House. Cars break down on the side of the road, couples have marriage issues, and young people wrestle with their own identities. These are the moments we are called to redeem as ambassadors for his kingdom.
Watching as a generation turns their back on faith resonates so deeply with me because I was one of those young people that walked away from the church. But it was the willingness of people in the church to walk alongside me and show me how the church was relevant to my every day that brought me back. They showed me that church wasn’t one more thing — it is the centerpiece. Jesus is the pivot of all history. In that spirit, we can see what God might be doing to draw together the generations, and rise up and meet the great crises of our culture and those seemingly mundane crises that could bring someone to faith in Christ.