20 Somethings Are Leaving – Do We Share In the Blame?

A few posts back I mentioned an article in Christianity Today called “The Leavers” that highlights the exodus of young adults from Christian churches. There was a paragraph in there that I thought needed some examination and discussion on p.15 of the online version,

What pushed them out? Again, the reasons for departing in each case were unique, but I realized that most leavers had been exposed to a superficial form of Christianity that effectively inoculated them against authentic faith. When sociologist Christian Smith and his fellow researchers examined the spiritual lives of American teenagers, they found most teens practicing a religion best called “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” which casts God as a distant Creator who blesses people who are “good, nice, and fair.” Its central goal is to help believers “be happy and feel good about oneself.”

Where did teenagers learn this faith? Unfortunately, it’s one taught, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, at every age level in many churches. It’s in the air that many churchgoers breathe, from seeker-friendly worship services to low-commitment small groups. When this na•ive and coldly utilitarian view of God crashes on the hard rocks of reality, we shouldn’t be surprised to see people of any age walk away. – Drew Dyck

I can’t find a link to the actual study but I did notice that John Ortberg talked about this over on his site. He seems to agree that people have learned this at church. Here are the tenants of MTD as Smith describes them (quoted from Ortberg…I think he quoted them from Smith):

This religion is characterized by five beliefs:
–There is a God who created earth and watches over it
–God wants people to be nice, fair and good (as it taught in the Bible and most other religions)
–The central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about yourself
–God doesn’t need to be involved in your life except when there’s a problem that needs Celestial Performance Enhancement
–Good people go to heaven when they die.

Do you think this is what our kids are getting in Sunday school, in our preaching and teaching? Do you think we have boiled our faith down to good moral teaching that is basically on par with any other good moral teaching? Have we inadvertently communicated that life is about being happy and feeling good? I am really curious what you guys think about this?

The bigger question whether or not we have played any role in contributing to the exodus of our young people. It is easy to say all the evil influences out there do it but are we willing to take an honest look right at home to see if we have played any role in this ourselves. I am not saying anyone in the churches are evil or were out to get anyone. I am not saying every church has done this wrong. I am saying it is worth a look and evaluation to see if what we have been doing has made any contribution to this problem we are now facing. Different congregations will come to different answers on this but I think it is important that we don’t just assume that all the problems are “out there” without first examining ourselves on this.

About mattdabbs
I am a minister, husband, and father. My wife and I live and minister in Saint Petersburg, Florida. My primary ministry responsibilities include: small groups, 20s and 30s, involvement, and adult education.

11 Responses to 20 Somethings Are Leaving – Do We Share In the Blame?

  1. Matt, I’m sure this is one factor in the departure of post-teens. I think another one is that we sequester our children and teens in programs, classes, activities and worship settings which are targeted to their needs and tastes and language. Then, when they turn 18 / graduate from high school / college, we expect them to integrate right into adult settings which often have nothing to do with their needs, tastes and language. Then we wonder why they’re not interested.

    I doubt that Christians of century one had the luxury of establishing children’s worship or hiring youth ministers. They all worshiped together, sang the same songs, discussed the same subjects in gathered worship and later on at home, at the dinner table.

    I think there may be something to be said for that.

  2. Bruce Morton says:

    Matt:
    Not long ago I was having a conversation with a “20-something” and eventually asked them this question: “Do you believe in Satan?” His answer? “No, I do not.”

    I continue to believe Andrew Delbanco’s The Death of Satan has gotten to the taproot of why churches of all stripes are experiencing “leavers.” They may believe in “God” (of some sort; similar at times to Wicca), but the Gospel of Christ “breaks down” for them when they hear the message of the cross. Why? Do they even believe in spiritual evil? No, many do not.

    Interestingly, I was having a conversation with a Christian woman in her mid-40’s not long ago as well. And I ended up asking her the same thing — with Bible in her hand. And her answer? “Bruce, I used to believe in Satan, but I am not sure now.”

    Satan’s vanishing act in this nation is tearing a generation apart and the only way we can counter is how the Lord taught us to counter: by reading and hearing the Word. But we seem to be taking the opposite approach of attempting to interest and involve more with entertainment. And that too represents a deception.

    In Christ,
    Bruce Morton
    Katy, Texas

    • mattdabbs says:

      We used to think Satan was most powerful if he showed up and did something…now we see that his most powerful tactic is to get people to believe he doesn’t exist. If he doesn’t exist and if there is no such thing as evil then there is no room left for the Gospel because it would have no power.

  3. Richard Kruse says:

    Ahh , Bruce, the joys of the English language! “Do you believe in Satan?” I hope not! Do you accept that Satan exists? That is a different question. I hope you believe in God but not in Satan. Accept as factual the existance of both but only believe – i.e. trust – in God! We are all guilty of being careless with words at times.

  4. Yep! This is the great false teaching killing Christians and swaying the next generation to forsake the Church and much of Christ’s words. “Good people go heaven. I’m a good person. Therefore, I’m going to heaven. I guess I don’t need Christ and His Church.” Find a way to publicly oppose this doctrine and you’ll start an awakening.

  5. Chris Pierson says:

    I was just listening to a Tim Keller Sermon on Meeting The Real Jesus. He is speaking about John the Baptist questioning of Jesus and His answer in Mt 11. Jesus says that the way you can tell if it’s gospel or not is if the poor respond to it. And He says the KOG comes with violence (KJV suffering violence). Keller points out the the gospel properly understood is always violent. It doesn’t tweak your life it rocks your world. It changes EVERYTHING.
    When I was driving here that is why I thought I could never be a youth minister. Do parents want a gospel that rocks their world and turns it upside down with the power and boldness of the gospel OR do they want something safer and helps their children fulfill the american dream.
    Then after experiencing a watered down, truly boring gospel, why hang around later? The message that Jesus is Pal versus Jesus is Lord is fundamentally different. What if this Jesus tells you to forget getting a degree and settling down in the suburbs, but sends you to Thailand to work freeing women in the sex trafficking trade??? Or Whatever.
    That kind of wild and amazing God will get their attention. One way or another!

    • mattdabbs says:

      Now you are getting at the heart of it…if we want to see this turn around we have to let the Gospel be the Gospel and preach it for all it is worth. Let the chips fall where they may.

  6. Edward says:

    In my experience there is very little we have done or can do to keep these kids in the church atmosphere. They are entering a period of life when everything is about experimentation: drugs, sex, politics, culture, freedom, and yes, religion.

    They are bombarded with so much information and options that it creates in them a sense of confusion and a sense of purging. In other words, they know what they don’t like, but they can’t tell you what they do like or want, and this is true in church culture and in their belief system.

    It seems the more aggressively we come at them with God, Jesus, the Scriptures and Church the more they resist. When we back off and give them space, however, then they go MIA and there’s no real sense of accountability.

    They are highly individualistic, narcissistic, spoiled, and consumer driven. WE taught them that btw.

    It seems like radical transformations and true revolutionary ideas and movements are a dime a dozen these days, so these lose their uniqueness and appeal.

    They love God and they love the ‘idea’ of Jesus, but the commitment to his teachings and the way of life a Christian should lead is too much for them to even grasp intellectually or spiritually. They have to mature into it.

    They question any foundational truths and everything is up for grabs.

    That all being said, my approach to ministering to young adults is through relationships: patiently but diligently teaching them to understand the importance of a relationship with God and Jesus. This is best demonstrated by opening the Scriptures and teaching them how relationships were valuable in scripture and how valuable they are today.

    Our churches must do what the early churches did – build a sense of community, a community which follows God. We must connect the young and the old and get them to work together and give to one another. We must build a family within our churches. I would even go so far as to say that we need to concentrate on smaller churches thus creating healthier families. Let’s go back to home groups, home churches just like in the book of Acts, and teach these kids the value of such things. It’s obvious the mega church mentality has not lasted. Young adults seem to thrive on organic environments and not institutional ones. This is true in evangelism, worship, bible study, and fellowship.

    I no longer worry about how ‘big’ a group I can build. I’m no longer into the mega college group mentality. I have found that I can get far more done in the Kingdom with a small family of college students, then I can trying to build some mega group which at best is superficial on so many levels. I concentrate on those in front of me who truly wan to be there instead of spinning my wheels going after those who demonstrate a lack of interest. Hopefully the zeal of those who want to be there will be infectious enough to draw others into the powerful message and work of Jesus.

    The key in my opinion is not trying to get them to ‘go to church’. That institution, as has been presented and cultivated in Western Culture is slowly but surely breaking down. Rather, we need to get them to understand how valuable their relationship with God is: God in scripture, God in the world, God in their friends and families (the true church), and God in their hearts.

  7. hi Matt,

    I think a lot of questions about life have more than one answer… but for my part, in this discussion I think a significant question to ask is “what are they leaving?” obviously the answer will be different for each individual, but I have been blessed a lot in the last ten years by reading some of Dallas Willard’s stuff (and some others dialoging in the same veins).

    I think he would say that defining the gospel as “Jesus came to die so you could go to Heaven when you die” is drastically minimizing the message of God’s Kingdom that Jesus came to share. And when that’s been the definition of ‘gospel’ for a hundred years or so, it kind-of makes Jesus seem irrelevant to this life, so it would then be not surprising that people (young and old) start leaving.

    Would love to hear your ideas!
    Rachel H

    • mattdabbs says:

      The great news is what we find in the Bible is a lot more powerful than things that have been preached for generations. So it is not the the real Gospel has gotten less relevant. The heart of the Gospel is alive and well and just as powerful and relevant as ever if we are willing to take another look at the whole of scripture and embrace the calling we have received from God…and live it out in the world as fully as we know how. I think that is what previous generations were doing as well…doing it all the best they knew how but as time passes and culture changes different aspects of the Gospel get highlighted along the way. All of it is helpful and rich but we do have to be wise and recognize how to maintain our relevance in ways that are in line with and embrace scripture.

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