(Or, Why Are So Many Walking Away? And Is There Anything I Can Do About It?)
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Earlier this week, Hillsong writer & worship leader Marty Sampson announced on Instagram that he’s “genuinely losing his faith.” The author of many of my favourite worship songs growing up (and okay, still today) like “Saviour King” and “All I Need is You” joins the ranks of others like famous Christian author and pastor, Josh Harris, who recently announced he is “not a Christian.”
If you do a quick Google search, you will see a variety of responses to these announcements. You’ll see everything from celebration to condemnation – and all spots in between. In conversations I’ve been a part of surrounding these announcements and others like them – I hear an underlying theme – worry.
You see, for most of us, Josh Harris & Marty Sampson are far away figures. On the other hand, though, most of us have faces in mind that are not so far away during these conversations. These are faces of those who have walked away from Christian faith – those we have sat with at youth group, Bible study and church on Sundays – that we have loved, and still love deeply. And underneath all these conversations and debates, I hear a question surfacing time and time again:
With so many walking away from faith, is it even possible to cultivate a faith that lasts? Are my kids doomed to walk away too?
It’s a hard question. Statistics seem to point to the idea that most teenagers drop out of the church – nearly 70%. As the parent of a toddler, and someone who pastors kids and families week-in and week-out, this thought frightens me.
Are we simply doomed to produce kids who follow Jesus for a while, but then just walk away?
As sobering as statistics are, I don’t think we must simply resign ourselves to the fact that our kids are going to walk away. In fact, I think that we have opportunity as parents, leaders and pastors to change the trajectory of faith in the lives of the next generation.
So, how can we do it?
Many others have written about this in much more detail than this post could do. I’ll link up to some of those articles at the end of this one. However, I do think there are a few basics that are essential if we are going to guide our kids into having a faith that lasts.
1. Make space for questions & doubts.
One of the most common reasons cited for leaving the faith seems to be “I couldn’t ask questions. I couldn’t wrestle with the hard things.” While I’m sure this is the case in some circles, we cannot settle for stifling hard conversations. I am convinced there are many faith circles and families that do just that.
As a kid, teenager and university student who asked a lot of hard questions, I am thankful that I grew up in an environment where I could ask those questions with no judgment – to my parents, leaders and others who influenced my faith. Because of that environment, it has been natural for me to strive to create a similar environment in my home and the ministries I oversee.
Over the course of the past year or two, I have fielded questions from kids in my ministries about abortion, heaven and hell, creation, the probability of a worldwide flood, and Bill Nye the Science Guy debating a famous creationist.
These questions are hard. At times, they make me uncomfortable – especially because I don’t have all the answers. However, I believe that when we make space for kids to ask their hard questions and express their doubts, church becomes a safe place for them.
They begin to understand that God is big enough to handle their questions and doubts, and He is not offended or threatened by the questions they ask. And if He is not, neither should we be.
In the words of Kara Powell,
“Doubt is not toxic to faith. Silence is.”
2. Help your kids have a healthy view of the local church.
One of the biggest hurdles for young people wrestling with following Jesus can be the “hypocrisy” they witness in Christians. In a 2007 Barna Group Study, 85% of non-Christians said one of the reasons they rejected the Christian faith was because Christians were hypocritical.
There is no doubt that in today’s world, it is easy to see Christians as being hypocritical. In the USA, many young people struggle with how so many Evangelical Christians can support blatantly unchristian actions of their president. Sexual abuse in the church runs seemingly rampant, and prominent leaders are caught up in moral failures more often than they should be.
And, if your kids spend enough time in church, they likely will encounter those who hurt them or do something unchristlike and will wrestle with the question – how is this faith worth following if this is how its followers act?
It’s a genuine question. And a hard one to tackle.
However, I am convinced that we must help our kids have a healthy view of the church and those who are a part of it. While being plugged into the local church is essential to a healthy faith, we aren’t followers of ‘church’ – but of Jesus. While humans may be hypocrites, the God we follow never changes, lies or breaks His promises.
So, remind our kids that the way humans act isn’t necessarily a reflection of the God they serve. We are all fallen, all broken, all painfully sinful. This doesn’t excuse Christians behaving poorly, but simply explains it. Have tough conversations with your kids about things the church has done wrong in its history and is doing wrong presently. Talk about how you can be part of the solution. Acknowledge the challenges. Conversation is key here.
3. Keep Jesus central.
My all-time favourite, Beth Moore, shared this beautiful thought on Twitter yesterday:
It summed up so perfectly the thought that has been swirling through my mind over and over this week –
If we want our kids to have a faith that lasts, we must introduce them to Jesus.
When questions will rise and doubts threaten to overwhelm (which they will), and when people fail (which they will) and when our kids are tempted to walk away (which they will be), I believe that it is their love for Jesus that will keep them tethered to their faith.
Even the disciples knew this. In John 6, Jesus pronounces some difficult teaching – so difficult in fact, that many of those who had followed Him chose to walk away. As they deserted him, Jesus turned to the Twelve and asked them – are you going to? Are you going to leave with the rest?
I love Simon Peter’s reply. In verse 68, he says this:
“Lord, where would we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
I firmly believe that when we focus on introducing our kids to the Good News of Jesus – of who He is, what He came to do, and how it affects every part of our lives – not just Sundays or sometimes – the roots of their faith will go down deep.
So often we have focused on producing a faith experience for kids that is fun, full of gimmicks or age-appropriate, we have missed the point – and the point is Jesus.
When doubts come, when questions arise, when difficult teachings are hard to swallow, I believe they will echo the words of Peter – Where else can we go? There is no one else like Him. He is worth following.
Resources I Love On This Topic:
- “Sticky Faith” by Kara Powell & Chap Clark (This is my go-to resource on this topic. Every parent and ministry leader should read this.)
- “You Lost Me” by David Kinnaman
- “The Problem of God” by Mark Clark
- “The Skeletons in God’s Closet” by Joshua Ryan Butler
- “How to Talk to Young People About Doubt” | Fuller Youth Institute
- “When Kids Ask Tough Questions” | Dale Hudson @ Church Leaders