Young Young Adult Exodus from the Faith – and what to do about it (II)

Young Young Adult Exodus from the Faith – and what to do about it (II) January 17, 2012
doubt, pluralism, and sexuality: three big barriers to faith for young adults

Last week I posted some thoughts about a recent survey by George Barna, which offers insight into the reasons people between 18 and 30 are leaving the faith.  I addressed the first three reasons in that post, which could be summarized as: 1) churches are overprotective  2) the experience of God and spirituality offered in churches seems shallow and 3) churches come across as antagonistic towards science.

This post looks at the final three complaints, along with some closing thoughts at the end.

#4 – Young People’s church experiences related to sexuality are often simplistic, judgmental.  There are several forces contributing to the sexual divide between the church and most young people.  Simplistic answers are perhaps at the top of the list.  Abstinence is upheld as the gold standard with reasons that are often shallow or wrong.  Churches who simply say “God said it.  I believe it.  That settles it.” while they quote some verses about sexual purity are doing more harm than good.  For starters, they’re elevating ‘proof texting’ as a legitimate means of build ethics.  By the same method, we’ve justified colonialism, genocide, slavery, violence, and much more.  We’d better give young people more to work with than that.  The good news is that there is more than that – way more.  Here’s a favorite book of mine for starters, whose thesis is that sexuality isn’t a private matter, because it affects the whole community (as any church who has dealt with the break-ups of live in lovers who had every intention of marrying well knows).  The same book reinforces the point that fear of pregnancy, and “you’ll feel guilty” are terrible reasons to invite abstinence.  Give terrible reasons – lose credibility.  It happens every time.

Second, the church needs to lighten up a bit, not on its ethical standards, but on its treatment of people with questions and struggles.  I say this because this is the way it is in the Bible.  Judah slept with his daughter in law, thinking she was a prostitute.  David slept with his neighbor’s wife, and killed the husband to cover up her pregnancy.  Abraham gave his wife away, allowing her to sleep with a king.  Jacob made a mess of things and ended up with four wives.  And these were the good guys! Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not suggesting we wink at failure and let it go.  I’m suggesting that we realize sexuality has always been a giant struggle, even before the internet was invented.  Let’s address it the way we address everything:  with grace, and truth.  When people fail and struggle, they should be able to walk the journey with other believers.  But the church’s elevation of sexual sin has the affect of elevating shaming, rather than inviting dialogue and confession.  In short, we look more like the Pharisees in John 8, than we look like Jesus because we stone people for falling short in the realm of sexuality.  You can confess credit card debt, or bitterness, or laziness, or greed in your small group.  But your struggles with sexuality remain under the covers, for fear of rejection.  It’s time to change that.

#5 – They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity.  The earth is small these days, and as a result, everyone knows that there are courageous Muslims, and evil Muslims.  There are abusive Catholic priests and good ones.  There are arrogant pastors, and servants of Christ.  In a pluralistic world, young people aren’t content to believe that those who say “Lord Lord” to Jesus will enter the kingdom of heaven.  They’re right to be skeptical, because Jesus was skeptical too. The gospel isn’t some sort of mantra you’re supposed to recite so that God will accept you.  They get that.  But they’re also wondering about what it actually does mean to believe.

We need to provide fences, and room for conversations.  The fence, if we’re take the Bible seriously at all, is that Jesus is central figure of history, the door through which all who will know God must walk.  We also know though, from the same Bible, that God is well able to apply the work of Christ to those who respond to God’s revelation by faith, even if they’ve never heard the name of Christ.  That’s how Abraham was saved, according to Romans 4.  What does this mean?  It means that God is able to apply the work of Christ to any response of faith.  What does that mean?  That’s where the dialogue comes in.  This isn’t some sort of mindless liberalism.  Rather, it’s the declaration that God saves, through Christ, who God saves.  We’re released from our presumptive judgments, and freed up to invite everyone to Jesus.

#6 – The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt. This is because we’ve come to view the Bible as a textbook or legal brief, rather than a collection of stories, recorded through the ages so that humanity might understand the character of God and trajectory of history.  Because these stories are written in cultural contexts, there are stories of polygamy, genocide, slavery, the mistreatment of women, and more.  The church has done a good job of ignoring all these elephants in the room, but with all the elephants in the room, there’s no space for people with questions.   In addition, let’s remember Abarham’s doubts, David’s struggles with God’s goodness and fairness, not to mention the dozens of others who were people of faith, yet had the courage to question.

I’ve found that the questions are, far from threatening or distracting, hugely valuable.  We face them, hold them, let them ripen, sometimes for years, as we continue to wrestle with what it means to live faithfully.  Of course, this kind of liberty is best enjoyed on a foundation of certitude regarding Christ.  That certitude is offered us, both through the testimony of history, and the Bible’s own declaration that Jesus is the fullest revelation of the character of God.  Armed with that security, we’re free to ask tough questions, and as those questions ripen over the years, the answers we find have a clarifying affect, enabling us to see the beauty of the gospel and God’s reign with greater clarity than had we ignored them.

This is why we need to create space for questions.  When we do, I know from experience, that such space will be filled with young people, because the reality is that young people are eager to live meaningful lives, and our present pattens of hollow consumerism, where even sexuality has been reduced to a commodity, simply aren’t cutting it.


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  • Landon

    encouraging to hear from a pastor who cares so much about the young people in his church.

  • great read and I could not agree more! I feel a lot of times that Youth Directors who chose to embrace these truths and attempt tackle them head on are viewed as crazy or ineffective. it may be that addressing these real world issues creates kids who ask questions in searching out and owning their faith instead of borrowing it from their parents, leaders or friends. It may be worth checking out
    Keep up the encouraging work my friend!

  • Renee G

    These are fantastic points, Pastor Richard!! [A 27 year old, here, who is generally repulsed by the awkward, culturally-disconnected efforts made to “reach out” to my age group. 🙂 ]

  • Jim Mullen

    So, how does a church then go about addressing this? Our church seems to have a slow bleed of young people who grow up and move on. How is the culture to be assessed and then, if necessary, changed?

  • Lamont

    Regarding Matthew 7:21…

    “They’re right to be skeptical, because Jesus was skeptical too.”

    Jesus was stating a fact. Not skepticism.

    “We also know though, from the same Bible, that God is well able to apply the work of Christ to those who respond to God’s revelation by faith…”

    Faith is the only way that God applies the work of Christ.

    “even if they’ve never heard the name of Christ. That’s how Abraham was saved, according to Romans 4.”

    Abraham trusted in the coming Savior. He looked forward “by faith” to the Savior/Seed. God revealed Himself to Abraham personally. Abraham Received the Gospel.

    If you’re implying that a person can be saved apart from the gospel, please explain Romans 10?

    Roms 10:14-15. “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed?
    And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?
    And how are they to hear without someone preaching?
    15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent?
    As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”

    Vs 17 So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.

    The Gospel is the means in which God calls His people.

    I believe young people really want to hear the truth, and they’re not hearing it. I’ve thought that for years. I cut my teeth in those church’s. I feel that there are few churches that I can recommend.
    Differences aside, I think you do a good job of presenting the gospel Richard. I would be comfortable recommending someone to your church.


  • Lamont, to continue quoting from Romans 10:

    18 But I ask, have they not heard? Indeed they have, for

    “Their voice has gone out to all the earth,
    and their words to the ends of the world.”

    19 But I ask, did Israel not understand? First Moses says,

    “I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation;
    with a foolish nation I will make you angry.”

    20 Then Isaiah is so bold as to say,

    “I have been found by those who did not seek me;
    I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me.”

    21 But of Israel he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.”

  • Lamont

    Hi Tom.

    Vs 18 is alluding to the light of creation which Paul has already addressed in Rom 1:18ff That revelation proves Gods existence testifying to the conscious thereby condemning them because of the law written on mans heart. Only Gospel is the power of God unto salvation. Rom 1:16.

    Rom 1:18ff (esp 19-23) For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

    As for vs 20… “Then Isaiah is so bold as to say,
    “I have been found by those who did not seek me;
    I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me.”
    What have we already read in Romans?
    10 as it is written:
    “None is righteous, no, not one;
    12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
    no one does good,
    not even one.”
    13 “Their throat is an open grave;
    they use their tongues to deceive.”
    “The venom of asps is under their lips.”
    14 “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
    15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;
    16 in their paths are ruin and misery,
    17 and the way of peace they have not known.”
    18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (emphasis mine)

    This is in regards to the gentiles. As an example, ref Peters vision in Acts 11:1-18 ( )
    vs 14 …”and he will speak words to you by which you will be saved…” i.e. the Gospel.
    2 Thes 2:13-14 “But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. 14 To this he “CALLED YOU THROUGH OUR GOSPEL (emphasis mine), so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
    Ref WCF

  • Sarah

    What would you say to a young person who is leaving the faith as he looks at the bad things happening across the world and the pain felt in their own lives as things change? I have had several friends fall away for this reason and really struggle with what to say/how to be there.

  • Lamont, the issue is whether someone can be saved through Jesus Christ without explicitly hearing the Gospel. And I think it’s pretty clear from Romans 10 and other passages in the Scriptures that God can, and does, reveal Himself to and transform the hearts of people who have not explicitly heard the Gospel (from human beings, at least).

  • Lamont

    Hi Tom.

    “Lamont, the issue is whether someone can be saved through Jesus Christ without explicitly hearing the Gospel.”

    I agree!

    “And I think it’s pretty clear from Romans 10.”

    You quoted 10-21, you’ve not shown from the context that your interpretation is accurate. You merely quoted some verses.

    I read Romans 10 too! I quoted vs 14-15. Paul is asking a series of rhetorical questions.

    Q. How will they call on Him whom they haven’t believed?
    A. Simple. They won’t call.

    Q. How are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?
    A. They won’t believe.

    Q. How are they to hear without someone preaching?
    A. They won’t hear.

    Q. How are they to preach unless they are sent?
    A. They won’t preach.

    Prior to that in Rom 9:30ff Paul say’s:
    “What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith;

    Faith is a gift from God Eph 2.
    Not all men have faith 1 Thes 3:1-2.

    Did you read vs 17? “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”

    It is not a question of “if” God can (ability) save in this manner. The question is does He? You haven’t shown me that [yet]? You’ve only made an assertion at this point.


  • Jessica

    Young people are also exposed to highly publicized narratives like this, which leads them to believe that this is the story Christ is writing in our world:

  • Very much enjoying your blog Richard – just added to my reading list!

    At a purely human level its interesting to note that several of your reasons are associated with adult anxiety. One of the reason young people leave any home, or can’t wait to get away is that ‘parents’ mollycoddle for whatever reason. Perhaps it is that they leave because none of us can survive being around these levels of anxiety for very long. In part I believe that many adults in the church have lost faith but can’t face it and so look to the young folk’s belief to buttress their own.