But I'm also careful to point out that there are a lot of young people who have walked away from the church and even the faith who do have honest intellectual doubts. At some point they expressed those doubts, but they were shut down or given unsatisfying answers. I advise Christians who have a loved one who has walked away to do a little detective work, find out why that person has left, before trying to help lead them back. Often the forces that push people away from the faith then serve as the barriers that prevent their return. You want to make sure you specifically address the concerns they have.
Youth ministry has never been more relevant, cutting edge, and cool than it is today—and yet it seems we are the least effective. Are kids looking for less flash and more substance? How should the Church manage that tension?
This is one area where we've definitely dropped the ball. Often the goal for youth groups is attracting large numbers of kids and keeping them entertained. As a result, many youth ministries are practically devoid of any spiritual engagement. Some have been reduced to using violent video game parties to lure students through their church doors on Friday nights. These are the kind of phenomena that led church researcher Ed Stetzer describes most youth groups as "holding tanks with pizza."
Of course, there's nothing wrong with video games and pizza, but they're tragic replacements for discipleship and Bible teaching. We're exposing young people to a superficial form of Christianity that effectively inoculates them against authentic faith. Youth ministries need to shift the emphasis away from an entertainment model and back to biblical education and spiritual growth. I know that's easier said than done because I was a youth pastor. But we have to find ways to foster deeper faith in our young people or we'll continue to lose them once they age-out of youth group.
I don't want to let parents off the hook either. They're the primary faith influencers. This mentality that you can drop off your kids on a Friday night and let "the professionals" make them into good Christians is a destructive fantasy.
What is one piece of advice you have for earnest parents, youth pastors, pastors, and other influencers of young people who want to see their faith passed along in the next generation?
First I tell them that, when it comes to this issue, an ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure. It's far easier to help kids build a sustainable faith before they graduate high school than it is to reel them back after they've grown up and walked away.
However, even for those who have left, there is hope. Avoid extreme reactions. Don't freak out and clobber them with Bible verses or homespun sermons. On the other hand, don't freeze in a defensive crouch and fail to engage at all. Have that direct conversation with them. Ask, "Where are you at spiritually?" and listen carefully to their response. And don't try and win them back in one night. Build the relationship and keep the lines of communication open. At some point they will have a moment of vulnerability, of heightened receptivity to spiritual reality. When they do, you want to be that trusted person they call on.