What Can We Do About the Young Leavers?

When you study why young doubters are leaving the church moral or doctrinal compromise is not the major reason. (It does play a part but not in the way most conservatives generally think!) Some who leave, for example, have distinctly postmodern misgivings. When one young adult left his father learned of his decision to leave the faith and rushed his son a copy of Mere Christianity, hoping the book would bring him back. But C. S. Lewis's logical style left his son cold. "All that rationality comes from the Western philosophical tradition," he told an interviewer. "I don't think that's the only way to find truth." I find this response very common myself.

Drew Dyck says that he has met many leavers who felt Christianity failed to measure up intellectually. Shane, a 27-year-old father of three (to use one example), was swept away by the tide of New Atheist literature. He described growing up a "sheltered Lutheran" who was "into Jesus" and active in youth group. Now he spoke slowly and deliberately, as if testifying in court. "I'm an atheist and an empiricist. I don't believe religion or psychics or astrology or anything supernatural."

Others have been hurt by Christians. Katie, a former believer in her early 30s, had been molested by two members of her childhood church. Her mother occasionally still drags her to church. Once, one of her mother's friends approached Katie with an intense look of concern. She grabbed Katie by the shoulders: "Katie, you've become so hard," she said.

51hpq6RGw6L._SL160_ Katie's voice faltered as she recalled the encounter to an interviewer. "That affected me," she said. "I Love Is an Orientation: Elevating the Conversation with the Gay Community don't want to be hard." She paused to regain her poise. "But you have to be hard, or else life will hurt you." This is the primary reason why gays and lesbians leave the church according to Andrew Marin’s quite amazing book (which I will review soon): (InterVarsity, 2009).

A sizable minority of leavers have adopted alternative spiritualities. A popular choice is Wicca. Dyck writes about Morninghawk Apollo (who renamed himself as is common in Wiccan practice) discussed his rejection of Christianity with candor. "Ultimately why I left is that the Christian God demands that you submit to his will. In Wicca, it's just the other way around. Your will is paramount. We believe in gods and goddesses, but the deities we choose to serve are based on our wills." That Morninghawk had a Christian past was hardly unique among his friends. "It is rare to meet a new Wiccan who wasn't raised in the church," he told me.

Dyck says that in his own interviews he was struck by the diversity of the stories—one can hardly lump them together and chalk up all departures to "youthful rebellion." Yet there were commonalities. Many de-conversions were precipitated by what happened inside rather than outside the church. Even those who adopted materialist worldviews or voguish spiritualities traced their departures back to what happened in church.

What pushed these de-converts out of the church? Though the reasons for departing in each case are unique, Dyck says he 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." Couple this with the sense of judgmentalism that many young adults felt during their sojourn inside the church and you have the two reasons I have seen as most common.

Christianity Today blogger Drew Dyck asks what we should make of the large numbers of young adults who are now leaving the Christian church? Many are not only no longer attending church but have given up the faith altogether. What do we do about this and how do we even begin to do it, except perhaps in small ways that involve intense personal friendships with people who have given up on the faith.

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

The reasons that 20- and 30-somethings are leaving are both varied and complex. A significant part of leaving has to do with the new culture we live in, and there is only so much to be done about that. But leaders in the church have control over at least one part of this equation: how we choose to respond. This is again why Andrew Marin’s book, Love Is an Orientation, is so very important. He charts a way to minister to the LGBT community by showing real love not rejection and hostility.

While we feel rightly perplexed by this large exodus we should not let grief carry us away when it touches our own loved ones personally. Dyck provides a typical conversation that I have had as well.

I talked with one parent who was despondent over his grown son’s loss of faith. He said his son was “into satanic stuff.” After a little probing, I found that the son was really a garden variety pluralist. He loved Jesus but saw him as one figure in a pantheon of spiritual luminaries. This is a far cry from his father’s assessment. I cringed inwardly when I imagined them discussing matters of faith.

He adds, “Christians often have one of two opposite and equally harmful reactions when they talk with someone who has left the faith: they go on the offensive, delivering a homespun, judgmental sermon, or they freeze in a defensive crouch and fail to engage at all.” This is precisely why we must learn to do humble apologetics that does not rely on epistemological certitude as its primary appeal.

Another of Drew Dyck’s reflections is again something that I have also experienced.

Another unsettling pattern emerged during my interviews. Almost to a person, the leavers with whom I spoke recalled that, before leaving the faith, they were regularly shut down when they expressed doubts. Some were ridiculed in front of peers for asking “insolent questions.” Others reported receiving trite answers to vexing questions and being scolded for not accepting them. One was slapped across the face, literally.

Most de-converts report "sharing their burgeoning doubts with a Christian friend or family member only to receive trite, unhelpful answers." The role of good apologetics is still important but we must realize that the kind of arguments that impressed some of us forty years ago will simply not work today. What we are must become truly consistent with what we proclaim or no one will be listening at all before long. We must build bridges and these bridges must be built by a love that becomes deeply involved with people one-on-one. Taking people to mass meetings and mega-churches might still work in some cases but in most there has to be an Andrew relationship before there is a real conversion.

All of this underscores the obvious point our Lord made time and time again: We must love if we are to truly preach the gospel. We may be speaking but few under thirty are listening any more. Will churches and leaders honestly face this question? I do not know. I commit myself to doing something about this on a daily basis and urge you to join me in this effort.