Four out of every five young people who attend a church of some kind during their teenage years will fail to maintain the same level of engagement as they move into adulthood, according to the Barna Group. There is a wide range of reasons for this, and a number of angles that should be examined, but as I’ve written here before, one of the biggest areas in which we can improve is in the expectations we have for young people.
Instead of just hoping that they hang on, or assuming that they’ll eventually work their way into being strong Christians as adults, parents (and elders, once the young people become Christians) need to aim to help young people become warriors in every church. Having a head start on so many who convert later in life, we should help all young people grow into faithful service from an early age. How do we do so? It all starts with setting fair expectations and helping them reach those. Here are six things every Christian young person should know before leaving home, and every Christian parent and church leader should work towards with the young people they’re training and discipling. They need to know:
1. Why they believe and behave the way they do
We’ve learned by observing past generations that it doesn’t work to just tell young people that they can’t have sex before marriage, they can’t get drunk or do drugs, or they aren’t allowed to do any number of other sins with which they’ll be tempted. “Because I said so” doesn’t work, and vaguely throwing out “because the Bible says so” won’t either until they understand why it matters what the Bible says. It’s because we’ve failed to explain that that we have so many who view the Bible as a list of dos and don’ts and who call Christians hypocrites because we can’t follow “the Bible says so” perfectly.
We should be able to articulate why we do what we do and don’t do the things we don’t do, namely because God wants what is best for us and has provided for our joy according to His Word (as Psalm 119 makes clear). Phrases like “The Bible says so,” “We’ve always done it that way,” and “Because that’s what you’re going to believe when you’re under my roof” aren’t good enough. Young people are smart enough to grasp the reasons for our obedience (John 14:15), and parents should be able to help them develop that love for God by teaching them the why and not just the what.
2. How to defend the existence of God, the creation account, and biblical inerrancy
They’re going to get hammered with evolution, atheism, biblical errancy, and every other attack on their faith that the world can throw at them. In fact, if they’re in middle school or high school, they’re probably already dealing with many of those issues. The world isn’t waiting for them to become adults to wage war on their worldview, and we can’t afford to wait, either. David Kinnaman of the Barna Group points out that 52% of churchgoing 13-17 year olds want to go into a science-related career, and yet only 1% of youth leaders had discussed science and Christian evidences in the year leading up to the study.
It is critical that parents keep an eye on what their children are learning about science, God, and the Bible and teach the truth. Church leaders, I beg you to set aside time to regularly have classes on Christian evidences, how we got the Bible, and other areas in which the faith comes under attack. Dr. Brad Harrub’s “Convicted” was incredibly effective in teaching both the youth and the adults at my congregation.
3. How to connect with their church family
If Christian teens feel out of place in adult classes or have difficulty fellowshipping with people outside of their age group, their transition out of youth, college, singles or other targeted ministries into the “main church” will leave them feeling disconnected. For many, this leaves them to fade into the background. Others seek out churches with more young people, sometimes even if they have to compromise doctrine to do so.
Parents can help their children connect with all Christians through regularly having other Christians into their homes and fellowshipping with all ages in the church family. Church leaders have to help cultivate a family environment by putting an end to the complete segregation strategies that have proven fruitless and regularly work to have events that bring everybody together to serve, fellowship, study, and worship as one body.
4. How to study for themselves
If they leave home with brains chock-full of memory verses and facts and figures about the Bible but don’t know how to study a text for themselves, what have we really given them? It’s an inherited faith, not a growing, developing faith. The implication in many churches that young people and teenagers need dumbed down classes is insulting. Some of them are doing things like calculus and physics in school. They can handle lessons on how to break down a text or explore a Scriptural topic.
Unfortunately, some parents might not feel adequate to equip their children with Bible study skills because they themselves aren’t quite sure where to start on deep study. There’s no reason why congregations can’t offer how to study the Bible classes (for anyone of any age who wants to attend) every few years. If you want to teach your children but aren’t sure how, ask an older member, an elder, your preacher, or anyone who can help you learn to spend some time with your family in learning how to study. Read books on the subject. Do whatever it takes to learn and pass it on, because few things are more important than for our young people to know how to use their Bibles (2 Timothy 2:15).
5. How to teach others
The gospel message is meant to be shared (Matthew 28:18-20). As they go to college or start careers and make new friends as they go, young people can and should be some of our most powerful assets for getting the word about Jesus Christ out to the world. If they’ve obeyed the gospel, then they know enough to tell others the basic message. From there we can help them grow to know how to handle various questions they might encounter and how to reach out to others.
6. Their role and sense of purpose in the work of the church
Paul wrote in Ephesians 4:11-16 about the different roles and types of service that are necessary in the church, and why each individual part needs to contribute according to what God has given them. Not every young person is going to grow up to be a preacher, elder, or Bible class teacher, and that’s not a bad thing. What’s important is that we all know our role and execute it as well as possible to the glory of God, and what’s important for young people is that they start to find that role and grow into it over time. It doesn’t just happen overnight.
Parents, help your children find where they can be of service to the church. Elders, don’t hinder these young people, but help them find areas of service and people who can help them grow in this area. If they leave home but don’t feel they have anything to contribute to the church, just serving as pew warmers, we’ve failed both them and the church, since God has given us all grace to serve.
Everyone (including young people) has free will, and there’s no automatic, 100% path to youth faithfulness, but by engaging young people and helping them fill these expectations by the time they leave home, their faith will be strengthened and the church will be blessed. Of course, this list isn’t exhaustive. If you have more thoughts on what young Christians should know before they leave home, please take a second to share your thoughts in the comments.
By Jack Wilkie
Jack Wilkie is the author of “Failure: What Christian Parents Need to Know About American Education” and is the speaker for Focus Press’s “The Lost Generation” seminar. To schedule a seminar at your church or for more info, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
 – David Kinnaman and Aly Hawkins, “You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church – And Rethinking Faith,” Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011. 139.