By now you’ve likely heard the stats, saying that anywhere from 50-80% of young people will leave the church after graduating high school. Truth be told, it’s pretty hard to argue with the studies based off of the eye test alone. By that I mean, go to your local congregations and see how many 20-35-year-old people you see as compared with the other ages. In my experience, we are almost always outnumbered by the older generations.
Because of this, it’s not uncommon for parents and ministers to think in terms of hoping young people will remain faithful. Sure, I hope they stay faithful too, but if all we’re hoping for is that they’re still attending by the time they reach their mid-20s, we’re not aiming very high. Instead, Christian parents should be looking to develop warriors for the raging battle between sin and righteousness, relativism and truth, and the world and the church.
Psalm 127:4 describes children in relationship to their parents as arrows in the hands of a mighty warrior. So much time and energy is put into making sure kids succeed in academics, sports, and whatever other extracurricular activities they might want to pursue, but their long-term faithfulness is looked at as something we “hope” or “assume” will happen. What if we changed the focus and put their spiritual development first? I suspect the church would have a whole new generation of spiritual warriors to lead the way into the next battle.
How do we produce spiritual warriors? While it’s a process that takes years of parental focus and help from the church, we would do well to start with these three steps.
1. Raise our expectations
It should not be out of the question to expect teenage Christians to start stepping up and taking active roles in the church (not just in the youth group) as they progress following their baptism. But, for whatever reason, we seem to view strong spirituality in young people (and in adults, for that matter) as something of an anomaly. Don’t believe me? Pay attention to how we treat those among our youth who show an interest in spiritual matters. We push those young people to go into ministry or mission work. We assume that their higher-than-normal interest in the Bible means they must have some kind of special propensity toward ministry. What we should take from that is that we think spirituality among young people is abnormal, that anyone who actually spends time studying the Word must be different than the rest of us.
Instead, we should be teaching all youth to be that spiritual. We need Christian warriors not just as preachers, teachers, missionaries, and elders, but as teachers, janitors, doctors, salesmen, and in every other reputable occupation. Every Christian young man should be trained to try to live the qualifications for elders and deacons as listed in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, and every young woman should be trained according to the lists found in Proverbs 31’s description of the virtuous woman and 1 Timothy 3’s attributes women should have. No, they’re not all going to be elders, preachers, or teachers, but the more people we have trying to live out these principles, the stronger the church is as a whole. Paul knew Timothy’s youth could be used as an excuse if Timothy allowed it, which is why Paul called him to overcome that problem by setting an example in speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity. We shouldn’t expect anything less from young Christians in the church.
We can’t make the mistake of bringing teenage Christians up in some kind of junior church, and we can’t teach them that it’s just fine to stand on the sidelines and do little more than show up on Sundays. The temptations, distractions, and challenges to their faith that they will receive won’t be softened because of their age. For that same reason, we have to prepare them to study, pray, and live as fully functioning disciples of Christ.
2. Disciple them
The Christian life can be very difficult. The Bible is a really big book with a lot of things that can be difficult to understand. A strong prayer life can take a long time to develop. Raising our expectations is important, but expecting someone to do something they’ve never done before isn’t fair. What they need is to be discipled, first by their parents (Deuteronomy 6:7), who have been given that responsibility from God, and then from older Christians and spiritual mentors as they grow.
What does it mean to disciple them? It means to show them how to be Christians in daily life. Classes, camps, devotionals, rallies, and other events can be great spiritual boosts, but they aren’t focused on teaching how to live the day to day life of a Christian. What do you do when temptation arises? How do you answer when your atheist friend starts questioning your faith? How do you talk to your friend who goes to another church and wants to know why your church is different? We can’t just assume that someone suddenly knows the answers to these things as soon as they emerge from the waters of baptism. That’s exactly why Matthew 28:19-20 includes “making disciples” and “teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” along with the command to baptize.
Show them how to do in-depth personal Bible study. Just picking up bits and pieces from Bible classes and sermons isn’t enough to develop a thriving relationship with God or an all-encompassing understanding of His word and how to apply it. Pray with them, and pray for them. The best way to learn how to pray is to hear the prayers of those who have spent their lives dedicated to laying everything at God’s feet. Show them how to study with others, to teach, to preach, to pray, to serve, and to find whatever way they can use their talents to God’s glory.
3. Help them make an informed decision
Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train up a child in the way he should go, Even when he is old he will not depart from it.” Many will be quick to point out that many of the proverbs are hyperbolic and can’t be applied completely literally. In a sense that’s true, as ultimately every individual has to make up his or her own mind as to which path they will choose. However, it is the job of the Christian parent, teacher, minister, and mentor to make the choice as clear as possible. There is no comparison between a life lived for self and the pleasures of sin and a life lived to the glory of God and in service of those around you. A young person who is trained to see the paths clearly from his or her earliest days should have no trouble seeing that they have everything to gain by serving God and everything to lose by serving self.
As they grow older and the world attempts to overwhelm them with a seemingly endless stream of temptations and distractions, trying to pull them away from God, there will be many opportunities to make decisions. Those who have been discipled and given expectations as young Christians will know which choice to make.
When we consider the numbers of young people walking away from the church, we should feel horrified and called to action. That action has to start with Christian parents, but it shouldn’t stop there. We all should be doing whatever possible to keep the Christian young people around us faithful, and not just faithful but active and thriving in Christ. As we start to do this, not only will we keep more young people in the church, we’ll have much stronger congregations, better homes, and a greatly improved influence over the world around us. Winning the next generation is the key to winning countless souls for God, so let’s raise the bar, disciple them, and help them make the decision to take up their crosses daily.