Conversations with Young Christians Leaving the Church
“If Christianity were true, it would produce better people.”
That’s where the real conversation often begins after thirty minutes of pleasantries and them sharing their personal history over a warm cup of coffee at Starbucks. They just lay it out. “This is why I don’t go to church anymore.” Sometimes in the way they make that statement, I sense they’re not really convinced Christianity isn’t true, but hope if they say it out loud, often enough they will. However, the second part, about Christianity not producing better people – in that, they’re true believers! Regardless, they just lay it out, unsure of how I’ll react, or where the conversation goes from there.
Who are these people and how did they find me?
Their father usually call me – desperate. “Would you please call our son and talk to him about his faith?” They are parents of students, or young adults who’ve grown up in the church, but have left. They’ve done everything right, they say. They attend a Bible believing church. Their son went to youth group – even went on a missions trip to Kenya in high school. But he went off to college and came back changed. We should never have sent him to a godless, secular college. We know that now.
They’re broken-hearted and out of answers. A friend of a friend told them to give me a call. I’m honored, but I’m honest with them. I don’t have a blueprint for winning people back to faith. That’s the Holy Spirit’s job. But, I’d be honored to make a call and offer to meet with their son and find out why - why they no longer believe.
I take the same approach with almost everyone. “I just got a call from your parents who want me to talk to you about questions they say you have about Christianity. (Kids hate hidden agendas, so I just lay mine out.) So, here’s what I propose: Let’s meet once, over coffee for an hour. That way you and I can both tell them we’ve met. That’s it! I’ll not call you again after that – no salesman will call. But, if you ever want to meet again, I’d be happy to do that, but that choice is up to you. Hey! What’s the worst that can happen? You’ll be bored for an hour, but you’ll have made your mom and dad happy. So what do you think?”
Most laugh out loud that their parents brought in a professional – an evangelistic hit man. I can almost see their eyes rolling on the other end of the phone. They ask a few questions about me just to check me out. Then, we enter into this little conspiracy to have just this one dance – no more – for the folks.
And, when we meet it doesn’t take long to figure out that the godless college wasn’t the real problem. "When I was just a kid, I believed it all because I was clueless. But, as I grew older, I began to notice something was wrong. There was an obvious disconnect between what I read in the Bible and what I saw taking place in our family and my church.
I noticed my dad lying about my age to get a children’s ticket at the movies. My mom is a good person, but she really got into soap operas, T.V. series and reality shows that even to a kid seemed completely opposite to the life Jesus would celebrate, but she’d insist that I watch only “good shows”.
I’d listen to my parents scream at each other half way to church, but be all smiles and love when they hit the church doors. Everyone in church would sing enthusiastically “I surrender all”, knowing full well they had no intention of surrendering all. They would greet people with a hug or handshake after the service, but gossip about them in the car on the way home.
Our pastor would preach that as Christians we should care for the poor, the helpless and protect aliens. Then my parents would vote for candidates who advocated just the opposite, even as they sat in the family room planning our next nice vacation. “This country just can‘t afford it!”, they’d shout out at some political ad on our 65” flat screen TV. It’s clear to me that they believe in the abundant life for themselves, but not for everyone else. My pastor was a good guy, but obviously his sheep weren’t listening or just don’t care.
My parents’ lives revolved around our church and their Christian friends, but I was taught that Jesus hung out at parties, with sinners, whores, and with what in his day were liberals and irreligious people.
I tried to talk to them about some of these things, but they just said I was being idealistic. But, isn’t that what Christianity is? Didn’t Jesus call us to such a radical faith that it would change both us and the world?"
They continue. “Here’s what I think: I think my parents and the church, in general, have settled for a pragmatic Christianity. They believe in the teachings of Jesus theologically, but with “tongue in cheek” about actually obeying him because so few other Christians are. My parents say they love God and maybe they do, but it just seems to me that if Christianity were true it would produce better people.”
There it is.
I’m tempted to remind him of all the amazing things true followers of Jesus have done and are still doing all over the world to live out the gospel courageously. But, his accusations aren’t targeted at them. His accusations are aimed at the average Christian who claim to love God and others more than themselves, but don’t appear to be doing either, very well.
I’ve learned this much over the years; my generation, (let’s generously say, over 50) begin with the assumption the Bible is God’s Word and that traditional, conservative Christian doctrine is an accurate expression of God’s truth. And, if we believe that Jesus was and is the Son of God, died on the cross and rose again, and “accept Christ”, then we’re Christians.
However, the next generation is far less concerned about doctrinal correctness than we are. They think Christians ought to live like Jesus to earn that name. Imagine that!
We too wonder why Christianity doesn’t always produce better people. And, as hard as it is to admit, it’s true – in different ways each of have resigned ourselves to a form of Christianity that we can actually do; church on Sundays, Bible study on Tuesday mornings, volunteering in the children’s ministry and generally trying to live a more moral life than “the world”. As a result and without any conscience decision on our part, good enough has become our benchmark. Good enough is kryptonite for any true follower of Jesus.
Next week I’ll blog further on how Christian pragmatism (if that isn’t an oxymoron) is a problem for all of us.
Your assignment, if you choose to accept.
In the meantime, here’s an exercise for you; ask your teenage or college age kids, or grandkids, why young people are leaving the church once they’re out of the house. Just listen. Don’t argue. Would you let us know what they say, by commenting on this blog?