I learned a new word last week. It was during an episode of the British podcast, “Unbelievable,” a forum where Christians and non-Christians discuss everything from evolution to the validity of Scripture. The word? “De-conversion.”
If you are a churchgoer, you are probably already aware that young people are leaving our congregations. All you have to do is look around the sanctuary to see that many of the kids who grew up in Sunday school and the youth group are no longer in attendance. Maybe they moved to another church, we tell ourselves. But maybe they didn’t. This was the topic of conversation between podcast host Justin Brierley and his two guests—a twenty-something year old atheist who grew up in church and Drew Dyck, the managing editor of Leadership Journal and author of the book, Generation Ex-Christian: Why Young Adults Are Leaving The Faith And How To Bring Them Back.
“Why Do Young People Leave The Church?” The title alone was enough to make me download the podcast. After all, I am the mother of a college graduate with bachelor’s degrees in both mathematics and physics, and though he completed his undergraduate work at a small Christian university, his chosen field of study in grad school isn’t necessarily known for embracing sentimental notions like faith. As a matter of fact, the physical science community has proven at times to be hostile toward those who acknowledge a belief in God, whether their faith is expressed as merely the possibility of Intelligent Design or a profession of Jesus Christ as the Son of God who died for Sin. This type of theological bias was the subject of the documentary, “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed,” which we took our son to see when he was around twelve years old—nearly a decade prior to him spending the summer running simulations of colliding galaxies as part of his research in astrophysics. In the film, host Ben Stein interviewed many of the great minds in academia who—because of their beliefs—either lost tenure, suffered intimidation by their superiors, or were fired from the universities of their employ. The film introduced our homeschooled son to the realization that embracing the Cross, or simply questioning if there might be a Creator, can at times come at a cost.
It was “Expelled” that introduced our family to Dr. Stephen Meyer. With undergraduate degrees in physics and earth science, he earned a Ph.D. in the philosophy of science at the University of Cambridge. A dozen years ago, Meyer wrote an article where he laid out the evidential case for Intelligent Design which was published in a peer-reviewed journal. The publisher, an evolutionary biologist, was reprimanded for printing it, which led to a federal investigation that eventually proved the publisher to have been wrongfully disciplined. This is the world my son has chosen. Or better said, this is the environment to which he was called.
Four years later, we again saw Dr. Meyer in a twelve-week video Bible study we attended at our church called “The Truth Project.” The series introduced our family to Apologetics, or being “prepared to give an answer for the hope [we] have” (1 Peter 3:15). Along with Meyer, one of the contributors to the study was apologist Ravi Zacharias, who has since become one of our son’s heroes in the faith.
That same year, we were honored to meet his mentor, Dr. Norm Geisler—author and editor of over ninety books including I Don’t Have Enough Faith To Be An Atheist and co-founder of Veritas Evangelical Seminary—at an annual pastor’s conference where I am privileged to serve on the worship team. In time, the ministries of these three men have served to undergird our son, modeling for him the thoughtful language one exercises in the defense of his or her faith as well as the winsome spirit from which it is offered (Colossians 4:6).
Looking back over the years, it is easy to see how God has led our son step by step to such a time as this. From his passion for science as a young child to graduating summa cum laude at just twenty years of age to receiving an assistantship at his current university, it has all been a divine domino effect. A providential chain reaction, if you will, with God purposefully arranging the events within each season of his life to touch the next.
I will admit, however, that moving him to a campus of 25,000 students last fall brought with it several concerns. Like many parents, I worried that my son’s walk with God might somehow suffer from distance or influence, which is why the title of the “Unbelievable” podcast seemed so very timely to me. It wasn’t because he had left the church. It was because I was praying he wouldn’t.
As a bit of a footnote, I read Dyck’s online book synopsis which quotes a study conducted by Ranier Research stating that 70% of our youth leave the church by the time they are twenty-two years old. Further, the Barna Group estimated that 80% of the young people raised in church will become “disengaged” before they turn thirty. Yet unlike previous generations, these “leavers,” as they were called, are unlikely to seek out alternative forms of Christian community such as small groups or home churches.
As the former Child Life Director of our local church and Sunday school teacher for many years, the podcast was quite sobering. It brought to mind a book by John Townsend called “Boundaries With Teens” which points out that as children, we typically embrace what our parents embrace. Thus, if they attend church and believe in God then we attend church and believe in God; that is, until we reach a stage during adolescence when we choose for ourselves what we believe, embracing our own passions, convictions, and belief systems. What the research of Ranier, Dyck, and Barna concluded is that when young people who are raised in church reach this particular crossroad of faith, a staggering seven out of ten of them are choosing the wide gate over the narrow (Matthew 7:13-14).
No doubt, this is where some will conclude that they must not have been true Believers because those who would willingly leave behind “the faith of their nurture,” as Dyck put it, were either “nominal believers” (that is, “in name only”) or their faith was “never core-deep to begin with.” Please understand that it is not my intent to debate Eternal Security, as I feel sure that if you are reading this, you already know exactly where you stand on the issue. I am merely sharing what was told to Dyck in an effort to glean insight as to the whys.
Interestingly, when Dyck asked adult Christians why they thought so many young people were abandoning the church, the assumption was often that it was to “pursue a rebellious lifestyle.” While that may be true for some, when he asked young people why they left, it was more often than not because of intellectual doubts or negative experiences. “Often, there was some sort-of relational break within the church or within a family,” he said, “that precipitated at least their first step away from the Faith.” It is all part of what has become known as “the phenomenon of de-conversion.”
Still, many young people are choosing to stay connected to the Body of Christ, raising their children in the same rich environment of faith in which they grew. What is it that keeps individuals plugged in to his or her local congregation? Statistics suggest that it isn’t bigger and better programs, though programs are beneficial. As a matter of fact, it isn’t any of the bells and whistles you might think. Dyck’s research indicated that the number one predictive factor was “the presence of inter-generational relationships.” Simply put, what keeps young people connected to the church are “meaningful relationships with mature Christians.”
Why is this news to us? After all, it’s a truth that even the first century church understood. 1 Peter 5:5 invites young men to be submitted to those who are older for godly mentoring. In Titus 2:4, Paul instructs the older women to model the Christian life for the younger women, patterning for them everything from allowing the Fruit of the Spirit to be at work in their lives to loving their families. But modeling Faith doesn’t merely mean living a Christian life in front of others. It also means walking out the Christian life with those who are watching. It means that we invest. We listen. We engage.
Then, as Dyck mentioned, “we maintain a meaningful connection,” because when young people have a “meaningful connection to an older Christian, they are far less likely to leave” the church, even after they have gone off to college or entered the work force.
I watched this principle at work in the life of our son while attending “The Truth Project,” the aforementioned bible study. Each week after a video presentation, those in attendance would break off into smaller groups for discussion. It was in those intimate circles that my then-sixteen year old began to open up. To plug in. To engage. And not only was he received, he was valued. Nearly half a dozen years later, these inter-generational relationships have proven to be the most meaningful of his life; the “iron that sharpens iron” (Proverbs 27:17). Ask our son and he will tell you that one of the main reasons he feels connected to our local church is the investment of these valued individuals.
Being that his new school is located an hour from our church, it isn’t always easy for our son to make it to the Sunday morning worship service. As a matter of fact, there have been several occasions when—because of late study sessions on Saturday night—he actually dozed off during the message. A few months ago, a couple in their seventies was seated behind us. Aware that they were visitors, I repeatedly poked and prodded my son with a sharp elbow in an effort to keep him awake but it was no use. He simply couldn’t keep his eyes open. After the service, I introduced myself to the couple and apologized for the lanky 6’4” guy who was dozing during the sermon. The lady smiled warmly while holding my hand and said, “At least he was here.”
The Unbelievable podcast was difficult to hear, yet it served to make me more mindful that our calling as the Body of Christ is to connect with others, both within the church and without. Of those who have left our local congregations, “If they are going to come back,” Dyck shared, “it’s going to happen in the context of relationship.” Granted, it is the loving-kindness of the Holy Spirit that does the drawing, but the responsibility of connecting is ours. “Be the person they can turn to; they can talk to,” he added. It means inviting someone to join you for a cup of coffee and, with love and humility, asking where he or she is with God and with life. It means not shying away if things get complicated. It means engaging. It is connection they are longing for. A meaningful connection. It’s what we all long for, isn’t it? And to think, it might just begin with a cup of coffee. At least it’s a start.
Kenna Turner West is a Dove Award-winning songwriter and four-time AG/SGM Songwriter of the Year, co-writing hit songs such as “Say Amen” and “Revival.” With fifteen #1 songs and twelve “Song of The Year” honors to her credit, Kenna’s songs have been recorded by artists such as Jason Crabb, The Isaacs, The Booth Brothers, Karen Peck & New River, The Martins, Brian Free & Assurance, Jeff & Sheri Easter, The Collingsworth Family, The Talleys, Legacy Five, Tribute Quartet, Canton Junction, The Hoppers, Gordon Mote, The Bowlings, Joseph Habedank, Gold City, and many more. She has also penned four musicals, including the upcoming 2016 Word Music release, “O Night Divine.”
For over thirty years, the author and certified counselor has blended music, devotional teaching, and humor into a ministry that has reached across the nation and around the world. For more information about Kenna and her ministry, please visit www.KennaTurnerWest.com.