Have the Conversation


Much has been reported on the mass exodus of today’s youth from the church. According to Lifeway Research: “Two-thirds (66 percent) of American young adults who attended a Protestant church regularly for at least a year as a teenager say they also dropped out for at least a year between the ages of 18 and 22.” Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research, observed, “the reality is that Protestant churches continue to see the new generation walk away as young adults. Regardless of any external factors, the Protestant church is slowly shrinking from within.”

The Lifeway Report listed five reasons why young adults are giving up on church:

    1. Life change; moved to college and stopped attending.
    2. Hypocritical and judgmental attitude of church members.
    3. Lack of connection with people at church.
    4. Disagreement with the church on political and social issues.
    5. Responsibilities at work.

All of these reasons may seem plausible on the surface. As young people become more independent and assume more responsibility after leaving high school, it’s inevitable that they will establish their own priorities and begin to live according to their own values. However, given the five reasons above, I would encourage every dad to address each one with that son or daughter who may be contemplating life after high school. Here's how you might do that:

1. First of all, college can be a dangerous place. New freedoms require the discipline to manage them responsibly and is why I would strongly encourage my graduate to get involved in a gospel-centered, Bible-preaching church near the campus. I would research those congregations and what other Christian organizations are available to them where they might establish solid Christian friendships and grow spiritually. Actually, if you are funding their education, you should insist on it.

2. Second, hypocrisy and judgmental attitudes exist everywhere--not just church. It's part of sinful, human nature. If the presence of hypocrisy and judgement is a reason to avoid people, you would always be alone (yet still in the presence of your own hypocrisy and judgmental attitude). Moreover, it's not a new issue: even Jesus confronted the religious leaders of his day for their hypocrisy. However, he didn't tell the people to avoid synagogue--where they would learn the Scriptures--he told them to avoid following hypocritical behavior: “The teachers of religious law and the Pharisees are the official interpreters of the law of Moses. So practice and obey whatever they tell you, but don’t follow their example. For they don’t practice what they teach." (Matthew 23:2-3 NLT)

Even if hypocrisy were a legitimate concern, I would remind my child that on judgment day each of us will answer to God (see Romans 14:12). Let the Lord sort out the hypocrites and don’t let them keep you from serving the Lord. Plus, there are plenty of wonderful, godly people who could be great role models and who have much to offer young people in terms of wisdom and guidance.

3. Third, if your child experiences a disconnect at church, there may be various reasons for that. Perhaps they’ve made little or no effort to find that connection, or they’ve adopted the consumeristic mentality. Instead of serving others, they’re focused on how the church isn't meeting their needs. Again, this may just be an excuse to break out on their own. Instruct them in the importance of forging their own connections instead of waiting for one to magically appear. Granted, it’s possible that another ministry would be a better fit for their particular gifts, but I would still encourage my young adult to find a place of service within a local body.

4. In addressing this reason for bailing on church, you need to have a good understanding of two things: the culture and the Word of God. Political and social issues require open lines of communication between you and your young adult. You need to be able to reason with them from Scripture as to whether or not their concerns are legitimate or have been influenced by political ideology.

5. Work may be a real cause for occasionally missing church, but it should never be a reason to drop out of church altogether. Personally, I believe it’s unwise for parents to allow their son or daughter to take a job that consistently keeps them out of church. They should trust the Lord to provide employment that permits regular involvement with a local body. “Seek first the kingdom of God and all these other things will be added unto you,” said our Lord. (Matthew 6:33)

Finally, I think there is another reason as to why the younger generation is dropping out of church: It could be that they’ve never been truly converted. Abandoning the assembly is a sign of an unregenerate heart. Many young adults claim to be Christian because they prayed a prayer as a child or were baptized. Yet, in the final analysis they’ve not repented of sin and surrendered their life to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

Should this be the case, I would exhort you to have a heart-to-heart conversation with your son or daughter and encourage them to examine themselves whether they be in the faith (see 2 Corinthians 13:5). Of course, we cannot ultimately determine the course of our children’s lives, but we should certainly seek to lead them to Jesus. Graduating from high school or turning 18 doesn’t automatically equip your child for life’s manifold challenges. Therefore, have serious conversations about these issues, encourage them in their faith, and pray for God’s protection over their lives.

An encouragement for dads to have some hard conversations as young adults walk away from the church.