Why are so many young people leaving the faith? Authors Drew Dyck and Rob Rienow explain some of the reasons young men and women are turning away from the faith of their youth.
Why are so many young people leaving the faith? Authors Drew Dyck and Rob Rienow explain some of the reasons young men and women are turning away from the faith of their youth.
Bob: Do you know a young person who has put his or her faith on hold for a while or maybe walked away from it altogether? Here’s counsel from author and researcher Drew Dyck about how to engage that person in a spiritual dialogue.
Drew: My grandfather has an incredible saying. He says, “People learn spiritual truth through atmosphere, not arguments.” I think that’s especially true of the younger generation. So when you’re dealing with someone who has this post-modern mindset, don’t bust out the apologetics, not up front anyway. That’s not your hill to die on right away.
You want to start by talking about Jesus, by inviting them to come into the family of God and serve because they want to experience truth rather than reason their way there.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Tuesday, November 1st. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. How do we present the Gospel to a generation that has heard it, at some level embraced it, and then walked away? We’ll talk about that today. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. We live in a culture that is influenced by theological pluralism—“There are lots of ways to get to God,” and by moral relativism—which is, “What’s right is right if it feels right to you. There’s no absolute sense of right and wrong.”
I guess I’m sitting here wondering, “Which of those two is exerting the greater influence on our children’s thinking? Are they drifting morally or drifting theologically when they start to drift away from the faith?” Which do you think?
Dennis: Let’s ask our guests. Let’s see what they say. Drew Dyck and Rob Rienow join us on FamilyLife Today. I’ll introduce you in just a second; but first of all, Rob, how would you answer Bob’s question?
Rob: I think a lot of it can get traced back to some relational brokenness that comes either in the church life or in the home life. In our last program, we talked about how God creates moms and dads, and grandmas and grandpas to spiritually connect with their children at home. You talked, Dennis, about how you remember, in the church context, your mother reading the Bible, your father reading the Bible, and believing it.
Dennis: Right; living it out.
Rob: And living it out, yes. Comparatively speaking, very few Christian young people today ever see a mother or father open up God’s Word, read it and believe it with all their heart, and then live it out.
We live in this age of delegation parenting. You have to get all the experts together. If you want them to learn basketball, you get them a coach; piano, you get them a teacher; Jesus, you get them a youth pastor; and you just drive the minivan. You just drop them off at all the experts, and they’ll take care of it.
That’s fine for basketball and it is fine for piano and all those things; but when it comes to spiritual training—this idea of delegating that to someone else—we’re seeing tragic results.
Dennis: So back to Bob’s question. Is it a moral issue or a theological issue?
Rob: It’s both. It’s really both.
Dennis: And you’re saying it’s traced back to the family.
Rob: Yes, it’s traced back to the family because there’s a lack of sometimes moral grounding in the home, and there’s a lack of theological grounding in the home. We tend to blame the church for all this stuff; but when you look in the Bible and you say, “Well where do children get trained and discipled?” the answer is home.
Dennis: Drew, what about you?
Drew: Before I did my research—when I’d ask people inside the church—“Why do young people leave the faith? What happens in those circumstances?”—the answer I would hear, or a variation of it was, “moral compromise.” That is, “A kid goes off to college, maybe moves in with his girlfriend, or someone goes off and starts to party, and then all of a sudden they have this problem.”
Their creed doesn’t match their conduct; and so there’s this—psychologists would call cognitive dissonance, where you have these two competing values. Often—let’s face it—it’s easier to drop your faith commitment and to live the way you want to live. I think that moral compromise does play a role more than most of these young people would like to admit.
During the course of my interviews, I only had two people that were honest enough to come clean and say, “Hey, listen. I wanted to smoke pot, and party, and engage in a lifestyle that was contrary to Christian teachings, so I dropped my faith commitment.”
However, sometimes I do believe that there are worldview issues that are inculcated by the culture, even sometimes from inside the church, which is especially tragic, which holds that there isn’t an absolute truth or it’s bigoted, perhaps, to claim the exclusivity of Christ in some of these key doctrines of the faith. So those wear on people’s faith.
Sometimes it’s really not an either/or, but both/and. If you’re morally compromising, and you find it’s easier to ditch your Christian commitment, and at the same time you’re having doubts, and you’ve embraced a worldview that’s at odds with your Christian faith, that’s a powerful one-two punch; and it wreaks havoc on someone’s faith.
Dennis: Drew, you’ve written a book called Generation Ex-Christian. Rob, you’ve written a book, When They Turn Away. Both of you are talking about a generation of young people who are leaving the roots of their Christianity, walking away in many cases from the church, never to come back again—it appears.
One of the things that struck me as I was reading your book, Drew, was a comment you made about young people today becoming cynical and not believing that there is a big story. You called it a meta-story; that there is no overarching story that compels us to faith. Back to what Bob was talking about, there is moral relativism; and everyone has a story, “You believe what you believe. I believe what I believe,” but there is no big story that commands trust and faith. Explain that further to our listeners.
Drew: Sure. This is really a tenet of postmodernism. I know that’s a mouthful. Postmodernism means a lot of things to a lot of people, and it means different things in different fields. But as a worldview, someone summed it up best by saying, “It is incredulity toward metanarratives.” Another mouthful, I realize, but basically these people are skeptical about big stories.
By big stories, I mean the story of the American dream, “You work hard; you’ll be successful.” That’s a metanarrative. Of course, at the heart of Christianity is a metanarrative. It’s the metanarrative of God’s good creation, of the fall, of the redemption, and then the ultimate culmination in Christ’s return.
Postmodern thinkers are very skeptical about these big stories, and their beef with these big stories is that they say they tend to neglect the little people. You talk to a postmodern thinker about the founding of the United States; they’ll remind you about the cruel conquest of the natives. They’ll talk about how women were marginalized, that kind of thing.
Now this is a double-edged sword because—I don’t have to tell you—first of all, this can be positive because I don’t have to tell you how full the Bible is with commands to care for the marginalized—Jesus’ heart for women, the commands to care for orphans and widows.
When you’re dealing with someone who has this postmodern mindset, don’t bust out the apologetics, like I’ve done, made the mistake—not up front, anyway. That’s not your hill to die on right away. You want to start by talking about Jesus, by inviting them to come into the family of God and serve because they want to experience truth rather than reason their way there.
My grandfather has an incredible saying. He says, “People learn spiritual truth through atmosphere, not arguments.” I think that’s especially true of the younger generation, especially those who have been so deeply impacted by postmodernism. They really need to have it be an experiential thing.
Yes, down the road, you’re going to have to have those hard conversations about the exclusivity of Christ—about Jesus being the only way—but up front, I think that’s not the fight you want to pick at the outset.
Bob: But there is still this tension point, and I think we feel it in the culture—all of us feel it. To assert the exclusivity of Jesus as the way to be right with God is essentially to say to a whole bunch of people on the face of the planet, “You’re in the wrong way. You’re a bad person. You’re headed in the wrong direction, and I know.”
There’s almost an arrogance. We feel arrogant in asserting it. We feel unloving and uncharitable. So a lot of young people, a lot of people in their 20s are going, “I’m not going to go there. I’m not going to be exclusive.” You get pastors writing books that are basically saying, “You don’t need to worry about being exclusive.”
Rob: That’s where I wanted to go, too. It’s easy to talk about all this relative pluralism out there in the world. We ought to expect it there; it’s always been there. My concern is that it’s in the church. In the 20th Century, you saw an increasing level of experiential Christianity, “I love Jesus, and I know He’s close to me because of how I felt when I was singing the other day,” and increasingly a disconnection from the Bible in the church service.
I have a lot of compassion for young people who say, “My church was squishy, and wishy-washy, and hypocritical,” because what happens is, you ask the congregation, “How many of you believe the Bible is God’s Word?” Well, everybody’s hands go up. “Sure. Okay, we believe that.” “How many of you believe the Bible is completely true?” “Oh, yes, Pastor, absolutely. The Bible is completely true.” “How many of you are willing to submit your thoughts on every subject to what it says?” About half the hands go up at that point. Then the last question, “How many of you are willing to do what it says, even if you don’t want to?” Then you get a quarter of the hands there.
On the last one, I’m not talking about willful disobedience. We all are familiar with that: “I know the Bible says this. I know the Bible is right; I’m going to do it anyway.” I’m talking about: “I know the Bible talks about giving ten percent of my money to the Lord, but that was written a long time ago. I’m not so sure that’s relevant for today.” “I know the Bible has this sexual ethic, but that was written a long time ago. I’m going to do what I want.”
We talk about having a new kind of Christian today. To me, there’s a new kind of Christian we saw in the last 100 years—a person who says, “I love Jesus, but I don’t completely believe the Bible.” That’s a new deal and we’ve got churches fueling it.
Dennis: Rob, I couldn’t agree with you more. As I was reading both what Drew wrote and you wrote, repeatedly in your books you’re using the illustration of the breakdown of the family: in some cases, divorce; in some cases, the absence of a father; in some cases, like your situation, Rob, your mother was your father’s fourth wife?
Rob: Yes, and my father was my mother’s second husband. Divorce has just decimated our family.
Dennis: And your father went on and had affairs that blew up that marriage.
Rob: That’s right.
Dennis: So we have a generation of young people—and Bob, I can’t remember the young lady we had in here, but she was tying this skepticism that you guys are writing about to the lack of seeing authenticity, of seeing a practical outworking of faith at home among our parents as being a contributor to young people leaving the faith today.
Rob: I believe that God’s heart, as you were saying a few moments before, Dennis, when it comes to the Great Commission—I believe that that mission begins with the souls of the little ones. I think God has a multi-generational vision for the Gospel, and mission one are these little ones that God has entrusted to our care in our homes.
One of his primary attack points—and this is something you guys talk about all the time—in order to prevent the Gospel from moving multi-generationally, Satan wants to break the heart connection between husbands and wives. This is what Malachi 2 is all about. Malachi 2:16, “God hates divorce. God hates divorce. God hates divorce.” Christians kind of pound the pulpit on that, and I get that from my family’s standpoint. I understand the pain of that.
But what I feel like we need to do is to back up two verses where it explains why. “What’s the big deal? Why is it so critical that husbands and wives are one in their spirit?” The Bible answers the question in verse 15—because God is seeking godly offspring. “So guard yourself in your spirit. Do not break faith with the wife of your youth. I hate divorce,” says the Lord.
We all know this from working with families. “What’s the big deal with divorce?” Well, it oftentimes robs faith from children, hardens their hearts toward the Lord, hardens their hearts toward the Gospel. The Enemy gets this huge victory. He’s busted up a marriage, he’s busted up a family, and he’s robbed the next generation of faith.
So this is why this issue of what happens in our homes and where our children are coming out spiritually—this is all connected.
Dennis: You actually use an illustration in your book of dominoes.
Rob: Well, it’s not necessarily all that popular, but I think as you walk through the Scriptures God connects five things. We played with dominoes growing up; right? Kids today don’t play with them because they don’t have buttons or screens on them, but we know what they’re like. (Laughter)
Dennis: It’s actually real. You can touch it.
Rob: You can actually touch them. You set them up and you knock them down. If you make a mistake you have to do it again.
Bob: I have an app for it on my phone. (Laughter)
Rob: But five things that I think God has got connected: One is that as the man goes, so goes the marriage. As the marriage goes, so goes the family. As the family goes, so goes the local church. And as the local church goes, so goes the nation and the Great Commission.
So if you’re Satan and you want nations, and you want the Great Commission, and you want churches, where do you target your fire power?—on men and on marriages. You break those two foundations, and you get all the rest of the stuff thrown in.
Praise God that someone like me who comes from a broken home—this is not a scientific formula: “If your parents get divorced, you’re going to hate God.” God is gracious and merciful. Jesus really did die on the cross, and He really did rise again from the dead, which means we can be set free from these horrific generational sins; but this is the battle that’s going on.
Dennis: Back to the dominoes. You’re saying as the man falls, the marriage falls, so the children fall, the church falls, and ultimately the nation. What you just described is why I got involved at FamilyLife in 1976. I was working with youth; and I was going, “You know what? I’m not going to the source of things. I’m working with teenagers, but their parents are having an enormous impact on their lives.”
Bob: Your hour a week couldn’t match what—
Dennis: Oh, my goodness. I would work with them for multi hours a week, and I would see the work that I’d done undone in an evening by a family that’s blowing up. So I think you’re exactly right.
Drew: You know—when I talk to parents—first of all, I say, “If you have a prodigal—a child that’s left—don’t expect them to come back to Christ if your own spiritual life is a desert bed. So get serious about God yourself so that they see something to be jealous of.”
I was talking to a Malaysian evangelist named T.V. Thomas, and he had a great piece of advice. He said, “Enjoy your faith.” Sometimes the cruel irony about this whole topic is that we see a loved one walk away from the faith. We adopt this kind of dour demeanor when we’re around them because, understandably, we’re concerned; but they never see us enjoy our faith, and we need to do that.
Secondly, there’s some homework to be done because there are some intellectual issues at play. The kids I talked to said, almost to a person, when they expressed doubts, when they had questions, they either got trite answers, or none at all, or even shut down brutally. One young woman was slapped across the face.
Dennis: Shamed. Shamed for asking a question.
Drew: Shamed. Yes.
Dennis: Or for having a doubt.
Drew: Exactly, and these were honest intellectual doubts. If you’re a bright young person, you’re going to have these. We all experience doubt. Like Augustine said, “Doubt is a part of faith.” So you have to do a little bit of homework. Again, this doesn’t mean you have to become a scholar, but you have to be able to answer some questions.
Even if you don’t know how to answer a question, if you’re talking to your child, they give you a question you don’t know how to answer, you just say, “Hey, listen. That’s a great question. I’m going to find the answer.” What that does is that not only shows that you’re honest and transparent, but it models a concern for the truth. You’ll get back to them with a good answer.
And here’s the great news. There are excellent answers to all these questions.
Bob: I have said to my kids over the years, “You’re going to have doubts. I have doubts. There are times I’m driving down the street and I’m thinking, ‘Okay, is this really real? Is the stuff I say I believe—is it really real?’” To admit that is not to say that I’m somehow wandering from the faith.
But then I say to my kids, “Every time I think that, I look over at a tree. As soon as I see the tree, I go, ‘I’m okay.’ The reason is because the collective intelligence of all humanity throughout all of history can’t make one of those. We could try as hard as we want for as long as we want, and we can’t make a tree; and yet they’re all around us.
There’s something bigger.”
It’s kind of like—okay—back to your favorite quote from Tom Skinner—I’m going to quote it because you’ve quoted it so often, I now know it.
Dennis: I want to see if you know it.
Bob: He said, “I spent a long time trying to come to grips with my doubts. When all of a sudden, I realized I’d better come to grips with what I believe. This has moved me from the uncertainty of things I can’t answer to the certainty of things I can’t escape, and it’s a wonderful”— what is it? “It’s a wonderful”—
Dennis: It’s a wonderful life. No. (Laughter) “It’s a great relief.”
Bob: “And it’s a great relief.” I did pretty good on that quote; didn’t I?
Dennis: You did. You did.
Bob: He’s right. There are going to be things in life—you know what? The mysterious things belong to the Lord. Don’t they? What is that? Deuteronomy 29:29 I think. There are mysteries that belong to the Lord, and we’re never going to get them solved in this life.
Rob: Parents, I think, really need to flip those kinds of conversations on the other side because let’s say you have a child who says, “I’m not sure I really believe Jesus rose from the dead,” or, “I’m not sure that the Bible is really legitimate,” whatever it is. Now your first reaction to hear that, like you said, is to freak out. You know what I mean? “Oh, my goodness! I can’t believe you said that!”
But what’s happening in that situation—yes, there’s a serious concern about a child’s doubt; but that child, that young adult, just took a significant risk with you. This is Proverbs 23:26. “They gave you their heart.” They let you in to a dark place. They didn’t have to say that to you. They could have just kept going to church with you, and smiling, and nodding, whatever. But they let you in.
So one of the best things parents can say is, “Son, I am so glad you said that to me. That means the world to me that you trusted me enough with that. Now help me understand that more. Tell me more about that, just ramble for a little while. Why have you been thinking about that?” “Give me your heart; give me your heart; give me your heart,”—which is creating the opposite of this poor gal getting slapped—which is the safest place in the whole wide world is with your mother, with your father, with your grandmother, with your grandfather.
Dennis: It goes back to what Drew was saying earlier. You have to be secure enough in your own faith and enjoying your own relationship with Jesus Christ so that when your son or daughter spouts off and says something that’s filled with doubt that really does rock your boat, you don’t show them that your boat is rocked. You just smile and say, “You know, I am so glad you trusted me,” just like you said.
But at that point, you have got to have a faith that can be rocked but not shattered and a walk with Christ that’s real, enjoying your relationship with Him and the time in Scripture, so that your kids see you handle difficulty, challenges, and maybe even hear you talk about your own doubt and your own times of wondering about, as you were quoting, Bob, the mysteries of God because we don’t see it all or understand it all. If we did, we’d be the fourth member of the Trinity. (Laughter)
Bob: I think it’s important for us, just as you’re saying, to recognize the need to be authentic as we live out our faith with our children and not to try to cordon off those parts of our walk that are hard or confusing. In fact, both of you guys give that kind of counsel in the books that you’ve written. Drew, you wrote the book, Generation Ex-Christian; and Rob, your book is called When They Turn Away.
I just want to commend these books to our listeners. I hope parents will get copies of these books and read through them together so that they can have a preventive mindset, a proactive mindset, as they raise their own children—to help those children embrace an authentic Christianity. Only God can do a saving work in that child’s heart, but we want to make sure that, as parents, we’re representing what it means to have a relationship with Christ in an authentic way.
We have copies of the book, Generation Ex-Christian, and the book, When They Turn Away, in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can find out more about these books when you go to our website, which is FamilyLifeToday.com. Again, it’s FamilyLifeToday.com; or call us for more information at 1-800-FLTODAY. That’s 1-800-358-6329; and when you get in touch with us, we can answer any questions you have about the books or we can make arrangements to have these books sent to you.
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This month, if you’re able to help with a donation, we’d like to send you as a thank-you gift Barbara Rainey’s devotional book for families called Growing Together in Gratitude. Barbara recounts seven stories in this book that can be read aloud to the whole family, stories that reinforce the idea that we ought to be grateful, we ought to be thankful. We need to cultivate that character quality in our own hearts and in our children’s hearts as well. This is our way of saying, “Thank you,” to you for your support of the ministry.
If you’d like to make a donation, go online at FamilyLifeToday.com, and click the button that says, “I Care.” It will be easy to do from there, or call 1-800-FLTODAY. When you make your donation over the phone, just mention that you’d like Barbara’s devotional on gratitude. Let me just say, “Thanks,” again for your support. We do appreciate your partnership with us.
We want to encourage you to be back again with us tomorrow. Drew Dyck and Rob Rienow will be here once more. We’re going to continue talking about what we can do as parents to help our children embrace an authentic walk with Christ that has roots, that doesn’t cause them to waver in their early 20s.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.
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