Leaving Church: What’s Happening & What it Means for Parents
Why are people leaving church? And with what we know—what could parents do differently? Jim Davis, author of The Great Dechurching, and church planter Michael Aitcheson offer ideas for shaping kids who want to stay.
If you’re between the ages of, I think it’s 57 and 74, somewhere in there, if you’re between those ages you’re a part of the most individualistic generation that has ever lived. And you’ve experienced the seat of power, likely as a Christian, in way that Christians historically and even today in other parts of the world don’t experience. The norm for God’s people, the early church and the Roman Empire, the norm for God’s church is to live in exile. -- Jim Davis
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Why are people leaving church? And what could parents do differently? Author Jim Davis and church planter Michael Aitcheson offer ideas for your home.
Leaving Church: What’s Happening & What it Means for Parents
Jim: If you’re between the ages of, I think it’s 57 and 74, somewhere in there, if you’re between those ages you’re a part of the most individualistic generation that has ever lived. And you’ve experienced the seat of power, likely as a Christian, in way that Christians historically and even today in other parts of the world don’t experience. The norm for God’s people, the early church and the Roman Empire, the norm for God’s church is to live in exile.
Shelby: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Shelby Abbott and your hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson. You can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on the FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife--
Dave: I sat with a father a couple years ago, who as he told me the story of his oldest son, he just began weeping. Because his son had walked away from the faith that he and his wife had tried to instill in him their whole life. Man his heart was just breaking and you know that’s--
Ann: We’ve talked to many families and parents that have felt like, and we’ve watched them like, “Man you guys are great parents. You have done a great job,” and it feels like they did everything right and yet we still have kids that walk away from the faith. But as a parent it shatters our hearts.
Dave: Yes and we’re living in a culture, we’ve been talking about it the last couple days, that uh, there’s epidemic numbers of our kids walking away. So we’re going, we’re going to wrap this whole three day conversation with Mike Aitcheson and Jim Davis back in the studio with us. They’re both dads and pastors and sort of, I don’t know if you’re world renowned experts yet on this dechurching thing but you’re soon to be.
Ann: But you’ve thought a lot about this.
Jim: In the introduction of the book I actually have, we have a little spot where we talk about our lane. I’m not a scholar. I am a pastor and a dad wanting to learn. I am a student here, and I guess, yes the more we’re students of something maybe we’ll have something to say. But I engage this whole conversation as a student.
Dave: Yes that is interesting that you know you say you’re a student. Because really as we’ve been listening to you guys the last couple of days it's like, “Wow, you guys are scholars in this area.” So I love the student-learning perspective. But I’m guessing, and we’ve talked about this already, the dad part of you, the parent part of you is like enmeshed in the whole thing.
Dave: Because as you’re reading and studying you’ll have to apply this to your homes.
Dave: So again we’ve talked already but if you’re me sitting with that dad who’s weeping over his child walking away, what would you want to say? What do they need to know?
Jim: I mean the first thing I think about is that I don’t know that won’t be me one day.
Jim: We do our best. We apply wisdom and there’s good biblical basis to apply wisdom in our parenting, but we are not our children’s savior. And we are not the Holy Spirit. If there’s guilt there, maybe there’s–I’m sure when my kids are out of the house there’s some things I will have wished I had done differently and I need to repent and feel the grace of Jesus Christ in that. And there are some things that I’ll feel like, “I did everything I knew how to do.” It’s not ultimately up to us because it’s not a formula.
If there is guilt, that’s what Jesus is here for. So maybe you did everything–in my mind you looked like a great parent. I’ve learned from you. I’ve people I”ve learned from who have kids who are not following Jesus. I mean that’s one of the greatest heartaches, heart breaks I could imagine. That’s why I need Jesus. Those are the kinds of things I would want to hear, I guess, the way that I’m hearing your question. Those are the kinds of things I’d want to tell somebody else.
Dave: I know when people ask, and they do a lot, “Hey, what’s your best parenting piece of advice?”
Jim: Listen to FamilyLife radio.
Dave: Yes [Laughter] listen to FamilyLife radio.
No I mean they’re like, “You wrote a parenting book so what is it?” You know and even the subtitle of our parenting book was The One Secret - and I would say the best piece of parenting advice I would give you is what you sort of said Jim. Pray. Because this is not a formula. You can do–read all the parenting books you want. It doesn’t guarantee anything. It’s only God.
Dave: Only the gospel, the miracle of God’s Holy Spirit at work in your child is going to change their life, regardless and sometimes in spite of what you do as a parent.
But Mike I mean you’ve got four daughters, how does that resonate because they’re still in your home.
Ann: How old are these girls again?
Mike: 12, 9, 7, and 4.
Dave: So you’ve got like 6 years with your 12 year old, maybe.
Mike: Ahhh. I’m just [Laughter] it’s just painful. As a matter of fact, a neighbor walked by with their six month old daughter, I was that guy that said, “Enjoy her, [Laughter]
Ann: –no you weren’t!
Mike: –before you know it she’ll be a teenager.” I can’t believe I said that.
Dave: You’re going to keep saying it dude, I’m telling you.
Mike: I was meeting with a mentor that I respect dearly a few days ago. What he was driving me to do was gear my attention towards their well-being. Make sure that they understand how much they matter, how significant they are, that may be your number one calling. Everything else may just fall to the wayside. That may be what God created you to do, make sure those four girls understand how much they’re loved and how much Jesus loves them.
I have done everything I can to remind them that they were created in God’s image. I even tell them things boldly like, “I love you, but you have a heavenly Father who loves you more.” And that’s right upon the cusp of me failing and having to repent of something I did wrong. Yesterday I had to put my hand upon my oldest’s shoulder because we’d left the house and she didn’t grab her bag and I had already said, “Hey, does everybody have everything?” We had to go back in and it frustrated me, and it bothered me all day and I said, “Here we go. I’ve got to humble myself in front of the kids once again.” I said, “I’m sorry for this morning. My tone was off. I was wrong.”
She just looked at me and she said, “That’s okay I forgive you. That’s okay.”
What I have found is the best thing I can do to communicate to my girls the gospel and that I love them and that the cross is big enough is by demonstrating that humility before them. Not just do as I say dah, dah, dah, dah, but say, “Oh man, I know you hear me say this often and I tell you all to do this often, but daddy missed the mark today. And I really need your forgiveness. I’m sorry.”
I just continue to see the impact of repentance and then you get to dramatize just how significant the gospel is. Because when they forgive you, and they see the freedom with which you walk, because of how big the cross is, then they’re freed up to own their sin right before you when they mess up later on.
Dave: I mean Jim you’ve got a 15 year old right?
Jim: I do.
Dave: How is that hitting you?
Jim: Yes man, I can remember when my older two were, were babies and think toddlers and I can remember thinking, in my pride and hubris, I should write a parenting book. [Laughter] That’s what I thought. Fast forward to when they’re just starting to hit double digits and I told my wife I don’t even want to give the parenting talk at the FamilyLife Conference. I just feel so, so insufficient, which an aspect of that is good.
Jim: I realize now, we’re still called to do a lot of things and apply wisdom. But ultimately we’re asking God through praying like you said, to open these kids’ hearts. So we do what we can do and now I’m in the next season of looking. We have our first college visit this summer. It’s just crazy.
Ann: Speaking of college, I’ve talked to many parents and I’ve felt this when they start going to a secular university, which two of our sons did. There’s this fear in me like, “Oh are they going to lose their faith now? Are they going to be pushed into and maybe they’ll become dechurched and leave the faith?” But some of what you guys, what you’ve seen is even the data, it’s different from some of the things we’ve heard before that higher education, these kids do walk away.
Jim: The data does not support that. Ryan Burge is one of the people, you know the guy who did our study, the primary person. And he’s done a lot of other things on this and there are other people too. But all the data shows that the more education that a Christian has, the more likely they are to continue in their faith. Now the sociologists are beginning to ask why that data says that. But they’re not asking that the data says that.
Dave: Which is interesting, because I think often as parents we think protect, fear based, I’ve got to keep them in this little cocoon, whether it be church, school, and especially higher education, because if I let them out - that’s what’s going to happen and that research says that’s a false belief.
Jim: Well often those who are, I mean this is all - we all know this, if they’re not prepared to go into the world, if we’ve hidden them from the world, they’re not going to know how to interact in the world.
I can remember I went to the ‘Princeton of the Panhandle’, Florida State. [Laughter] I can remember as a freshman in orientation some parent asked, “What can I do to make sure my kid succeeds at Florida State?” And the orientation director said, “Well if you hadn’t done it already, you can’t do it.”
It was like this–but I don’t want to undermine like the importance of the early years. But personally having been through this research and these studies and most of us gone to Division 1 public schools, I’m not scared of it. You can find ways to follow Jesus, you can find trouble. It’s not like you go in and there’s only trouble.
Our study also shows that the Christian student’s going to college, if they’re involved in a church and a campus ministry, they are three times more likely to continue in their faith. Now I have to say there’s what’s called selection bias there, because those who are already more likely to continue in their faith are going to opt into those two things, but even so if a student is involved in a local church and Campus Crusade [Cru], the statistics say, “that is a good thing in the college years.”
Dave: Well one of the things you write about, which I love to hear you discuss is we need to, and I’m guessing as a family and as a church, as a community, embrace “we’re exiles. We live as exiles.”
Dave: And some of what we’re talking about right now relates to that. Because we’re living in a world that thinks different than us, lives different than us, sort of thinks we’re crazy -- so we’re trying to raise our kids.
Ann: So it’s sort of like we’re in Babylon, like Daniel.
Jim: This is hard because we don’t experience that at all. So in our context if you’re between the ages of, I think it’s 57 and 74 somewhere in there, if you’re between those ages you’re a part of the most individualistic generation that has ever lived. And you’ve experienced the seat of power, likely as a Christian in a way that Christians historically and even today in other parts of the world don’t experience. If you go to the global East, some parts of the global South, you talk about Babylon. You could also go back to Abraham. I mean the norm for God’s people, the early church and the Roman Empire, the norm for God’s church is to live in exile.
It doesn’t mean that we have no influence but it means that we exercise that influence from the margins, that would be the norm, not the seat of power. And I would go so far, this might be a little bit controversial, I would go so far as to say when Christians have the seat of power that has not always meant that things are going to go well. I’m not saying it’s comfortable, but I’m saying that’s the norm for God’s people and that there are blessings in it.
Ann: I remember hearing an interview with a woman from Iraq. She was born there, Muslim, converted to Christianity, loved Jesus, was being persecuted every day for her faith, was risking her life everyday to even name the name of Jesus. Her family wanted to kill her. She said the goal of every believer in the Middle East was to get to America to be free, to be able to exercise your belief in a way and your faith. And she told her husband after living here two years in the United States, “I’ve fallen asleep. I’ve fallen asleep. I feel like I need to go back.” And that’s the danger of living in, as you said, that seat of power in our faith.
Jim: But if you’ve only known that, so she had the opposite. But if we’ve only known that, that’s a scary future to walk into.
I made the comment a few years back, and I did not think, I did not anticipate to be controversial, or I would have had a more of a pastoral moment in it. But I said, “I bet if I’m able, God willing, to be at Orlando Grace Church for the next 20 years, a large part of my ministry is going to be walking with white Christians through the loss of power in our society.”
I think that’s the cultural moment we’re in and I also think that’s the norm for God’s people and that there are blessings in it. You all have somebody on the executive team here, Greg Lillestrand, who told me a story years ago, he was behind the Iron Curtain, his team couldn’t find food so they split up, and he was with a Christian, he was in part of - I think I remember what it was but I don’t want to say the wrong country, so I won’t say it. But finally after searching for all day they found a sack of potatoes to be able to feed their team. Greg looked at this Christian in this country and said, “How do you do it? How do you follow Jesus when you have no authority or power or freedom or any of these things?” This Christian from behind the Iron Curtain looked at back at Greg and said, “Me? How do you do it? Jesus is all I have every day. You have all these other things that you [Laughter] can run to for comfort and entertainment and satisfaction.” And so I think that really supports your story.
Dave: Now here is the question. How do we bring that nature, that exilic nature, we’re exiles, into our homes?
Jim: Well I think we need to start with what are the positives of living as exiles for us, because we don’t know that for us and don’t believe it for our own spiritual lives.
Dave: You’re telling me there’s positives? Because everybody’s saying, “No there aren’t,” but there are.
Jim: I mean if you go back there you can see exile all over the Bible. But in the book we walk through Acts chapter 2 and we get to see a picture of the early church living in exile and there are blessings in the way, because they are sent out of Jerusalem through persecution, the gospel advances in ways that it wouldn’t otherwise.
We see benefits like these Jewish people from Jerusalem, who had been at the seat of power, their idols of power are confronted in their exile. And then their identity is formed more in Christ not a coincidence I don’t think. This is the first place they were called Christians because in exile we need the Lord more as we’ve been talking about, we depend on the Lord more. It shows us our newer and better identity. It requires discipleship, which is a major thing that I think is lacking in the church today. As we entertain people, and we just want to draw people in, but where is the real deep discipleship? In exile we know I have to disciple these kids. We have to have discipleship in our church. So it causes us to think about discipleship differently.
I remember somebody interviewing Tim Keller and asking, I think it was he and Cathy, about what are the best parenting tactics you know that you have for us? They both said one of the best things was Tim going to breakfast once a week with one of their boys. That was a part of their discipleship process.
More than anything, I think the fuel to living as an exile is knowing that’s exactly what Jesus did to reach us. He left the comfort and the power and the glory of heaven to come here as an exile, taking on flesh. He is literally God and He has no place to lay His head, no place to call home in His earthly ministry. He’s exiled onto the cross, not just to die a horrible death, but to receive the wrath of God that our sin deserves. There has never been a greater exile than Jesus and you look at the good that came from Him embracing exile for us. That can be the fuel to understand truly exile is the design. This world is not our home. This is not–our citizenship is not here and the more that we feel that I’m convinced we’ll be good for us and for our churches and our families.
Mike: He was exiled from His home, so that we would inherit the home He had prepared for us. Exile helps set us free from longings that are misplaced for this life. The world as it is now is not our final resting place. I think of Peter opening up to the exiles. Then he precedes to talk about the inheritance that we have that’s imperishable, undefiled, stored up for us in heaven.
It’s principally stored up and it’s actually stored up, kept hidden in Christ, and when Christ returns who is our life, then we’ll be with Him. We will inherit that for which we truly long and the home that can only truly satisfy us. We have, I think it was [name not recognized] who about our captivity to certain things of this life, whether it’s politics, whether it’s sports, whether it’s the American dream. All things that are good but we cling too tightly to this life and exile helps remind us that something better exists.
Dave: This is inspiring me in some way, because I’m thinking one of the ways to live as an exile, and I’m not saying we did this right. Actually Ann did this really good. She modeled this is take risks as a family, and I’m thinking primarily in the area of evangelism, in the area of loving your neighbor. I mean literally your next door neighbor.
Take a risk, that’s sort of like living as an exile. I’m going to go over and share something with somebody. I know they don’t believe this.
That’s scary. That’s awkward. It encourages your own faith. I’ve never once gone out to share my faith - like intentionally like been sent out, and come back depressed. I come back–even if they say, “I don’t believe any of this. You’re crazy.” I come back energized.
My first ever Cru meeting in college, I’d just come to Christ. I go to they call it Prime Time, and my discipler, I had a guy disciple me, who wasn’t an athlete who said, “God has called me to minister to athletes,” and I literally under my breath laughed like, “This dude will never minister to athletes.” [Laughter] He reached like 50 of my teammates.
But long story short, Bill says meet me Tuesday night. It’s called Prime Time. I go to this thing. I sit in the back and never–I’m a new Christian. I never grew up in a church, I never had been to one of these things. They sing some songs, which I didn’t even know what they were. A guy gets up, you won’t believe this, first time ever at a Christian campus meeting. He says, “Here’s what we’re doing tonight. We’re pairing up in twos and going to the campus and sharing the gospel.” [Laughter]
He goes, “Pair up with people and then we’ll come back in an hour and share stories,” and I literally exit. [Laughter] I’m like, “I’m out.” I walk out of this dormitory lobby and I’m outside out the building heading back to my dorm room. I’m like, “I’m not doing this. This is weird,” and Bill goes, “Hey Dave, Dave, Dave,” you know he’s the only guy I knew. He goes, “Let’s go,” I go, “Uh Bill, this isn’t what I do.” He goes, “No, I’ll do it. You just watch. You pray and watch.”
Long story short, first guy we talk to, some kid, some freshman in a room and Bill’s sharing the gospel and I’m sitting over there watching. I’ve never done this in my life and I’ll never forget this. This guy looks over at me sitting on this other bed and says, “Hey, I know you,” and I go, “No, we’ve never met.” “Hey, aren’t you the quarterback of our football team? [Laughter] Aren’t you Dave Wilson?” I literally go, “No, not me.” [Laughter] I lied because that’s where I was. I did not want to be identified with Christ. I was like--
Jim: –You were, you were one of those with Jesus when the rooster crows.
Dave: –exactly. [Laughter]
Dave: Bill, exactly. Bill just laughed. He thinks I’m joking and then he goes, “Oh yes that’s Dave the quarterback.”
That’s where I was. I’ll never forget we came back, everybody starts sharing these stories, my faith starts a journey. There is something about as a mom or dad saying, “Kids, let’s go across the street, let’s invite our neighbors over. It’s all about this. Let’s love them. Let’s share the gospel. Maybe there’s going to be an opportunity we can share our faith.”
Don’t you think there’s something to that, to breathing life into your family because you’re taking risks as an exile in a culture that doesn’t agree with what you believe but you’re going to be awkward, uncomfortable, but you’re going to go there and that’s going to breathe life into your family. Am I right?
Jim: I think you’re 100 percent right.
Jim: It makes me think when God spoke to Jeremiah about a people that were going to be in exile in Babylon. He says to the exiles through Jeremiah, “Seek the welfare of the city where I’ve sent you into exile.” So God is saying I sent you into exile, seek the welfare of that city while you’re there. Pray to the Lord on its behalf for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
So we are supposed to be for the place we’re in. It’s hard. I’m thankful that I can vote to make sure certain things happen and don’t happen, but whether it’s going our way or not we are here, sent as Christians for the welfare of where we are. There is no greater welfare than knowing Christ.
So you can see ways that happened in the early church and Rodney Stark’s of course, famous book on The rise of Christianity, Christians were doing things like bringing sick babies in and helping people and sharing their faith along the way. So I think what you’re saying has historically been true for God’s people and is as true now as it ever has been.
Ann: I like that. Loving audaciously as a family with the intent of bringing the gospel to people. It’s beautiful.
Dave: Yes, how about today.
Shelby: In your community’s welfare you will find welfare. So plugging into your environment and becoming a part of the solution by loving them with the gospel is such an important part of what it means to be a follower of Christ. Love this time today.
I’m Shelby Abbott and you’ve been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Jim Davis and Michael Aitcheson on FamilyLife Today. Jim has written a book called The Great Dechurching: Who’s Leaving, Why Are They Going, And What Will it Take to Bring Them Back. Super important questions that Jim addresses in this book. You can pick up a copy of that book at FamilyLifeToday.com or you can give us a call at 800-358-6329.
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