Why People Leave Church–and What Parents Can Do: Jim Davis & Michael Aitcheson
Why do people leave church? And what can parents know and do so their kids aren't casualties to a mass church exodus? Church planter Michael Aitcheson and author Jim Davis, author of The Great Dechurching: Who's Leaving, Why Are They Going, and What Will It Take to Bring Them Back? as the two explore what's happening in the church—and how parents can actively, intentionally shape kids who stay.
For a parent we have to be in community and the church is designed to be that. I mean the church really is. We should have a church family so when we talk about dechurching we would be remiss to not talk about we are saved into the body of Christ, which is the local church. -- Jim Davis
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Church planter Michael Aitcheson and author Jim Davis explore why people leave church—and how parents can actively, intentionally shape kids who stay.
Why People Leave Church–and What Parents Can Do: Jim Davis & Michael Aitcheson
Jim: For a parent we have to be in community and the church is designed to be that. I mean the church really is. We should have a church family so when we talk about dechurching we would be remiss to not talk about we are saved into the body of Christ, which is the local church.
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.
Dave: This is FamilyLife Today!
Dave: Every Christian parent I know, including us has the same goal for their kids.
Ann: I agree.
Dave: What is it?
Ann: That our kids will walk with Jesus their entire life, that they will surrender and give all of themselves to the King of Kings.
Dave: It’s the passion of a parent, a Christian parent that keeps you up at night. You pray about it. I mean I fasted and prayed every Friday, still do for 37 years now, our oldest is 37. To that end, “God would You make my sons,” and if you’re a mom or dad of daughters, “women of God, men of God who pursue the Kingdom and advance the Kingdom their whole life.”
Ann: Because we’ve experienced the gospel changing us, putting our eyes on other people, bringing us joy in the midst of hard circumstances, making our marriage more than you and me, like it’s just a bigger picture of what God has, and they live out their calling in this life.
Dave: Yes, and every parent is listening going, “Yep. I’m with you 100 percent. [Laughter] My question is how? How do we do it?” And that was our question and we’ve got two experts in the studio that are going to answer that question. [Laughter] You guys didn’t know this.
Jim: You are the two who have launched kids. If anybody’s an expert at this table, it’s y’all.
Mike: Don’t you have grandchildren?
Ann: We do.
Jim: We have children in our home. We are prayerfully begging God that what you’re saying would be true, our kids would continue in the faith and the church.
Dave: By the way you’re listening to Jim Davis and Michael Aitcheson who are both pastors and I’d say more importantly dads.
Mike: That’s right.
Dave: As we started the conversation yesterday with these two guys about dechurch. In fact, you’ve written a book called The Great Dechurching and it’s the culture we’re living in. There’s an exodus going on from the church and a lot of it’s our own kids. If you missed yesterday go listen to it because there’s a lot of great conversation, but a lot of data that’s going to shock you.
Ann: These two have a podcast that they do together that you’re going to want to listen to that as well and it’s called?
Jim: As in Heaven
Ann: As in Heaven
Jim: You can find it on the Gospel Coalition. [URL: thegospelcoalition.org/podcasts/as-in-heaven]
Ann: The subtitle of their book is Who’s Leaving, as we’re talking about the great dechurching, Who’s Leaving, Why are They Going, and What Will it Take to Bring Them Back. That’s where every parent just pulled in and every person that’s seeing so many people leave their church, including their kids or some of their relatives. You’re wondering why, or maybe you’ve left as a listener and you’re thinking, “Oh, I wonder what they’re going to say about this?”
Dave: Yes, so I would start there as dads. Help us as parents, where do we start? You had the same dream, same goals and you have kids still in your home. We’ve already done it. We’re done. We’re done, it’s over.
Ann: But now we’re thinking grandkids and that kind of thing.
Dave: I mean as we and you approach this, wow we’re living in a world where people are walking away, our own kids are. Where do we start? Where would you begin this conversation to help parents?
Jim: For me as I was engaging in this data, it was really more–because there’s really no one reason, obviously that anybody, that everybody leaves the church. It’s multifaceted. But you can identify common themes and there were some things that I was processing and there are more themes than I can do in a short interview like this. But it was kind of a gut check for me. Am I creating this kind of environment at home? Are my kids seeing this kind of idolatry in my life? Are these other things–am I giving my kids, exposing them, now I’m the pastor so there's an extra burden on me teaching. Are my kids getting real answers for the questions that they’re asking in their life? Are they getting enough Bible?
Because we begin to see data, let me first say it looks very interesting that the vast majority of dechurching happens from the age of 13 to 30. But the season of life overwhelmingly regardless of your generation that you would say are most religious is 0 to 17, and the period of your life that you would say were the least religious was 18-30. What that means is the most religious and the least religious seasons of our life are back to back.
So, there’s a major problem in the generational handoff that Deuteronomy 6 tells us that we’re supposed to be facilitating. So that was to me really highlighted the fact that we have this season of kids in our home and it’s really important what we do. So, Mike and I, as we’re processing this data, we’re doing both as parents and as pastors. It’s been very convicting. It’s caused me to pray more. [Laughter] There’s been some decisions in my life that I’ve changed because I am convicted that I wasn’t giving Jesus every part of my life and I became convicted that not only for my own sake, which that should be motive enough, but my kids, I want them to see in the short period of time what it looks like for their parents to really follow Jesus.
Mike: Jim touched on we’re both pastors and of course you know this being a pastor, there’s this more nuanced complex thing when you’re raising up your children as a pastor
Mike: I think in this whole space of dechurching, one of the things I’ve been wrestling with is will my kids see that the gospel actually does work for dad in our home apart from him being the pastor, as our dad, not simply because he’s the pastor.
Mike: God has come after me in some amazing ways and I’ve concluded that at least in one way that the most important thing we can do is display repentance before our kids.
Mike: I had a great mentor. She has gone to be with the Lord. She said, “The gospel is transferred through relationship,” and I was like, “Uh.” So, I can be up here preaching every Sunday and just only wanting my kids to make sure that dad’s reputation is intact, so you know the family doesn’t lose our job and our income. No, it has to be that “Hey dad, if you did get fired is this really true for you?”
Like do you love Jesus, do we matter, and do you want this for us? This whole dechurching thing has made me really think, “How can I make sure my girls know that next to Jesus, and my wife of course,” they’re the most important people in the world to me. And I care about them simply because I want them to know Jesus, who has known me, not because dad’s a pastor and they have to perform well in order for dad to keep his job.
And I think a lot of–some of the folks saying dechurching, they saw incompatibilities between doctrine and ethics, between what we believe and maybe conversations at the dinner table, and how we treat people. For me I’m constantly thinking, “How can I strive for consistency and integrity between what I’m saying and what my kids are experiencing in the home and at the dinner table?”
Dave: Do you guys agree as you study the dechurch, and you know the research saying why they’re walking away, is this a big part of what is causing our next generation to walk away, they’re just not seeing a consistency in what we say and what we do?
Jim: So, we have a whole chapter on children, actually two chapters on children, and the reason for their dechurching and they would see hypocrisy either in their parents or in their church leaders. Actually, if I remember correctly, the one of the biggest things dechurched, people who dechurch in this season, in this young season would say, “I wish my parents had just listened to me better. They wanted to just tell me what was true, but they didn’t want to listen.”
Or people would felt like politics was as important if not more important than Jesus and they saw their parents doing more to that end than just walking with Jesus. So, there are a lot of–I mean we have a lot of data to that end, and we isolate the data and the high school years and the college years and the young professional years.
But one thing that I think can easily be overlooked, I hear you all talking, and I agree, the most important thing is us. It starts with us and our relationship. And I even remember stories you told me Dave about you laying in bed with your 16 year old boy praying with him and I still think about that. You know you think you can age out of that kind of interaction.
Ann: They don’t need me.
Jim: And I think that--
Dave: –it’s awkward and it feels--
Jim: –yes, and you know what? I’ll sit and lay with my 13 year old, my 15 year old and I’ll rub their back and pray. Angela will sing if it’s her turn and it’s just like–I think about you telling me that and so, so that’s the most important part. But I think what’s often missed is the importance of community in parenting. I was actually listening, I told Mike this, to a non-Christian psychologist, and he said.
Dave: So that’s allowed, you can listen to a non-Christian psychologist?
Jim: It’s allowed [Laughter] general revelation, you know. [Laughter] Like we can learn things outside–but now I think he was wrong in some areas, and I’ll say how but he was making the case, he would say from evolution I would disagree. I think it’s by design that sin has impacted.
But his argument was between the ages of 13 and 25 our kids are wanting to leave the house. And he would again say because of evolution, which I would not say. But he would say they’re wanting to leave the house, and so they’re disinclined in their core to listen to their parents. His point was this is why it’s so important to have other parents saying the same things to your kids. Because you could say something and it’s like, “Oh, whatever dad,”
Jim: Well Mike Aitcheson says something to my kids and it’s like the best thing they’ve ever heard. [Laughter]
Now I would say our design is to leave the house. Our design has been influenced by sin, so I think he was onto something he just didn’t have all the data. So, it is so important for us to be in a community, in a church community where parents and youth people are going to be speaking the same truths that I’m speaking and Angela’s speaking into their lives. One story I think of often, last year there was a sweet family that I know, they were asking me when, if I would start a Saturday night church. I said, well if I started a Saturday night service with four kids in my home right now, I would be disqualified to lead that service. [Laughter]
Dave: My wife would tell you right now don’t do it because I did it. It was the hardest thing ever.
Jim: Okay, I well, I don’t want to do it. I mean maybe as an empty nester. I could see the value of course.
Jim: I said why do you need a Saturday evening service? Well, we have three kids in nine sports leagues right now and every third Saturday we could possibly make a church service. And I think this is a picture of something that’s also epidemic in our culture. We’re–we can’t do everything.
Jim: We as parents have to decide what’s most important and people are picking and we flush this out too in the book, but people are picking youth sports, and 99 percent of our kids and maybe if you’ve got Mike and Lucy’s genes this is different - [Laughter] my kids they’re not going pro. They’ve got my genes and Angela’s genes. But we have to decide what are the priorities and if we raise our kids on the ball field every Sunday, why would we have an expectation that’s going to change when they leave our home?
Ann: That’s a great point.
Dave: It might not be athletics. Could be all kinds of–and they’re all good things. They’re wonderful things.
Ann: It becomes an idol.
Ann: And you feel the pressure from other parents that are all playing on Sunday and their kids are traveling and I know that. I remember feeling, “Our kids are going to be behind. If we don’t get in that league man our kids are going to be nothing,”
Jim: We have that fear. But we have to pick something to--
Ann: Yes, exactly.
Jim: –be behind it.
Ann: And if we don’t pick Jesus at that point, at those ages, why would they if it’s not important to us?
Dave: Well, you wrote dechurch advice for the parents. Listen better, second was live out your faith, we just talked about that. And here’s the third one, be more charitable toward those with whom you disagree. So that’s a big factor? Our kids are watching how we treat people we disagree with.
Mike: I was sitting in a group with some pastors, one well respected and during one of the election cycles the pastor said that one of the leaders in the church came to him deeply concerned because while they’re watching the news or whatever, the son said, “Now dad, why do we hate this guy?”
Mike: We have to stop and wrestle with that now for a second. There are layers to that. Who knows what reason he disdained or had strong disagreement, but the kid interpreted as hatred because it’s partisanship or whatever it was, was so strong against this particular candidate.
When we’re raising our kids we cannot say, “Love your neighbor you know, pray for those who persecute you, dah dah dah and those that hate you.” And then turn around and do that and not expect it to be some dissonance in the lives of our children at best, and then just disregard at worse.
Mike: If they just sense that well, this doesn’t really work for mom and dad because whenever somebody that’s different than them thinks different, looks different, talks different, sounds different, whatever cultural–they had this weird reaction. So, I don’t know how this works out with the Jesus thing.
Jim: What reminds me that G.K. Chesterson quote, there was this article in the, I guess London Times or something, “What is wrong with the world?” A lot of what we experience in Christian homes is like these people are what’s wrong with the world or these people, these politicians. G.K. Chesterson wrote back, “Dear Sirs, I am.” It was this humility like we are all sinful.
Jim: But not for the grace of God, how different would we be? So there is a humility and I want to acknowledge there is some fear too as our country changes so rapidly.
Jim: We have a friend Carlos who’s a FamilyLife speaker, he’s a pastor in New Mexico and he’s Mexican origin. He has this line he always says. He starts off a lot with bro. “Bro, I didn’t cross the border, the border crossed me.” [Laughter] So his family never left but the border’s what changed and all of a sudden, he’s living in a different–he never moved but all of a sudden, he’s living in a different place. That’s kind of a picture for me of what we’re experiencing. We have not moved but it feels like we are living in a different place.
Ann: And our teenagers, they catch all of those things that we’re saying-
Ann: –all of our attitudes and you can say, “I hate somebody’s policy,”
Jim: –mmm hmm
Ann: But why would you ever say, “We hate this guy.”?
Jim: –mmm hmm
Ann: –I think sometimes we do it as parents, we don’t even recognize we’re doing it. Our kids, I didn’t make judgements on adults like that. But what I would do is I would put people, kids into ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Is he a bad kid? Oh, he’s a good kid. Why? Because what, he’s not partying? And my kids are like oh is he a bad kid because he parties Mom? [Laughter] Does that make him a bad kid? But even that they catch it and so to really think if Jesus is bringing everyone to the table, why wouldn’t we and why wouldn’t we love them? Maybe not agree with everything, but we’re still going to love people. Our kids catch that.
Dave: Yes, and what do we do when we don’t? Because I’m listening to you and I’m thinking there’s a lot of parents going, “I blew it this morning. If what you’re saying is true and you used the word earlier repent, is that what it looks like? We have to go back with our kids?”
Jim: That’s the whole of the Christian life [Laughter] I mean it’s the whole, it includes parenting yes. The only thing that makes us different is we’re all sinners. We’re a subset of sinners, who have repented of our sin and put our faith in Jesus, that’s the whole of the Christian life. And it’s going to affect everything, including raising our kids.
Mike: You know Ann it’s beyond just you know, politics or cultural or whatever differences, things that are important but not the most important. It even extends out to the way we deal with sinners, non-believers.
and people who have demonstratively or heinous sin that we’re like this is a hardship from biblical design. The way we talk about and engage populations of people like that is significant because our kids are seeing it.
Ann: Yes. –mmm
Mike: They’re interacting and they’re taking their cues from us, and we’ve had to work through this. We’ve shared this, even as early as elementary years, our kid in the second, first, second grade, we had to wrestle through, “Hey, this is what we believe at home, mommy and daddy, you might see this at school,” and we did the best we could. We were caught flat-footed, unaware of just how fast things have changed around us.
Ann: Give us an example Mike.
Mike: Well one of our kids, dear friends with a classmate who has two dads. So, we had to try to explain what was wrong with that and what God’s design is.
Mike: And how we engage with folks who disagree with what mommy and daddy are teaching you at home. Now you’ve got one or two options. You can come up and say, “dah, dah, dah, dah dah.” Or you can say, “Hey, God created you through mommy and daddy. This is God’s design and they have chosen a path that’s different from God’s design, but we have to share the gospel with them in word and by the way we treat them.” Right?
So, we try to do the best we could. We rounded it out even more diplomatically than that with our youngest. Our oldest, she was watching us, our oldest was watching us try to navigate it with our second oldest. It was layers of witnesses and how we were going to process this. I mean those are just some of the small examples, although important, of how we have to think biblically of engaging people that don’t agree with us, people that are different than us. It really has to be guided by love otherwise our kids will sniff it out.
Dave: Yes the love, I mean you guys know the issues in our culture right now, there’s many, but it’s going to be around race, it’s going to be around gender, it’s going to be around sexuality. What am I missing? Those are the big three that you can’t open a social media page, not saying you should.
Dave: There’s attacks every second, our kids are living in a world, but I think what you said is more important than any of that is how are mom and dad living this out with people of different beliefs about sexuality and race and politics? Am I right? Is that really what it comes down to?
Jim: I think you are. Two elements that I would want to, that are a part of this that I’d want to drill down on. I think in the 20th century we really focused a lot on what is true, and at the expense of the good and the beautiful. I’m not saying there’s, there is truth. Our faith is built on truth of the Bible, but there’s a good and beautiful in there that we have historically struggled I think in the 20th century. We’ve focused so much on truth in the way we share our faith, defend our faith, that the good and the beautiful can be lost and so we need to make sure we’re experiencing the good and the beautiful in addition to the truth of the gospel.
The second part of this is how important it is for us to be in community. For a parent we can’t be like the pastor on the stage. We have to be in community, and I am in community with Mike, with the Robbins, with other dear families and we’re processing these issues together. The church is designed to be that. I mean the church really is. We should have a church family. So when we talk about dechurching we would be remiss to not talk about the community that God has saved us into, the idea of an individualized faith is foreign from the Bible. We are saved into the body of Christ, which is the local church.
Ann: I think that’s really true. Our, we’ve had a great community of friends that we’ve raised our kids together. We love each other. We know each other and our kids watch that all the years they had growing up. Now they desire that because that’s normal for them and they saw we struggled together. We loved each other. We went through immense pain with one another and yet they saw how necessary that was. They all have great communities.
Dave: Ah we were just with our middle son in Denver and you get on the plane on you’re like, “They have a great community. I’m jealous.” I’m like, “Wow!” It’s such–and I never thought they saw it modeled, but let me end this way.
If you’re a Christian family and you don’t have that. You might be saying what a lot of us say, “Well, nobody’s reached out to me.” That’s victim. Reach out. Go get it. If you’re struggling with your kids, this might be the missing pieces. I’m just going to say to you as a dad, lead that family. Find some other families, start meeting and let God work.
Shelby: We’re going to hear more encouragement from Ann here in just a second. But first living life in the context of community even with all of our flaws and successes, that’s the secret sauce. Without others around you to help push you toward walking with Jesus, I’ll dare to say you’re incomplete. Christianity is never meant to be a solo thing. So, find your people and walk with God in the context of community.
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. This is an honest look at where we are and where we need to go. You can pick up a copy at FamilyLifeToday.com or you can give us a call at 800-358-6329.
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Alright here’s Ann with some encouragement about how to live without constantly judging other people.
Ann: I’m going to add one too. I love the repentance part that we talked about. If you feel like, “Oh I’ve been so negative in the way I talked about certain people groups, in the way I’ve talked about maybe their friends or teachers,” repent. Tell your kids, “I should not, as a believer in Christ, be talking like that and judging that person so harshly. I need to be better at that, because Jesus doesn’t do that. He loves all of us.”
Dave: And we’re saying that because we did it.
Ann: I don’t know if you did it as much as I did. I had to repent over and over, but those are some great truths.
Shelby: Now coming up tomorrow Dave and Ann are back again with Jim Davis and Michael Aitcheson. They’re going to talk about how parenting and coming to Christ require humility and authenticity. That’s tomorrow. We hope you’ll join us.
Shelby: On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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