Students Leaving the Church

That students tend to leave the Church when the graduate high school is no secret. It’s recently made it’s way into the GOP primary field. Tim King is right that the fact that college students walk away from the faith has nothing to do with colleges. However, I still think Tim misses the point.

He argues that the reason many college students leave the faith isn’t because of what they’re taught in college, but because of the hypocrisy they see among Christians. Yes, hypocrisy turns people off to the church. Yes, hypocrisy is painful. But it also tends to be the favorite gripe of those of us who have felt it’s sting. In the end, however, hypocrisy is only part of the reason students walk away from the Christian faith. There is now plenty of data out there which suggest that the problem is more broad than simply hypocrisy.

So, in addition to hypocrisy, it would have been nice to see Tim discuss the following in his op ed:

1. Parents – Now, he almost touches on this with his comments on hypocrisy. But he still misses the bull’s eye. Yes, sometimes parents are hypocrits, but not always of the type Tim imagines. Instead, sometimes parents simply don’t model a robust faith. They model of faith that is comfortable and sterile, and their children simply inherit the same faith that they see their parents enacting. If we want to see fewer students leaving the church, than we need to help parents develop their own faith at much deeper levels.

2. Youth Ministry – Lest I be too hard on parents, I actually think a greater part of the blame lies with youth ministries (and churches, generally). We have not helped to disciple parents and we’ve given students exactly what they (sometimes, sorta) ask for: a faith that is comfortable, but not one that’s worth anything. Because many of us are either A) young and naive or B) worried about numbers and our jobs or C) woefully untrained, we end up running youth ministries which do a great job of keeping kids away from drugs, sex and alcohol, but a pitiful job of forming life-long disciples. We separate students into a age-specific ghetto in the name of giving them something that will connect with them, but in the end we simply end up cutting them off from the life-giving Body of Christ, no matter how broken and deformed that Body might be.

3. Questions – Going right along with #2 above, in my experience (and here we leave what is fairly well established by surveys and move into more conjectural and anecdotal territory), a contributing factor to students leaving the faith is that they haven’t been deeply challenged and taught. We tend to teach students within a narrow theological framework (either denominationally, or in terms of assumptions about what a good Christian does). So, we teach students they can’t question God (because, I guess, we’ve never read about Moses, or the Psalms, or Job). But when bad stuff happens, what do we expect them to do, remain silent? Or we teach them a narrow interpretation of a passage, for instance, that one must believe in a six literal day creation to be a good Christian. When students realize they don’t know if they can do that, they figure they must have to stop being a Christian. Or we teach them a particular theological point as a litmus test, for instance, God’s sovereignty, and when they aren’t quite sure if they can believe it like we’ve explained it, they figure they have to walk away from the faith, rather than turn to other traditions within the faith.

We could talk about several other factors that often contribute to students walking away from the faith, but I think I’ve made my point: we can’t limit it merely to hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is sometimes an issue. Sometimes it’s questions students have about faith. Often they’ve never had a robust, passionate faith modelled for them, and perhaps even more often they’ve had a shallow youth ministry that–inadvertently–did everything possible to make sure they weren’t connected with the larger Body.

So, this discussion obviously braves the question: what do we do about it? On the one hand, the problems seem insurmountable. But, on the other, we can tackle one thing at a time. There are many in the youth ministry would that are realizing these issues and thinking of ways to address them. To say it’ll be an uphill battle is probably an understatement, but at least it’s a place to start.

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