THE REASONS WHY OUR CHILDREN LEAVE THE CHURCH
I want to begin this message with warning. What I am going to say this morning may upset some you because I’m going to say some things that you don’t want to hear. But I will also guarantee that you’re going to remember this sermon. You are going to think about the message and you are going to talk about it with your spouse. The reason why you will remember it is because I’m going to be talking about your children and grandchildren.
Almost all of us have tried to raise our children in the faith. We prayed with them at bed time and said grace at every meal. We read them stories from the children’s Bible. We took them to Sunday School and youth group and church.
But there comes a point in the life of every child when they start asking tough questions about faith and why we believe what we believe and they wonder if they believe the same things. That can be a very upsetting thing for many parents because they think they did all the stuff that they were supposed to do to bring their children to Christ. So how come their children are asking those tough question and maybe even wondering if God exists at all. How we handle that as parents is very important. And so today, we’re going to talk about that.
We start by saying that it is perfectly normal and natural for your children to question their faith. When they are young they believe what you teach them. You simply transfer your faith onto them and like little sponges they soak it up just like everything else you teach them. But as they get older they begin to question things. In fact, they begin to question all sorts of things not just their faith. And then there comes a point in life when they need to stop believing what their parents believe and start to work out what they themselves believe. It’s a process of growing and maturing. And that’s good because when they finally stand before God, God will not ask them what their parents believed. He will ask them what they believe. Their faith ultimately has to be their faith.
But something happens to our children when they get into their late teens and early twenties. The research shows some interesting trends. Children tend to be more religious in their early teens. When asked, “How important are your religious beliefs?”, 63% of 13 to 15 year olds say that it is very important. That goes down to 52% of 16 to 17 year olds. Then something really dramatic happens. At age 18, 88% of children from evangelical Christian homes leave the church. Did you get that number? Of our children who were raised in Christian homes, who went to Sunday School and youth group, with whom we did bedtime prayers and to whom we read stories from the children’s Bible, 88% of them – nearly nine out of ten – will leave the church after their 18th birthday. And it will break our hearts and we will be upset and we may come to the conclusion that we have failed as Christian parents to pass on to our children that which is most important in life which is our relationship with Jesus Christ.
Why is that? What happens at age 18 that causes such a drastic shift? What happens is that they graduate from high school. Many of them go off to college or university. Some of them get a job. All of them become more independent and begin to make their own decisions. And one of those decisions tends to be that they no longer want to go to church.
But in some ways, while this might break our hearts, we should not really be all that surprised. That’s because, when we are honest with ourselves, most of us broke our parents hearts too. Most of us here today took a church hiatus as young adults? And if we did, why should we expect our children to be any different They are, after all, our children.
But here’s the next question is this. Why do they leave? A Barna survey in 2011 showed some interesting results about why young adults leave the church. There were six reason but I don’t have time to deal with all of them this morning so I’m just going to look briefly at the three that I think affect us the most.
Reason #1 – Churches seem overprotective. Today’s young adults have unprecedented access to ideas and worldviews. They also tend to express a desire to connect their faith in Christ to the world in which they live. And yet too often they experience Christianity – at least as it is expressed in many churches – as being stifling, fear-based and risk-adverse. They say things like, “Christians demonize everything outside the church.” And, “Churches ignore the real problems of the world,” and, “My church is too concerned that movies, music and video games are harmful.” Churches seem overprotective.
Reason #2 – Churches come across as antagonistic to science. This is a huge one. Here are three things that the Barna survey indicated. First, young adults are put off by Christians who are too confident that they know all the answers. Second, they also think that the church is out of step with the scientific world we live in. Third, they are totally turned off by the creation-versus-evolution debate. While there will always be exceptions, on then whole, when the topic is raised, they either shut down or walk away. And so young Christians who are scientifically minded are struggling to find ways to stay faithful to their beliefs while maintaining their intellectual integrity. The Church cannot come across as being antagonistic to science. It’s a lose-lose situation and there is no upside to it.
Reason #3 – The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt. Understanding this is crucial. Young adults say that the church is not a place that allows them to express their doubts and that they do not feel safe admitting that sometimes Christianity does not make sense to them. And when they finally do find the courage to ask questions, they feel that the responses that they get are trivial. They don’t feel safe enough to express their doubts and so they don’t disclose them or have them dealt with in an effective way.
That’s the big three. Churches seem overprotective. They come across as being antagonistic to science. And the church feels unfriendly to those who doubt.
RESPONDING TO DOUBTS
So, how do we respond? Here’s what often happens. Your son or daughter goes off to university in September. It’s the first time they’ve been away from home for an extended period of time. They come home at Thanksgiving and decide that they don’t want to go to worship with you on Sunday morning even though that’s part of the family tradition. But you don’t think much of it because they were out late on Saturday night reconnecting with their high school friends who are also home for Thanksgiving. But then they come home at Christmas and they don’t seem all that eager to join in the family grace. You realize that something might be going on and at some point get around to asking if something has happened while they were away.
It might be at that point that the truth comes out. “Yes Mom, there is a problem. At university, I’ve learned so many things and I’ve been exposed to so many new ideas. And so much of it seems to conflict with the way I’ve been raised. I don’t know how to reconcile what I’ve learned in science with what the Bible has to say. In fact, I don’t see how they can be reconciled. And the philosophy class that I took poked so many holes in Christianity that I just don’t know what I believe anymore. In fact, I’m not sure that I even believe in God.”
And your heart sinks and your mind goes back to the days when your little girl used to sit on your lap reading Bible stories and your little boys used to take turns blowing out the prayers candle after bedtime prayers. And you remember the Father’s Day gift that your child made for you in Sunday School that is still on your work bench in the basement. And your pulse begins to race. And then you get angry that a bunch of egotistical university professors could undo in a few short months what you tried so long and lovingly to build.
And then there’s a real temptation to do two things. The first one is to get angry and start to express that anger at the school system, at society, maybe even at your child. The second thing is that you immediately shoot back at your child all the evidence that you have for why God exists and why faith is important and why they need to get back with the programme. How do you think this will work out? Neither option will work out very well. Either one will result in your child shutting down and changing the subject. And you just blew an opportunity to do something positive.
Before doing either one of those things, pause, take a deep breath, rejoice and be thankful that your child feels able to raise those doubts with you. Remember the third reason why young adults stop going to church; it’s because they don’t feel that it is a safe place to share their doubts. Don’t reinforce that notion in your own home. Rather, listen to the words that we read this morning from 1 Peter 3:15b-16 (NIV) which says: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.”
Let’s just spend a few minutes unpacking what that might look like. First of all, always be prepared to give an answer to anyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. There are two things that I want to say about this verse. First, it says that you need to be prepared to give an answer. You need to know what and why you believe. I’m not saying that you need a master’s degree in theology. But you do need to know the basics tenets of Christian faith. All of us are sinners because all of us blow it and that sin separates us from God who is holy. But God loves us anyway and came to us in Jesus Christ to reconcile us and make us new. He died on the cross to pay the price of our sins and rose again for our salvation so that all who put their faith and their hope in him will live eternally in God’s kingdom. That’s all you have to know about theology and you can all do that. But you also need to be prepared to share something else. You need to know the positive difference that your faith has made in your life and why it is important to you. That’s the gift that you bring to the conversation and that’s often what makes it real for other people because if faith doesn’t make a difference in your life right now, than what’s the point? Be prepared to tell how it makes a difference. Be prepared to answer.
The second point is key. It say to be prepared to give an answer to anyone who asks. Note that last phrase which say, “to anyone who asks.” There is only one correct response when your child comes home from the first semester at university and begins to express doubts to you. All you have to do is listen. At this point they are not asking you to tell them anything. They have simply said that they want to talk. And even though you will be tempted to blurt out all the reasons why you believe in what you believe, just take a chill pill, zip your lips together and shut up because your child has just given you one of the most precious gifts she can give you. She has said, “Mom or Dad, can I talk with you about something that’s important to me?” Treasure that moment. At that point, your child does not need to get into a discussion. He does not need you to argue with him about theology or the Bible. He just needs to talk so let him talk. Your time to respond will come. It may not come today or tomorrow or next week or even next year but it will come so be patient. And make sure, back to the first point, that you are prepared when that time comes to let him know the reason why you believe and why you have hope.
WITH GENTLENESS AND RESPECT
Let’s move on to 1 Peter 3:15c-16 (NIV) which says, “But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.” When the time finally comes and God opens the door for you to share why you have the hope that you have in Christ, do it with gentleness and respect. You don’t need to bring out the big guns and start blasting down all the reason that skeptics have put into your children’s heads. Be gentle and respectful.
I admit that this is one area where I struggle. 30 years in the army made me very mission oriented. I see a problem, I name it and I confront it directly. No shmoozing. No beating around the bush. Here’s the problem. Let’s deal with it and move on. That works very well for me. But what I have sometimes yet to learn is that it doesn’t always work so well for other people especially my children and particularly my daughter. That mission oriented approach may, in fact, end up with mission failure. So be gentle and respectful.
And here’s something else. Try not to bite off more than you can chew. You will not be able to respond to all of your child’s concerns in one conversation. It may take a while. It may take months. You may need different conversations to look at different points. Let’s look at a common example of how this happens. Your child comes home after a semester of studying science and tells you that she’s having trouble believe in the Bible because what it says doesn’t match up with what science says. What do you do with that? You do nothing with it. You listen and hear what she has to say. Listen to her doubts. Listen to her questions. Listen to her concerns.
Remember that earlier we said that one of the reasons young adults leave the church is because the church seems antagonistic to science. One of key factors is that the whole creation-verses-evolution debate to be a total turn off. But at the same time they have probably had all sorts of atheists and skeptics using that very topic to sew doubts into their heads and purposely and gleefully trying to turn our children whom we love away from their faith. But don’t worry about that right now. Listen to what your child has to say.
And when the time is right be prepared to tell them why you find no conflict between science and the Bible. Let them know that the Bible is not about science. It might contain science just like it contains history and geography and astronomy and poetry and parables. But it isn’t about any of those things. The Bible is about the saving acts of God through Jesus Christ, how God reconciled sinful people back to himself because of his great love for us. That is the central theme of the Bible, that is what it is about and that is all that it is about.
There is no conflict between the Bible and science because they talk about different things. When the two interact – and they often do – be clear that while science talks about the when and the how, the Bible talks about the who and the why. To put it more clearly, science talks about when things were created and how that happens while the Bible talks about who did the creating and why. The only time there is a conflict between the Bible and science is when people try to make the Bible say things that God never intended the Bible to say. Don’t be afraid to tell your child that you believe both what the Bible says and what science says. There really is no conflict when you truly understand both. But you’re not going to be able to say all of that in one conversation. Let one build upon the other and be patient while God works it through.
REASONS FOR HOPE
The final verse I want to point to this morning is 1 Peter 3:17 (NIV) which says, “It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.” None of us likes to suffer and yet as we prepare to offer an explanation for the hope that we have we need to be aware that suffering might be part of that. What kind of suffering am I talking about?
First of all, there is the suffering of watching the child whom you have lovingly nurtured and raised in the faith struggle to discover what he or she believes. That can hurt and can even keep you up at night. But put it in God’s hands. You have done all you can do and you just have to trust in God’s Spirit to move in the heart of your child. As hard as that is, it is what you have to do.
How else do you suffer? You suffer by keeping quiet so that your child has a safe place to share his or her doubts. It is so hard sometimes just to remain silent and listen. What we often do when we hear people talk is think about how we will respond. Don’t do that. Don’t concentrate on what you will say next. Put 100% of your energy into listening and let your child know that you care enough to do that. That’s hard but it is what you have to do.
We also suffer in patience. It is so hard to be patient and just wait for your children to work through their doubts and for God to work on their spirits. But patient you must be. The best example I know of is my own father-in-law, Bernie Wiseman, whom many of you had the pleasure of knowing. Like most of us, he went through his time of doubt as a young adult when he questioned his faith and moved away from the church. But there was woman who kept praying for him. She prayed for him every day that he would come back to the Lord and renew his faith. She had a special interest in him because he seemed to be interested in her daughter. Bernie eventually married that daughter and she became Lillian Wiseman. And then one day Lil’s mother died and her Bible was passed on to Lil. Bernie was looking through it and found a list of names. They were the names of young men and women for whom she had prayed for salvation during many years. In that list, Bernie found his own name and beside it the date when he recommitted his life to Christ. Her suffering and her prayer had all been worth it because Bernie had recommitted his life to Christ. It is so hard to be patient but you have to do that too.
Why suffer? Because there is a purpose to it. After all of this bad news there is some good news that I want to share with you. Yes, chances are that our children will leave the church at some point. Remember that most of us did too. But remember too, that all of us her today somehow managed to find our way back. Research, in fact, tells us that about 70% of those who leave the church as young adults will eventually return later in life. It might be when they what to get married or start having a family. It might be when they are going through a difficult time in life and yearn for something that is missing. It might be because a minister or a friend reached out to them at just the right time. There are any number of reason why people come back but we do know that as people get older the seeds of faith begin to grow and blossom again.
The research also gives us some clues as to why they return and this is quite interesting. There are four things that should give parents hope. First, throughout life, parents continue to be the single greatest influence on their children’s faith no matter how old the children are. We forget that sometimes. We think that as our children get older, we become less of an influence. We might want to rethink that. While our influence may change it does not disappear. Second, when children see or hear that faith actually makes a difference in Mom and Dad’s lives, they are much more likely to follow suit. It is vital to let our children see that our faith in Jesus Christ makes a difference because, if it doesn’t make difference right here, right now, than why bother. Third, young adults are much more likely to share their parents’ beliefs if they feel that they have a close relationship with those parents. So it’s not just about building a relationship with God. Their relationship with you is of great importance. Build that one too. And fourth, young adults who leave the faith are far more likely to return when parents have been patient and supportive. Remember that listening thing. Let them know that you love them and that you will be there for them no matter what their doubts or concerns might be.
you see that all is not lost. There is hope. There is faith. God is not dead
and his Spirit is active. And you, as parents, have a part to play. Play it
well because in the end the your temporary suffering will all be worth it.
PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE
We give you thanks for the joy of this season, for longer daylight and warmer evenings, and for flowers sharing their blooms as they poke their heads above the earth. Even for rain we thank you for it is all part of your great purpose.
We offer our thanks for the wonder of this Easter season. This is a time of resurrection and new life. May your Spirit so infuse us in a new ways that we will be vividly aware of your presence and praise you for all of the ways in which you have blessed us so abundantly.
You are the Potter and we are the clay. Mould us into vessels of your love so that we might share your Good News with honesty and integrity. You have given us an image of what we can be in the person of Jesus Christ. Through faith in him and by the power of the resurrection may we fulfill your mission for us in our day and generation. May we not shirk from duty but enter into your service with passion and zest.
We pray for those who suffer this day. There have been so many who have been harmed by wind and rain. We see the immensity of your power in floods and tornadoes and their destructive force challenges us to look at you anew. Send your healing, O God, into the lives of people whose livelihoods have been devastated and continue to be changed by these natural disasters. Bring your peace and free them and us from fear.
We lift up in prayer those of our community who are in need of your Healing Touch, remembering especially Millicent, Sharon, Helen, Don and Jacqui. Fill them to the brim with your grace that they may experience your presence even in the midst of illness. You are a God who desires that your children be well. Send your Holy Spirit upon us this day.
Help us, O God, to keep you as the focus of our lives; not only of our
worship but also of our work, play and relaxation. In all things, help us to
look towards you for you alone can fulfill our needs and make us whole. Only
through the power of the cross are we able to come to you as whole and forgiven
people. We lift our praise. We life our voices. We lift our hearts to you. Do
your will within us and guide us in the way that we should go. We ask these
prayers in Jesus’ Holy Name. Amen.
WORSHIP RESOURCE PAGE
May 21, 2017 / Easter 6
Psalm 66:8-20; John 14:15-21; Acts 17:22-31; 1 Peter 3:13-22
CALL TO WORSHIP
Praise the Lord! Praise God in the Temple!
Praise the Lord! Praise his strength in heaven!
Praise the Lord! Praise the mighty things of God!
Praise the Lord! Praise his supreme greatness!
Praise the Lord! Praise God with harps and drums, flutes and cymbals.
May all living creatures praise the Lord!
PRAYER OF APPROACH
The earth rejoices and the heavens declare your greatness. The hills sing and the valleys cry out in gladness. The sea is yours for you made it. Your hands prepared the dry ground. You have opened to us your Holy Kingdom. You have made us citizens of your Heavenly Realm. Come to us now, Lord Jesus. Fill us anew with your Spirit as we worship and lift our lives in praise and thanksgiving.
PRAYER OF CONFESSION
You, O God, have created the mountains heights and the depths of oceans. You have strung the stars together and caused the planets to spin our their axis. Yet, like Thomas, we doubt. We ask for proof of your existence. We want evidence that your love for us is real. We demand that which we should already know by faith. Forgive us, God of Mercy, for our untrusting hearts. Help us to come, in faith, to your table with the gifts of assurance and grace.
ASSURANCE OF PARDON
When we doubt, Jesus comes to us and assures us of God’s love. When we mourn, Jesus comes to us, offering the soothing balm of God’s touch. When we repent and confess our sins, God forgives, forgets and brings healing to our brokenness.
DEDICATION OF OFFERING
Creation rejoices in the works of your hands. We, your people, praise you for the goodness of your abundance for us. We give, now, a portion of your gifts to the work of your Church. Bless these gifts and each giver, in Jesus’ name.
Praise the Lord, all you people. Praise God in your comings and in your going. Praise God in the waking and in your sleeping. Praise God in your sorrow and in your joy. Praise God in your shouting and in your silence.