Why Our Kids Are Leaving the Faith
About the Guest
Do you have a teen straying from the faith? If so, you're not alone. Authors Drew Dyck and Rob Rienow join forces to talk about prodigals--who they are and why they've chosen to leave the church.
Do you have a teen straying from the faith?
Why Our Kids Are Leaving the Faith
Bob: There are a lot of young people today who, after they graduate from high school, are turning their back on the church and, in some cases, on their Christian faith. Author Drew Dyck says that one reason why that’s the case is because some youth pastors are giving spiritual pep talks each week instead of giving spiritual substance.
Drew: Church researcher, Ed Stetzer, describes most youth groups in this country as “holding tanks with pizza.” Listen, I have nothing against video games or pizza; but they’re tragic replacements for spiritual formation and for biblical education. We need to do a better job of giving kids a faith that will survive those inevitable assaults that they’ll experience when they go to college and off into the real world.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, October 31st. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. Our plan is not to try to pick on youth pastors and youth groups today, but we do want to explore some of the reasons why young people are turning away from their spiritual roots or their spiritual heritage. Stay tuned.
Bob: Welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. You know, I think as often as not these days, if I’m having a conversation with somebody who has adult children and I say to them, “So, how are things with your kids?”, there’s just a little bit of a flinch; and then they will start to talk a little bit about one child who, “Well, he’s not doing so well,” or, “She’s kind of wandered off.” It just seems like that’s more frequent than I remember it being a decade ago.
Dennis: Yes, and, Bob, there’s a passage in Third John, verse 4—there’s only one chapter in the book. It says this, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.” You could put that on my gravestone; and I would be just happy if my six children, and their spouses, and my grandchildren are walking in the truth of Jesus Christ and enjoying Him, loving Him, obeying Him. I will have lived a successful life.
Bob: Well, we’re seeing a generation that was raised in the church—that was raised in the faith—wander away at some point. We’re wondering, “Is this a permanent wandering, or is this just a youthful exploration? What’s really going on here?”
Dennis: Yes, and we have a couple of experts in the studio with us. It’s not you and me—we have a couple of experts. (Laughter) Just in case you were about to say something, Bob.
Bob: Well, all I was going to say is somebody told me one time that, “A spurt is a drip and ex- means, ‘used to be,’ so an ‘expert’ is somebody who used to be a drip,” you know?
Dennis: Okay. (Laughter)
Bob: I thought I’d throw that in there for what it’s worth. (Laughter)
Dennis: Well, let me introduce Drew Dyck and Rob Rienow to our listening audience. Rob, Drew, welcome to the broadcast.
Drew: Good to be here. Thanks for having us.
Rob: Thank you for having us.
Dennis: Drew is a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary. He works at Christianity Today in Chicago. He is the managing editor of Leadership Journal—a very fine leadership—it’s not really a magazine. It really is a journal. It comes out quarterly; is that right?
Drew: That’s right.
Dennis: He and his wife Grace live near Chicago. He is the author of a new book that is really a good book. I really enjoyed this, Drew. It’s called Generation Ex-Christian. The subtitle here is: Why Young Adults Are Leaving the Faith and How to Bring Them Back.
Rob Rienow also lives in Chicago with his wife Amy. He has just recently left Wheaton Bible Church and is starting a ministry of his own called Visionary Parenting. They’ve been married since 1994 and have six children. He’s the author of a book, When They Turn Away: Drawing Your Adult Child Back to Jesus Christ.
Drew, I want to come to you first because you begin the book talking about a young man you were having a conversation with by the name of Abe. Abe kind of typifies what’s taking place with a generation of young people today who seem to be leaving the church, and not just a few, but in record numbers.
Drew: That’s correct. This story about Abe was really what drew me to this topic in the first place. He’s the same age as me; I’m in my early 30s now. I remember it was probably about four or five years after high school that he came to visit me. We had dinner, and I remember he just looked at me, and in a rather matter-of-fact way announced that he had left his Christian faith. That was a shock to me because we had gone to Christian school together. Our fathers, in fact, were both pastors.
Drew: So we’d had this remarkably similar background. For him to just up and leave the faith was startling. That got me interested; and as I moved through my 20s, I started to see this phenomenon more and more as more friends either explicitly renounced their faith or just kind of drifted away and were at a point where their Christian faith was no longer an integral part of their life.
Dennis: How big of a problem is this? I mean, I’ve seen some statistics that are alarming.
Drew: Yes. They really are. Well, just really quickly, a couple of the recent big studies that have been done, one by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, showed that the number of young adults over the last 20 years (actually less than 20 years, over the last 18 years) has more than doubled—that are claiming that they have no religion. Now, of course, those aren’t all Christians; but most are.
Then there are some statistics that we get from places like Barna Group and Rainer Research—these are Christian organizations that study church involvement patterns. They say that by the time someone who is raised in the church reaches their 30th birthday, there’s an 80 percent chance they will be disengaged from the church.
That’s alarming! Some people have kind of pushed back and said, “Hey, listen. Doesn’t this happen in every generation?” There is some truth to that objection; because if you’re going to walk away from the church or even your faith, it’s probably going to happen in the young adult years.
Drew: However, there are a few reasons why I believe this generation is different. First of all, it’s happening at a greater clip. Some people have said that it’s happening at four to five times the rate than in previous generations. Secondly, young adulthood is not what it used to be; it’s much longer.
Dennis: Oh yes.
Drew: Some of those milestones like getting married, establishing a career, and settling down—those incidentally—those are things that encourage church involvement and people returning to their roots. Those milestones now are being delayed into the late 20s or even the early 30s. So, coming back after a one- or two-year hiatus is one thing. Coming back in a decade or more, in my view, is considerably more unlikely.
The third thing—and I don’t think this is news to anyone who has been paying attention—there has been a tectonic shift in the culture. Past generations may have rebelled for a season, but they still inhabited largely Judeo-Christian culture. This generation—really, maybe the first generation—
Drew: —that’s been raised in pluralistic, post-Christian America.
Drew: That cultural-gravity back to the faith has weakened or perhaps dissipated altogether. So, listen, I don’t want to be a doomsayer; but I also want to guard against being lackadaisical and complacent. I think we need to take this seriously and address the issue.
Bob: Rob, let me ask you, because you served almost two decades as a youth pastor at Wheaton Bible; right?
Bob: You saw kids come through the youth group; and some of these kids you looked at and you would go, “These kids are on fire for Christ! These are solid kids.” You would run into them five years later, after college, and they were not going to church, not interested. They might still talk about a relationship with Christ, but it’s not like what we think it ought to look like. What’s your analysis of what you’ve seen?
Rob: Well, first of all, the statistics—anywhere you turn, just as Drew has said—the statistics are bad. For all of us who care about this—people who have young people in our lives—sons and daughters—youth pastors—it’s not just numbers on a piece of paper. These are real young men and real young women whom we care deeply about. It grieves me tremendously because the fact is that the majority of the kids that I had in youth ministry are now just like these statistics, you know, no longer walking with the Lord.
I can think of so many specific illustrations. One would be Mike—name changed to protect the guilty here. Mike came to our church as a sophomore in high school. He came out of a really difficult background with foster situations and things like that. Junior year I was on a wilderness trip with him and had a chance to share the Gospel. God worked in his life. He repented of his sins and trusted Christ. He became one of these student leaders in the youth group. He hung around for his early college years, and he was now one of these cool volunteer college guys helping out with the youth group.
We lose contact for a number of years. He’s 25, and the phone rings in my office. “Hey Rob, it’s Mike. Do you remember me?”
“Of course, I remember you. How are you doing?”
“Oh, I’m doing great. I got engaged, and I would like for you to perform our wedding.”
I said, “What an honor and a privilege to do that. Let’s get together. I’d like to meet your fiancée.” So we sit down, and within about ten minutes, it becomes apparent to me that Mike’s fiancée is not a believer. I thought, “Oh boy, this is going to be a pretty awkward conversation pretty quickly here for me because I can’t perform that wedding.”
I said, “What are you going to do if you have kids someday? What’s the plan for their spiritual training? I kind of sense you guys are on a little different page when it comes to spiritual things.”
Mike looks at me and he says, “You know, Rob, there are a lot of good religious books out there. There’s the Bible, the Koran, there are all these different things. Our job is just to expose our kids to the different religions of the world and let them pick.”
Rob: I almost fell over in my chair because this is Mike I am talking to. This is “Leader Mike.” In those few years, and again, I can’t comment on his salvation and his conversion. I don’t know exactly where those things were, but this wasn’t an “unequally yoked” situation. Those few years, Satan had wormed his way in there and taken his heart away from the path that he was on. Stories like that, in different flavors, are just replicating themselves millions and millions of times over.
Drew: It’s so true. I’ve found that time and again. I sought out dozens of 20-somethings who, by their own admission, were “ex-Christians.” Again, I don’t know exactly if they were ever really Christians.
Bob: You don’t know where to categorize that when somebody says, “I’m an ex-Christian.”
Drew: Sure. Were they ever really Christians in the first place? I simply don’t know. But many of them were very hostile to the faith and to people in the church that they had grown up with. I remember one lady, she had graduated from—well, I won’t name it—but a blue-chip evangelical college—she was in her mid-20s. For a full hour, I remember, she just spilled out all of the reasons she didn’t believe in God and the Bible.
Then it was after about an hour when I started to ask her about the particulars surrounding her decision to leave. I found out that she’d had this terrible experience where she’d felt betrayed by some Christian friends and ostracized at her college. It was only after that that she made the decision to leave.
In subsequent years, she had built this elaborate case against God; but really, the intellectual doubts were a bit of a smoke screen. They may have prevented her from returning, but what had caused her to leave in the first place was that kind of social experience—that traumatic experience that soured her on the faith.
So, it’s critical when we talk to these people that we don’t just make it an intellectual chess game. Yes, intellectual things have to be addressed. For some, it’s more important than others; but often there’s been some sort of negative experience. I heard horror stories from people being molested to being “brow-beaten” by their father, or a pastor, or elder. You think, “There’s no wonder that soured them on the faith!”
Dennis: Yes, one of my takeaways from your book was that very point—to realize when you talk to someone who seems to have no faith today—to instead of starting to logically reason with them and give them an apologetic for the Gospel of Christ—that the tomb is empty and all the various proofs we have for who Jesus Christ is—instead, you move your reader, Drew, to contemplate and think about, “How were they hurt?
“What were the circumstances that resulted in this person turning against God, feeling like God didn’t protect them, or God was unfair?” Really, pausing to listen to that person and empathize with where they are.
Bob: And this is interesting because when you and I were in college, if there was a skeptic—if there was somebody who was not in the faith—you got them a copy of Josh McDowell’s Evidence that Demands a Verdict.
Dennis: Well, that’s part of how I came, really, came back to the faith was the apologetics—the rational reasoning of proof for who Jesus Christ is.
Bob: Drew, you’re saying today you give them a copy of that book; and they’ll just look at it and say, “Well that’s one guy’s opinion;” right?
Drew: Yes, often that’s the case. The story I mentioned earlier about Abe—I busted out my best apologetics when he told me that he had left the faith. At the end of that conversation, he looked and me and said, “You know, I think reason and rationality are from the western philosophical tradition.” He was an educated guy; and he said, “I just don’t think that’s the only way to find truth.”
I didn’t know it at that point, but what I was encountering was basically a post-modern worldview—this idea that there’s no absolute truth. “You can have your truth; I can have mine. There are many paths to the same place. Spiritual truth, especially, is a matter of experience rather than rationality.” His father, actually—when he heard about his decision to leave the faith—his father, a pastor, rushed him Mere Christianity. My friend read the whole book, said he even enjoyed it; but it didn’t change his heart. It didn’t bring him back.
So that’s part of what I write about is understanding the different worldviews that are impacting the younger generation. It doesn’t mean that you have to become a philosopher or a scholar, but you have to understand what’s out there and how they’re being influenced so you can speak specifically to their objections.
Rob: To me, it’s not so much, “Is it personal hurt or is it a doctrinal issue?” I don’t want to do anything that’s going to water down doctrine. The question is, “What’s the root issue?”
What Drew and I are saying is that for the vast majority of families that we’ve worked with, the root issue wasn’t a doctrinal study, “I went to school. I studied evolution. I buy it. I have become convinced the Bible is not true.” That’s not where they started this. Where they started this was a heart issue, a pain issue, a broken relationship issue—
Rob: —a disconnection between them and their father, or them and their mother, you know? So, if they didn’t get there through doctrinal heresy, they’re not going to get back per se through doctrinal orthodoxy. If there’s a relationship issue, that’s the root; and that’s what we want to go at.
Bob: Yes, I had to think as I listened to you guys talk about this, “If I’d been a youth pastor for 18 years and if I was watching kids come out of the youth program, looking like they’re in pretty good shape, and five years later things aren’t going so well—if I’m making cars and that’s what’s turning out, they’re going to shut down the factory.”
Systemically, do we have a church problem? Do we have a family problem? Do we have a cultural problem? If we’re trying to solve this thing, where do we go?
Dennis: The answer to all three of those, Bob, is, “Yes.”
Rob and Drew: Yes! Yes! Yes!
Drew: Yes. I’ll speak briefly to the church issue, and I’ll let Rob speak to the family issue. This is something that was kind of painful as I wrote this book and encountered these people—I realized that we’ve got to take a look in the mirror as Christians. I remember hearing one Christian professor at a Christian college say that when he asks his freshmen students about, say, the doctrine of the Trinity, 95 percent of them answer in classical heresies.
So we’ve done a poor job of catechizing or, you know, biblical education with the younger generation. I remember when I was 12 years old, and I was in a Bible study at my church. We had a Bible study leader who was working us through the book of Hebrews. That’s some deep, deep stuff. We complained; and I remember what he said, “If we can teach you algebra at school, we can teach you Hebrews at church.”
I think that mindset has kind of gone by the wayside. You know, historically, the youth ministry movement was a biblical education movement. Unfortunately, and I don’t know if it’s business-thinking impacting the church, but we’ve kind of moved to a model of entertainment, where the goal becomes, “Let’s get as many kids through the door on a Friday night or a Sunday morning and keep them entertained.”
We have youth groups in this country that have been reduced to using violent video games to keep kids entertained. Church researcher, Ed Stetzer, describes most youth groups in this country as “holding tanks with pizza.” Listen, I have nothing against video games or pizza, but they’re tragic replacements for spiritual formation and for biblical education. We need to do a better job of giving kids a faith that will survive those inevitable assaults that they’ll experience when they go to college and off into the real world.
Bob: Well, I have to ask you, because we’ve said, “These people who are leaving the faith—it’s not primarily an intellectual disconnect. They’re not rejecting it.” And yet, you’re saying part of the way we fix this is to give them a solid doctrinal foundation so that they don’t get tripped up on that. They’re still going to experience hurts; but I guess what you’re saying is we need to give them a faith that has a doctrinal platform underneath it so that when the hurts come, it doesn’t cause them to say, “Well, there wasn’t a foundation here to rest it on.” Is that right?
Drew: That’s it exactly. I don’t want to say that intellectual things don’t play a role because they certainly do.
Drew: I don’t think either of us was saying that. They often work in tandem with an emotional or psychological issue. But when a kid goes off to college—and people who’ve gone to a secular university know this—you sign up, not just for courses, but for a systematic attack on your faith. They come into a classroom and they sit down. Here’s the smartest person they’ve ever met, the professor, who is maybe slighting and belittling Christian beliefs left and right. If they don’t know why they believe what they believe, if they don’t understand why the Bible is valid and why Jesus rose from the dead, if some of these things have never been taught to them, that makes them very vulnerable to defection.
Dennis: Rob, you really believe that, “Yes, we must teach theology; but that theology needs to be anchored in the family where there’s authentic Christian living, where people are living out what they believe.”
Rob: This whole area of trying to take the lead in making a disciple of your own children—when you hear Matthew 28, “Go and make disciples,” or Jesus, “Love your neighbor,” churches hardly ever teach us that the first person you should think about is your spouse. The first persons you think about are your sons and your daughters.
Rob: I think that this highlights this issue of the church and the family, each having their role in raising the next generation. As Drew just talked about, the watering-down of content, if you will, and of doctrine in the church, which has absolutely happened; but then you have a whole generation of parents who are delegating the spiritual training of their children to the church. I don’t fault my parents’ generation because my parents’ generation was taught by the church that, “In order to be a good Christian mom or dad, make sure little Robbie is in Sunday school.”
Rob: So, they were very obedient; and they did that. In our ministry, you know what? What we do is to try to go back to the historical foundations and the biblical foundations, “That God created moms and dads, and grandmas, and grandpas as the most important spiritual influencers in a child’s life.” That influence doesn’t expire when your child becomes an adult.
That’s one of the nastiest lies of the world on this one. Let’s say you’ve got a 25-year-old son who lives halfway across the country and is far from God. The world tells you, “Hey, you missed the boat. You had your chance. You raised your kid. You can’t go back. All you can do now is pray that God brings some good Christian friend into their life and try to be there for them,” or whatever; but that you don’t have any more influence anymore.
I believe that’s a lie from the Enemy because God created this parent-child relationship with supernatural power; and it’s never too late—never too late—for God to use you to bless and encourage faith in your child, no matter how old they are.
Dennis: As you were talking, Rob, I was thinking back again to my mom and dad. I wasn’t excusing them, by the way, that they didn’t disciple me in the home. They did when we went to church. I mean, my dad taught from the Bible. I actually came to faith in Christ, I believe, in my mom’s (what was called) “Baptist Training Union.”
But this is a different era; this is a different time. What we’re saying here is that parents and grandparents must own the responsibility of passing on, not merely their testimony, but also the doctrines of the truth about Who God is; the truth about Scripture, the truth about the cross, about salvation, about Jesus Christ, so that when they get hit by the winds of the culture, they’re going to stand because they have a worldview of their own that is built upon the Scriptures.
That’s really what you guys are both talking about in your books. One is more of an analysis of what’s taking place and how to respond to it; the other a book more for parents, I believe, who are watching a child who is struggling.
Bob: And both of these are books that I wouldn’t wait to read until I was in that situation. I think it’s helpful for parents to understand what’s going on in the culture and what teenagers are thinking as they pass through the teen years and into their early 20s. It’s good to have a head start on these kinds of issues before they present themselves in your family.
We’ve got copies of Drew’s book, Generation Ex-Christian, and Rob’s book, When They Turn Away, in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. As you’ve said, Dennis, one gives us kind of the broader cultural perspective and the other is targeted for parents who may be going through something like this now or may want to head it off at the pass.
Come to our website, FamilyLifeToday.com, and find out more about both of these books—Generation Ex-Christian and When They Turn Away by our guests Drew Dyck and Rob Rienow. Again, our website is FamilyLifeToday.com; or you can give us a call at 1-800-FLTODAY—that’s 1-800-358-6329; 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.” When you get in touch with us, let us know which of these books you’d like to receive or if you’d like to receive both of them; and we’ll make arrangements to have the books you want sent to you.
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We want to encourage you to be back with us tomorrow when we’re going to continue our conversation about what’s going on with young people who are wandering from the Christian faith. Drew Dyck will be back tomorrow, along with Rob Rienow. I hope you can be back tomorrow with us as well.
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 tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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