A growing problem, and potentially one of the greatest threats to the church, is teenagers who leave the church. Don Fields at The World from Our Window asked a SERIOUS question; "Why are teens leaving the 'church'?" I want to provide my own answer to this problem, and I desire to express it as Michael Pearl addresses the problem. He calls it "jumping ship from the church to the world." The majority of this post comes from comments I left on Don Fields' post on this topic.
Why are teenagers turning their backs on the church in disproportionate numbers? I think the answer is three-fold.
(1.) Teens' built-in youth ministers are not doing their jobs. By this statement, I mean their parents. I often hear parents lament, "I raised my child in church, but he won't step foot in the church now that he's grown." Taking the child to church is simply not enough; families are not worshipping at home, parents are not mentoring their children in the faith, and they have their priorities mixed up. They expect the ministers, youth and otherwise, to do their jobs for them and then hold animosity toward the church and the ministers for "driving their children away" from the church. Too many parents are scratching their heads wondering what in the world happened, when the blame lies squarely on their shoulders.
Passive aggression does not work when it comes to leading children, especially teens, in their faith. Mentoring is an active process and involves hard work; work most parents are not willing to do. Parents are so consumed with their jobs, having instead of being, and even doing church work, that they fail miserably in training their children in their faith. Granted, Junior walked the aisle, he was baptized, showed up to Sunday School, and even went on the occasional church mission trip. But now that he is graduated, he doesn't come to church anymore. Why?
Church was force-fed and erroneously believed that it was all Junior needed. What he needed was consistent parents, consistent discipline, and not just casual oversight. All the Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, AWANA, RA's, GA's, Mission Friends, TeamKids, and summer camps will never substitute for good, godly parents, serious in their commitment to raising good, godly kids.
(2.) Another reason kids jump ship is they are not really taught theology. Too much ministry to teenagers is entertainment driven rather than based on the Word of God. Churches scramble to have a youth program that will appeal to teens. I was children's minister for a short time at a mid-sized church and the youth minister at this same church sweated bullets that he was not providing enough for the kids to do. Centrifuge, ski trips, paintball, concerts, theme parks, youth rallies, those kids were constantly going somewhere, but they were not doing anything.
The problem with an entertainment-based youth ministry is that you cannot out-entertain the world. The world will always have something better to offer and unfortunately the world will usually do it much better and more attractively. Kids are overstimulated and contemplating faith and theology are useless and trite endeavors for them and if faith and theology are not active pursuits of Junior's parents, neither is Junior going to pursue them. So, parents unwittingly assume that since the pastor or youth minister spends so much time dragging their kids all over creation then their kids are really being discipiled in the faith.
I do not think doing things with the kids is wrong; it is beneficial and can be a good springboard for discipleship, if it is purposefully pushed that way. However, just giving the kids an opportunity to stay out of trouble is fruitless. So, to make numbers look good and ministry successful, ministry to teens is gauged by how much we did rather than how much we have grown.
(3.) I know I am going to step on toes here, but the public school system robs them of their faith. After they are indoctrinated with secular humanism, evolutionary thought, and postmodern irrelevance, all purely antithetical to biblical Christianity, for seven hours a day, 180 days of the year, how can the church compete? At most church kids get 2-2 1/2 hours a week of biblical instruction, and I'm being generous. Frankly, why shouldn't they leave the church the moment they have the opportunity? It is what they have been trained to do since kindergarten.
State schools are not neutral. Again, this is a mistake so many parents make, or at least a faulty assumption. Public schools are intentionally secular, intentionally atheistic, and touted as amoral. Parents believe that the church teaches values and the schools teach the three R's value neutrally, a false dichotomy and spiritual suicide. Moreover, why also do parents willingly abdicate their parental roles to the state school systems? Unwittingly again, character formation, the parents' job, is left up to someone else. And more heinous than that, why put your children under the influence of their peers all day?
I just recently talked to a distraught mother of a teenage boy who is in his first semester of college. Church has become a non-issue. He spends no time at home and the opinions of his friends are what matter to him. The ones he spends all his time with are the ones who really matter, because mom and dad did not overtly place themselves in that mentoring role. Unfortunately, the only counsel I could give her was that she needed to ask her son's forgiveness.
The church has got to stop allowing the world to dictate the way it does ministry to teens. Teenagers see right through shallowness, especially where matters of faith are concerned. Until Christian faith becomes a vital, important part of the lives of their parents, not mushy sentimentalism, teenagers will jump ship. There are no easy answers; it is a gargantuan monster of our own making and is not a giant that will be easily slain.
Humbled and challenged,