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Reasons Youth Are Leaving Church

August 10, 2014     Time: 26:07
Reasons Youth Are Leaving Church


Dr. Craig examines six reasons cited as why today's young people are leaving churches

Transcript Reasons Youth Are Leaving Church


Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, we’ve heard so much about the departure of young people, of millennials, from the Christian faith, and that church attendance is dropping and things like that. But at the same time there are indications that that is not the case, and there is confusion in some of the polling questions as “Are you spiritual?” or “Do you still consider yourself a member of a major denomination?” Sometimes that can kind of skew the results. However, we’ve got an article [1] from Matt Rawlings who is a Teaching Pastor at Christ’s Community Church in Portsmouth, Ohio. Pastor Matt is commenting on David Kinnaman’s book You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church…and Rethinking Faith.

Kinnaman argued that there are at least six reasons why men and women between 18-30 leave the faith behind. He posted a summary of the six reasons on the Barna website . . .

Comment first, Bill, on this whole thing about this massive departure. Have you observed anything that would make you think one way or another?

Dr. Craig: We certainly get a lot of emails from folks who say they were once Christian and left the faith. Then an awful lot from people who have come back to faith after a temporary lapse. So there does seem to be that phenomenon, although, as you say Kevin, I am very skeptical about some of these surveys when you look at them more closely. You discover that they have very low response rates, for example, that make you question whether they are really reliable indicators of trends in the U.S. population. So I am very suspicious of certain surveys that would claim that going up to 20% of Americans now claim to have no religious affiliation and what they means. I think these need to be regarded with a real critical eye.

Kevin Harris: Pastor Matt begins this whole thing by saying,

I am a preacher’s kid who left the faith, declared myself to be an atheist, returned to the faith after a cancer scare, nearly lost my faith again and was saved by evangelical theology and apologetics. So, I am passionate about helping others avoid the decade of destructive sin and despair I spent wandering through the atheist wilderness.

Dr. Craig: Wow. We certainly get a lot of emails from people who have that kind of experience. I am so encouraged by seeing folks who have had this temporary lapse and then they’ve discovered sound apologetics and have returned to trusting in Christ. It is very encouraging.

Kevin Harris: Pastor Matt lists these six reasons. In fact, he has titled this article “How Churches Train Kids to Be Atheists.” Let’s take a look at these. These are from the Barna website[2] and cited by Kinnaman.

Reason #1 – Churches seem overprotective.

Reason #2 – Teens’ and twentysomethings’ experience of Christianity is shallow.

Reason #3 – Churches come across as antagonistic to science.

Reason #4 – Young Christians’ church experiences related to sexuality are often simplistic, judgmental.

Reason #5 – They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity.

Reason #6 – The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt.

Pastor Matt really doesn’t comment on some of these here, Bill, so I am going to ask you to. Churches seem overprotective. What do you think could be at the bottom of that?

Dr. Craig: I suspect that what he is talking about there is a failure to engage with challenges to Christian belief that exist in our culture – a sort of ostrich mentality where you put your head in the sand and pretend that it is not really out there instead of engaging with it. It would be a remarkable sermon, for example, where the pastor would say something like this: “Many biblical scholars think that this is not a historical narrative but is merely a legendary accretion.” And then begin to deal with that. Or if preaching on Genesis 1 were to say, “Now, there are certain data from population genetics that suggest that Adam and Eve could never have existed; that the human population never shrank below 2,000 individuals in the past.” The kids are hearing this in their biology class at school, and yet you never hear it in church. So in that sense maybe they feel it is a kind of bubble or overprotective environment.[3] This perhaps backfires because they hear these challenges anyway, and so the failure to acknowledge them and address them hurts their faith.

Kevin Harris: “Reason #2 – Teens’ and twentysomethings’ experience of Christianity is shallow.” I don’t know, Bill. We’ve talked before about youth programs that often want to entertain kids – pizza and parties and music and things like that. There is certainly nothing wrong with kids having a good time but has there been a decline . . . ?

Dr. Craig: I worry in general about contemporary worship services that seem more intent on entertaining people and giving them an emotional experience in meeting felt needs and then talking about psychological needs and problems – a kind of moral therapeutic psychology rather than traditional Christian doctrine. I do think that there is a lot of superficiality in the church today. What worries me is that these teens and twentysomethings seem quite satisfied with that. The blame isn’t all to be laid on the leadership of the church. People need themselves to have a hunger for going deeper and for discipleship.

Kevin Harris: It is like I hear some youth pastors say, “If I were to do a Wednesday night series on the Trinity nobody would show up.” But it is so necessary. It is such an essential doctrine. Or the deity of Jesus. I know that many youth ministries try to deal with this but there has got to be a way to deal with the adrenalin glands of teenagers and also get them the doctrine that they need. I guess we are always trying to strike the balance.

“Reason #3 – Churches come across as antagonistic to science.”

Dr. Craig: Undoubtedly, that’s going to be the old Creation-Evolution debate which still, in the minds of so many people, is a huge issue. There is a sort of unholy alliance between New Atheists and Young Earth Creationists that, if you think that the world is older than ten to twenty thousand years, you have somehow betrayed the Bible and contradicted the Bible. So if you are convinced that those two are incompatible, that is to say an ancient world and the truth of the Scripture, then something has got to give and the church will come across as antagonistic to mainstream science.

Kevin Harris: “Reason #4 – Young Christians’ church experiences related to sexuality are often simplistic, judgmental.” That is a hot potato.

Dr. Craig: I noticed that Pastor Matt says that he did not think that this was really a large factor because he doesn’t think most evangelical churches spend time decrying pop culture. He rarely hears sermons on sexuality anymore. But I suspect what he is overlooking here is the huge issue of the homosexual lifestyle and its validity. Our younger generation, I think, has really been powerfully influenced by the pop cultural movement toward the legitimacy of homosexual lifestyle, and therefore feel very reluctant to say that it is wrong to engage in. This seems to be just a huge issue because the Christian faith and the church argue that any kind of sexual relationships that are outside of the context of marriage are illicit and immoral – not only premarital sex but also extramarital sex (including homosexual acts). This is just very, very unpopular today. I think Christian kids as a result find it difficult to reconcile what the church teaches and what their culture and their friends tell them.

Kevin Harris: Pastor Matt made a real good point here. He says, “One may argue that these findings are more perception than reality in most churches.” He says I’ve not seen these things. I have to say my own observation is that the church is trying to become more proactive and positive about sexuality, rather than either not mentioning it at all because our sensibilities just wouldn’t allow it back in the day to (and this is kind of my generation’s experience) decrying sex but giving the only reasons you are not supposed to do it (or the reasons why God says you are not supposed to do it) is because 1) you can get pregnant, and 2) you can get a disease.[4]

Dr. Craig: As I say, I don’t think that heterosexual sex is the issue that is coming out here in number 4. I feel very confident it is homosexuality that is behind number 4 – “Young Christians’ church experiences related to sexuality are often simplistic, judgmental.” I think here that the church is responding to tremendous cultural pressure on this area. It is not as though the church is trying to advance its agenda. It is that it feels very much on the defensive and under attack by this huge cultural shift over the last thirty-some years or so that has advanced the legitimacy of a homosexual lifestyle.

Kevin Harris: “Reason #5 – They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity.”

Dr. Craig: Again, this is the problem of religious pluralism. The idea that Christ and Christ alone is the way of salvation and the way to God is deeply offensive to people today. I remember some time ago speaking on a university campus and one of the non-believing students said to me, “Why do Christians always seem to get it wrong on every moral issue?” And I was rather surprised and I said, “What do you mean?” And he said, “Well, like salvation only through Christ. You have to believe in Christ to be saved. Or abortion.” And it was very clear that he thought that we were narrow and bigoted and dogmatic and that therefore Christians are really immoral people. That has been a huge shift, I think, over the last few decades to seeing Christians as immoral because of their commitment to the exclusive nature of salvation through Christ.

Kevin Harris: That is just huge. We still have a lot of work to overcome there.

Dr. Craig: I think that religious pluralism is the burning theological issue of our day. I think what lies behind it is the cultural conviction that religious belief is not a matter of fact, it is a matter of taste or fashion, and therefore to say that your view alone is right is just an expression of bigotry and close-mindedness because you are simply saying that your tastes are the only right tastes – the only legitimate ones. People don’t think of religious belief as objective matters of fact. Therefore this kind of exclusivity they find offensive, just as if I were to condemn your taste in music or your taste in clothing and say that my tastes alone are correct. If religious belief is just a matter of taste then these claims to exclusivity are indeed absurd and offensive.

Kevin Harris: What is your work on this – christian particularism?

Dr. Craig: Right, yes. I’ve interacted with this honestly and with great struggle to try to exactly discern where the problem lies, what is the problem, and then how can one best solve it. That is all at under the articles on Christian Particularism.

Kevin Harris: “Reason #6 – The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt.”

Dr. Craig: Remember these are Christians’ perceptions. It is not saying that doubters don’t feel that the church is friendly, but apparently these young Christians feel that it is unfriendly to their doubting friends so I take it they are reluctant to bring their doubting friends to church. They don’t feel they will get a friendly reception, which is rather ironic because you would think that the other members of the youth group would feel exactly the same way and would therefore be friendly. I don’t know. But in any case these are the factors listed by this Kinnaman. As I think of these six factors, I have a self-examining spirit in light of these and ask about my own Defenders class that I teach in the context of the local church. Am I being overprotective? Am I giving my students a shallow Christianity? Do I come across as antagonistic to science? How do I address issues of sexuality – in a simplistic and judgmental way or with nuance and care? What about Christian particularism? Do I address that responsibly? And are we friendly and welcoming to skeptics? This is a real call to self-examination to make sure that in our classes that we teach in church as well as in our services that we don’t fall into these pitfalls.[5]

Kevin Harris: Bill, allow me to jump back to number 1 for just a minute: churches seem overprotective. I am just trying to think how that would be. My brother made an observation. He has pastored churches; he is a part-time pastor now. What he is impressed with, he said, in our podcast and other things is that we say, “This is the opposing view” and give it fairly and accurately, and then don’t say, “Don’t believe that bunch of hogwash. These guys are all on acid.” Say, “Here’s the answer. Here is some responses. Here is what we have to say about that.” It doesn’t demean anyone. I thought about that and I go, “Wow. Apparently, that has not been the experience for a lot of people.” It’s poisoning the well.

Dr. Craig: I recently had a student in my Defenders class come to me and say, “Bill, do you realize that when you present these other views, people in the class get the misimpression that you believe in them. You are so fair in presenting them and try to be persuasive, people really think you believe these.” And I said, “Oh, Scott. No, no. I am just trying to give the view fairly and then we will give a critique later.” He said, “I understand that. I realize that. But people aren’t used to hearing this. You’ve got to say, ‘Now, this isn’t my view but this is the view I’m explaining’ and then try to then give it.”

Kevin Harris: Just in case someone has a heart attack before the class is over and dies.[laughter]

Dr. Craig: Yeah, or they don’t come back next week! But I do think that it is better to do that than to try to have this ostrich mentality where we don’t expose folks to the arguments on the other side because the fact is they will be exposed to them.

Kevin Harris: I always bring this up when we come to this topic on the podcast and that is the experience that you’ve had and written about – at the same time you don’t want to challenge a person’s faith. That is not your job. You want to strengthen the faith, but you don’t want to get up there and try to cause someone to doubt.

Dr. Craig: No, I want to challenge their thinking. I don’t want to challenge their faith. I want to strengthen their faith, but I want to challenge their thinking.

Kevin Harris: Which should strengthen their faith.

Dr. Craig: Yes, because when you think carefully and rigorously about these issues then I think you can come to some resolution of the challenges.

Kevin Harris: He says,

Too many churches do in fact present a shallow faith that skips doctrine and apologetics for “how to…” sermons that are little more than self-help talks with scripture sprinkled over them. The refusal to learn theology and how to defend the faith as well as to spend the time thinking about how to present them in a clear and winsome manner is at the heart of all four of the valid objections by young people to the evangelical church.

I’ll pause here and say that he thinks that four of them are valid, and a couple of them are not.

Dr. Craig: Right, he thinks reasons 2 and 3 and 5 and 6 [are valid].

Kevin Harris: Those once again are:

Reason #2 – Teens’ and twentysomethings’ experience of Christianity is shallow.

Reason #3 – Churches come across as antagonistic to science.

Reason #5 – They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity.

Reason #6 – The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt.

Pastor Matt really affirms those four out of these six and wants to address those.

Pastors must simply take this responsibility seriously and put in the time and effort. There is no other answer.

Dr. Craig: Here is where I want to take issue with Pastor Matt. He says that pastors have to be trained in order to train their congregations to be lay theologians and pastors. The pastor must take the responsibility for doing that. I think that is utterly unrealistic and, in fact, false. Today’s average pastor is so overworked and so burdened with responsibilities that he doesn’t have the time to do this. He doesn’t have the time to inform himself and to train himself in these things much less to train other people in it. The average pastor is concerned with how to help Mr. and Mrs. Jones keep their teenage son from doing drugs or Mr. and Mrs. Jones from getting a divorce. The problems and the troubles that burden the average pastor, I think, we don’t realize how overwhelming they are. He doesn’t have time to do this. Rather, what I want to encourage pastors to do is to identify key laymen in their church who would shoulder this responsibility and who would then be involved in providing such training for another group of laypeople within the church who can then teach others, for example, in the youth group.[6] I think that the church ought to set aside some of its budget for helping these laypeople to, say, enroll in online certificate programs in apologetics, to attend apologetics conferences, and get them really trained and equipped. So what I want to say is the pastor doesn’t need to shoulder this responsibility himself. Rather, he needs to empower people in the congregation who are interested and passionate about this to do the job and to do it for him. What he needs to do is in a sense be able and willing to let go of the reins and to empower others to really do this task. If he does that, I think that you will find that then the laypeople will rise to the challenge and what Matt envisions being done can happen then in the local church. But if you try to lay it on the shoulders of the pastor, I think that is just unrealistic. It is just not true that he needs to take the responsibility for this.

Kevin Harris: Matt would probably agree with us that pastors can sprinkle some apologetics and good doctrine in their sermons. But it would be difficult . . . if I were a pastor, I would want to do a series on the ontological argument! [laughter] It would be hard for me to show the discipline required to reach out to everybody out there. That is going to be the people whose teenagers are struggling with drugs to somebody whose daughter just ran away to somebody whose wife just left him or to somebody whose mortgage is not . . .

Dr. Craig: Funerals, weddings, the church budget, the physical plant. The burdens on the average pastor are just enormous.

Kevin Harris: His weekly sermons have to be wide enough to encompass everybody.

Dr. Craig: Yes, and you have to prepare a new one every single week. And some pastors are even preaching two a week. So we’ve go to do everything we can to relieve the burden on these men and not to lay one more burden on their shoulders of training themselves in apologetics and then trying to train laity in their churches in apologetics. Rather, we need to raise up within our churches key laypeople and then really empower them, invest in them, to be able to get trained and to train other people in these areas.

Kevin Harris: Bill, as we wrap up today, talk a little bit about the Defenders model that you’ve established at your church.

Dr. Craig: This is a wonderful class, Kevin. I wanted to teach a class that would be a survey of Christian doctrine, but that would also periodically raise apologetic questions along the way. I think it would be very unwise spiritually to have a class that is devoted to nothing but apologetics over a long period of time. I think a person’s spiritual life would just dry up in that kind of situation. You need to be feeding people from the Scriptures and with Christian doctrine and not just exclusively apologetics. But what I discovered from my doctoral studies in Germany is that when you explore Christian doctrine there just very naturally arise along the way questions of apologetic significance which you can then take as an aside and address them. For example, one of the areas of Christian theology is the Doctrine of Man. And in discussing the Doctrine of Man you are going to confront the question of the historical Adam and Eve and the challenge to this that is raised by modern population genetics and the theory of evolution. So that will be then an apologetics issue that can be addressed in the context of teaching the Christian Doctrine of Man. And so with many other areas. So what we did in our Defenders class was I began with the Doctrine of Scripture (or really Doctrine of Revelation since I think God is revealed in nature as well as Scripture) and then we moved right through the body of Christian doctrine – Doctrine of God, Doctrine of Christ, Doctrine of Creation, Doctrine of Salvation, and now we are nearing the end. We are on the Doctrine of the Church and have one more section to complete – the Doctrine of the Last Things (or Eschatology). It has been a wonderful experience to see people in the class just blossom and grow through instruction in Christian doctrine, especially to see young kids come to the class who haven’t been fed, for example, in the high school group, but who have tough questions and they come to Defenders and hear these questions that they’ve had addressed. It has just been really great for them. Also I am finding that men especially resonate with this material and will, as a result, come to this class.[7] We have quite a number of people in the class who actually go to other churches but they come over to Defenders after their worship service because there is nothing in their church like this. So it has been a wonderful, wonderful experience doing this Defenders class. I look forward to every Sunday morning to teaching this class.

Kevin Harris: One doesn’t have to move across the country to attend – it is at

Dr. Craig: Live streamed! So people in their local church can have a Sunday School class that will meet at the same time and midway through our class break in and get the live stream and watch it together in their Sunday School class and then talk about the lesson afterward. It is just really a marvelous teaching tool that everyone can avail himself of.[8]