We’ve all read the hand-wringing articles alerting the faithful to the growing crisis of youth apostasy in the church. Depending on the article, between 20% and 85% of church youth leave the fold in college or early adulthood, never to return. Inevitably these articles offer an analysis of why this is happening (typically blaming their parents or churches or pizza-and-entertainment-loving youth groups), along with prescriptions for stemming the tide (usually including better teaching, more Bible study, more apologetics, more prayer, and more true conversions). For a sampling of such articles, simply google why our youth are leaving the church.
Most of these analyses seem to be based on the best guesses of the authors, supported by the conventional wisdom and shared views of their believing audience. A few of the authors do go to the trouble of actually asking apostates why they left the faith. However, the articles I’ve read in the latter category tend to filter the words of the apostates through an evangelical lens, without really allowing the apostates’ true reasons come through.
As a flesh and blood apostate, I’ll offer a few of my humble best guesses as to how to prevent youth from leaving the fold, based on a retrospective of my own experience. I offer two alternative tracks, which I’ll call the Insular Track and the Liberal Track. I’m not sure which track, if any, would have prevented me from taking the path I’ve followed.
#1: Insular Track
1) Don’t give them unfettered access to the Internet. On this point I’m in agreement with apologist Josh McDowell, who maintains that the Internet is the greatest threat to Christians. Granted, it’s probably rare for an unwavering youth to be blindsided by a single Internet article, but if she already has some doubts about the truth of the gospel, she’ll have no problem finding a wealth of well-reasoned arguments against her faith, potentially destabilizing her moorings irrevocably. This is what happened to me: I was struggling with certain passages of the Bible in Africa in 2000, searched for some help from a Christian perspective, and ended up finding and reading Dr. Robert Price’s Beyond Born Again, which threw my already fragile faith into a tailspin and led me to realize I was not alone in my doubts.
2) Don’t send your kids to a Christian college. I attended LeTourneau University, an evangelical school whose library happened to have a book called Christianity and the Age of the Earth by evangelical geologist Davis Young (1988), that had convinced me I had been wrong about the age of the earth and that my reasons for believing in a young earth had been merely illusory. This was not the main reason I left the faith, but it did put me at odds with the majority of Christians in my circles, making it easier eventually to question others of their claims.
3) Don’t encourage them to read the Bible in its entirety, especially the Old Testament, unless you’re prepared to explain, for example, why it was moral for God to order the Israelite men to keep the virgins for themselves (we all know what that means) after slaughtering the Midianite men, women, and children. And don’t condemn Muslims for doing similar acts if you’re not prepared to condemn those of the Israelites.
4) Don’t dismiss their genuine questions with exasperation or with accusations of rebellion or bias. Listen to them and admit they have good questions, and don’t offer them facile answers they can see through.
5) Don’t let them meet kind and wise individuals outside the fold, like some of the Muslims I met in Africa, or like one of my bosses as work, who’s married to another man. A sensitive soul can’t rightly stomach the idea that these outsiders are deserving of eternal damnation.
#2: Liberal Track
1) Teach them that the earth is very old and that we share common ancestors with all other creatures on earth. This will spare them a rude encounter with reality once they discover the overwhelming evidence for evolution.
2) Teach them that the Bible is not inerrant. When they find true contradictory passages in the Bible, they won’t be thrown into an existential crisis like the one I faced when I had to sign a statement of inerrancy with my mission employer.
3) Teach them that hell is either nonexistent or of limited duration, and that even some of the NT writers like Paul did not subscribe to eternal damnation, but rather the annihilation/destruction of the lost.
4) Teach them that love and respect are the pillars of any decent family, friendship, and society, and for goodness’ sake, spend more time advocating for the poor, the outcast, and the unjustly treated, than you do expressing thinly veiled or explicit contempt for blacks, gays, welfare recipients, and Obama.
Interestingly, some of the strongest criticisms of my book came from those who believe my background was too strict, so that when I did encounter the real world of ambiguity, I wasn’t able to weather the storm like a pliable liberal reed, but instead broke like a brittle fundamentalist oak. See, for example, this review and my response to it. See also this review.
In truth, probably neither of these tracks would have prevented my departure from the fold, but I’d like to think that Track #2 would have offered me a better chance, because I think it’s the more honest approach.
I’ll offer yet a third track, which I’ll call the Pious Track, representing some of the most common suggestions I’ve read in the online articles aiming to diagnose and treat the problem of apostasy. It’s the track I actually followed, but it didn’t prevent me from doubting the Bible and eventually the existence of God.
#3: Pious Track
1) Accept Jesus into your heart and really mean it
2) Read and study the Bible, both individually and in groups, and believe it’s God’s very word
3) Pray, cultivating a one-on-one relationship with Jesus
4) Respect, love, and obey your parents
5) Attend church
6) Serve God in ministry a lot
7) Tell others about Jesus and lead them to him
8) Study doctrine and believe orthodox things about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, salvation, the resurrection, and the Bible
9) Live a chaste life
10) Ask God forgiveness for every known and unknown sin
11) Praise God for who he is and what he’s done
12) Believe that salvation is through faith, not works
I confess I have no answers for those who really do want to know how to prevent their youth from leaving the fold, though that’s likely unsurprising coming from someone like me. Perhaps this post will offer a window in the mind of an apostate for those who’ve only read articles on this subject from the point of view of the faithful.