I realize that some posts are so theologically focused that some readers may not be interested, but hey, it’s my blog, and this was heavy on my mind these last few days…
It happened again this week. I sat and listened as a well-intentioned teacher told us that young people were leaving the church in record numbers. The reason according to him was that there are number of important questions that the church has failed to answer. On the screen he shared a number of the unanswered questions that he believes have contributed to the exodus. His presentation was organized, passionate and compelling.
It was also wrong.
While it is true that young people are leaving the church in record numbers, it is not because difficult questions have not been answered, and it is not the church’s fault that this is happening.
Understanding this begins with an understanding of what is meant by “the church.” There are two possible definitions. One definition of “church” is the place where people gather for religious services. A second and more biblical definition of “church” is the universal community of people who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ.
Membership in the first type of church can be held by just about anyone, as individual churches can believe and teach just about anything. There are “Christian churches” that do not believe the Bible to be true, do not believe in the bodily death and resurrection of Jesus, and which are little more than social clubs. True believers would be expected to leave such a “church” in search of another. Leaving these churches, from a biblical perspective, is a good thing, not something to be mourned or lamented.
Membership in the second kind of church, a community of people who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ, is different. While members of this community may gather in buildings on a regular basis, this is not how it’s members are known. Membership in this community is granted by the Holy Spirit at the moment of salvation, not conferred by an organization. It is an adoption into the family of God, a gift of God born of faith, not a choice by an individual.
Membership in the second kind of church is distinct from the first in another, crucially important way. Membership in the family of God is permanent and irrevocable. True believers never leave!
Consider the words of Christ-
“All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.” John 6:37
“My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.” John 10:29
What does it mean then when young people walk away from a community of committed followers of Christ? Why do they leave?
The Apostle John gives us the answer-
“They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.” 1 John 2:19
Consider the implications of John’s assertion. Nearly 2000 years ago John made it clear that there will be people who at one time claim faith in Christ but who will ultimately walk away from the faith. As terrible as this is John made it clear that it is something about the person, not something about the church, that causes them to leave. That something is a lack of true, saving faith.
How do we then reconcile the reality of so many young people leaving with these truths of Scripture? Why are so many more young people walking away from the church today? What has changed?
One thing that has changed is that church attendance, and faith in general, is no longer culturally popular. In previous generations church attendance was a sign of morality and goodness. As a result, it was easier for people who did not truly believe to feel comfortable going to church. Being a “churchgoing person” was a good thing, so people would stay even if they did not believe.
We are living in a post Christian world, a world in which traditional Christian teachings are increasingly considered immoral, bigoted and close minded. Being a “church-going person” is often no longer a positive thing. In such a society, why would people stay if they did not believe?
Yes, young people are leaving the church, but it is not because of anything true believers are doing. It is because these young people don’t truly believe!
Why then, do so many young people say they are leaving the church because of unanswered questions? I suspect it is because they do not want to admit that they do not truly believe. It is easier to blame others for one’s actions than it is to admit lost faith. (As a side point, in an internet world, there are no unanswered questions. Truth seekers can always find answers somewhere!)
This is important, because there are dangerous implications to the message I heard. The teacher, perhaps unwittingly, implied that the faith of the current generation was dependent on the actions of the church instead of solely on the work of the Holy Spirit. His teaching inadvertently suggested that God is not big enough to draw people to Himself on His own.
This is not to say that there are not questions that the church can and should answer better, or that we do not have a responsibility to better equip young people to stand against the challenges presented by the world. The point is that the salvation of our children is not dependent on us. Their membership in the family of God is granted by Him, and there is nothing we can do to change it. Try as we might, we cannot save anyone. Fail as we may, we cannot keep anyone from God.
When confronted with our failings it is important to remember that the church will always be imperfect, and those who do not want to follow Christ will always point to her imperfections as their reason for leaving. Rather than apologizing for her imperfections, a better response for the church is to point to the perfection of Christ, for it is Him those who leave are rejecting.
PS: Some who read this may have heard the same lesson I did and think. “This was not his main point!” It wasn’t and I realize there were many good things said on Sunday morning. This post is not meant to pick on a particular speaker (he is intentionally unnamed), but to address a common error made by many people I have heard speak