Something didn’t sit right in my spirit. The situation in front of me was off but I couldn’t put it into words much less find a name for it. For months on end, I was one of many volunteers for the youth group. Every Wednesday night as I entered the building, TVs were turned on, video game controllers were being set out, giant-sized bean bags were tossed on the floor while popcorn, nacho chips and cheese, candy, and pizza were prepped and ready to hand out to the mass influx of kids we were about to have. Soon kids ages 12 to 18 began trickling through the door in a steady stream with Lecrae, TobyMac, and other Christian singers thumping the soundwaves.
Yet, when it came time for the Pastor to deliver the message, volunteers like myself were charged with sitting next to troublesome youth or removing them from their seats altogether. But the moment that sent alarm bells ringing was during an altar call. The youth were supposed to have heads bowed in prayer, communing with our mighty God, but all I saw was harden hearts, boredom, and the look of indifference on their faces. Others were scrolling on their phones and some were all together ignoring the moment.
Alarmed, I actually tapped one teen on the shoulder and asked her to put away her phone. I then said, “If you don’t care and you don’t believe in God then why did you come?” She replied, “For the pizza. And because my parents make me.”
The Mass Child Exodus from Church
Does this sound familiar? Ed Stetzer says “Today’s youth group has become nothing more than a holding tank with pizza.” This is the generation of children that are leaving faith behind in record numbers. They have earned the titles of Mass Child Exodus and One Generation from Extinction as parents and Pastors are left questioning where they went wrong. Parents assumed if they choose Biblical names, listened to the Go Fish Guys, read Bible stories, and attended church faithfully—that when their children grew up, they would not depart from what they were taught.
Apologist Frank Turek notes that as parents and the church, “We fail to realize that what we win them with we win them to. If we win them with entertainment and low commitment, we win them to entertainment and low commitment. Charles Spurgeon was way ahead of his time when he implored the church to start ‘feeding the sheep rather than amusing the goats.’”
One Generation from Extinction
The Christian faith is one generation from extinction and the statistics of children checking out of church at younger and younger ages are alarming. Hillary Morgan Freer, author of Mama Bear Apologetics is sounding the call for parents to wake up and take note, “Moms, truly: Elementary age is not too young to begin. In fact, some research indicates that up to 46 percent of youth have already ‘checked out’ by the end of middle school. They may attend church with their parents, but their Christian faith is name only” (pg. 32). So, what is a parent to do? Didn’t we have the promise of ‘training up a child in the way that they should go and when they are old, they won’t depart from it?’ Yes, we do have this promise but it’s not about our children’s faith. This proverb talks about training up a child in the talents and giftings God has given them.
In order to introduce our children to the real God, we have to be real with our kids. We have to be willing to open and honest about our path to God. Growing up I thought God was just a crutch for fragile people. Yet, there was a part of me that somehow knew intuitively a “Creator” existed. But I questioned how a loving God could allow pain, tragedy, and evil to harm me as a young girl. It wasn’t until a suicide attempt in college that I encountered the real, true living God.
As a mom, I used to be afraid of telling my children my story—as if the Bible, God, and His plan of redemption was too fragile for my children’s questions. But this is how we put a stop to the mass exodus of teens and young adults from church. The Bible invites us to test our faith, 1 Thessalonians 5:20-23 reminds us, “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil. May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul, and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.”
As parents, we are called to talk about God when we rise up, when we eat, when we remember our salvation, and when we lie down (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). It doesn’t say the church—it says parents. We have to be willing to talk about the world, what’s happening, and what the Bible says to be true—as an ongoing, open, honest conversation.
5 Ways to Put a Stop to the Fall of Today’s Youth Group
1. Pray for your children. Now more than ever, our children need us to pray against the darkness, the spirits, and everything in between that shines itself as light in their world. Ask God to prepare your heart and mind with His wisdom so that you may have age-appropriate conversations that welcome their doubts, perspectives, and experiences.
2. Be willing to talk to your kids about what’s happening in the world. Keep the conversation going and find resources like Mama Bear Apologetics and Can I Ask That and our current favorite book, How (Not) to Read the Bible: Making Sense of the Anti-women, Anti-science, Pro-violence, Pro-slavery and Other Crazy-Sounding Parts of Scripture by Dan Kimball.
3. Learn how to read the Bible in context. Too many Christians don’t know how to read the Bible and then cherry-pick verses to apply to their lives while ignoring the rest all together. As parents, our job is to learn how to read the Bible and teach our children the same. We need to be willing to read the Bible in its entirety—even the “icky” passages with wisdom and understanding.
4. Be willing to emphasize the gospel. Emphasize the gospel on topics that are already seeping into their world like the sex outside of marriage, living together, why bitterness and taking offense is dangerous, and the LGTBQ+. Our children want to know where God stands on these things. The bottom line is Christians are becoming known for their hatred and legalism. Our job is to emphasize Jesus and the gospel.
5. Be willing to talk about the New Age movement and pantheism. There are several worldviews competing our children’s attention. This includes emotionalism, Marxism, naturalism, and even self-help. Be willing to talk about what is happening in the news and how God allows free will. Brush up on moral relativism and post-modernism. The Bible reminds us God has given us the Holy Spirit who is filled with wisdom.
We don’t have to have the right words, we merely need to be prepared, and ask God for His wisdom. What our kids need most right now isn’t another Wednesday night filled with games and a quick lesson about why God says this or that is bad. Our kids need their parents willing to talk about their personal relationship with God and how God still loves this world—no matter how messy it seems.
Let’s take our cue from Jesus and grow disciples. Not only did Jesus disciple hundreds, He gathered the 12, then the three, then He worked each of them like Peter, one on one. Jesus focused on building relationships while sharing about the father. If we as parents focus on the gospel, we plant seeds for the harvest, “The most effective way to disciple youth one-on-one is to have a regular rhythm, whether that’s once a week or several times a month or some other regular pattern. It basically creates momentum in the relationship.”
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Heather Riggleman is an award-winning journalist and a regular contributor for Crosswalk. She calls Nebraska home with her three kids and a husband of 22 years. She believes Jazzercise, Jesus, and tacos can fix anything and not necessarily in that order! She is author of I Call Him By Name Bible Study, the Bold Truths Prayer Journal, Mama Needs a Time Out, and a contributor to several books. You can find her at www.heatherriggleman.com or on Facebook.