As the scintillating Richard G. Howe says, “three out of two people are bad at fractions.” Fewer, I imagine, are good at statistics. Statistics are useful and powerful in telling a story but are often misleading. In fact, statistics can be used to tell any story you want depending on how the questions are asked and the findings presented. And so goes it with the mass exodus of young adults leaving the church. We want to know why. Polls then are taken, findings are presented, and the blogopshere runs wild with them. Thus we find our social media filled with articles telling us the five reasons millennials have forsaken God. And this is fine. Do not misunderstand my point here. I only want to add one thought to this discussion, and it is this. People never give you the real reason they leave church.
When people leave the church, the reasons they offer either make themselves look good or the church look bad. Sometimes this is accomplished in the same reason. No one, though, ever offers their affair with fantasy football and their Sunday morning sport shows as a reason. No one ever tells you how they were not invited to a baby shower and let bitterness harbor in their heart for two years as they slowly removed themselves from the fellowship. And no one ever offers their lifestyle of sinful indulgence as the reason for abandoning the bride of Christ.
Excuse my boldness, but I think the leading factor in why millennials are leaving the church is sexual sin. This will never show up on a poll. I will be glad to find myself wrong about this. But I hear all too often the same story from youth ministers. The norm for youth groups across the country is to have all of their upperclassmen actively engaged in sex, or pornography, or both. It is rare, youth ministers tell me, to find a male high school student that has not had sex or been exposed to pornography. And it is nearly as rare to find a female upperclassmen that is still a virgin or abstaining from “not all the way” sexual activity. The message youth ministers want parents to hear is that they need to assume that their sons and daughters are playing with sex because they all are. In a culture that praises the self and is drowning in sexual sin, it is easy to see why millennials have lost the wonder of God and grown tired of His church.
Intellect is not driving teenagers out of the church. Their hearts are abandoning God long before their minds. It is right to equip teenagers with the reasons for Christian faith. But there is something that ought come before the cosmological argument. The greatest lesson the church needs in apologetics is holiness. Seeking to dispel blind faith is a waste of time if we are going to turn a blind eye to sin. Our response to sociological research will not result in our desired end without an acknowledgment of the problem of sexual sin in the church. For there is no way to make church relevant to people who have no interest in surrendering their lives. Or, I suppose there is a way, but it is not biblical. We could to contort our churches to affirm and facilitate self-centered and lustful desires of rebellious hypocritical pseudo-believers. But I don’t think that would be a good idea.
Holiness is the relevance of Christianity. For in it comes rest and peace and freedom, what we are seeking in sexual rebellion. Sin cannot be ignored. It always robs. It always kills. It always destroys. Two years of “harmless” sexual exploring will result in fifteen years of consequences. Sin’s darkness cannot withstand God’s light, but the ramifications of sin are long felt after forgiveness is embraced. Let us, therefore, lead our youngsters into greener pastures. Let us cause them to lie down in the freedom of God’s ways. Let us not look at the pretense of their rebellion. Rather, let us pray and preach and teach and allow God’s light to shine into their darkening hearts and show them what they actually need. Let us stitch their wounds and not just cover them.
Healing comes by recognizing the need for a doctor. It comes by recognizing you are sick. Many millennials have been sold the lie that sickness does not come from sexual sin. And truth be told, they are being sold the exact opposite, that health comes from the surrounding of your will to your sexuality. This lie has caused many teenagers to lay down their arms and sleep with the enemy. But actions do not merely remain actions. They condition the way we think. Thus marks sin’s slippery slope. Once sin enters your life, it spreads. It distorts the way we think and feel. And so, many teenagers now find the church to be not merely irrelevant, but immoral. They have embraced the lie that freedom comes in sex thereby making the church an oppressor. An exodus is only natural at this point. We must confront this.
We confront sin’s ruin, first, by surrendering our lives to God’s ways. Our lives must be marked by holiness if we are to lead others into it. “Neither coercion nor reward shape human behavior as much as a motivated attempt to resemble a specific person” (Ogden, Discipleship Essentials, p. 11). When teenagers see in us the value of surrendering to God’s ways, they will desire it as well. I wonder, how many teenagers have tasted the goodness of God through the holy lifetyle of an adult? I imagine it is a more common experience for teenagers to develop a distaste for church because of rampant hypocrisy than it is for them to crave the fruit seen falling from the tree of the righteous.
Second, we love teenagers. We take an interest in their lives. We build bridges of communication with them. We do not stand on a street corner and scream for their repentance. They are an abandoned generation. They have been left on their own to navigate a vast seas of choices. We thought google would be enough and accordingly withdrew our leadership from them. But we cannot isolate them. We cannot create a greater chasm by yelling at their sin. We must embrace them. They must feel our warmth and closeness.
In humility being armed with knowledge of God and his will, let us seek to restore an abandoned generation ravaged by sin’s folly. Let us gently invade their lives. They are a passionate army ready to change the world. They are not apathetic as many were in the previous generation. They desire truth, truth that will make this world better. They will go if we send them. But sexual sin is blocking the road of many. Therefore, let us help them remove the greatest obstacle in their path, and in so doing, see life abound in their midst and spread to every corner of this world.
*Ogden, Greg. Discipleship Essentials: A Guide to Building Your Life in Christ. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2007. Print.
Michael C. Sherrard is a pastor, author of Relational Apologetics, and the Director of Ratio Christi College Prep. RCCP is an organization that seeks to equip the church for effective evangelism by teaching high school students apologetics, fundamental Christian doctrine, and biblical evangelism.