Why Do Young People Leave?

Ryan Goodwin


            There was a time when it seemed like one never heard of Christians “leaving the church.” It was a foreign idea, especially in the case of young people, who were most often pioneers for the faith and active defenders of sound doctrine. In a time when it was fascinating, exciting, and even, if the word is appropriate, popular to be a member of the church of Christ, it was uncommon to see young people up and leaving. But a disappointing shift in fortunes has occurred over the last fifty years. As a number of factors affect our ministry, we have seen our young ones abandoning the faith in favor of worldliness, sinful addictions, fascination with atheism and human philosophy, or even a desire to be a part of a denomination.

            There is an explanation for this trend, as one writer explains, “They knew what was wrong with denominationalism, even if they did not always live up to what they knew was right. They might become unfaithful, but they could not bring themselves to join some religious institution they could not find in the Bible…In this day…it is not uncommon to hear about members leaving the church and uniting with a denomination.…We are reaping the harvest of 25 years of non-distinctive preaching. Many of our young people no longer know the difference between the church of the New Testament and the ecclesiastical kingdoms built by men....Some time ago a preacher/editor said to me, ‘Our young people are not buying the old arguments against instrumental music.’ I replied, ‘No, our young people are not hearing the old arguments against instrumental music.’ Some of them are soft on the issue…not because they have rejected what they have been taught, but because they have never been taught at all. They do not understand the principles involved. They have never heard the old arguments relating to Bible authority, speaking where the Bible speaks, and remaining silent where the Bible is silent…Some of them grew up on a style of preaching in which the favorite text was ‘what is wrong with the church’...Contrary to what some have thought, there is a real hunger and appreciation today for ‘the old paths’. Distinctive doctrinal sermons…presented plainly in a loving spirit, provoke widespread interest. Young people are often the first ones who manifest zeal and excitement at such preaching. Studies have shown for several years that growing churches are those which take a strong doctrinal stance. The old-line liberal denominations have been losing membership for some time” (“Who Are We?”, Alan E. Highers, The Spiritual Sword, October 1994, pp. 1-2). Here are some initial observations:


·        We make lots of statements about how the young people are the future of the church, yet are often not willing to do what it takes to make them feel important and loved.

·        Do we overlook our young people and their needs?

·        Youth is not something to be despised (1 Timothy 4:12).

·        Do we give them opportunities to learn, grow, experience Christianity, or express their spirituality? Do we stifle them spiritually (Luke 18:15-17)?

·        Do we make our worship services interesting to them? Our Bible class curriculum?


            Every single one of us has had experience with this problem: friends from childhood, young people who are converted and quit after a few months, or even our own children. The answer we seek is to the following question: why do young people quit going to church?


A generation that does not know God…


            Ephesians 1:15-17 says, “For this I too, having heard of the faith in the Lord Jesus which exists among you, and your love for all the saints, do not cease giving thanks for you, while making mention of you in my prayers.” In the year 62 AD, which is about the time this epistle was written, Paul could not cease praising the Christians in Ephesus for their faith and devotion to the Gospel. Less than thirty years, later, a new group of professed Christians dwells in Ephesus. Of these members, the Lord says in Revelation 2:4-5, “But I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you, and will remove your lampstand out of its place – unless you repent.” In only one generation, less than thirty years, the church at Ephesus had lost their first love – they had forgotten about the difficult labors of their parents in establishing the congregation and standing strong for the Gospel. They had forgotten what it meant to be strong in the faith and to love the Lord with all their hearts! Do we ever find this happening to us? It can seem so distant, at times, to think about the debate over apostasy two or three generations ago. I sometimes find myself taking for granted the hard work that our parents and grandparents did to strengthen the church and draw a line in the sand. I forget that at some point, a forefather of mine split from a denomination and took up his cross amongst the true believers (John 4:23-24).

            An example of this same second generation mentality is found in Judges 2:7-10. In fact, one can read through the entire book of Judges and find examples of this concept! “And the people served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who survived Joshua, who had seen all the great work of the Lord which He had done for Israel… And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers; and there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord, nor yet the work which He had done for Israel. Then the sons of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord…” In only one generation, the people had degenerated from a God-fearing nation to a home of idols like Baal and the Ashtaroth. If this does not seem close to home, then consider the situation in the early 20th-century discussed by Donald Townsley, “The people of God were not familiar with the whole counsel of God. They were not studying for themselves as they should, and the issues that were troubling the churches were not being discussed from pulpits of most [churches]. As a consequence, members of the church as a whole had no convictions against many practices because they had never heard them discussed and just did not know whether they were scriptural or not” (Trends Pointing Toward A New Apostasy, 5).


Failure to hear powerful preaching


            One of the greatest struggles we have in keeping young people interested and educated is giving them spiritual meals that appeal to them. There is no way to get around the reality of our time: young people have an attention span of less than 15 minutes. If a point cannot be made in that amount of time, then no point will be learned. But many preachers very naively forget this point and fail to deliver messages from the pulpit that actually affect the lives of hearers – especially the younger souls.

            Preachers must preach Jesus (1 Corinthians 1:23). Preachers are sent to “preach the Gospel, not in cleverness of speech, that the cross of Christ should not be made void” (1 Corinthians 1:17). This means that we have an obligation to teach things related to God and the Bible, not the world. To preach Jesus is to teach the entire counsel of God (Acts 20:27), which means helping the young people see how God affects every aspect of their lives:



            Not only that, but worship in general needs to be powerful and meaningful, for all of our sakes. Worshiping God should not be an arduous task that we groan about. Neither should it be boring. What a sad state it is when Christians do not long for the assembly as David does in Psalm 84. “How lovely are Thy dwelling places, O Lord of hosts! My soul longed and even yearned for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God… For a day in Thy courts is better than a thousand outside…” Do we say the same thing about coming together as an assembly and singing, studying, breaking the bread of the Lord’s table, and praying? Is worship something that touches your life is it something static?

            Have you ever noticed that stagnant churches tend to have poor singing? Conversely, growing churches sing with fervency and enthusiasm, with full conviction, with a spirit of love and praise. In our worship, it is not enough to simply do the acts – worship is not something we do, but something that we live. We are not commanded to sing, but to “speak to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:19). We are not commanded to say prayers only, but to “rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. Do not quench the Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-19). We are not to simply listen to a sermon, but to “receive the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily” (Acts 17:11).


Young people who lack perspective


            “Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth” (Ecclesiastes 12:1). “Set God always before thine eyes from thy earliest days; think who made thee, and what thou wast made for, not for self-pleasing only, not to gratify thy passions which are now strong, but that thou mightest use thy powers and energy in accordance with the laws of thy being as a creature of God’s hands” (Pulpit Commentary, Vol. IX, Deane, 296). What a shame that so many young people waste their energy on worldly things. It is often only in a man’s old age that he finally realizes the benefits of serving and loving God. A youth, with all the vitality and enthusiasm that come with it, is an invaluable tool in the service of God. Young people are more physically capable of strong song leading, door-to-door evangelism, energy in teaching, and they have access, in a sense, to a larger audience of potential converts. It is an unfortunate truth that our society does not respect the teaching of the elderly as much as it ought to. Quite frankly, it is youth that appeals to people. Unbelievers will be drawn to a congregation with youthful enthusiasm and vitality. And if the youth of a church is dead already, then what hope has that church for future growth? The most productive years of our Christian lives should in our youngest days. Not that we will cease being productive as older Christians, but that we will, when that time comes, lack the ability to do all that we might want to do. How sad it is, and how ironic, that as young people we have the potential and lack the drive, and as older people, we are confined by age but brimming with earnestness. If you do not want to live by regret, then work hard for Christ now! “Before the evil days come and the years draw near when you will say, ‘I have no delight in them.’” Too many old men become jaded and spiteful in the dusk of life. For a person who does not put his trust in God, the last few years of ill health and insecurity can be dark, demeaning, and utterly hateful days. It is like Barzillai in 2 Samuel 19:35, “I am now eighty years old. Can I distinguish between good and bad? Or can your servant taste what I eat or what I drink? Or can I hear anymore the voice of singing men and women?”

            For the young people, please retain the perspective that is necessary. You may feel the urge to live a life for yourself, but remember a few things:



Are our young ones important to us?


            What makes many young people leave is the distinct feeling that they are useless and unimportant to the adults around them. When we marginalize their talents or fail to give them credit for hard work or potential, they will seek positive affirmation somewhere else. The reason why many teens join denominations is because they are catered to, and made to feel special. While I do not suggest we have a rock climbing wall and a big screen TV at the church building, there needs to be some consideration of the needs of the young people:



            It is true that our young people are the future of the church. Maybe not this congregation, as many of them will marry and move away. In any case, we have the unique opportunity to affect these souls while they are in our midst. Just like a parent, there is little we can do for them once they go to college, or move far away. So what impression will we leave on them? Do we drive away our young people, or do we embrace them and leave them with love, unity, joy, and the hope of Jesus Christ?