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Why they leave and why they stay

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Georgia Baptists are becoming passionate about reaching the next generation (#ReachingNextGen). At least we had better be passionate, enthusiastic, and zealous about it, because we are only one generation away from total atheism.

Several years ago Ken Ham, CEO of Answers in Genesis, wrote a book entitled Already Gone and indicated that students aren’t waiting until college to drop out of church. He contends that students begin to doubt the reliability and relevance of God’s Word in middle school or earlier.

He explains that these young people are abandoning the church for three reasons: boring services, legalism, and hypocrisy in the church.

First, they are turned off by boring services. Is it possible for churches to take the life-changing message of God’s Word, the message that cause the Apostle Peter to be crucified upside down, that caused Polycarp to be sentenced to burn at the stake, that caused Felix Manz to be drowned in the icy waters of the Limmat River, and that caused Jim Elliot, Ed McCully, Roger Youderian, Peter Fleming, and Nate Saint to be killed for their faith while trying to minister to the Huaorani people of Ecuador and make it boring?

How can the story of God’s inexplicable provision for the Israelites in the wilderness, the accounts of Elijah and Elisha’s miracles, the steadfast faith of Daniel, the virtuous life, the vicarious death and victorious resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the promise of heaven to the redeemed be boring?

Every worship service should be marked by a combination of solemnity, joy, excitement, fear, reverence, anticipation, and surrender. And yet, so many people go to church as if it were just another thing to check off their “to-do list.”

Preparation for Sunday is important. In fact, we need to pray for and prepare for our Sunday Bible study and worship services as if life and death depended upon it. The music must be heartfelt. The prayers must be focused and fervent. The giving must be joyful and generous. The preaching must be passionate.

Hershel York, Dean of Students at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, writes in the Foreword of Jerry Vines and Adam B. Dooley’s book Passion in the Pulpit (a book every pastor ought to read), “Most preaching today would hardly warrant the notice of Satan’s crowd, let alone a stoning. Surely heaven groans when we turn the beautiful Gospel of Jesus Christ into the source of so many yawns.” (For an example of passionate preaching go to the W.A. Criswell Library on the Internet and watch his sermon on “The Curse of Liberalism”).

And, finally, the invitation must be clear, direct, and bold. Preachers should never apologize for giving an invitation to salvation and surrender. The preacher’s plaintive appeal must be made without apology and with genuine emotion and everlasting concern for the souls of his hearers. Let us eliminate any semblance of a boring church service.

Ham says that many young people leave the church because of legalism. When Paul wrote the churches in Galatia, he admonished the Jewish Christians to beware of teaching new converts that they needed to adhere to certain Jewish customs under the Law of Moses, such as circumcision and the observance of special days and seasons.

Erwin Lutzer, former pastor of Moody Church in Chicago, writes, “Among Christians there is a kind of legalism that teaches that, although we are saved through faith in Christ, sanctification is a matter of submitting to certain rules or standards. Thus, one’s Christian progress is judged by whether or not one keeps the prescribed rules: such as no movies, no dancing, no gambling, etc. Make no mistake, these rules might have value to keep Christians from certain select sins, but they are not a substitute for the fruit of the Spirit. Thus, once again rules are misused.”

In some cases, legalism elevates mere human preferences to the level of biblical absolutes. When these human preferences infringe on teenager preferences it sometimes causes problems and teens no longer feel welcome in church and ultimately leave.

Churches must find a way to encourage and provide accountability for their members, but they also need to make sure that their models of accountability do not degenerate into exacting legalism.

The third reason Ham gives for youths leaving the church is hypocrisy. In America we have created an image of the church that doesn’t look like the church of our fathers and grandfathers and it may lack the authenticity the church once had.

An article in The Washington Post written by millennial journalist Rachel Held Evans, generally known for her liberal position on many issues (though even liberals can be right occasionally), states, “Many churches have sought to lure millennials back by focusing on style points: cooler bands, hipper worship, edgier programming, impressive technology. Yet while these aren’t inherently bad ideas and might in some cases be effective, they are not the key to drawing millennials back to God in a lasting and meaningful way. Young people don’t simply want a better show. And trying to be cool might be making things worse.

Evans continues, “My friend and blogger Amy Peterson put it this way: ‘I want a service that is not sensational, flashy, or particularly ‘relevant.’ I can be entertained anywhere. At church, I do not want to be entertained. I do not want to be the target of anyone’s marketing. I want to be asked to participate in the life of an ancient-future community.’”

Another blogger, Ben Irwin, wrote, “When a church tells me how I should feel (‘Clap if you’re excited about Jesus!’), it smacks of inauthenticity. Sometimes I don’t feel like clapping. Sometimes I need to worship in the midst of my brokenness and confusion — not in spite of it and certainly not in denial of it.”

According to the Barna Group, 87 percent of today’s youth say they see Christians as hypocritical or not authentic. Evans concluded, “Our reasons for leaving have less to do with style and image and more to do with substantive questions about life, faith, and community. We are not as shallow as you might think.”

As I was reflecting on Ham’s book Already Gone, I also thought of Steve Parr and Tom Crites’ book Why They Stay and realized that it is not only helpful to know why our students leave the church, it is even better to offer a positive approach by finding out “Why They Stay” and provide those warm, inviting, sustaining qualities for our students that nurture a consistent and steadfast faith.

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