Entertaining our children into unbelief

Last week Ed Stetzer interviewed Drew Dyck about his new book, Generation Ex-Christian: Why Young Adults Are Leaving the Faith…And How To Bring Them Back. According to his research, young adults are leaving the church five to six times the historic rate. When asked whether the church has played a role in causing this trend, he offered a counter-intuitive answer:

I think we’ve let business thinking have too large an impact on ministry philosophy, especially our approach to youth ministry. For many churches, the primary goal has become attracting large numbers of kids and keeping them entertained. As a result, today many youth ministries are practically devoid of any spiritual engagement. As you’ve described them, they become little more than “holding tanks with pizza.” Some have been reduced to using violent video game parties to lure students through their church doors on friday nights. There’s nothing wrong with video games and pizza, but they’re tragic replacements for discipleship and catechism. Many young people have been exposed to a superficial form of Christianity that effectively inoculates them against authentic faith. To stem the tide of young people leaving, I believe churches need to shift the emphasis away from an entertainment model and back to religious education and spiritual growth. Fortunately, there’s evidence that this is already beginning to happen. My friends in youth ministry are acutely aware of the problem and changing the way the church relates to the younger generation.

The problem with youth ministry was not that it was too boring but that it was too fun. The conventional wisdom guiding youth ministry in the past thirty years was that kids left the church because the secular world was just too fun. To hold on to their kids and to reach non-believing kids, the church had to provide dynamic programs as an alternative to the world. This was the era of the rock star youth pastor; a good looking, clean cut, outgoing, energetic, imaginative, athletic, and musically gifted leader who could draw a large crowd.

Many churches worked themselves out of a job. With little more to their Christian testimony than “I had an awesome youth group” many church kids simply lost their faith. Leaving church was no more difficult than leaving the Santa Claus of their childhood. As kids grew up and went off to college they realized that they didn’t need the church to have a good time.

In fact, his research shows that it is not what is happening outside the church that challenges the core beliefs of young adults but what is happening inside the church. Dyck offers this advice to Christian parents:

Christian parents, for instance, should probably worry less about the influence of their children’s peers or the media, and focus on the level of spiritual engagement in the home and at church.

This is sobering advice with significant implications not only for our children but also for ourselves. It’s worth asking whether some of us more mature Christians have also entertained ourselves into unbelief. Have we become more excited about belonging to an awesome church with great programs than about our actual relationship with God? What does “spiritual engagement in the home and at church” look like? How does a church foster this deeper level of spiritual engagement? These are the pastoral questions swirling in my brain as I think through these issues. Having been a youth group student president, a volunteer youth leader in college, a youth pastor, and now a church planter and a dad, I have some ideas but I’ll share them in another post.

Do you agree with Drew Dyck’s findings? What do you think churches should do to foster deeper spiritual engagement in the home and in the church? What is the future of youth ministry? How does the church reach young adults burnt out on entertainment today? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

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About David Lee

I am the pastor of New Life Mission Church of Fremont meeting in Newark, CA. I live in Fremont with my wife and three children. In my former life I was a history teacher at Irvington High School in Fremont. I love watching and discussing movies (but not at the same time), playing board games, hiking, visiting local cafes, and watching and complaining about (at the same time) Bay Area sports.
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