Why do so many children of Christian families not return to their evangelical churches once they’re “out of the nest?” Estimates run as high as 75 to 80 percent for the number of young believers who fail to maintain their Christian connections after leaving their parents’ home.
Analysts have suggested several reasons for this exodus. According to Frank Turek, in his TV-DVD series "I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist", the principal cause is that the evangelical church isn’t presenting a substantive apologetic for the existence of God and the truth of Scripture. When young people encounter atheist influence on the college campus, in the media or elsewhere, they’re ill-equipped to counter the intellectual arguments against the biblical worldview, and hence the validity of Christian faith.
A 2010 survey by George Barna identified several trends that factor in the failure of churches to retain younger believers. These interconnected trends all appear to stem from cultural relativism, or what Barna labels “the postmodern insistence on tolerance.” Christians, increasingly biblically illiterate, lack the confidence to confront opposing views for fear of being labeled “judgmental.” They are reluctant to engage in faith-oriented conversations because of greater religious plurality in our culture, due largely to immigration. At the same time, atheists have become more aggressive in championing a godless worldview, especially in the academic environment to which younger Christians are becoming exposed. Current economic uncertainty leads to a focus on survival in the present, as opposed to spiritual possibilities and eternal values; according to Barna, believers tend to compartmentalize their lives to the point that their faith fails to become “a central means of optimizing our life experience.” Media have downplayed the Christian contribution to Western culture while highlighting the shortcomings of Christian churches and leaders; as a result, the relevance of a Christian commitment to issues of contemporary life has become clouded.
Countering the trend of “young leavers,” a few churches have successfully involved a large percentage of younger people. Observers sometimes claim that their success is due to their relevant presentation of a kind of life that Christ offers. Younger people, they say, are not interested in intellectual arguments for the validity of Christianity; they want to try it out and see how living it affects their lives. For example, in one “seeker” church we attended for several months we never heard much about becoming a “Christian”; the preferred term was “Christ-follower.” This approach ties in with another of Barna’s findings, that most people who become Christians today do so in response to some life-crisis; the witness that impresses them most is how other believers are able to integrate their faith into their lives for the healing of emotions, relationships, and dysfunctional behavior patterns.
Without dismissing the effectiveness of ministries that focus on “what Jesus has to offer you,” I wonder if such an approach will have a lasting impact on the tendency of younger Christians to leave the church behind when they “strike out on their own” — a life choice, by the way, that increasing numbers of young people seem to be delaying, preferring to remain in their parents’ homes even after graduating from college or entering the work force. One reason I am doubtful about the “what-Christ-offers-you-if-you follow-Him” approach is that it’s open to serious distortion of what Jesus came to do in the first place. Transposing the narrative of His ministry directly into twenty-first century American culture, without the necessary exercise in historical recontextualization, is unfaithful to the Scriptural record and to God’s original purpose in the incarnation of His Son.
Why people followed — or didn't follow — Jesus during His “earthly” ministry has to be a matter of historical analysis of first-century Palestinian Jewish culture, with its continuing “exile” mentality due to Roman hegemony. Jesus' focus on the present kingdom of God — visible in his own person and the new community of his disciples — threatened the Pharisaic focus on the Law as a Jewish badge of superiority that, if fulfilled, would bring on the appearance of Messiah and lead to political liberation. Jesus saw the futility of that expectation and warned his contemporaries to repent of it (Luke 13:1-9). The leadership of the community did not repent, resulting in the events of AD 70 just as Jesus warned them.
The discussion of “what Jesus has to offer” today, if it relates to the phenomena of His Palestinian ministry, requires a homiletical exercise in recontextualization because our situation is not that of the first-century Jewish community. How does what Jesus came to do for His people in that era relate to what He comes to us for now, in His ongoing parousia or appearance? In the New Testament, Paul and John have already begun this process of recontextualizing the work of Christ into another cultural setting — not exclusively so, because both were writing to pre-AD 70 Jews, but the focus is beginning to shift.
In my opinion it is Jesus’ resurrection — not the features of his ministry, though resurrection is implicit therein, revealed in both his teaching and his “wonders” or acts of healing — that is the motivation to “follow” him today. And it is more than just “following,” because the New Testament proclaims the possibility of our entry (e.g. through baptism, Romans 6:3-11) into His resurrection life. The post-Enlightenment, Newtonian worldview rules out the idea of resurrection. That is why a worldview change (repentance, change of thinking) is needed so that the Newtonian four-dimensional, materialistic shackles of our thinking can be overcome. Focusing on how following Jesus can help us deal with life-issues may not have a lasting impact, because people who respond to such a self-centered appeal can easily fall away to the next “spiritual” fad that comes along. The manifest presence of the living Christ does not appeal to self-centeredness; instead, it confronts people with a reality that must be dealt with. But, until our worldview changes, that reality seems more like fantasy. Hence the importance of challenging today’s faulty relativistic worldview with a believable counter-argument.
One approach to this is to explore cosmology, with its evidence that the universe couldn’t be here without a Creator — exactly the Bible's “argument,” of course, in Genesis 1, Romans 1, Hebrews 1 and elsewhere. The so-called “science” that sidesteps the question of how anything came to be in the first place (and hence comes up with evolution as a hypothesis) is the basis for contemporary relativism, and is what needs to be exposed as a truncated, false worldview. Einstein led the way to this breakthrough with his recognition that everything in the universe is, essentially, energy, not "hard" stuff. The universe is the result of a willed “Let there be light!” that had to come from outside the space-time continuum. Realizing this makes it possible to accept the presence, or parousia, of the risen Christ who “upholds the universe with his word of power” (Hebrews 1:3). But without such a paradigm shift, people who “accept Jesus"” (that’s putting it backwards, really, because it puts us in the driver’s seat) because of his teaching, or because of “what he has to offer” to us in a setting recontextualized from ancient Judaism, might easily fall prey to the next trend in a relativistic world.
There is much to add to this discussion. How does the resurrection life of Christ become a “manifest presence,” once we accept the cosmological basis for its believability? We can suggest one area of exploration, that of the fine arts. The trans-physical life of Christ partakes of that quality for which Rudolf Otto coined the term numinous (The Idea of the Holy, 1923; original German title Das Heilige). The numinous is that reality which is experienced through an encounter with that which cannot be comprehended within the limits of the four-dimensional world. It is experienced intuitively, not rationally, though the experience is quite “real” — and the Bible is full of such encounters. The fine arts, which make their appeal to the imagination and intuition as well as the intellect, can be a primary vehicle for the experience of the numinous. Music is one of the most intuitive of the arts — no one can explain, scientifically, why music has the effects it has on us. This explains why music itself has become a virtual religion for many young people, preoccupied with iPod downloads, rock concerts and other features of today’s youth culture. Can well-crafted Christian music with theologically rich texts, along with the intellectual challenge to the culture of relativism, become features of church life that contribute to the retention of young believers within the fold of Christ’s body?