We've all seen the statistics and heard the stories: Good Christian kids go to college, grow disillusioned, and leave the faith. In his new book, "You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church . . . and Rethinking Faith," David Kinnaman writes, "Overall, there is a 43 percent drop-off between the teen and early adult years in terms of church engagement."
Kinnaman was co-author with my friend Gabe Lyons of the book unChristian, which examined how unbelievers view the Church. But as Kinnaman says, "You Lost Me, on the other hand, is about young insiders"-those who were once part of the Church.
We lose these young people for many reasons, according to Kinnaman's research. Some have felt that their questions about faith were ignored, or that they were given pat answers. Others had their interest in the arts or sciences discouraged by church members who believed that these couldn't possibly be Christian vocations. Still others "feel isolated from their parents and other older adults in the realm of faith and spirituality."
It boils down to this: Young dropouts often feel that the church doesn't understand their concerns and needs, and has no real guidance to offer. But Kinnaman believes there's reason for hope. "The majority of young dropouts are not walking away from faith," he says, "they are putting involvement in church on hold."
Many dropouts still believe the tenets of Christianity. What they need from the Church is a renewed effort at disciple-making, an effort that meets them where they are; lets them express their questions, ideas, and doubts; and encourages them to grow in Christ.
And what do we do about those younger teens who haven't yet reached that point where so many drop out? Kinnaman says that we adults need to form one-on-one relationships with them, instead of trying to mass-produce young believers. He writes, "I think we are constantly building, tearing down, and rebuilding our youth and young adult development regimens based on the fallacy that more is better...We need new ways of measuring success."
So, he suggests, one metric of success might be to connect young people to older people - mentoring relationships. Kinnaman says, "These relationships would not be solely focused on spiritual growth, but should integrate the pursuit of faith with the whole life."
That makes sense to me. Today's younger generation is relationally oriented. Teaching them a set of principles in an isolated setting is not going to inculcate a biblical worldview in many of these teens. As my BreakPoint colleague John Stonestreet says, "When it comes to teens, worldview is as much caught as it is taught'."
Even providing lots of entertainment, as some youth ministries do, is not going to do it. It's spending time with these kids, showing them that they matter to you, and living out your beliefs in front of them. That's going to spark their interest and their desire for God.
So let's not read the statistics and shake our heads. To keep our young people in the church is going to require a sustained effort - and a lot of relationship building. But it's an effort that will pay off in a spiritually healthy younger generation and a revitalized Church.