In my last post, I summarized the studies and publications that describe the flight of young people from the Church. A compelling cumulative circumstantial case can be made to support the fact that young college aged Christians are walking away from Christianity in record numbers. What can we do about it? What can be done? Whenever people ask me this question, I always say the same thing. STOP TEACHING YOUNG CHRISTIANS. Just stop it. Whatever Christendom is doing in its effort to teach it’s young, the effort appears to largely be a failure. In fact, Ken Ham (in his book, Already Gone:Why Your Kids Will Quit Church and What You Can Do To Stop It) found that young Christians who faithfully attended Bible classes were actually more likely to question the authority of Scripture, more likely to defend the legality of abortion, same-sex marriage, and premarital sex, and more likely to leave the church! What’s going on here? I think I know. It’s time to stop teaching our young people; it’s time to start training them.
There’s a difference between teaching and training. Training is teaching in preparation for a battle. Boxers train for upcoming fights. In fact, boxers are sometimes known to get fat and lazy until the next fight is scheduled. Once the date has been signed, fighters begin to train in earnest. Why? Because they know that they are going to eventually get in the ring and face an aggressive opponent. We train when we know we are about to encounter a battle. Imagine for a moment that you are enrolled in an algebra class. If the teacher assured you that you would never, ever be required to take a test, and that you would pass the class regardless of your level of understanding, how hard do you think you would study? How deeply do you think you would come to understand the material? How committed do you think you would be to the material?
The problem we have in the Church today is not that we lack good teachers. There are many excellent teachers in the Church. The problem is that none of these teachers are scheduling battles. Make no mistake about it, there are battles looming for each and every young Christian in the Church today, but church leaders are not involved in the scheduling of these battles. The battles are waiting for our sons and daughters when they get to University (or enter the secular workplace). The Church needs to be in the business of scheduling battles and training our young people for these battles. Teaching without a planned battle is little more than “blah, blah blah.” This is the problem with traditional Sunday School programs. They are often well-intended, informative and powerfully delivered. But they are impotent, because our young people have no sense of urgency or necessity. There is no planned battle looming on the horizon and the battle of University life is simply too far away to be palpable. It’s time to address the problem not with our classes but with our calendar. It’s time to start scheduling battles so our teaching becomes training.
Years ago, as a youth pastor, I started taking annual trips to Salt Lake City and Berkeley. Why? I was scheduling theological and philosophical battles to help prepare my young Christians for the larger looming battle they would someday face on their own. If you want to teach your young people theology, there is no better method than to put them in direct contact with people who believe in a very sophisticated heresy. Mormons use the same terminology as Christians but deny the basic tenants of our faith. In order to dialogue with Mormons effectively, we first have to understand what we believe. When we train young people in preparation for an evangelism trip to Salt Lake City, we give meaning and purpose to the content of our teaching. In a similar way, our evangelistic trips to Berkeley (where we contact notable atheist speakers and atheist groups on campus) require us to prepare ourselves to answer the myriad of atheistic objections we will inevitably encounter. Once again, the content of our teaching in preparation for this trip takes on purpose and meaning when we know the level of our understanding will eventually be tested.
These trips are not easy, but they are essential. They require us, as leaders, to become good apologists. They require us, as pastors, to prioritize our calendars to make room for the trip and for the important training that will take place for months prior to the trips. One last thing; I’ve learned the importance of this approach first-hand. My first year as a youth pastor was perhaps my toughest. As a former designer with a strong interest in the arts, I spent my first year focusing on the artistic nature of the Sunday gathering. I incorporated music, video, art and drama to create compelling Sunday experiences that were more entertainment than content. The kids who graduated from my ministry that first year were not prepared for what they encountered in college and all but one walked away from their faith. This impacted the way I did ministry from that time on. I began to schedule battles and train young people for these important tests. I don’t think I’ve lost a student since.
If we want to do our young people a service, we need to stop teaching them. It’s time to start scheduling battles so we can turn teaching into training.
(For more information on how you can take young people on trips of this nature, check out the important work that Brett Kunkle is doing at Stand to Reason).