Rediscovering Evangelism: Curbing the Exodus of Christian-raised Teenagers from the Church

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This article was written by Samuel Bodnar, a junior at Indiana University studying journalism and religious studies. He conducted three interviews for a class project:

Isabella McCoy scowled at her church’s dusty, stained glass windows. No more early Sunday mornings. No more midweek Bible studies trapped beneath the church’s leaky and splintered floors. No more judgmental people who know little about their faith. She tried seeking answers from her parents, her youth group leader, even her pastor. Nobody answered her objections to the Bible. Nobody equipped her to defend her faith against non-believing friends. McCoy, a born and raised churchgoer, was done. She has joined the 70 percent of Christian-raised teenagers who have abandoned their faith. Prominent Christian figures hesitate on labeling students like McCoy as “Christian.” Once one joins the body of Christ and experiences His love and power, they never leave.

However, playing semantics with terminology distracts from a legitimate crisis getting worse by the day: young men and women raised in the church are walking away and few are returning.

Dozens of studies have highlighted the mass exodus of high school and college students from Christianity. Yet, few expound upon resolutions to this issue. Here are a few individuals within ministry-type occupations striving to stifle this trend with suggestions for students, parents, pastors and college ministries:

Jack Hibbs, Pastor of Calvary Chapel Chino Hills (CCCH) in Chino, Calif.
Christian-raised teenagers are not equipped, not involved with their church and not in a real relationship with Jesus, according to Hibbs. It is these deficiencies that allow skeptical students and college professors to easily rattle the beliefs of ill prepared Christians.

“We are putting them in the lion’s den without the pure fundamental of the Bible,” Hibbs says.

Not Equipped : Hibbs sees Scripture as the roadmap that guides everyone through taking opportunities and responding to tragedies. Without the proper navigation tools, however, students going into college will be unable to defend their faith or make disciples. According to a LifeWay survey cited in Ken Ham and Britt Beemer’s “Already Gone,” only ⅓ of Christian-raised college students who left the faith actually plan on returning. For this California pastor, parents and youth ministries must challenge students with the tough questions and provide resources they can learn and share.

Hibbs invites apologists to his congregation and encourages his high school pastor to teach apologetic tactics like the moral and cosmological arguments. He also challenges parents to read up on early church history and material that soundly defends the authority and inerrancy of Scripture.

“You’ve got to hand the baton,” he says.

Norman Geisler, the late author, theologian and founder of Southern Evangelical Seminary, joins Hibbs in the belief of passing the baton. For him, however, he reminds the body of Christ about answering— and teaching others to answer— with tact and humility.

“Humility is how it’s done and content is what’s being done,” he says. “We need to concentrate on winning the soul not the argument.”

Not Involved: Growing up, Hibbs’ church brought the congregation to the streets of Newport Beach for evangelizing. Initially, the experiences were uncomfortable and scary. Over time, however, they taught him about why Jesus sent His disciples to preach the good news without Him.

“Students need a faith that does,” he says. “They aren’t connected with active ministries and have never shared the gospel to see the power of God at work.”

Hibbs wants parents acting as vehicles. They should remind their kids that what they are doing glorifies God and to stop second guessing if sharing the gospel with strangers “feels right.”

“I want to be the most loving person in the world knowing I’ll be hated,” Hibbs says. “I want them to leave everyone with a picture of Jesus.”

No Relationship: When a believer shares their testimony, it often contains moments of doubt and struggles involving abuse, drugs, sexual urges, etc. No matter the sins before accepting Jesus, a redeemed son or daughter can articulate how God has transformed their heart throughout their “faith crisis.” “You can be religious because it’s recreational, cultural or convenient but that’s not what counts,” Hibbs says. “Overcoming a faith crisis involves a genuine encounter with Christ that changes them internally and externally.” A personal relationship with God follows from a healthy devotion life. Long time believers hear this echoed repeatedly but students going into college don’t know what it means. Youth pastors and parents should start and continue asking their students about their prayer life and how their actions reflect God’s heart to others. Hibbs believes if more students can acknowledge how God delivered them, they would be more grateful to Him and less resistant to serve, pray to and praise Him.

Jim Warner Wallace , author and apologist
As a cold case homicide detective, Wallace uses circumstantial evidence to carefully constructs his cases. Through analyzing eyewitness statements of people he never met and researching case information that’s decades old, he has been able to help convict men and women of their crimes. Interestingly enough, he did this job as an atheist during a portion of his career.

Although unanswerable questions can frustrate this detective, Wallace explains how examining Christianity’s direct and circumstantial evidence from nearly 2000 years ago brought him to Jesus.
“I had to remove presuppositional bias the same way we ask juries not to be locked in one side,” he says. “Today, believers need to take away the lame excuses and answer the objections of today’s age.”

What Wallace believes can help combat the church exodus crisis is a refocus on talking about evidence itself. He encourages incoming college freshman, their youth pastors and parents to familiarize themselves regarding objections brought against the faith and avoid first search results on Google. Proper preparation to answering objections is key.

“Give two whys for every what,” he says. “The internet is full of whats and pastors and parents should be able to convey why the student should care.” Christian-raised teenagers should distinguish facts from false information. They need to be coached on how to approach basic questions with well-constructed, reasoned responses. To do this, Wallace says a distinction between teaching and training should be made.

Christian-raised teenagers should distinguish facts from false information. They need to be coached on how to approach basic questions with well-constructed, reasoned responses. Click To Tweet

“Teaching imparts knowledge but training requires an activity,” he says. “We need to provide for our people by getting them involved in evangelism so they can do life together and serve actively.” By preparing the youth ministry groups of today to understand what it means to examine evidence, they will produce credible answers to raised objections. If mature believers encourage students to evangelise and properly understand the evidence behind their beliefs, Wallace thinks they will be well equipped to defend the faith and make disciples on their college campuses.

Dr. Frank Turek , author, apologist and founder of Cross Examined
Similar with Hibbs and Wallace, Turek recommends introducing apologetics at churches so the body of Christ can strengthen itself and be prepared to share it with the youth. That 70 percent margin, Turek believes, would probably decrease.

“Suppose the past 50 years churches had been teaching apologetics. What would the number of students leaving actually be?”

Exactly how much the exodus percentage would decrease is unknown. Nevertheless, Turek professes it would make a decent impact on the numbers. Throughout the year he travels the country giving presentations from his and Geisler’s book I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist . The hope behind presenting through his Cross Examined ministry is showing church congregations and college campuses that Christianity is true beyond a reasonable doubt.

By fortifying the faith of believers and challenging skeptics to reconsider their positions, Turek and his ministry demonstrate the importance of taking the gospel to everyone. There is one issue, however, with presenting the truth behind Christianity. Teaching truth will only accomplish so much.

“I can’t force people to accept the truth,” Turek says. “I can’t force people not to deny the truth. You can’t bring everyone to Christ but you can bring Christ to everyone.”

Turek recognizes that some non-believers carry volitional reasons for why they reject Christ. Intellectually, the faith can make sense, but some suppress the truth so they can live the lifestyle they desire.

For Turek, he wants mature Christians to make sure that qualms with a particular aspect of Christianity are intellectual, not volitional. If it’s intellectual, apologetics and a firm biblical knowledge will help answer the questions. If the qualms are rooted in volitional reasons, Turek poses this question:

“If Christianity were true, would you become a Christian?”

Asking the youth in today’s churches and teaching them to use this question in their interactions with non-believers will help the body of Christ understand the position of non-believers and respond informatively. Along with Turek, fellow apologist Josh McDowell also acknowledges these non-believers’ reservations and encourages the body of Christ to speak the truth in love
moving forward, even in the face of negativity.

“Almost all other people in their faith are commanded to love the lovable, but as a Christian, you’re commanded to love the unlovable,” McDowell says. “It’s so great being a Christian.”

For more information about strategies to help you teach Christian worldview to the next generation, please read So the Next Generation Will Know: Training Young Christians in a Challenging World. This book teaches parents, youth pastors and Christian educators practical, accessible strategies and principles they can employ to teach the youngest Christians the truth of Christianity. The book is accompanied by an eight-session So the Next Generation Will Know DVD Set (and Participant’s Guide) to help individuals or small groups examine the evidence and make the case.

J. Warner Wallace is a Dateline featured Cold-Case Detective, Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, Adj. Professor of Christian Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, author of Cold-Case ChristianityGod’s Crime Scene, and Forensic Faith, and creator of the Case Makers Academy for kids.

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