Ask any Christian parent what their dying wish would be, and they will tell you, “That my children will love and follow Jesus.” Unfortunately, many parents face the unbearable experience of watching their children leave the faith they grew up learning about every week in Sunday school and youth group.
Things like frequent attendance at youth group, being involved in a small group, or even going on missions trips provide no guarantee that someone will continue in the faith. Indeed, I estimate that half of the students that went on the youth missions trip my senior year of high school are no longer following Jesus.
But there some commonalities (which I’ve noticed in 20 years of experience in youth ministry) that young people who do keep following Jesus share. Just one qualification: what I write here is not a formula for raising children who stay faithful to the Lord. Rather, what I offer are patterns that I notice in the kids that tend to continue to follow Jesus into their adult years.
1. They developed a love for God’s word
They read their Bible on their own, not because they were supposed to, but because they wanted to. When they didn’t understand something they read, they asked their small group leader or youth pastor. They got up early to attend Bible studies, and not just because their friends were there. They enjoyed hearing sermons (not “talks” or “lessons”) not merely for intellectual stimulation, but because they were hungry for God. They recognized that the Bible carries the very authority of God himself.
2. They deeply grasped that they were sinners in need of grace
Students who keep following Jesus connect his love for them to his sacrifice for their sins (Rom. 5:8; Gal. 2:20). They realize that what makes their sin so bad has less to do with the negative consequences they face in life, and more to do with the fact that it offends their Creator and Judge. They turn from their sin out of a desire to please God, not to get an easier life or to keep their parents off their back.
Just as important as being told that they need Jesus is for young people to be told why they need him. Many youth ministries display a Jesus who “wants a relationship with you” but not a Jesus who died for their sins. Students who keep following Jesus through their adulthood learned that Jesus doesn’t save us from low self-esteem, but from our sinfulness that leaves us condemned before a holy God.
If someone is going to turn from their Christian faith in their late teens or early twenties, they will most likely go in the opposite direction of these first two points. They will no longer subscribe to the authority of Scripture over their life, and they will therefore begin to justify and indulge their sin rather than repent of it.
3. Their parents served in the church
Many students who stay strong in their faith after graduation, I’ve observed, were raised by parents who served in church regularly. This is obviously not something that holds true 100% of the time, but it pops up often enough for me to mention it. Such parents teach, by their example, that participating in a church community is not relegated only to Sunday mornings, but is a regular part of life. It also teaches that church is not a place where you merely go to get your needs met, it is a place where you meet the needs of others. Following their parents’ example, such youth seek opportunities to serve in church early in their college years.
4. They didn’t give themselves over to sexual sin
Sexual temptation is a key contributor to young people falling away from the faith. Notice I didn’t say, “They didn’t struggle with sexual temptation,” or, “They didn’t fail in the area of sexuality,” but that they didn’t give themselves over to it. It is not uncommon for doubts about the Christian faith to stem from actively partaking in sin, especially sexual sin (link: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/christandpopculture/2013/04/who-are-you-sleeping-with-my-conversation-with-timothy-keller/ ).
5. They were legitimately Christians
This last point is the most important. The apostle John tells us why people leave the church, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19). What explanation can we give for young adults turning away from the faith they grew up confessing? They did not really believe in the first place.
But how can people who claimed Christ as Lord turn so quickly?
I recently had a conversation with someone responsible for hiring college aged counselors for a Christian summer camp. In the interviews he asks a host of questions, but two in particular, he told me, he considers most important. One is, “Why are you a Christian?” and the other is, “What is the gospel?” To his dismay dozens of applicants, who claim to be Christian, are not able to answer these questions.
If someone can’t give biblical answers for why they are a Christian and what we must believe about Jesus, they are at best case an immature believer who needs to be discipled. But I fear that it is much more likely that such a person has not genuinely been converted. Even though they claim to be a Christian, they are only one culturally.
So what should we do?
Our response should be to make what the gospel is and why we need it abundantly clear to our young people.
We do them no favors if we sugarcoat their sin to make them feel better about who they are, because then they will not feel their need for the Savior of sinners, Jesus. Nor do we do our youth any favors by giving them a bare-minimum, truncated version of the gospel. This is fine for little children, but as they grow older they need to see how the richness of the gospel applies to all areas of life: vocation, money, sex, relationships, community, politics, etc.
As we continually speak the gospel into the lives of our children and teens, we must also pray and trust that God will do what we cannot manufacture ourselves, that is, that he would make the growth and spiritual fruit happen (Mark 4:20; 1 Cor. 3:6-7).
Eric McKiddie serves as Pastor for Gospel Community at the Chapel Hill Bible Church He helps pastors grow as well-rounded ministers of the gospel at his blog, Pastoralized, and through sermon coaching. Follow him on Twitter: @ericmckiddie.