If you go to church long enough, you might see the pattern: a child is excited to learn about the Bible, but then becomes a little more disenchanted as he or she enters the teen years.
And when they enter college or the work world, they often disconnect from the church altogether.
In a recent, five-year research project, Barna Group sought to discover why “three out of every five young Christians disconnect either permanently or for an extended period of time from church life after age 15.”
Those reasons included their struggles to connect their faith to the world they lived in; the church’s seeming antagonism to science; expectations of chastity and sexual purity; the exclusive nature of Christianity versus a culture that esteems open-mindedness, tolerance and acceptance; and the feeling that they are not allowed to express doubts.
Barna reported that those in their teens and 20s also complained about a shallow experience of Christianity while attending church. Thirty-one percent said “church is boring.”
Christian leaders agree that a real, life-changing, spiritual experience in each young person is crucial to overcoming these barriers.
“We believe children need to be taught the Gospel of Christ and be born again,” said Moises Esteves, vice president of communications and marketing for Child Evangelism Fellowship. “The personal salvation experience changes everything and is the basis for ongoing Christian growth.”
Among its ministries, CEF, based in Missouri, has hundreds of offices around the world and offers 4,500 Good News Clubs in public schools in the United States, and thousands more in homes, churches, and community centers. Their curriculum spans preschoolers through high school ages.
“We believe in teaching children not just Bible stories, but Bible lessons,” Esteves said. “Children need to learn more than story facts and dos and don’ts; they need to know the God of the Bible in a personal way.”
Dave Jones, of Milton, is a pastor who spent 12 years in youth ministry. He is also host of “Get Real,” a youth-oriented program on local Christian radio station WGRC.
“I do see teenagers leaving the church,” Jones said, “but we also see a great number of them coming back.” Sometimes that “rebellious” stage, he said, is followed by a return to what they remembered, especially as they start having families of their own.
“We give them the tools so that when they do stray, they know how to get back,” Jones said.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to prevent that straying. Jones said it’s important to give teens responsibility and ownership of the church, letting them participate and help make decisions.
And, the church needs to be constantly open, relevant and authentic with both expectations and acceptance.
“If you pour into a teenager’s life, they’re going to grow and the church is going to grow,” Jones said. “Numbers become a good consequence of focusing on the main thing — developing teenagers into godly, Christian adults.”
A family affair
Mike Miller, senior pastor at Sunbury Bible Church, in Northumberland, has seen the statistics and has been proactive to change them.
“I believe a significant contributor has been the lack of strategy on behalf of churches to view children’s and youth ministries as partnering with parents and grandparents,” he said.
His church has made a commitment to “challenge, equip and support parents in their roles as the primary spiritual leaders of their families.”
They also see themselves as “a church characterized by children and youth ministries committed to preparing the next generation to be used by God.”
“This means viewing youth ministry as a ‘church-wide’ ministry that strives to provide opportunities and experience to draw teens into active participation in the life and mission of the church,” Miller said.
That same mission is seen clearly in the church’s operation of its school, Sunbury Christian Academy, where students take a daily Bible class and attend chapel once a week. They, too, have frequent opportunities to put their faith into practice, Miller said.
“I think the problem is magnified by the fact our young people are growing up with increasing secular worldview,” said Andrew Knisely, pastor at Elysburg Alliance Church, “which minimalizes the importance of the church.”
To combat that, the church has been committed to children’s ministry through regular outreaches that have drawn hundreds of people in the community, and a weekly Awana program for kids that has doubled from 30 to 60 in just two years.
This passion was fueled by a movement called the “4/14 Window.”
“The majority of people who make a faith decision do so between the ages of 4 and 14,” Knisely explained.
That is especially crucial when they enter their later teens and 20s, when, he said, they’re “deciding if they want to make their parents’ faith their faith.
There’s a lot of questioning, and reintegrating of a person’s priorities. We find many children who grow up in church really struggle during their college years.”