I am starting a new series featuring Canadian bloggers (or bloggers in Canada). My goal is to highlight the great things that are happening in Canada and to point you to these great blogs.
My first guest post is by Steven Martins. Steven is the executive director, lead-evangelist and apologist of Nicene International Ministries. Make sure to check out the NIM website for some tremendous apologetics resources.
It’s a common trend nowadays as we hear from pastors and ministry leaders about the increased absentee rate of young adults and teenagers in the Church pews. South of the border, the term “graduation evacuation” has developed to refer to the mass exodus of teenagers leaving the Church upon entering post-secondary education. Canada is no different, and despite statistics favoring the evangelical church compared to other Christian branches (ie., Catholicism, Anglican, etc.), the trend is still the same.
In 1971, a survey was conducted across Canada which detailed the religious demographics of the nation. At the time, only 1% of the Canadian population reported to being “non-religious.” Given the growing influence of the sexual revolution in the 1960’s, that number increased to 23% after two generations. Although these statistics included other religious faiths, it didn’t seem to be much of an issue. That is until we came across the findings of a 2002 study of teenagers and young adults. It was reported that 66% of 15-29 year olds regarded religion as unimportant. That number jumped to 78% of teenagers and young adults in 2009, demonstrating a steep decline in religious interest.
Some have said that religion may altogether be facing an uphill battle, but that’s not quite true. What we have instead seen is an exchange of religion, from theism in its various forms, to humanism. It is, however, humanism that disguises itself as a neutral and irreligious worldview, a belief system centered on man as opposed to anything outside of man himself. Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, secularization is still an on-going process in our modern society; and it has had a negative effect on church growth these past few years.
If we were to turn the calendar forward a couple of years and find our church pews nearly empty, it will be because the church had failed to respond to its surrounding cultural challenges and neglected the needs of teenagers and young adults who are inevitably the leaders of tomorrow. It’s an issue worthy of attention, and it communicates that something we are doing isn’t being done right.
In a conversation with a prominent youth speaker, his response to this issue appeared to have been to “empower students” by developing “student-led ministry.” Intellectual, theological and cultural issues were of non-importance, so long as youth had a task at hand to fulfill. Unfortunately, despite the sincerity behind this initiative, it falls short of resolving the issue of the youth exodus. Given my own personal experience and hearing what other teenagers had to say, here then are three predominant reasons why millennials are really leaving the Church:
Questions without Answers
The education received by a student, whether in secondary or post-secondary institutions, will always prompt questions that challenge the authority and integrity of God’s word. In Genesis we read of God pre-existing before time and space, the sovereign agent of creation, but in our school systems we learn of a blind watchmaker orchestrating by sheer randomness the beauty that would be the cosmos, a complete anti-theism. In classes of religion we learn that all religious beliefs are equal in truth, none superior to the other, whereas the Bible clearly states its exclusivity and objectivity. The historical person of Jesus is called into question by liberal scholars and atheists, distorting and corrupting the perfect biblical image of Christ as dictated by the Gospel accounts. It is only natural that a student in a secular anti-Christ society will face tough challenges to their own faith that will prompt innumerable questions of all kinds.
What type of response are these Christian youth receiving from their ministry leaders? In most cases, there has been a failure in the pulpit, and most particularly in their youth and young adult programming. Wherever we have delivered talks, lectures and sermons, it has been a common complaint by millennials that questions that they pose often go unanswered. A post-secondary student in Manitoba, studying to become a physicist, struggled with attempting to reconcile the Big Bang theory with the Genesis creation account. Another student studying to enter the field of biochemistry struggled with Darwinian evolution and what it meant for her faith as a Christian. These are experiences I know all too well, having struggled with creationism and evolution, atheism and theism, and having no local leader to have walked me through the issue. It’s been a common evangelical trend, to check your brain out at the door, embrace emotionalism and spiritualism, and to label your subjective experiences as faith. Churches endorsing the “relationship, not a religion” movement fail to recognize that they do more harm than good, promoting subjective experiences over the teaching of doctrine. It’s a mistaken concept that Christianity is not a religion, when in fact it is the only true religion, a set of beliefs held by an individual or group.
To be out of touch with the intellect is to alienate the millennials who are preparing to make their mark on this world, leading them to believe that the intellect plays no major part in their faith. This is why students flock to debates, dialogues and other intellectually-stimulating events, because they’re starved and searching. This also explains why many youth and young adults are leaving the church, because without satisfactory answers, they are led to believe that there are no answers, and therefore the Christian faith fails to be that comprehensive worldview that they had once thought it was. This is why apologetics is necessary for the Church, to defend our Christian faith from a secular society, to strengthen and equip our students to become campus missionaries, and to engage culture in the public square. As long as this remains neglected, the exodus is going to continue, and our youth are going to suffer.
Sermons without Relevance
The other reason why youth are leaving the Church is because there is a lack of relevance to the teachings and sermons that they’re listening to. How many times have youth sat through sermons on the Prodigal Son, the Beatitudes, or other things and walked away the same as they had entered? You may or may not be surprised that it’s happening quite a lot. A local pastor in Southern Ontario had recently shared with a group of students that despite his sermons being “expository”, they never touched on culturally relevant matters such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and other things. Youth are well aware of what’s happening in the public square, they’re exposed to it daily, but to be taught the Bible without its application is fruitless labor. There’s an excitement to listening to the pastor’s sermon and finding that the Bible does have a message to address present-day events in our society.
Unfortunately, students are often than not led to believe that what the Bible does attest to is simply personal transformation and nothing more. Not much is said about cultural matters, as controversial subjects are altogether avoided out of fear or because they have been deemed as “irrelevant.” The urgency over the moral deterioration of our country is not a major concern for most of the Church, hence why Canada is what it is today. In fact, it is a surprise to millennials that the Church of Canada once provided education and health care services to the public, and that Canada was an unashamedly Christian nation, painting a very different image of the Church than what we know of today. The perceived view of the relevance of the Church and its Gospel message of Christ as King and Redeemer was certainly held with higher regard in our national past and with farther-reaching implications than what the church of the 21st Century currently holds. To apply biblical truth to the different aspects of society is new territory for most millennials, a grander view of the vast implications of biblical teaching. To consider such matters of nation-building, legislative reforms, educational provisions, and other such matters unveils a Gospel that is relevant and applicable to every case, setting and time.
It’s been a real problem in the Church though, with youth often complaining that despite being seated Sunday after Sunday, they are not receiving anything from the Church pulpit. The word of God is powerful, but if in delivering the message there is no understanding of it, the fault does not lie with the text but with the messenger. Every effort ought to be made to exhaust the applicational depth of biblical passages, and in so doing we come to learn of how inexhaustible God’s word truly is. Just imagine the teaching of being a “city set on a hill” from Matthew 5:14-16, what exactly does that mean? And what kind of applicational understanding can we derive from that meaning? If youth won’t find relevance in the Church, they’ll find it somewhere else, and if we haven’t noticed, this world is catering left and right to lure youth into believing that relevance and truth can be found anywhere else but Christ.
Church without Mission
The other reason why youth are leaving the church is because of the lack of mission in the Church. The youth speaker who had earlier stated “student-led ministry” was the answer to the exodus issue was evidently wrong, but there was certainly a hint of truth behind his philosophy. There is a cry for more than just personal transformation, there’s a cry to form part of a greater narrative, to play a fundamental role in God’s unfolding plan in renewing His creation. There is a desire to strive for a goal…
It is quite obvious that articles have their limitations, as much more can be said for all these issues listed above, but they are nonetheless fundamental to understanding why youth are leaving the Church. However, despite the bad news there is certainly good news to consider. There are churches and ministry leaders who have correctly identified these problems and are working towards addressing them within their own communities. It ought to be the prayer of every believer that the Church collectively follows suit, patching up the holes and reclaiming its biblical identity as a missional Church.
Make sure to visit Nicene International Ministries.