A Letter To The Church: On Young People Leaving

May 27, 2015

Dr. Braxton Hunter | Professor of Apologetics
Trinity Theological Seminary, Newburgh, IN

**This article was previously posted by Dr. Braxton Hunter on his website www.braxtonhunter.com and is used by permission. 

Dr. Hunter is: former president of the Conference of Southern Baptist Evangelists (COSBE), professor of apologetics at Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary in Newburgh, Indiana

Learn more about Dr. Hunter, HERE.
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Dear Church,

This is not the kind of article you will want to read. It’s not about the Calvinism debate. It’s not about social-political issues (mostly) and it’s not about how terrible atheists are. Every time I broach this subject, church people get a glazed over look in their eyes. It’s almost like talking to those people who want to lose 30 lbs fast and eat whatever they want. They’ll spend an hour watching an infomercial that promises them just that, but the minute you talk about diet and exercise, heart-healthy eating and taking vitamins, they turn you off. Here’s hoping you stay with me. 

I recently became aware of a new Pew Research study that made clear what many of us have noticed over the past several years. Millennials are leaving the church. Big surprise! Nevertheless, this study revealed why this is happening. Though it is not difficult to read between the lines and see what’s really going on (often young people don’t want to be told how to live their lives – morally, socially, economically, etc.), I don’t think we can brush this aside like that anymore. In CNN.com’s reporting of the survey, they included comments from those in-the-know. Particularly interesting was this section, toward the end of the article:

But Christian leaders still bear some responsibility for not connecting with younger believers, said L. Gregory Jones, a senior strategist for leadership education at Duke University in North Carolina.

Many young Christians seemed bored by church, he said, pointing to youth ministers as particularly ineffective at piquing millennials’ intellectual interests. One study cited by Jones showed that nearly 70% of full-time youth ministers have no theological education.

“Christianity in the United States hasn’t done a good job of engaging serious Christian reflection with young people, in ways that would be relevant to their lives.”

Instead, many Christian denominations have been riven by internal struggles over homosexuality, particularly in the last decade. While most millennials back gay rights, according to separate surveys, they are more interested in working with the wider world than holding endless debates over sexual morality, Jones said.

“If it is the case that millennials are less ‘atheists’ than they are ‘bored,’ then serious engagements with Christian social innovation, and with deep intellectual reflection (and these two things are connected), would offer promising signs of hope,” Jones said.

Wow . . . what Christian apologists have been saying for years has been picked up by the secular media. It’s not that we haven’t had the coolest music, most exciting getaways or the most expensive celebrity speakers. The problem, at least in part, is that we haven’t been presenting the intellectual weight of the Christian faith to them. On a side note, I don’t think this means that fresh music isn’t a good (probably helpful) thing for reaching young people and the debates about whether or not we should have it are in my opinion a damaging waste of time (sorry I’m a bit sassy today). It is no secret that many church leaders and good ol’ fashioned pew-sitters have labeled certain positive things with the demonizing label “intellectualism.” I can’t take it anymore.

Last fall I began a college group at Center of Hope Baptist Church in Evansville, Indiana. I had never led such a group and so I inquired among those who had. Francis Chan’s video series Crazy Love was repeatedly recommended. Now it may surprise you, but I actually read the companion book and found it to be inspiring. While the content wasn’t really my favorite choice of reading for myself, I thought, “Huh . . . sounds pretty good,” and so our college get togethers began. I still recommend the video series and book for certain groups, but my eight person congregation either yawned through it or were openly joking about certain aspects. Yet, through private conversations (completely divorced from the Crazy Love series) one young lady decided that she was interested in Christian apologetics. I explained one simple argument for God’s existence on the white board and instantly our Crazy Love group became a group of college students excited about the defense of the Christian faith. Two have enrolled in apologetics degree programs at Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary, and one former atheist is now a Christian. Just last week, the young female apologist in training said, “I love it that on Wednesday night I get my spiritual filling and on Thursday night I get the intellectual stuff.” We even had a lady in her 50s recently ask if she could be a part of the college group in order to get the training. THEY’RE EATING IT UP!

Several years ago I was invited to preach at the First Baptist Church of Dickson, TN, which, at the time, boasted 1,500 in regular attendance. The pastor, knowing that I was involved in Christian apologetics, said, “I just want the faithful proclamation of the gospel. We don’t have a need for the other stuff.” Unfortunately, this is the attitude of many in leadership today. However, three years later he invited me back to hold a full-blown apologetics conference for the very reasons outlined in the CNN article. By the way, this comes to bear on the socio-political issues that the article mentions.

As gay rights becomes more and more a civil rights issue in the mind of the average millennial, the weight of the church’s faithfully preaching against it becomes less important. Society, as well as church members, has done a pretty good job of leaving young people with the impression that faith is personal and thus subjective. Moreover, it isn’t as real as other aspects of life. Yet, when the full intellectual basis for, and defense of, the Christian faith is unleashed on millennials they find it much more difficult to dismiss what the Bible says. It isn’t just some religious book anymore. It represents the truth. Such a young person, who feels the force of the societal que to stand up for gay marriage and a “woman’s right to choose,” is demonstrably less likely to fall to it if she has been given the intellectual component of her very personal faith.

Please begin now! Something has got to change today! I’m happy to help. I am free to speak to churches on these issues any time. several years ago I designed a Christian defense Crusade which (in terms of altar calls, evangelism and “results”) differs very little from the evangelistic events with which I am usually involved. I wrote the book CORE FACTS: The understandable and Teachable Method of Christian Defense to be used for this very purpose. Let’s do the equivalent of getting on a diet and exercise program now. Let’s stop looking for quick fixes and flashes in pans. Let’s stop complaining about young people leaving the church and do something about it!


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We might ask the question as to why young people are so drawn to the “gay marriage” debate and are quick to support gay marriage. After all, few people are genuinely “gay” – probably less then 2% of the population and this may be exaggerated once sexual abuse is considered as a causal factor.

It is not “gay sex” that is the issue but normal, ordinary boy-girl sex. Young people increasingly see sex outside of marriage as a valid choice for consenting adults. By supporting “gay marriage” young people are making a strong statement that heterosexual sex is OK, too. The moral perspective of young people, as a whole, has changed and no one is telling them that they have it wrong.

We need apologetics to show that sound arguments exist for believing in God, for the creation, for a Christian worldview. At the same time, we also need to build a young person’s moral framework because young people are learning about morality from their peers who have little regard for church and for whom sex anywhere anytime isn’t necessarily wrong. If a young person does not have their apologetic head in order and their morality straight before they enter college, they are no going to get there in college. College is rough and for young people seeking acceptance, church is becoming more an obstacle than a place of refuge.


I recently heard a study that found 3 common factors among young people who stayed in church after the high-school years…Here’s what they were:

1. A close friendship with some adult who is neither a relative, nor the youth pastor…ie, someone who didn’t HAVE to invest in them, but did.
2. Felt like a part of the corporate worship service, either from actual participation, or simply that it was a serve they could understand and relate to.
3. We able to express their doubts and questions and be taken seriously.

I think what you are saying fits this as well. Today’s young people have little to zero commitment to institutions…but will have higher commitment to people they trust, and to truth, if they have convinced themselves of its truth.

Jim P

‘Doing something about it’ 1 Corinthians 4:15 states, ‘Though you have 10,000 teachers among you have not many fathers.’

This is the gist of any floundering church and why anyone observing finds little if not confusing directions. Until, particularly those who accept the title of teacher, are willing to become mature ‘examples’ i.e., fathers, the church will be pointing to endless and endless reasons while they miss this one true reason, lack of ‘fathers’ in Christ.


    “… lack of ‘fathers’ in Christ.”

    Jim P has hit on the heart of the problem – in my humble opinion formed over 60 years of Southern Baptist life. The apathetic generation to which I belong hasn’t produced enough church “fathers” to accommodate the search of Millennials for the genuine amidst the counterfeit of the 21st century. You can’t make disciples if you aren’t a disciple. You can’t help someone out if you are still in. So a generation of young folks are attracted to where other Millennials gather in their search … right now, whether we agree or not, they are finding an expression of faith that appeals to them in the reformed movement. They may be leaving the traditional church in great numbers according to the folks at Pew, but I can attest to them swarming like bees at YRR church plants near me. Want our sons to stay in church? Grow some spiritual fathers first.


      Was that a compliment from Max for the reformed guys? ;-)


        Andy, I’m just providing an objective observation in considering and representing the facts at hand, regardless of my agreement with the theology. And the evidence is fairly obvious when it comes to attracting the 20s-40s. Young seekers are finding that reformed influencers are writing all the popular books, holding all the passionate conferences, and reaching out to them with culturally relevant tools – cool bands, coffee shops, relaxed dress code, etc. And some 16th century doctrine to challenge your mind to go with it! The already young and restless decided they might as well be reformed since that’s where the Millennials who are still doing church hang out. That’s what “reformed” looks like in the church plants in my neck of the woods; perhaps it looks more spiritual than that in your area. I’ve been around “Old” Calvinism a long time; “New” Calvinism in its modern package is more appealing to young folks.

          Montie Matlock

          “The already young and restless decided they might as well be reformed

          Is that their choice to be reformed or are they predestined,


            Both. They were predestined – God rescued them from the dominion of darkness and brought them into the kingdom of the Son – enabling them to hear the gospel which they immediately choose to believe and then found out that everything they were reading in the bible and believing was everything that reformed theology was saying.


            An exercise of the free will, of course! If saved, they are predestined to be conformed to the image of Christ … chosen to be holy and blameless … elected to walk worthy of their calling … thus, saved for a purpose via transformed theology.


              After God rescues the person from the dominion of darkness (the will is enslaved to sin and not free while in the dominion of darkness) and regenerates them, of course, free will is enabled where it was not before. God decreed whom to rescue before He created the world and predestined them for glory.

          Scott Shaver

          I’m still trying to figure out how one can be “reformed” (ecclesiastically speaking) and still open to the practice of paedobaptism. Still trying to reconcile “sola scriptura” with invasive extra biblical church membership covenants. Hush my mouth for being baptist :)

            Les Prouty

            Nothing wrong at all with being Baptist. I am thankful for my Southern Baptist background, SB seminary training, and years as a SB pastor. In fact I’m still an ordained SB minister. Reformed and paedobaptism go together pretty well, and based on biblical covenant, not extra biblical covenants. But maybe you’re just referring to membership “covenants” not covenant theology.

Jon Estes

Good article. I think all the scenarios are valid and would stress the lack of love for Christ in the home.

Why should JR. Love Jesus when Sr doesn’t? This somewhat balances with the “Fathers” comment.

I have spent many hours counseling mom’s and dad’s concerning the waywardness for their child only to be told they do not believe any of it is their fault. They did bring them to church, yet the church somehow did not do their job.

I am convinced that if we can see a dynamic love for Christ in the home leadership, it will show itself in the lives of the kids they are bringing up.

Just an interesting story. I told a mother (actively involved in the church) that her child (daughter) should not be wearing any type of clothes which have writing on the butt. I was quickly told, I should not be looking.

How do you take 1-3 hours a week and transform the thinking of a child who has parents who care more about their social status than their spiritual one?


” … parents who care more about their social status than their spiritual one …”

Indeed, our dilemma in the American church. Moses’ warning to Israel is still applicable today: When you come into the land and prosper, “Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day.” America’s greatest sin is that we have forgotten the God that made us great … and our children are paying the price. How do we expect young folks to head for deeper spiritual water when their parents are still swimming in the shallows? (I suggest you print that last line on a t-shirt and give it to that dear mother).

Scott Shaver

I would mention to the author of the article the surprising number of millennialists who admit to being atheist whether they”truly” are or not. Thing that catches my attention is the number coming from “Christian” professions and previous background….that primarily from a theological orientation of determinism.

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