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

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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!