Blog | Topic: Church

Why Young People Abandon Faith: Lessons from William Wilberforce

Wilberforce_slideshowCollege transition is a hot topic in youth ministry circles. More and more parents and churches are recognizing that students are not prepared for the challenges that college often brings. Anecdotal evidence is easy to find. There are many stories of students who have grown up in the church, have made commitments to follow Jesus, but have walked away from the faith during the college years. There have been numerous research projects that support these stories as well, making a strong case that the college years have not been good to those raised in the Christian faith.

The research is important and worth reading, to be sure, but I’m not sure it matters all that much. We can debate the statistics, trying to convince ourselves that it is not as bad as some say it is; or tell personal stories to make it seem even worse; or we can recognize that the challenge for students to make the faith their own is a perennial one. The challenge will always be with us. As the writer of Ecclesiastes suggests: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” This verse gives perspective. In all times and in all places, at some point, young people have to take ownership of their faith. This is not new.

I was reminded of this recently when I read Real Christianity by William Wilberforce, the member of the British Parliament who worked to abolish slavery. Written in 1797, Wilberforce makes keen observations about why young people often walk away from the faith. We can learn much from his insights regarding the human condition:

RealChristianity“Think about what happens to many young people who are raised with all the benefits of prosperous parents who are cultural Christians themselves. As children, they are taken to church, where they hear the parts of the Christian message that their particular church embraces. Although it is rare in our times, maybe they even receive some measure of religious instruction at home. Eventually, they leave home, and launch out into the world. Some go to work; some go to college. They face temptations that they have not faced before and give in to them. Their lives might get out of control with the use of alcohol, and they might give in to sexual indulgence. At the least, they never read the Bible or make any attempt to develop a spiritual life. Most don’t even attempt to take what knowledge is at their disposal and form their own beliefs and convictions. They don’t learn to think.

Maybe they travel to a foreign country. Things are even worse there. They begin to embrace the ideas to which they are exposed. By the time they return home, they are further away from faith than before. Along with their previous frivolous way of life, they now begin to be consumed with the demands of making a living in the workplace and the desire for a career and success. Most of what they hear about Christianity is in a negative context. If they go to church at all, they hear things that either make no sense to them or that they find offensive to the way they live. They have no grasp of the Bible to compare with what they hear.

The result is an attitude toward Christianity that is not only negative but also one that is rooted in a faulty sense of intellectual superiority. The young also have a way of seeing right through the charade of those who profess the faith but don’t live the life. What began as a vague, almost imperceptible doubt soon grows. By slow and steady degrees, the doubt becomes most fixed in their minds. In a twisted kind of way, the young men and women begin to hope their doubt is well founded. Any reason that reinforces it is welcomed. Doubt becomes greater, not based on evidence, but merely by dwelling in the mind. This is certainly not always how it goes, but in general you could think of this scenario as the genesis of unbelief. This is not always the process, but generally speaking, it is the natural history of skepticism. If you have carefully observed someone you know drifting into unbelief, you have probably seen something like this occur.”

Wilberforce perceptively describes the process by which young people walk away from the faith. His hypothetical scenario may not be true for everyone who leaves the faith, but I think his words offer four “timeless” truths concerning those who walk away. Being attentive to these areas can help us as we prepare students for the challenges ahead.

First, students who walk away from the faith succumb to temptations they haven’t faced before. Many students may have been exposed to the temptations of alcohol and sex in high school, but in college, being away from home and parents makes the challenges more difficult to withstand. As one student recently said to me, “I didn’t know it was possible to go to college and not drink!” Parents and youth workers must work diligently to remind students of the dangers of alcohol abuse and promiscuous sex, while also casting a better vision for what college can and should be. It is possible to find a caring community on campus that fosters a healthy social life, but it requires intentionality. Help students to make the needed college connections before they head off to college. Visit to see a listing of ministries available on campuses across the country.

Second, students who walk away from the faith didn’t learn to think. The problem that Wilberforce diagnosed over 200 years ago is still with us today. Many students lack critical thinking skills, failing to take what knowledge is at their disposal to form their own beliefs and convictions. We must continually create space for students to wrestle with the big questions of life. College should not be the first time that students engage in abstract or deep thinking. Critical thinking and Christian discernment are spiritual disciplines that need to be developed. Like anything worthwhile in life, the developmental process takes time and is difficult. A youth group devoted to these activities may not draw the biggest crowds, but if we are serious about preparing students for life after high school, helping student to “learn to think” will be a mark of our ministries.

Third, students who walk away from the faith are consumed with the demands of making a living and the desire for success. It is so easy to get caught up in the world’s definition of success. It’s often difficult to understand how faith relates to day-to-day choices and career decisions. In contemporary American culture, the chief end of man is often expressed as: “He who dies with the most toys wins!” The temptation to live a life based on material possessions and upward mobility is pervasive, and many students find it too difficult to live a counter-cultural life based on following Jesus. The attitude becomes: “You can’t follow Jesus in the ‘real world.’” Once again, community is essential to withstand the challenge. College students need to be surrounded by other people who live life differently than the world around them. Teenagers need to be continually exposed to examples of what it looks like to be in the world but not of it. For Christians, calling is more important than career.

Fourth, students who walk away from the faith see right through the charade of those who profess the faith but don’t live the life. It was true in Wilberforce’s day, it is true in our day and it will be true until Jesus returns: the problem for most people who walk away from the faith is not Christ, but Christians. Students who are contemplating leaving the faith are longing not to be around perfect people, but to be around people who are perfectly honest about their own shortcomings and desire to change. Honesty must always trump superficiality.

William Wilberforce reminds us that the problem of students leaving the faith after high school is not new, and the reasons for why students drift away are unlikely to change. Learning from the past can help us in the present to ensure that our ministries are addressing the central challenges students face. If Wilberforce’s timeless diagnosis is correct, youth ministries that focus on community, discernment, calling and honesty will prepare students for life after high school.

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The Slow Fade: Why You Matter in the Story of Twentysomethings

SlowFadeIt’s no secret. Many young adults are no longer finding a “home” in most churches. This common trend used to be dismissed with the pithy response: “They’ll return when they get married and have kids!” But that’s no longer the case. For one thing, more and more young adults are prolonging marriage. What’s more, waiting for people to get married in order to have them fully participate in the life of the church is not an effective or biblical strategy. The church needs to disciple people regardless of their marital status. In fact, the young adult years are considered by many to be the most formative years in a person’s life. But why has it become so difficult to reach emerging adults? What can the church do to more effectively connect with the next generation?

Equipping the church to wrestle with these questions is what inspired the authors of The Slow Fade: Why You Matter in the Story of Twentysomethings (David C. Cook). Reggie Joiner, a senior pastor, Chuck Bomar, a college pastor, and Abbie Smith, a twenty-something, offer insight into the often hard to reach college aged crowd. When many churches seem to be looking for the latest and greatest program to attract young people who have slowly faded away from church, these authors provide a simpler, more biblical approach: mentoring. Their plea is for the older generation to take the younger generation more seriously by investing their time in developing meaningful relationships with young adults. According to the authors, “Halting the slow fade happens when adults start investing in the college-aged people.”

Most notably, they are suggesting that the church re-think its finish line. For too long, the church has seen graduating from high school as the big “finish” before moving off to college. The authors ask a perceptive question: “If the slow fade in someone’s faith begins to occur at the point he or she goes off to college, then why don’t we focus some of our best energies on the first few years of college?” What would it look like if the church pushed back its finish line to age 20, or better, didn’t have a finish line at all? It would require a major paradigm shift in the way most churches think about youth and youth ministry.

The authors realize that mentoring is not easy and offer wisdom and guidance to be more effective and authentic disciple makers. Church leaders who care about seeing young people grow in faith should not miss this book. Confused parents who are struggling with their young adult son or daughter will gain valuable insight into why he or she is no longer apart of the church. The Slow Fade will open your eyes to the needs of young adults and provide steps forward for reaching them with a faith that lasts.

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Sticky Faith is Deep and Church-Wide at NMC!

Sticky FaithNappanee Missionary Church (NMC) in Nappanee, Indiana is committed to helping youth and families develop a faith that “sticks” after high school. Over the past few years the people of NMC have been greatly challenged by statistics that suggests many students who grow up in the church leave the faith after high school. NMC has also been significantly influenced, encouraged and equipped by the Sticky Faith research and resources provided by Fuller Theological Seminary. So much so, in fact, that one of NMC’s staff members includes the phrase “sticky faith” in his job title. His main responsibilities are helping the church think through a “sticky faith perspective” for all ages and levels of discipleship.

This past weekend I had the honor of spending time with students and parents at NMC. I presented the College Transition Seminar, was interviewed by youth pastor Derry Prenkert during three worship services and spoke to the youth group about Identity Matters on Sunday evening (cut a little short by an ice storm!). It was encouraging to see a church that is thinking deeply and strategically about how to best serve and disciple students and families. Thank you, NMC, for your example to all of us!

Click here to watch a video of Derry’s sermon (The Exchange Lane) and my interview (15:08).

Click here to download (.pdf)  the sermon notes as well as to see a collection of helpful “Sticky Faith” resources.

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So Thankful for Hearts & Minds Bookstore!

On Friday Hearts & Minds Bookstore of Dallastown, Pennsylvania will celebrate a major milestone for any small business. For thirty years, proprietors Byron and Beth Borger have faithfully and relentlessly served their neighbors and their God by selling books and promoting reading. As I sit here the day before Thanksgiving, Hearts & Minds and my friendship with Byron & Beth is pretty high on the list of things I’m thankful for!

I hope the Borgers don’t mind me pointing out that I was only five years old when they opened the store. As I was eating turkey (and too much cranberry sauce, again) during my first “break” from elementary school, the Borgers were probably putting books on shelves and a sign out front. It wouldn’t be until I was twenty-four that I would step foot into their store, nineteen years after it opened. And, with nineteen years of book evangelism under his belt, Byron went to work, recommending books and going over the “must reads” and best authors. It’s difficult to put into words what it is like to spend an afternoon with Byron at his store. Challenging. Exhilarating. Refreshing. Those words come to mind pretty quickly. So do names of authors. If it were not for Byron, I never would have known about or have been encouraged to read writers such as Wendell Berry, Walter Brueggemann or Marva Dawn. And now it’s hard to imagine my faith without reading their books. There are countless other books and authors too, but Berry, Brueggemann and Dawn represent three writers that Byron recommended at just the right time, as he always seems to do. And they are not authors that you typically see on display at most “Christian bookstores.”

There are many ways that I could honor Byron and Beth with this short reflection. Thirty years as a small business owner is inspiring enough, to say the least. What’s more, the bookselling industry has been hit pretty hard of late. Way to go Byron and Beth! Thirty years! Wow. But I don’t want to miss this opportunity to say very clearly and publically that Byron and Beth’s friendship and Hearts & Minds Bookstore fuel my work daily as the Director of CPYU’s College Transition Initiative. My passion is seeing young people take ownership of their faith during the critical years (18-25). Many times I will be talking to a teenager or parent or youth pastor and I’ll think: “If only they could spend five minutes with Byron, they could ‘see’ the difference faith in Jesus makes in every area of life.” To do my work well, I need resources and encouragement. Byron and Beth offer both on a regular basis!

The store itself is a reflection of the Kingdom of God. God cares about every nook and cranny of his Creation, and He has called people to serve Jesus is all areas of His world. (I can’t imagine writing that sentence without Byron’s influence.) And some of them have taken the time to write books (and sell them!) to spur others on to do likewise. Put simply, without Hearts & Minds, the Gospel of the Kingdom would be harder to believe.

Thank you, Byron and Beth, for your commitment and courage. It is an honor and blessing to call you friends. Here’s to thirty more years!

Please take a few minutes to watch this video of Byron talking about his store at the Center for Faith & Work at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. And join me in being thankful for the ongoing ministry of Hearts & Minds.

And, I am pleased to announce that on December 4, CTI will be hosting an event with Byron and Beth. The “Christmas Shoppin’ Drop-in” will be held at Mount Joy Mennonite Church from 6:30pm-9:00pm. There will be an opportunity to purchase thoughtful Christmas gifts from Hearts & Minds with a portion of the proceeds going to support the ministry of CPYU/CTI.

Learn more about the CTI “Christmas Shoppin’ Drop-inhere.

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What Makes Faith Stick?

Research from the Fuller Youth Institute reveals surprising insights into instilling lasting faith in young people. It is estimated that around 50% of students that grow up in the Christian faith walk away from the church after high school. Many church leaders have known about this growing trend but have not been sure what to do about it. The Fuller Youth Institute, under the direction of Dr. Kara Powell, conducted a ground-breaking, four-year study of this phenomenon. This “Sticky Faith” research followed teenagers from their senior year of high school until their senior year of college, hoping to discover what helped them to make their faith stick. Dr. Powell explains, “As many churches and denominations experience decline, and as anxious parents wonder about their children’s futures, the Sticky Faith research has the power to spark a movement that not only changes youth, but also families and churches.”

Here are three key findings to consider:  First, while most U.S. churches focus on building strong youth groups, teenagers also need to build relationships with adults of all ages. Teens need intergenerational community. Second, churches and families overestimate youth group graduates’ readiness for the struggles ahead with dire consequences for the faith. Most teens are not ready for the challenges and temptations of life after high school. Third, while teaching young people the “dos” and “don’ts” of Christian living is important, an overemphasis on behaviors can sabotage faith long-term. Teens desperately need a Gospel of heart transformation, not just behavior modification.

Visit the Sticky Faith website to learn more about the research and to discover helpful resources that equip parents and churches to nurture in young people a faith that lasts.

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You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church and Rethinking Faith

David Kinnaman’s most recent book You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church… And Rethinking Faith (Baker Books) begins with bad news: “Millions of young adults leave active involvement in church as they exit their teen years.” But the good news is that many of the teens who give up on the church, aren’t necessarily walking away from Jesus. Many of them are simply looking for more meaningful ways to follow Jesus in contemporary culture.

The Barna Group has been criticized of late for supposedly being “alarmist” and for using a flawed research methodology. Most of the criticism has come from a few, Christian, social scientists. I think much of the criticism is overstated. What is so refreshing about You Lost Me is that it doesn’t rely solely on Barna statistics. It pulls from a variety of sources and notes the shortcomings of all research. Kinnaman writes: “I want to provide here a nuanced, data-driven assessment of young adults’ faith journeys. In our evidence gathering, interviews, and data analysis, the Barna team’s goal is to construct the most accurate picture we can of cultural reality, because the church is called to be the church in the real world. In this research, we have done our best to uncover the facts and the truth of the dropout problem, and this book is the compilation of our best thinking on the subject thus far—but it is hardly the final answer.”

I have read much of and have benefitted greatly from the recent sociological research on the religious attitudes of late adolescents and emerging adults from leading sociologists such as Jeffrey Arnett, Chap Clark, Tim Clydesdale, Donna Freitas, Christian Smith, and Robert Wuthnow. Kinnaman’s findings affirm and support much of what is found among leading social scientists. My hope is that You Lost Me is received as a welcomed addition to that conversation. It is as good and as thorough as anything else I have read concerning young adult spirituality.

You Lost Me is clear and compelling. It is thoughtful and balanced. It should be read by everyone concerned for the church; pastors, parents, educators, even students will benefit from Kinnaman’s wisdom. He rightly identifies the church “dropout problem” as a “disciple-making” problem, explaining, “The church is not adequately preparing the next generation to follow Christ in a rapidly changing culture.” You Lost Me not only identifies the reasons why many young adults stop attending church but it also provides disciples-making suggestions for how to get them back. The book also features a collection of fifty “ideas for passing on a flourishing, deep-rooted faith.” CPYU president Walt Mueller and I are among the contributors.

Visit to learn more.

Watch a video about You Lost Me here.

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Worth Reading: Five Articles for Good Discussion

Over the past few months, I have been mulling over five different articles that I have found to be very interesting and worth discussing. The themes of the articles have found their way into countless conversations with friends and family. The articles are not very long and well worth reading. What follows are the title of each article along with a quote that I think summarizes the main point. Enjoy!

Childlike Faith: Are Kids Born with Belief? What developmental science tells us about children’s religious beliefs.” Interview by Holly Catterton Allen for Christianity Today.

“Children have a natural disposition to see the natural world as having purpose. Research has shown that children have a strong inclination to see design in the world around them, but they are left wondering who did it… If a child is exposed to the idea of a god that is immortal, super-knowing, super-perceiving, the child doesn’t have to do a lot of work to learn that idea; it fits the child’s intuitions.”

College grads, 30 isn’t the new 20: Our 20s are life’s developmental sweet spot. They matter. A lot,” by Meg Jay for the Los Angeles Times.

“Newly minted college graduates… are living with a staggering, unprecedented amount of uncertainty. Uncertainty makes people anxious, and distraction is the 21st century opiate of the masses. It’s easy to stay distracted and wait for deliverance at 30. It’s almost a relief to imagine that twentysomething jobs and relationships don’t count. But a career spent studying adult development tells me this isn’t true. And a decade of listening to young adults tells me that, deep down, they want to take their lives seriously. The 30-year-olds who feel betrayed by their 20s almost always ask, ‘Why didn’t someone tell me this sooner — like when I graduated from college?’”

‘The Demise of Guys’: How video games and porn are ruining a generation” by Dr. Philip G. Zimbardo and Nikita Duncan for CNN.

“The consequences could be dramatic: The excessive use of video games and online porn in pursuit of the next thing is creating a generation of risk-averse guys who are unable (and unwilling) to navigate the complexities and risks inherent to real-life relationships, school and employment.”

Spoiled Rotten: Why do kids rule the roost?” by Elizabeth Kolbert for The New Yorker.

“Today’s parents are not just ‘helicopter parents,’… ‘They are a jet-powered turbo attack model.’ Other educators gripe about ‘snowplow parents,’ who try to clear every obstacle from their children’s paths. The products of all this hovering, meanwhile, worry that they may not be able to manage college in the absence of household help. According to research conducted by sociologists at Boston College, today’s incoming freshmen are less likely to be concerned about the rigors of higher education than ‘about how they will handle the logistics of everyday life.’”

When Are We Going to Grow Up? The Juvenilization of American Christianity. We’re all adolescents now” by Thomas E. Bergler for Christianity Today.

“As they listen to years of simplified messages that emphasize an emotional relationship with Jesus over intellectual content, teenagers learn that a well-articulated belief system is unimportant and might even become an obstacle to authentic faith. This feel-good faith works because it appeals to teenage desires for fun and belonging. It casts a wide net by dumbing down Christianity to the lowest common denominator of adolescent cognitive development and religious motivation… I believe one key is to renew our commitment to the church as an intergenerational family… Young people need adults in their lives who are modeling a vibrant spiritual maturity. One reason no one wants to grow up in America is that many adults don’t make their life stage look very attractive.”

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