IS THIS THE LAST GENERATION TO PURPOSEFULLY FOLLOW CHRIST?
Is this the last Christian generation in North America? Mark Oestreicher of Youth Specialties stated recently in Christianity Today, “There are a lot of people who’ve had this nagging sense that we’re missing the mark somehow . . . teens seem happy and willing to attend, and engage in our ministries, but five years from now, when they’re in college or post-college, they just really aren’t connecting with real faith, let alone church.”
I know what you are thinking: “This is not new.” Of course, I agree.
However, some believe it has reached a dangerous new level. This upswing prompted Josh McDowell to co-write a new book with Dave Bellis. Josh states, “the decision to call this [book] The Last Christian Generation was not made lightly nor was it done for sensationalism. I sincerely believe unless something is done now to change the spiritual state of our young people – you will become the last Christian generation!”(1)
Is Josh’s concern justified? Will this trend correct itself or will we follow in the secular footsteps of Western Europe?
How are we doing at converting church involvement by teens into a lifelong relationship with Christ? A 2006 study indicates that over eighty percent of today’s teens attend church for a period of at least two months during their teenage years. What an opportunity! The bad news is that only one out of four of those ‘churched’ youth are still spiritually engaged by age twenty-nine;(2) that is, they are still actively attending church, reading the Bible, or praying. In comparison, roughly twice as many adults in their forties are spiritually engaged.
An earlier study looked at the beliefs of teens involved in evangelical churches. Over two-thirds of these young people believe:
• that there is no absolute moral truth
• that Christianity is about showing bad people how to live better
• that there is no way to tell which religion is true
• that Jesus is not the Son of the one true God
And, over half believe that Jesus did not rise from the dead. What?
Let’s consider some potential causes why 3 out of 4 ‘churched’ teens become disengaged from Christianity during their twenties.
One cause may be the way we define and measure youth ministry. As adults abdicate their training responsibility, our youth are isolated as their own congregation. The measure of success is numerical attendance rather than instilling a life long discipline for spiritual growth. Church becomes a series of fun activities interspersed with encouragement to avoid risky behaviors.
A second factor is primarily teaching topical lessons about the Christian faith rather than laying a strong foundation of truth. As our teens move into college, professors, peers, and the popular media all portray authentic Christianity in a negative light. It takes a strong foundation to choose to endure hostility when one can adopt a so-called “private faith” and avoid the confrontation. As you know, soldiers participate in exercises simulating the most effective tactics of their opponents before being sent onto the battlefield. Yet, in training our teens, we often avoid exposing them to the tough questions in case some of them are put off by the experience.
A third factor is allowing teens to be content with a second-hand faith. In Joshua, we learn that “Israel served the LORD . . . all the days of the elders who survived Joshua, and had known all the deeds of the LORD” (24:31). After these elders who had personally experienced the Lord died, most in Israel fell away from serving God. More recently, during the Welsh revival of 1904, over 100,000 conversions were recorded in less than five months. The impact was so pervasive that police duties were reduced to providing quartets for prayer meetings. A century later, church attendance in Wales is at an all-time low. Only nineteen percent of UK teenagers say they had a religious faith. Luis Palau summed up the Welsh experience by noting, “God has no grandchildren.” Teens who attend church to live out their parents’ faith find it easy to leave the faith to conform to the expectations of their new authority figures.
A new factor, somewhat unique to today’s culture is a “distorted worldview filter” unwittingly adopted by many youth and adults. This filter tells them:
• Truth is relative, not absolute.
• Science and spirituality are at odds.
• Science confirms that I am nothing but insignificant dirt.
• An irrational, spiritual tradition can help me cope with this harsh reality.
• However, I am in no position to critically evaluate someone else’s tradition.
With this distorted filter in place, even solid biblical teaching can leave teens unprepared to stand firm in their faith.
The book “The Last Christian Generation” lists some of the concepts distorted by this filter, for example:
• Truth now means whatever is right for you.
• Tolerance means accepting that each individual’s values and lifestyles are equally valid.
• Moral judgments mean bigoted attitudes we have no right to hold.
Many teens are synthesizing Christian teaching and popular culture into a new personal religion. In their 2005 book, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, (3) the authors found that religious teens tend to hold a vague group of functionally religious beliefs the authors termed “moralistic therapeutic deism.” Its key tenets are:
• God is distant and uninvolved in daily life.
• But I can call on God as a “cosmic therapist” when I have a problem.
• My purpose is to be happy and feel good about myself.
• If I avoid being an intolerant jerk, I will go to heaven.
Although these beliefs could be considered theistic, they definitely are not evangelical Christianity.
What happens when these beliefs are put to the test? I’ve known Julie (not her real name) all her life. Julie consistently attended youth group. She was also tuned into the popular culture. When her circumstances disappointed her, she turned to God as her “therapist.” When He did not change her circumstances to suit her, she decided that God was not worth her time. Instead, she chose to escape her circumstances through drugs. She had distorted the truth into a perversion that prevented her from having a solid relationship with her Creator.
How should we respond to this disturbing trend?
Historically, much of youth ministry has been about getting the crowd in the door and keeping them involved. Recent studies show we are doing a good job at this function. But we are not doing well if we measure success by how many are still actively involved through their twenties. If the problem is not getting them in the door, it must be in what is happening once they are involved.
Josh McDowell suggests that we need to readjust both what is being taught and how it is being taught.
What should we teach? Although we should not ignore behavioral issues such as sex, drugs, etc., McDowell calls us to help our teens see the reality of God. If there is a God, it is of paramount importance that we seek to know absolute Truth with a capital T. Consistent with everything the tools of modern science can observe about our universe, they have rational reasons to believe that God has revealed Himself to us through His Word.
McDowell and Bellis suggest teens must learn to know Him as the God of redemption, relationships, and restoration. A clear understanding of each of these aspects serves an important role in countering the tenets of today’s teen religion which I call “iPod faith” (choosing what we like or deleting what we don’t like based on our own preferences) which we define as “moralistic therapeutic deism”:
• Knowing the God of redemption tells them that good people don’t go to heaven; redeemed people go to heaven. Our definition of good is so shallow compared to a transcendent, holy God. We must rely on Him for redemption.
• Knowing the God of relationships tells them God is not a cosmic therapist, but a personal heavenly Father, intimately involved in all aspects of life.
• Knowing the God of restoration highlights that our earthly life is a brief precursor to eternity. This truth changes our central goal to creating eternal value in Christ.
Youth who can articulate these truths have taken a big step to repairing their distorted worldview filter.
Christianity is often communicated as a set of behavior rules covering one topic at a time, rather than as a deep relationship emulating the character of our heavenly Father. Bits of knowledge and rules for behavior are not a comprehensive worldview.
So how does this affect us in our local church setting?
The entire inter-generational community is modeling their faith and articulating their biblical worldview. For this model to work, parents and youth leaders, together, must continually express their reasons for believing that Jesus is the truth in a world that says there is no truth. Teens must experience a community of faith willing to trade in a life purpose of being happy for a life purpose of building eternal value through serving Jesus.
This may sound like a daunting task, but when I see the heart of our ‘Bethel Church’ youth ministry directors (Mike & Judy) and the other capable and committed youth leaders I say there is hope and future generations will benefit because of it.
The future is here. It’s just not widely distributed yet… but I believe God has called all of us to be a part of responding to this challenge. So my answer to the titled question is NO, this is not the last generation to purposefully follow Christ.
1. Josh McDowell & David Bellis, The Last Christian Generation (Holiday, Fla.: Green Key Books, 2006).
2. “Most Twentysomethings Put Christianity on the Shelf Following Spiritually Active Teen Years,” The Barna Update, Sept. 11, 2006, http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/16-teensnext-gen/147-most-twentysomethings-put-christianity-on-the-shelf-following-spiritually-active-teen-years.
3. Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2005).
4. Bruce Murray, “Understanding the Religious and Spiritual Lives of Teenagers,” FACSNET, www.facsnet.org/issues/faith/youth.php.