Why do many conservative evangelical kids walk away from Christianity altogether in their 20s? This is the question a friend and I were discussing last night as we swapped stories of 20-somethings we now know who were "on fire for the Lord" as teens but now have an angry disposition toward the church and are agnostic. These are women and men who grew up in church-going, two-parent families in conservative, Republican-loving, Bible-teaching, evangelical churches with well-intended adults loving them the best way they could.
A few days ago, I ran int0 a 29-year-old man who many expected to be an amazing youth pastor some day. I was his counselor 15 years ago at a leadership camp at Covenant College. He was one of those youth group kids who was "on fire" for the Lord. He wore Christian T-shirts and bracelets, was a fan of abstinence, didn't hang around non-Christians or drink or smoke or drive fast. I'm pretty sure he wore a purity ring too. He had great grades, led groups at church, had opportunities to teach, and so on. He actually rebuked me once for doing one of those youth group type icebreakers that wasn't godly. Today he's agnostic.
My friend and I have both been involved in youth ministry for years. I have spent 15 years as a youth worker at several churches around the country and three years as a Christian school teacher and administrator. My friend was a youth director in a very large conservative Reformed Presbyterian church for over seven years. Here are common "straws that break the camel's back" in young adulthood, as we follow up with these formally "on fire future leaders of the church" who have now walked away completely.
(1) Victims of formulaic parenting: All of these young adults were victims of the evangelical idea that if you put your children in the right program "X" they will turn out to be like "Y." Strangely, adults seemed to be puzzled when their adult children walk away from Christianity because "they were so involved in youth group" and "went to Sunday school" every Sunday. Many evangelical parents will even "church hop" to find the perfect youth programs to plug their kids into as if church programs alone magically produce long-term followers of Christ. As a matter of fact, I'm not even sure "youth pastor" can be biblically defended.
(2) Confusing doctrinal and biblical knowledge with true spirituality: As youth leaders, we all made the mistake of assuming that because these teens had good doctrine that they actually were developing a heart-driven affection for Jesus. Not surprisingly, most of these kids grew up in churches that elevate religious knowledge over religious experience and spirituality. Spirituality is assumed evident because they can recite Bible verses and answer theological questions while viewing religious experience and emotions as practices of the theologically unsophisticated.
(3) Controlling friendships out of fear: These young adults were also in contexts where they were quarantined from two groups of peers: (1) non-Christians and (2) Christians not having the "right" theology. Friends as seen as potential threats and bad influences. What happens, then, when these kids leave high school and meet "non-Christians" and others who are actually more caring, socially concerned, and generous, and so on, than many Christians they know? Anger and resentment at the church. These young adults were raised to believe that the only loving, caring, "nice" people on earth are Christians and the rest are demons just waiting to pounce. These young adults have no answer when confronted with the fact that you don't have to be a Christian to be faithful to your spouse, love your children, care for homeless people, take in strangers, and the like. Maybe, then, Christianity is not as unique as many were led to believe.
This is only the beginning of what we have discovered. It really breaks my heart to see these young adults walk away and I am hopeful, because of the promises of God, that their departure is only temporary. Stay tuned. . .