Who has an answer?
Providing real answers may arrest the hemorrhage of young people from the church once they leave home
Published: 27 August 2009 (GMT+10)
“Creation is just a side issue!” This protest is one of the main reasons people remain uninformed about the issues surrounding creation and evolution. But lack of understanding of such “side issues” is a major reason why young people abandon Christianity once they are out on their own. A Barna survey showed that around two-thirds of Christian teenagers will abandon their faith once they leave home. And most teenagers who grow up in the church will become disengaged from their faith in their twenties, even if only temporarily (and for many, it is not). Or else their “faith” makes little difference to how they live in the real world. An obvious example is that about a third of professing evangelicals under 30 voted for the first overtly pro-infanticide president in American history. These disturbing figures are supported by statistics that show that teenagers are less interested in Christianity than their parents.
A co-worker told me once about her son, who left the faith while in a secular college, despite having had a Christian upbringing. Although he had been taught to believe the Bible, he had no basis for his beliefs when they were challenged by his atheist professors and pagan friends. By the end of his first year of college, he had renounced his faith. When his mother tried to talk to him about the Bible, he gave various ‘village atheist’ arguments against the accuracy of the Bible and the existence of God which one finds on many atheist forums (which CMI answers on its Frequently Asked Questions page). I offered to teach her the answers, or even talk to her son myself, but my co-worker refused both offers, saying that she believed his intellectual arguments were simply an excuse, and that his real problem was spiritual. I tried to show her that at the very least his excuse could be taken away, but she was not persuaded. She sadly said, “Perhaps someone like you will bring my son back to Jesus.” But she refused any help.
I believe my co-worker’s account points to several problems which lead many young people to desert the faith when they become independent from their believing parents.
Fideism and anti-intellectualism
Evangelicalism has unfortunately been characterized as anti-intellectual; an accusation which is too often true. This problem stems back to the “Enlightenment”, when many churches reacted to the materialism and anti-God philosophies coming out of the various branches of science by simply retreating from those areas altogether instead of combating them. Today the attitude lingers in some churches that science and advanced theological study are questionable at best and soul-destroying at worst. This attitude causes Christians to rebuff questions about their faith, often telling the questioner to “just have faith,” of course, meaning that the questioner is supposed to leave his brain at the church door. This gives the questioner the impression that there are no answers to his questions. But the sort of blind faith this attitude encourages is not enough for many college students who need a stronger foundation than just warm fuzzy feelings about Jesus if their faith is going to survive their college education.
Lax biblical education
The average Christian receives most of his theological instruction at church on Sunday, and if he is lucky, Sunday school or a midweek Bible study. In the best case scenario where the pastor and any lay teachers are educated and teaching sound theology, this amounts to maybe 1½ hours a week. If someone only attends church on a weekly basis, he is only getting a 20–30 minute sermon, usually given by a pastor who has had four years of Bible College, of which two years were taken up with general education courses like Algebra and General Psychology, and the other two divided between homiletics, counseling, and Bible survey courses. By the time someone graduates with a bachelor’s in pastoral ministry, he has had as few as four biblical studies courses, and may not have taken a biblical language (Greek or Hebrew). While these courses include much more than the layperson will usually learn, it hardly makes the student a competent biblical teacher; there are usually whole areas of the Bible he has not had a class about. Some pastors make up for this deficiency with reading and independent study, but many simply do not preach out of the Old Testament, since this is usually where the pastor’s knowledge is deficient.
People in churches led by this sort of pastor who are dependent on the pastor for most of their biblical instruction will inevitably have even less knowledge of the Bible, since most do not have the education or resources to investigate the issues for themselves. No wonder many churches discourage questioning!
Many educated pastors embrace an illegitimate figurative interpretation of the Genesis accounts where the days become “long ages” or serve merely a literary function. Unfortunately, many Bible Colleges have compromised badly (see Crisis in the colleges: A call for reformation), often leaving students feeling confused—or worse. (Graduate survivors of such colleges have been known to counsel eager young believers against pursuing theological qualifications, warning that pathway is strewn with those who “lost their professed faith”. No wonder certain theological seminaries have been dubbed “theological cemeteries”!)
The more conservative compromisers will still accept a literal Adam (as Romans 5 teaches, for example), but believe he was created billions of years after the advent of death and suffering. (In stark contrast, the Bible teaches that death and suffering was the result of Adam’s sin. Many evangelicals have this compromising view, and though it is possible to be a genuinely saved ‘progressive creationist’ or theistic evolutionist, it makes the foundation of one’s theology unstable since all major doctrines have their origin in the first chapters of Genesis. In particular, it is hard to answer what is probably the most common atheopathic attack: how could a good all-powerful God permit so much suffering in the world?
The average youth group is full of fun social activities and games, and youth pastors constantly are looking for something new to keep the youth group fun and “relevant”. While this is not an evil in itself, the pursuit of fun often overshadows any teaching function of the youth group. And some youth leaders’ quest to be “relevant” has in reality, sadly, meant missed opportunity. Youth group is the ideal time to teach teenagers about the basics of how to defend their faith, and a basic education in apologetics could be critical for those who go on to college and have their faith challenged by unbelieving professors and peers. The problem is that when the youth group becomes all about fun and things the leaders think are “relevant” but in reality are not, it is hard to differentiate the youth group from any other social group, and the church wastes what could be the best way to make sure that teens stay in the church once they leave home. Teens also learn that faith is all about fun, and can develop a very self-centered faith. People tend to do what is expected of them, and most teenagers (and adults, for that matter) are capable of a lot more than the church is expecting of them.1
Lack of preparation
All these conditions contribute to the average church’s inability to respond to arguments against Christianity. Many evangelical churches tend to not discuss major challenges to the Christian faith from various secular sources. A few years back, The Da Vinci Code convinced many uninformed readers that the Catholic Church had usurped the rightful female leadership of the church, and that Jesus had married Mary Magdalene and fathered a child, although the book was littered with historical errors nearly as egregious as the theological misinformation (see CMI’s articles).
In any given week, one can find a supposedly historical television show that asserts that the Gospels are pieces of propaganda, that the early Church suppressed literature that did not conform with their narrow views, or that Christianity was copied from various pagan religions (see CMI’s refutation of copycat nonsense). These productions are often created with budgets of millions of dollars and prestigious scholars which give the program’s claims an air of reliability, even if there is little to no evidence for the truth of those claims. Few churches actually contest these claims, even though various apologists have addressed nearly every argument against Christianity.
Another problem is susceptibility to non-Christian cults. Sadly, their “missionaries” can run eisegetical rings around many churchgoers. Yet their distortions of the Bible would be readily exposed if more churchgoers were taught the fundamentals of the faith, e.g. the deity of Christ and the Trinity.
Many people in apologetics ministry even make their work available freely, so there is no excuse for not taking advantage of it.
The answers do make a difference!
Some people, as my co-worker did, say that the real problem is spiritual, so intellectual answers cannot do anything; the Holy Spirit must do the work. While we certainly affirm that no one can come to salvation without the Spirit’s help, this view ignores the command to all Christians to defend the faith and to contend for the truth. (And sometimes, having answers has a very real effect. This has been shown to be true for many people who have been converted through the ministry of Creation Ministries International, including myself (see my testimony, showing that creation was a real issue for me at least.2,3)
It is wrong to assume that any questioning of the Christian faith is done from a hostile view; sometimes the questioner is sincere, and even if he is not sincere, a strong answer may help him. Street preachers have likewise found that a good grounding in creationist apologetics enables them to handle the most common questions. See Street preacher says creation ‘is the issue’: It’s time for the church to stop avoiding the questions people want answers to.
Apologetics by its nature is not primarily evangelistic, but for the Church. The apologist does not aim to convert those who promote arguments against the Christian faith (though it is wonderful when this happens), but to refute him so he cannot harm anyone else’s faith. Many Christians have a hard time with a relative or co-worker attacking their faith, and they have found their faith shored up when a CMI apologist demolishes the attacker’s arguments (see The Indoctrinator). This often has the result of neutralizing the attacker and making him back off. It’s no wonder that a poll a few years ago found that feedback responses were the second most popular type of article on our website.
The way forward
If churches hope to reverse the loss of young people from the Church, they must abandon the so-called “seeker-friendly”, pop-Christianity style that pervades much of the Church. Pastors should start confronting anti-Christian claims in popular media, and to prepare their teenagers for the hostile environment they will encounter in college. Christianity has a rich history of apologetics and theological teaching of which most Christians, even most pastors, are unaware of. While not every Christian can or should go into full-time apologetics ministry, there is no excuse for being ignorant about the very basic questions that one could be expected to give an answer to.
- I know of one church where its leaders noticed nearly a decade ago, with growing alarm, that the 20-somethings were not moving into responsibility and leadership roles as their predecessors had done. On realising that these were all “graduates” of a youth group culture that had been served with fun and entertainment, which had almost completely displaced the formerly regular Scriptural teaching times, the church swiftly enacted sweeping reforms to its youth programs. Interestingly, the teens actively supported the reforms, saying “We don’t come to youth group to be ‘entertained’. If we want entertainment, we could go to tons better places,” and they wholeheartedly embraced the new emphasis on Bible study, with concomitant calls to sobriety, selflessness, maturity. Not surprisingly, these young people soon showed a much different attitude to Christian service and mission than their entertainment-fed predecessors, quickly moving up to take on responsibilities appropriate to their talents and calling. Other churches too, disappointed at the “fruit” of their own “fun”-centred youth programs, are being similarly goaded to return to scriptural counsel re the training of young people in Christ. Return to text.
- I began this article with a comment I’ve often heard from people; in essence, that creation is not an important issue. On occasion, when I have replied: “But it was an important issue for me!”, the rejoinder is “But you’re only one person.” Indeed. But Jesus taught that the good shepherd will leave the 99 in pasture to go after the one who is lost … (Matthew 18:12–14). Return to text.
- See also the subsequent article Caged lions … And the young generation in the church, which cited this, among other examples. The title was an allusion to a faulty anti-apologetics platitude by a famous preacher, who, when asked about defending the Bible, replied something like, “How would you defend a lion? Open his cage and leave him to defend himself!” Return to text.