Drew Dyck explores reasons why young people are leaving Christianity in alarming numbers. The results are sobering – but they need to be faced.
Drew Dyck, the managing editor of Leadership Journal, has written an important book that investigates the exodus of young people from the faith. It’s a topic we ignore at our own peril. In this provocative interview, Drew discusses some of his disturbing findings from Generation Ex-Christian: Why Young Adults are Leaving the Faith…and How to Bring Them Back.
• What prompted you to write about young people who have left the faith?
As I moved through my twenties, I started to see some of my friends leave the faith. These were people who had been active in my youth group, sang on the worship team, and were passionate about Jesus. That got my attention.
So I read up on the topic and learned that what I was witnessing in my circle of friends was not unique. Several recent studies seem to indicate that there’s a strong tendency for this generation to fall away. I also wanted to get behind the statistics to the real-life young people who had walked away. So I tracked down dozens of them, mostly 20-somethings, who identified as “ex-Christians” and listened to their stories. I tried to identify the primary reasons they left. I believe that the factors that lead people away from the faith often serve as barriers that prevent them from returning. And that’s what my book is about, equipping Christians to have meaningful conversations with their loved ones who have strayed from God.
• But don’t young people often leave their childhood faith only to come back when they’re older? Won’t today’s young people come back too?
I would love to believe that there will be an automatic return. Unfortunately there are factors that I believe make this generation different. First, young adults today are dropping religion at a greater rate than young adults of yesteryear—”five to six times the historic rate,” according to prominent social scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell.
Second, young adulthood is much longer than it used to be. Marriage, career, children—the primary sociological forces that drive adults back to religious commitment—are now delayed until the late 20s, even into the 30s. Returning to the fold after a two- or three-year hiatus is one thing; coming back after more than a decade absence is considerably more unlikely.
Third, I just believe there’s been a tectonic shift in the broader culture. Past generations may have rebelled for a season, but they still inhabited a predominantly Judeo-Christian culture. Going to church was what good people did. But for those reared in pluralistic, post-Christian America, the cultural gravity back to the faith has weakened.
I don’t want to be a doomsayer. I hope the trend reverses. But I also want to guard against complacency. We can’t wait for them to come back. I think we need to pray for them, seek them out and actively engage them in conversations about God.
• What role does moral compromise play? Do some young people leave just to indulge a sinful lifestyle?
It often plays a big role, maybe a bigger role than most “leavers” would care to admit. Living the Christian life is hard, and when you’re falling short, as we all do, it’s easy to forfeit relationship with an invisible deity in order to indulge sinful, real-world desires. But moral compromise doesn’t always tell the whole story.
Many of the leavers I interviewed had genuine intellectual objections. Others had been hurt in the church or by other Christians. Some merely drifted away. It made me realize how crucial it is to listen well. When talking to these people we really have to do some detective work, find out where they are at, and then speak specifically to their concerns.
• We hear a lot about the younger generation being postmodern. Some say they don’t even believe in truth. And yet I’ve found that my Case series—which presents the rational basis for Christianity—has had a strong appeal with 16- to 24-year-olds. Did the people you interviewed seem to care about truth?
Most did care about truth. Some were very postmodern in their thinking and didn’t see any place for rationality or logic when it came to spiritual topics. But they were in the minority. Yes, postmodernism has impacted this generation. And we need to know how to speak to those people. At the same time I think the rumors of modernity’s death have been greatly exaggerated. There are still plenty of young people who care about truth. In fact, one of the things that I found so sad is that many young people, when they aired doubts or asked questions, were either given trite answers or completely shut down. We need to do a better job of making room for questions and providing sensitive intelligent answers to the questions that they have.
• How can Christian parents talk to their grown children who have rejected their faith? What common mistakes do they make?
Parents generally react poorly when their children leave the faith. They often have one of two opposite and equally harmful reactions. Either they stay in denial and fail to address the issue at all–or they go on the offensive, delivering homespun sermons or clobbering their kids with biblical truth. Both reactions are counterproductive.
Another common mistake is fighting “proxy wars.” When the topic of faith gets too contentious, debate gets channeled to other arenas. Parents often end up arguing with their children about lifestyle issues, political views, or morality. Those are important topics, but parents of grown children should avoid getting embroiled in these arguments. They’re bad hills to die on. If they want to see their children return to the faith, they should save their words to talk about the gospel: the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
• Has the church played a role in causing this trend?
I’m afraid we have. Today many youth ministries are practically devoid of any spiritual engagement. Some have been reduced to using violent video game parties to lure students through their church doors on Friday nights. Church researcher Ed Stetzer describes most youth groups as “holding tanks with pizza.” There’s nothing wrong with video games and pizza, but they’re tragic replacements for discipleship and Bible teaching. Many young people have been exposed to a superficial form of Christianity that effectively inoculates them against authentic faith. To stem the tide of young people leaving, I believe churches need to get shift from an entertainment emphasis back to biblical education and spiritual growth, which were the initial goals of the youth ministry movement.
But let’s not let parents off the hook either. They can’t delude themselves into thinking that dropping their kids off once a week for a couple hours is going to make their kids passionate Christians. They can’t leave it for “the professionals.” What happens for a couple hours at church can’t compete with what happens 24/7 inside the home. Parents need to be modeling and teaching a dynamic faith at home. They are the primary faith influencers.
• What surprising things came to light as you interviewed young ex-Christians?
In the interviews, I asked the ex-Christians whether they ever still prayed. It was an absurd question, really, considering how bitterly most of them had rejected God. But most still did pray. They were angry, conflicted prayers, but beautiful in their honesty and desperation: “God, where are you? Can you hear me? Do you exist? Do you even care about me? I miss you.” As a Christian, the prayers were heartening to hear. I believe that there’s a deep-seated longing for God, even for those who deny his existence. I’ve learned to start hearing skepticism as the language of spiritual longing.