I was recently part of an online discussion where the original poster expressed his concerns about a newly released curriculum using, in his words, “woke” terminology in its description. The particular words in question were the words “identity” and “curiosity.” The concern expressed was that these words were an attempt to be relevant to the culture and, regardless of the content in the curriculum which he repeatedly stated he felt was “fine”, the use of this terminology meant he “would never get near” this particular product.
As you an imagine, the discussion to follow was passionate and intense. For the most part, I watched what was taking place with a measure of frustration and disappointment. Whether or not one agreed with the original poster, the tone of the conversation was (initially) judgmental, condemning, and fear-based. And despite assurances and affirmation that the content of the curriculum as biblically-based and Christ-centered, the choice of these two words was enough to warrant the energy and passion put into the discussion about how this would impact children’s church experience and their faith.
Which brings me to the research:
Why do young people actually walk away from the faith?
Why do they leave children’s ministry and youth ministry with an immature faith or lacking a sense of belonging to their church? Why do they disassociate with the church and distance themselves from evangelical religious experiences?
Is it because the curriculum used buzz words? Is it because their youth pastor was too relevant or their children’s pastor was “woke”?
In short – No. That is not why they leave. Why they leave has a lot more to do with us – the people of God – than it does the buzz words and latest trends that come and go in culture. It has to do with our attitudes, our behavior, and our interactions with one another and the world around us.
- Seventy-three percent said church or pastor-related reasons led them to leave. Of those, 32 percent said church members seemed judgmental or hypocritical and 29 percent said they did not feel connected to others who attended.
- Seventy percent named religious, ethical or political beliefs for dropping out. Of those, 25 percent said they disagreed with the church’s stance on political or social issues while 22 percent said they were only attending to please someone else.
- And, 63 percent said student and youth ministry reasons contributed to their decision not to go. Of those, 23 percent said they never connected with students in student ministry and 20 percent said the students seemed judgmental or hypocritical. (Source)
More telling than that, of the 66 percent who said they left picked reasons for leaving, only 10 percent said they dropped out because they stopped believing in God. Their belief in God was not the issue. It was their experience in churches and denominational interpretations of Scripture that they disagreed with that led them to leave.
Over one-third of young adults have said they feel like they can’t ask life’s most pressing questions in church and 23 percent said they had “significant intellectual doubts” about their faith (Source). And no one to talk to about it. No one to normalize the reality that faith is.. well, faith. That it all comes down to belief and we can never 100% know everything while we are here on earth. That we will know fully as we are fully known only once we are with Christ. And until then, we will ask a lot of questions, express a lot of doubts, learn a lot of new things, and likely, our own beliefs about truth and God and faith will change and grow as we do.
Not one of these studies showed that young people left the faith because their Sunday school curriculum used buzz words or connected too closely to the culture. It was about the people, the relationships or lack thereof, the attitudes or experiences, that formed and shaped them, from children to student through young adult.
Conversely, why do young people chose to stay in the faith? These studies are my favorite because instead of a list of “Don’t Do’s” we get actionable, meaningful things “To Do” that will yield the fruit of lifelong disciples who want to love and follow Jesus. And what does that research show us?
The Sticky Faith group at Fuller Youth Institute have studied the reasons young people stay in church, looking for a “silver bullet” for churches and parents to use to keep that from happening. While there was no “silver bullet” churches that encouraged intergenerational connections and worship and youth that felt involved and connected to the larger church had a much greater chance of remaining in church post high school. (The findings can be found here).
In this article, researcher Dr. Kara Powell clearly demonstrates the need for and support of corporate worship, stating ” Of the many youth group participation variables we examined, involvement in intergenerational worship and relationships had one of the most robust correlations with faith maturity.”
Most recently, Awana partnered with Barna group to look at the resiliency of youth in church post-graduation. They discovered that when kids have a meaningful relationship with an adult in the church, they are twice as likely to have an ongoing relationship with the church and three times more likely to be engaged in Scripture including understanding the metanarrative of Scripture and integrating biblical principles in their life. The conclusion drawn by the researchers at Barna Group? “The meaningful relationships individuals have as children fundamentally influence the stability of their future faith.” (Source).
Every single one of these things has to do with relationship, with people, with us.
Do quality materials matter? Sure, I wouldn’t recommend just grabbing any old curriculum off the shelf. But do the materials we use have a tremendous influence on the kids who attend our Sunday school for one hour each week if we are lucky? Eh, probably not as much as our relationship with them, our modeling of Christ character of humility and grace, and our intentional decision to make space for them to wonder, question, doubt, and be curious as they find their own identity in Christ.
Buzz words come and go as quickly as a Snapchat picture or a TikTok trend. What we do, who we are, and how we love will stand the test of time. Let’s major on the majors and minor on the minors. Let’s put our energy into that space, encouraging one another all the more as we see the day drawing near, lifting up not tearing down our fellow ministers and parents, and being a community of faith that our young people will find hope, safety, and Christ-centered relationships in.