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Is This the Last Christian Generation?
Thursday, December 30, 2010 9:54 AM

 Written by Steve Cable

The Concern

Is this the last Christian generation in 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 . . . kids 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. For over thirty years, Probe Ministries has worked to create a strong foundation for Christian teens.

However, some believe it has reached a dangerous new level. This upswing has prompted Josh McDowell to co-write a 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.

Is it any wonder that these young people readily abandon their Christian involvement when confronted with a hostile culture?

 

The Causes

Let's consider some potential causes three out of four 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 on Christian rules 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 lest 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 (as compared to over seventy percent for US teens). 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.

 

These three factors have been around since the inception of Probe. A new factor, somewhat unique to today's culture is a "distorted worldview filter" unwittingly adopted by our 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 Last Christian Generation lists some of the concepts distorted by this filter, for example:{3} 

• 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,{4} the authors found that religious teens tend to hold a vague group of functionally religious beliefs the authors termed "moralistic therapeutic deism."{5} 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{6} 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 "cosmic 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.

 

The Correction

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.{7} 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.{8} We need to train our youth in a "relational apologetic," meaning knowing and defending a belief in God as absolute reality revealed through the Bible and experiencing this truth lived out in their lives and through the example of others.

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.{9} A clear understanding of each of these aspects serves an important role in countering the tenets of today's teen religion which we defined above 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.

 

Laying a Firm Foundation

McDowell points out that it is not only what we teach but how we teach it that is important.{10} In America, we have adopted a Hellenistic [Greek] teaching model focused on communicating information and testing whether the student can regurgitate it. In addition, 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.

In contrast to the Hellenistic model, the Hebrew model of Deuteronomy and Proverbs uses a set of ongoing object lessons, applying the character of God to each life situation. The entire inter-generational community is modeling their faith and articulating their biblical worldview. For this model to work, parents and youth leaders 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 and avoiding pain for a life purpose of building eternal value through serving Jesus.

This may sound like a daunting task, but there are ministries that want to come alongside and help in this process. Josh McDowell's ministry is developing study materials and training events specifically designed to fill this need. More information is available at truefoundations.com. Probe Ministries offers the Student Mind Games Conference, a week-long camp designed to equip students to stand firm in their faith through college and beyond.{11} In addition, Probe offers speakers, curricula and other materials to help parents, youth leaders and students to articulate and live a relational apologetic. You can visit our website at Probe.org.

We know the church will survive and ultimately triumph at the return of Jesus, but there is no promise that America will continue to have a high percentage of evangelical Christians. Four out of five youth in America are giving us a chance to influence the future. I believe God has called all of us to be a part of responding to that challenge.

Notes1. 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. Ibid., 1.
4. Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2005).
5. Bruce Murray, "Understanding the Religious and Spiritual Lives of Teenagers," FACSNET, www.facsnet.org/issues/faith/youth.php.
6. Not her real name.
7. Ibid., 2.
8. Ibid., 1.
9. Ibid., 1.
10. Ibid., 1.
11. More information is available on the Probe Web site at www.probe.org 

1. Josh McDowell & David Bellis, (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, . 3. Ibid., 1.4. Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, (New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2005).5. Bruce Murray, "Understanding the Religious and Spiritual Lives of Teenagers," FACSNET, . 6. Not her real name.7. Ibid., 2.8. Ibid., 1.9. Ibid., 1.10. Ibid., 1.11. More information is available on the Probe Web site at  

 

 

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