Take shared responsibility for finding solutions

Rev. Terry Defoe reviews the book Already Gone by Ken Ham (Master Books, 2009, http://www.answersingenesis.org/PublicStore/product/Already-Gone-Book,6131,224.aspx)

Already Gone, by well-known Christian leader Ken Ham, argues that the next generation of church members—that is, our children and young people—is already calling it quits on the church. Two- thirds of the young people who are sitting in the pews have already left—in their hearts—and soon, says Ham, they’ll be gone for good. Already Gone is based on the responses of 1000 twenty-somethings, young people raised in the church but no longer attending. The research sought to determine reasons for their inactivity. Based on the findings, Ham argues that Christian churches are losing their kids in elementary, middle school and high school rather than in college, and something he calls the “Sunday school syndrome” is contributing to the problem.

Already Gone argues that 60 percent of the children who grow up in our churches will leave those churches as they reach the threshold of young adulthood. (92) And if we believe we can reach them in college, even in a Christian college, it turns out that’s far too late. Young people start leaving the church mentally long before they actually exit. (95) By as early as Grade 5, the faith of our young people is already in the balance. In a Lutheran context, this means our young people already have strong opinions about issues related to science and faith before they get to confirmation classes.

First, let’s have a look at the educational programs of our congregations. Is Sunday school a major part of the problem, as Ham argues? Here’s what he says:

In our survey of 1000 20-somethings who regularly attended church as children and teens, we asked the question, “Did you often attend Sunday School?” In reply, 61% said yes, 39% said no. Our research uncovered something very disturbing: Sunday school is actually more likely to be detrimental to the spiritual and moral health of our children. Compared to the 39% who do not go to Sunday school, contrary to what many of you believe, the research showed that students who regularly go to Sunday school are actually: 

  • More likely not to believe that all the accounts/stories in the Bible are true/accurate.

 

  • More likely to doubt the Bible because it was written by men.

 

  • More likely to doubt the Bible because it was not translated correctly.

 

  • More likely to defend that abortion should continue to be legal.

 

  • More likely to defend premarital sex.

 

  • More likely to accept that gay marriage and abortion should be legal.

 

  • Much more likely to believe that God used evolution to change one kind of animal into another.

 

  • More likely not to believe the earth is less than 10,000 years old.

 

  • More likely to view the church as hypocritical.

 Ham says: “These people who went to conservative churches heard many of the right things for the most part … but did they ‘hear’ it in a way that equipped them to believe in their hearts what the Bible clearly stated, and were they equipped to be able to defend this teaching in the real world they live in?” Churches need to help Sunday school teachers answer the skeptical questions of young people and teach apologetics—a defense of the Christian faith. It’s one thing to tell students what to believe, it’s another thing to teach and communicate that in a convincing and gripping way

 (84) Are we wasting our time with our educational programs in the church? Not at all! We need to remember that by ourselves, we don’t (and cannot!) convert anyone. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit through word and sacrament. (90) We can do better to help our young people understand the Bible. We can help them understand the different types of literature it contains. (107) Researchers asked young people: “What made you begin to doubt the Bible?” Only 4 percent said evolution proves the Bible wrong. This is very significant. A group six times larger—24 percent—said it was because human beings, not God, wrote the Bible. This points out the importance of correctly teaching the doctrine of inspiration.

 (124) Our young people want to know whether the Bible relates to the real world they live in every day. To our young people, it appears that schools teach “facts” while the church teaches “opinions.” I believe the confirmation programs in our churches are a tremendous resource—but these programs need new life. As we have heard already, by the time confirmation rolls around, our young people already have strong opinions about the church and faith and the relationship between religion and science. I have always felt that a key factor is parental involvement. Ham (47) is of the opinion that the existence of youth ministry and Sunday school allows parents to shrug off their responsibilities as the primary teachers, mentors and pastors to their family. We need to counteract that tendency by inviting parents to work with us in the Christian education of their children.

 Church leaders and pastors need to build relationships with our young people starting early on. Contact with young people must be frequent and intentional as well as loving and gracious.

Let’s have a look at the intersection of science and theology.

 I would counsel parents and Christian leaders not to avoid the theory of evolution. Find out what this theory teaches. Remember that the ground rules of science mean science will not consider the supernatural, and therefore, what science can know about this world and its origins, from a Christian point of view, will always be inadequate. After we determine what the theory of evolution actually claims, we can take issue with it. For example, we can take issue with the fact that it leaves God out. We can take issue with the fact that it cannot explain how life began in the first place.

 We need to learn about intelligent design. Check out the Discovery Institute’s website (http://www.discovery.org/) and published literature. Helpful websites providing an overview of the science vs. religion debate include http://www.talkorigins.org/, a   site that defends the theory of evolution but is useful because it lays out counterarguments to Biblical creation. It’s good to know what these arguments are. Ken Ham’s own website is http://www.answersingenesis.org/.

 Let’s have a look at ourselves.

 (120, 122) In our young people’s minds, hypocrisy among parents and church leaders is a big problem. Our young people are of the opinion that the actions of adults who call themselves Christians don’t always match what they say they believe. Our young people often feel the actions and attitudes of adults in the church aren’t always consistent with the Biblical admonition to “love your neighbor.” They feel adults often show contempt for certain groups. In the opinion of our young people, many Christians are out of touch with reality. We need to work hard to make our young people feel welcome in our churches. We need to call upon them to assume service opportunities in our congregations.

 Conclusion: So what do we have here? A problem or an opportunity? Both! Who’s to blame? The media? Parents? Church leaders? Blaming is not helpful. Taking shared responsibility for finding solutions is.165– Ham calls for “a new reformation” in the church—in  other words, a reformation in the way we deal with our young people and their questions. I would argue that part of the solution is explaining to our young people how we interpret Scripture and why. Our young people need to know what’s at stake if the Scriptures are interpreted incorrectly.

 It’s important to understand both contemporary society in general and youth culture specifically, and to talk about these things with our young people. They are impressed when they know we want to understand their world. Ham points out (p. 118) that the loyalties of our young people are different now. (134) Loyalty to the church is not a given. Friends are a critical component of their lives. We need to remember that the Internet is central to their daily life. Churches need to have a significant presence on the web and address some of these issues there.

 (p. 142) For many of our young people, the church (or Christ) is an “add-on” to an already overly cluttered lifestyle. Our young people want to feel comfortable in church. They want to be challenged. They want to be informed. They want to be assured we still love them, despite their questions, and we want to help them negotiate their faith journey in a God-pleasing way. We need to remember that the main sources of influence on our young people are their friends, their music and the media. We need to work diligently with these realities, not against them.

 At CHURCH AND CITY, we have found it helpful to analyze current movies with our young people. All kinds of good resources can be found on YouTube. Some Christian leaders work with their young people to analyze the content of TV ads and other media, and determine how they portray the human condition. Once that is done, a comparison to Biblical values can be made.

 (98) One 20-year-old college student says: “All I want is reality. Show me God. Tell me what he is really like. Help me to understand why life is the way it is and show how I can experience it more fully and with greater joy. I don’t want empty promises. I want the real thing. And I’ll go wherever I find that truth system.”

 The comments of this student, in my opinion, offer us a helpful road map as we work to strengthen our relationship with our young people and help them negotiate the challenges of integrating faith and science.

 Rev. Terry Defoe is associate pastor of Mt. Olive Lutheran Church in Regina, Saskatchewan (www.mountolive.ca )

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