This may be one of the most important books we read on the subject of youth in our churches

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

One of the more challenging books I have read this year concerns one of our grand traditions—Sunday school.  Already Gone: Why Your Kids Will Quit Church and What You Can Do To Stop It, by Ken Ham and Britt Beemer with Todd Hillard, asserts that two-thirds of youth in our churches will be gone from the pews by the time they hit 20.

Ham suggests that this exodus can be directly linked to our Sunday school practices. Initially there might be some resistance on our part as members of Lutheran Church–Canada to think our Sunday school programs might need reforming.  But upon reading the book, I have to conclude, on the basis of Ham’s analysis, that the criticisms are valid even for us.

Already Gone documents the survey (and analysis of that survey) of 1000 young adults between the ages of 20 and 29 who once attended conservative Bible-believing churches. The survey didn’t just ask participants about their behaviour (whether or not they attend church), but also about their beliefs. The results of this survey are astonishing and disturbing.

Perhaps the most revealing statistic:  Of all the 20- to 29-year-olds in the survey who once regularly attended church, 40 percent of them stopped attending in high school. Somehow we assume we lose our young people during their college years, but this survey certainly challenges that assumption.

The most challenging statistics involved the difference between young adults who had attended Sunday school and those who hadn’t. For example, in answer to the question: “Do you believe God used evolution to create human beings?” almost a quarter (24.6 percent) of those who had attended Sunday school said “yes.” Only 18.5 percent of those who had not attended Sunday school gave a “yes” answer. Other questions revealed the same, almost backward, results. To another question—“Do you feel good people don’t need to go to church?”—a remarkable 39.3 percent of Sunday school attenders answered “yes,” but only 28.9% of non-attenders did the same.

What does this have to do with Sunday school? This is where reading the book gets uncomfortable. Ken Ham suggests that because we tell Bible “stories” during Sunday school, children see them as equivalent to fairy tales. Rather than giving accounts of historic events, we tend to use cartoon-like graphics and watered-down narratives, repeated on a two- or three-year cycle. 

Ham proposes that instead of teaching children the “story” of Noah and the ark, we equip them to answer questions they are bound to face later in life about the reality of a worldwide flood. Skeptics will ask, “How did Noah fit all the animals into the ark?” or “How does the fossil record line up with the Flood?” Can our children answer those questions? What happens to their faith when they can’t answer the questions?

Not once does Ken Ham suggest that being able to answer tough questions is a method of evangelism. Rather, he encourages us to give our young people a solid footing so children will know that even though we walk by faith, we do not have to discard intelligence to continue in the faith of our fathers.

When Sunday school first came on the scene some 300 years ago in Great Britain, the world was ostensibly “Christian” but had an inadequate knowledge of basic Bible facts. Today we are in a post-Christian society, in which knowing the story may not be enough. We have to be “ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). How can we know that the Bible is true, reliable and accurate if we cannot defend some of its basic teachings? How does the time we have the children in Sunday school prepare them for the real-life confrontations they will face either in high-school biology classes or at university? Even our youngest children are exposed to the anti-God doctrines of evolutionary biology. Grade 1 students in public schools hear about the millions or even billions of years life took to get to its current complexity. Do we equip our children to defend their faith against these fallacies?

Basically, Ken Ham proposes that our Sunday schools become an arena of apologetics for our faith. This is obviously easier said than done. It would take a total re-education of parents, youth leaders and Sunday school teachers, who would become teachers of apologetics rather than teachers of Bible stories. I suspect it’s just easier to keep the status quo and hope for the best. Do we feel the desperate need for the in-depth training that would be involved in reforming our Sunday schools? Already Gone lays down the challenge. Are we ready to pick it up and run with it?

Our own church’s statistics certainly seem to reflect the statistics that many churches are coming to grips with. We have a missing generation—the children of the baby boomers are scarce indeed, and if they are not in church, their children aren’t either.

Ken Ham does not leave us stranded. The book includes some very useful appendices that list resources for parents, youth workers, Sunday school teachers and pastors.

If our churches ignore the conclusions of Already Gone, then we may well see the continued exodus of our children after they’ve been confirmed. Do we have the courage to ask, “Are our Sunday school and youth programs equipping our children with a Christian worldview?” Do we have the courage to deal with the answer, if we discover the answer is “no”? Even though this book may require a great deal of soul-searching on our parts, it may well be one of the most important books we read on the subject of youth in our churches.

Judith Burns is a parent and member of  Bethel Lutheran Church, in Sherwood Park, Alberta

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3 Responses

  1. I think the problem nowadays is that we don’t teach the stories enough, and have moved into entertainment with silly songs and drivel like Veggie Tales. (Good grief, I’m sounding like my grandparents!)

  2. I believe that by turning Sunday School into a course in apologetices the Devil would be luring us into his field, away from teaching the faith to discussing rational arguments over the faith.
    Besides, trying to explain how Noah fit the animals into the ark, the fossil record, etc., we would be explaining things the Scriptures don’t explain and risk committing ourselves to whatever explanation seems passable in our age – which might be not passable one generation later. Before Galilei, the church thought it was a blasphemy to suggest that the earth was not the centre of the universe.
    The reason Lutheran kids disappear is another, as I see it. We teach our kids to sing silly songs and keep them busy with crafts; then, suddenly, we expect them to wake up one Sunday morning and sit in the pews, gladly singing “Lord, keep us steadfast in Your Word.” We need to teach our kids to sing the liturgy and our hymnody, to pray the catechism, to read and believe the Scriptures. If we teach them anything else, we should not wonder as they wander when they find out what church is all about.

  3. I agree with the silly songs. I also think our children are able to absorb more than we give them. I think we underestimate them.
    I do think the Bible gives us little gems throughout it’s pages which allow us to correlate with what we see around us in this world. One common question is as alluded to above in a previous post “How did Noah get all the animals on the Ark?” I suggest a better question might be “Why did Noah make the Ark so big?” Some have made calculations (published) which show there was ample room on the Ark. Noah was a “preacher of righteousness”, and was given 125 years to build the boat, so one good reason is God has always made provisions for more people to be saved than what actually happens.
    Anyway, the above was just an example of the questions our kids are asking, and the above is a very reasonable answer – something they could believe in. Regardless, the Bible says that it will provide us with everything necessary for salvation, and if that is answers to our questions which may cause us to doubt, then they are there. We just have to look for them. It’s amazing.
    These kids want to know how stuff works, how they got here, and why they are here…………we have to give them Biblical answers.

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