We take them to church, sign them up for VBS, carpool them to youth group, and pay for them to attend camp, all because we want our children to have a lifelong relationship with Christ. No Christian parent wants their child to resent church while they are in their home or walk away from God when they leave it. But many do. Why?
While writing this article, I examined the latest research on why kids resent church and why young adults leave it. However, some of the greatest insights came from the behind-the-scenes lowdown I got from the real experts, my own three young adult kids; one is a young adult’s pastor, one leads her college Bible study and works with kids on Sunday morning, and one is on staff in High School ministry. Who better to reveal the real, untold reasons kids, teens, and young adults resent church than those who talk to them every day?
Though the reasons kids raised in Christian homes leave the faith are often complex, some common threads surface, which generally fall into five categories.
Here are the top five reasons kids resent church, young adults leave it, and what parents can do about it.
Surface connection equals surface commitment, but the opposite is also true; deep connection equals deep commitment. When relationships are nominal, disconnection is probable. Let’s face it; it’s easy to opt out of something we are only nominally connected to. This is why God instructs us to “Not neglect meeting with each other as some are in the habit of doing” (Hebrews 10:25). When a child has a positive personal connection with Christ and other believers, he or she is much less likely to resent church and leave the faith.
What Can Parents Do?
Help your child make positive connections. Kids can’t forge friendships, receive mentoring, or observe positive role models if they aren’t physically present with loving, committed believers. Watching church online from the comfort of our homes may be easier than corralling the family on Sunday morning, and prioritizing sports and schoolwork is occasionally necessary, but parents must realize that positive connection will not happen unless their child experiences community on a consistent basis.
In the words of my son, “many of my college friends left church because they saw church as an event or a program rather than a community of belonging.” My daughter, who works with high school students, said, “Many kids–even Christian kids–don’t see church as essential. They say they can find “church” in other ways, like podcasts or worship music, but they fail to see how the lack of connection to other Christians eventually becomes a lack of connection to Christ.”
Take your kids to church and make church attendance positive by keeping a positive attitude about attending yourself. After the service, ask about what your child learned, and share what you learned, too! This provides an opportunity for your child to not only connected with their peers at church, but more importantly, it provides a way for your child to connect with you.
Nothing turns off a child faster than feeling unwanted or unaccepted. The degree to which a child or teen feels left out or welcomed in, ignored or embraced, shamed or shown grace, will influence if they come to resent God’s people or rely on them as they move into adulthood.
What Can Parents Do?
Find a church where your kids/teens/young adults feel welcome and accepted, realizing it often takes several weeks for an older child or teen to connect and feel accepted by a new group. Look for a place that welcomes newcomers with open arms. Avoid places that shame or demean (which is vastly different from teaching or exhorting).
If your child consistently resists attending church, youth group, etc., find out why. There may be real issues that need to be addressed. A close pastor’s wife friend once told me she had no idea her high school student was often the brunt of a youth pastor’s sarcastic humor, which marred her daughter’s feelings about church. Your child should always feel safe, welcomed, and loved at church. I’m convinced one of the biggest reasons our kids didn’t walk away from the faith–even with the pressure of being pastor’s kids–is that my husband and I made sure church was a happy place for them.
All the research (and all my kids) unanimously named hypocrisy as the biggest factor in why kids and teens resent church, and young adults leave it.
Here’s what my daughter-in-law texted me: “Young people are extra sensitive to hypocrisy. I’ve talked to people who are frustrated that they heard sermons about loving your neighbor, loving your enemies, and loving those who are different from you, but experience Christians excluding people and speaking negatively about others. They didn’t see the fruit of God’s love in action.”
When it comes to passing on our faith, being a hypocritical Christian is more harmful than being a non-Christian. Not only does Christian hypocrisy send a mixed message, which is profoundly confusing, but a child, teen, or young adult who lives with hypocrisy in the home or experiences hypocrisy at church is bound to be hurt and harmed by these things.
For the younger generation, inauthenticity is intolerable. And, when kids lose respect for Christians, they resent the church, and worse, they resent God.
What Can Parents Do?
As we look at the faith of our kids, we must first look at ourselves. We can’t be fooled into thinking our kids don’t notice our sin, inconsistencies, or hypocrisy. They do. When our actions or attitudes are not in line with God’s character and God’s Word, we must admit it, apologize for it, and change it. Being a Christian is more than being a person who attends church in real-time; it’s being a person who follows Christ in real life.
Of course, no person and no church is perfect. We will fail. However, failures don’t have to deal a fatal blow to our faith, or those of our children, if we deal with our flaws and failures with humility and repentance.
With older kids, teens, and young adults, help your child navigate complex issues in the church like splits, moral failures, etc., by talking openly about them. Allow your child to express how these actions might have affected their perspective on God and God’s people. Lovingly point them back to the one who never sinned and will never disappoint: Jesus.
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/artisteer
4. Thinks the Bible, Church or Religion is Outdated and Irrelevant
If you’re over the age of 40, you probably feel like you have whiplash from the speed at which our society has changed in the last 20 years. Kids, teens, and young adults in today’s world must navigate cultural issues we could never have imagined. If kids are ill-equipped to handle cultural questions about gender, sexuality, and race (among other issues) from a biblical worldview, God, faith, and church can easily feel irrelevant.
What Can Parents Do?
First, make sure your kids are grounded in God’s Word. Attend a church that teaches it and be a believer who lives it in a positive, winsome way. I recently spoke for a women’s Christian conference center that also hosts youth and family events. On the drive to the airport, the camp director told me, “many of the kids who come to camp get more Bible teaching in one week than they do in the whole year.” Make sure your child isn’t getting God’s Word one week out of the year and the theology of Instagram, TikTok, and Netflix the other 51 weeks of the year.
In addition, encourage your child’s or teen’s questions, even the hard ones. Respond with, “that’s a great question!” so your child knows you are a safe place to process confusion and concerns. Promote discussion by being prepared with answers. If you don’t know the answer, say something like, “that’s such a good question I’m not sure about the answer myself. Let’s find out together.” Then do.
Rather than simply saying, “X is wrong because the Bible says so,” help your child understand the reasons behind God’s instructions. When kids understand the “whys” behind the “what’s,” they are less likely to see God and His Word as irrelevant for today and more likely to understand why God and His Word are essential for today.
5. False View of God and Failure to Personalize Faith
An inaccurate view of God is perhaps the most damaging contribution to resentment toward God, the church, and faith in general. A false view of God affects a child’s, teen’s, or young adult’s capacity to personalize their relationship with God. And, when faith isn’t personal, leaving the church becomes probable.
What Can Parents Do?
First, pray! Pray for your child’s faith. Pray your child will see God as He truly is. Pray for your child’s salvation. Pray for your child’s friends, youth leaders, Sunday school teachers, and all others who influence their faith.
But, most importantly, authentically live out Christ’s love in your home. No one resents love. Ever.
Finally, talk to your older kids, teens, and young adults about your own faith journey. Do your kids know how you became a Christian? Do they know what God is teaching you lately? They should. When we share our real relationship with Jesus, we pave the way for faith in Jesus to become real for them, too.
Photo credit: © Getty Images/metamorworks
Donna Jones is a pastor’s wife and author of three books who’s traveled to 26 states and four continents sharing God’s love and wisdom. Donna hosts the “That’s Just What I Needed” podcast. You can find her free Bible study and teaching videos on friendship on her website. Connect with Donna at www.donnajones.org or on Instagram @donnaajones.