A 2011 Barna Study addressed the question nearly every youth minister and Christian parent is asking: Why are young people raised in the church walking away? And even more important, what can we do about it? A decade later, those questions are still pressing and Barna’s answers are still timely. Here at Rooted, we long to see God work through youth ministers, parents, and churches to flip the statistic so that students would increasingly walk with Jesus into adulthood. We believe this vision is best accomplished through the five pillars of gospel centrality, theological depth through expository biblical teaching, relational discipleship, partnering with parents, and intergenerational integration. In this series Rooted writers show how this gospel-centered framework for youth ministry can help us address the six most common reasons young people leave church. We hope these reflections will help you to walk in wisdom as you point students to trust in Jesus now and well after they leave home.
What is the easiest way to lose the students in your ministry?
We like to wrestle with the flip side of this question – the easiest way to fill our ministries. It’s a little more uncomfortable to consider how we might lose students. But if we have to answer the question, we might point to a lack of community or the inability to entertain them enough to draw them. We might be surprised to find that teenagers are looking for depth—and that when they don’t find it they may be likely to leave.
According to the Barna study, one of the key reasons young people leave church after age of 15 is that they experience Christianity to be shallow. Of the 3 out of 5 that disconnect in this way 31 percent say it’s because church is boring, 24 percent say their church’s teaching is irrelevant, and 23 percent say the teaching is not clear. An even greater indictment is the 20 percent who say that God felt missing altogether from their church experience.
If we want to see students who are not “taken captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” then we must root them and build them up in the faith (Col. 2:7-8). We do our part to help build them up when we present Christianity not as shallow but in all of its unsearchable depth and surprising relevance. Ultimately, this only happens when the God of the Bible, not the student, is at the center of our ministries.
A Deep Relevance
Especially in today’s world, teenagers have unlimited access to platforms that do not treat them as children, but put adult content before them. Tik Tok, YouTube, and other social media platforms are full of teachers who appeal directly to them on weighty matters. Sadly, when they look to the church, many see a place that only looks to entertain or distract them, not to shape them. So, their assumption is that because they have not been taught the depth of the Christian worldview, the Christian worldview must not be much to see. It is no wonder that young people find Christianity shallow.
But if we believe that the Scriptures are the very word of God, and that the gospel is the only message that can transform the human heart, then the story of the Bible is deeply relevant to the cultural moment of our students. As ministers of this gospel, we are not called to make the gospel relevant. Rather, we are called to present the gospel, trusting that it is already relevant to their lives in this particular moment. We can do that in two ways.
First, we must teach the gospel to their questions. Our students are questioning the Bible’s sexual ethic, the political climate of this country, why they experience pain and suffering, and more. The Bible speaks powerfully to these questions, but if we do not create the space in our ministry or have the courage to address them, our students will find the answers elsewhere. When we address the pressure points they are bringing into the room caused by their lives or the culture around them, we are showing that we value them—or as Tim Keller has said, we “know they are there.” This also demonstrates that their questions are valid, and that the Bible has an answer.
Second, we must teach the gospel in their language. This does not mean studying social media to make sure we stay up to date on the latest Gen Z lingo, which will more likely only lead to embarrassment. Rather, it means we speak the gospel in a language they are familiar with so as not to create barriers but to foster understanding.
Overly theological, esoteric, or specific biblical language may be unfamiliar to them and cause them to tune out. That does not mean we should avoid words like justification or covenant altogether. Rather, they must be introduced and defined in a way that allows teenagers to relate, such that they can carry the meaning with them. Keller gives an example of such a concise and sticky definition when he explains a covenant as, “more intimate and loving than a mere contract; more binding and accountable than a mere relationship.” This is not dumbing down. This is contextualizing so that our students can intellectually engage, rather than having walls blocking them before they even enter in.
To engage students on this level puts a massive calling on those who minister to them. It means we must be putting in the time and effort to learn their questions, their language, and even the answers they are hearing supplied to them by the world. More so, it requires that we take the word of God deep into our being and apply it so broadly in this world that we know how the gospel answers these narratives they receive from the world.
Seeking to engage students this way also means we must take these students seriously as disciples. We should not shy away from presenting them with hard concepts or challenging them to think through the implications of a text. In giving space for them to think for themselves, they see that they are respected as those who have something to offer as they interact with this world. It is once they have been challenged to think and interact that the gospel message in our teaching will make sense in its central place. Even more wonderfully, we will give God his rightful place at the center of all we do.
We often think that in order to reach young people, they must be at the center of our planning and teaching. However, this is exactly the problem. That a large portion of young people who have left the church find God to not be central to their experience of church is not separate from the failure to focus on the centrality of the gospel but its direct result.
Gospel centrality is the exclusive focus on God as the creator, sustainer, and redeemer of this world. Gospel centrality in our teaching means that the entire storyline of the Bible and the whole point of history – yes, even this cultural moment – is wrapped up in God’s plan to redeem the world and bring it to himself in Christ. This means teaching students of the ways God has created us, instructs us, moves us, and has worked for us to bring about our flourishing. This is most clearly seen at the cross, where the Son, sent by the Father, received the punishment for our sin, so that we might be brought into a loving relationship with God through the application of his work by the Spirit. The gospel is the story of God acting to rescue us, ultimately leading us into relationship with him forever.
When our ministers are centered on the gospel, we will teach our students to search out the depths of a well of which there is no bottom. They will not see Christianity as shallow, or irrelevant, or boring. Rather, they will see Christianity as beautiful, compelling, and infinitely deep.
As we disciple, teach, meet, counsel, and preach, let us resist the urge to entertain and water down. Our call as ministers to students is to teach the gospel in all of its deep relevance, not to make it relevant. Let us be those who are so shaped by the gospel in our own lives and in the way we interact with this world, that the gospel becomes the defining feature of our teaching. When we do this, our students will not see a Christianity lacking relevance to their lives and the world they inhabit. Instead, our students will be equipped with a beautiful gospel that shows them God and all things in relation to God.
 This language is borrowed from Keller, Tim, Preaching, 111. “Addressing any group of people directly and invitingly shows people you know they are there.”
 Keller, 104.