The future of the church is necessarily dependant on the existence of tomorrow’s Christians. While the statistics may somewhat vary from source to source, anywhere from 59% – 70% of the youth who regularly attended church dropout after they graduate and it is estimated that the return rate on these dropouts could possibly be as high as two thirds (best case scenario) at some later time in their lives. The reality of the matter is that the percentage of dropouts returning to the church is not complete; meaning, some dropouts are leaving for good. The logical conclusion for this decline can only mean a long-term secularization of the United States. While it may not fully affect present-day Christians, Christians of future generations will live in a world where this will become a major problem in how they view the world and how the world views them.
Barna highlights six reasons for this drastic drop in church attendance among the youth after their graduation. The reasons that are cited are that 1) the church seems overprotective (i.e. demonizing the outside world, ignoring real world problems, etc…), 2) their experience of Christianity is shallow (i.e. church is boring, faith is irrelevant to their interests, Bible is taught unclearly, God is missing from their experience, etc…), 3) the church is antagonistic towards science (i.e. Christians think they have all the answers, out of touch with the scientific world, Christianity is anti-scientific, turned off by the evolution versus creation debate, etc…), 4) church is perceived as simplistic and judgmental concerning matters of sexuality (i.e. feel they are being judged for mistakes, teachings on sexuality are archaic, etc…), 5) exclusivity of Christianity (church is afraid of other beliefs, forced to choose between friends and church, church is only for insiders, etc…), and 6) church is unfriendly to doubters and skeptics (i.e. not feeling comfortable to express intellectual doubts about faith to the church).
As a high school youth leader at a local church, I sense these feelings from their behavior. These are good kids and my church is a good church but sometimes it feels like there is a huge disconnect between the kids and the church. There are many other influences in their lives other than the church. As youth leaders, we are in competition with parental, academic, peer, and media influences. Sometimes it feels like an insurmountable uphill battle. Of the 168 hours of the week, they are probably awake 112 of those hours. Of those 112 hours that they’re awake and susceptible to influence, we have around two hours (less than 2%) to make a meaningful and lasting impact on their lives. Given the facts that I provided you, do our chances as youth leaders and pastors look promising? Not necessarily, especially if many of them are leaving at a rate of 59% – 70% after they graduate.
Apologetics can be an excellent tool for building a solid and confident Christian worldview for all Christians of all ages. The practice of apologetics emphasizes the importance of clear, concise, and open communication along with enhancing the effectiveness of the methodology we use to gain a better understanding of God’s Word and creation. These characteristics of apologetics would significantly resolve many of the objections posed by the modern day young Christian dropping out of the church. Let’s take a look at how the practice of apologetics can address each of the six reasons listed above.
1) If the church was actively engaging the culture with an apologetic approach, naturally the church would be more considerate of how we can winsomely and Biblically communicate our concerns about the world in a matter that would not be perceived as ‘demonizing’ or ‘ignoring real world problems’. Clearly the tone of the message the church is delivering isn’t being perceived in a positive light. Regardless of whether or not the church is correct on the matter at hand, if they do not express their message with love then they will immediately lose the trust of those who they are attempting to communicate with (1 Corinthians 13:4-8). Apologetics can certainly help with gently and respectfully communicating these messages that will help mitigate feelings of being ‘demonized’ or ‘ignored’ among those who may disagree in an intelligible way.
2) The accusation of Christianity being shallow is not new. In fact, I can personally sympathize with this complaint to a certain degree. The youth surveyed complained about how the church was boring and irrelevant in addition to the complaint that church leaders are unclear in their preaching which has inevitably led them feeling disconnected from God. Our passion and knowledge should be contagious enough to prompt the youth to wonder how we became this way! We should zealously describe how Christ has transformed our lives and how it has inspired us to communicate our faith to people of all backgrounds. As long as Christians took an active interest in worshiping God with all of their minds, apologetics would help us better communicate our knowledge of the Word and our passion for Christ. If the youth doesn’t feel motivated from hearing us speak about the Word and if they sense that we don’t have an intimate knowledge of the Word, they’ll discard our preaching as disingenuous. An apologist’s heart is always inquisitive and strives to know as much about God as possible and to communicate that knowledge with others.
3) Now onto my favorite — the church is antagonistic towards science. This is probably the biggest lie that has ever been propagated over the last two centuries. The reality is that the Creator of all things and science cannot be contradictory. The Word of God found in the Bible and the signature of God found in nature is in complete and perfect alignment by necessity. The two cannot be in contradiction as nature is the product of the same Creator who inspired the Bible. It would be like someone accusing me of being incompatible with my child – the accusation is invalid because my child’s DNA is a product of a creative act between me and my wife. In the same way, the universe is the product of God’s creative act and the accusation of incompatibility is illogical. With all of that being said, what can be antagonistic towards science is our interpretation of how science and the Bible coincide with each other. There are many debates about the age of the universe within the Christian community and not all views on creation are complimentary to the scientific community; and I suspect that is the motivator that led some people to believe that Christianity is anti-scientific. However, that is why apologetics is a vital tool for intellectual inquiry. The secular academic community may try to convince everyone that the creationists (old or young earth) have no substantive opinion in any discussion involving serious science. Through apologetics, more specifically natural theology, we can communicate a worldview that is more scientifically and philosophically aligned with reality than any materialist or naturalistic worldview.
4) How does the church overcome the accusation of being ‘simplistic’ and ‘judgmental’ concerning sexuality? When a culture is absorbed with perversion and lust, is it even possible to dispel the notion that the church is out of touch with the culture on this matter to the point that we’re not being accused of being judgmental? Ironically, do you notice that the accusation of the church being ‘judgmental’ is a judgment against the church? Maybe it’s a matter of how we express our disagreement rather than the mere fact of our disagreement in many instances? Learning how to disagree and discuss ideas without attacking the person’s character would be a step in the right direction. Apologetics can assist in the way we communicate our faith with people of all backgrounds. Most times, Christians take the pro-life and pro-traditional marriage positions that are often controversial in today’s culture which is increasingly celebrating the existence of abortion-on-demand and same-sex marriage. We must be prepared to have an educated dialogue without being prosecutorial with those who disagree. Without any preparation, we cannot be ready to change the culture towards Christ.
5) The “Coexist” bumper sticker attempts to communicate an inclusive message to those traveling behind them on the highway. I understand why the complaint of exclusivity would arise. Most people aren’t turned on by ideologies creating a cultural divide rather than unity. It is absolutely true that the church needs to become more inviting to all people! Skeptics, prostitutes, druggies, homeless, drunks, homosexuals, you name it! We’re called through the Great Commission to bring them to a place where they can ultimately find the Word of Christ and receive healing! The caveat to this inclusive approach to Christianity is that salvation is exclusive to the followers of Christ. That is why we must persuasively communicate to unbelievers the eternal consequences of rejecting a saving relationship with Christ. The parody of the ‘Coexist’ bumper sticker is a bumper sticker with the word ‘Contradict’ on it. Not all roads lead to heaven folks. Apologetics can assist in making a strong cumulative case for Christ and we should do so as loving ambassadors for Christ.
6) Being unfriendly to doubters and skeptics is grossly juvenile. In fact, the church should welcome inquiry from these young minds! Every young believer has their fair share of questions. If they can’t explore their doubts within the safeguards of the church, they will naturally look outside of the church. If their doubts and skepticisms are not adequately addressed by trusted and informed Christians, it will likely result in a slowly deteriorating Christian faith that will eventually collapse once they enter higher level academic institutions where it is put to the test. We cannot allow this to happen because of our intellectual laziness. We must take the needed effort to address theological objections and doubts head on. This will allow our Christian youth to observe how objections can be addressed with intellectual integrity. Apologetics can present the youth with a methodology of addressing an intellectual roadblock that will result with them personally feeling like they’ve overcome a doubt. This process has led many to skeptics to faith. Sometimes all it takes is a little hard work of your own to see the light.
I’ve examined six reasons that the modern day youth cites as contributing factors to the drastic drop in church attendance and how apologetics can be a vehicle that the church uses for stimulating a higher retention rate among the youth demographic. These are the concerns that are plaguing their worlds and we must address them with intellectual integrity or we will eventually lose them to a secular worldview. Try to imagine yourself as a young doubter without much of a theological foundation to reply upon in today’s culture. The attacks are immense and they are surrounded by the constant temptation to sin and abandon their faith because the relativist worldview of the nonbeliever seems much more alluring at first glance.
The youth are the most vulnerable to conversion because they are generally the least mature in Christianity. When I was in my early twenties, I found apologetics to give me perspective on my relationship with God and the world’s relationship with Christianity. Without purposefully pursuing apologetics as a young man, I wouldn’t have come to know Christ as I presently do. I personally experienced the intellectual objections from atheists and I remember the feeling of hopelessness when I couldn’t answer an objection to my faith. It made me feel like I had committed myself to a false worldview.
If I never turned to apologetics for help with these matters, I can’t say for certain that I’d be a Christian. God worked through apologetics to reach me and eventually use me as a guide to others suffering with these types of issues as well. Sometimes someone does have to suffer a short-term hardship to strengthen them and perhaps my intellectual hardship exposed me to apologetics which led to a lifelong passion of intellectually worshiping the Lord. My prayer is that our young Christians will discover the benefits of using apologetics and use it to turn a culture towards Christ.