Why Children Leave the Church, Part 2

Why do children grow up Seventh-day Adventists and then leave the church? Last month we talked about how parents shouldn’t automatically blame themselves if they lose their kids to the world, basically because everybody gets to choose God for themselves (which is basically why the Bible doesn’t teach infant baptism). This month we’ll focus on reasons for attrition, the focus of my academic studies.

Although children make their own choices, what they experience in our homes and churches is extremely significant in their decisions. Last month we noted an intriguing and disturbing factor that emerged from my data: There is no greater cause of attrition than to attempt to shield children from knowledge of, or to resist discussion about, church or denominational conflict.

“Why?” some have asked. “Shouldn’t we present the church in a positive light to our children? Why air our dirty laundry?” (Maybe it’s time to wash that dirty laundry.)

Well, does Scripture sugarcoat the sins of the saints? Shortcomings in revered leaders like Abraham and Gideon, or faithful prophets like Moses and Elijah, are candidly acknowledged in the Bible — and comfortably discussed in our Sabbath schools. But when young adults point out that leaders today make mistakes, they often find themselves scolded about harboring a critical spirit, disloyalty or even unbelief.

Why are we open about sins of the past but not the present? Sweeping dirt under the rug only makes for a bumpy carpet that causes our kids to stumble. And then we wonder why so many grow up not endeared to our denomination.

I’m not suggesting we focus on the faults of our church and our leaders. But when our teens are troubled by something they see or experience, we don’t serve the cause of the truth by resorting to lies — or by smothering uncomfortable questions with pious platitudes: “No matter what we do, the church is going through! So keep your eyes on Jesus, not people.”

What young adults hear us saying is, “Don’t worry about that flat tire. Trust God to fix it.”

Families whose kids tend to stay in the church acknowledge denominational problems, while also pointing out, “All families have issues, including church families. Even grandmas are saved by grace alone.”

Certainly, let’s be solutions-oriented — remembering that the need for solutions presupposes problems. And the first step in resolution is a searching and fearless inventory. God Himself doesn’t dismiss the questions and concerns of the celestial universe; He addresses them in heaven’s pre-Advent judgment.

Meanwhile on Earth, even as God defends His people, He both warns and warms our hearts. Pastors often forget that the Laodicean message (see Rev. 3:17–20) is Christ’s open letter to the corporate church, preferring to scold members (those who don’t agree with them?) about their individual shortcomings. For example, personal selfishness. Sure, we should spend less upon ourselves and give more to the church. But how local and global leaders expend those funds is also worthy of accountability.

I’m glad every dollar in Adventist offering plates gets professionally audited to ensure it isn’t stolen or diverted. But how about tracking its success? Any business that doesn’t analyze what’s working and not working risks bankruptcy. Likewise with the church and its institutions.

It’s not loyalty but lethargy when we don't care enough to ask appropriate questions. Meanwhile, our teens and young adults are not shy about calling for accountability: “Dad, why are we holding another evangelistic series when nobody who got baptized in the last two meetings still comes to church?”

Often we avoid discussions with platitudes: “It’s our job to preach the truth, leaving the results with God.” But what if we humbly asked our young people, “What suggestions do you have?” (Don’t expect their participation if we ignore their input.)

Does evangelism still work? Indeed, when the church cares enough to creatively connect with its community. We can be faithful to our Adventist message while speaking the language of our culture. Jesus used agrarian imagery with farmers and spoke to fishermen about casting nets. Now we have the Internet. Can we speak the language of Seattle startups? Geographically as well as verbally, we must meet people where they are. Rather than cloistering our small groups behind the stained glass windows, what if we ventured out to Starbucks, sharing Scriptures on our smartphones?

Expect local Pharisees, more zealous for their traditions than lost souls, to condemn such a strategy, as they did with Jesus (see Luke 15:2). But churches that invite hard questions and implement strategic solutions will grow — baptizing new members and dedicating the babies of their own young adults.

Read part 1 of "Why Children Leave the Church."

June 24, 2014 / Perspective