Those of us who have spent decades working with youth in the church don’t need the dismal statistics on the attrition rates of young adults out of high school leaving the church to tell us that something’s gone wrong. Those statistics aren’t just statistics for us. They’re people we love. They’re people in whom we’ve invested blood, sweat, and tears. Do we as youth ministers or workers bear any responsibility in this depressing trend? If so, where did we go wrong? And where can we go right? Has God given us any wisdom on the subject in His Word?
When I was growing up in the church, there seemed at that time to be a suspicion towards the intellect. The “wisdom of the world” (meaning secular scholarship) was viewed as dangerous, at least where it infringed on spiritual matters. The preaching of the cross was foolishness to the world at large, so we shouldn’t expect it to make any logical sense. All we really needed to know was what God’s Word said and that what it said was true. “God said it. I believe it. That settles it,” was the mantra chanted from T-shirts and bumper stickers. “Witnessing” meant passing on the information in the Bible to a non-believer and assuring them of its truth, never mind what the non-believer thought about it.
Although I always felt (oddly) slightly guilty about it, I couldn’t help noticing, as I grew up in my faith, that it made sense. Not all of it, certainly. But more sense than anything else.
I happen to be a bit of a natural skeptic. I’m a questioner and a doubter. I like things to line up with the evidence before I’ll sign on. Blind faith is not on my agenda.
Fortunately, I don’t believe it’s on God’s, either. My slight sense of guilt in my natural tendencies toward (dangerous) human reason faded as I began to notice from the Bible that God does not advocate gullibility.
Over and over, I began noticing from the book of Acts that Paul “reasoned” with all his various audiences. (Luke’s word choice. Not mine.) If it was okay for Paul to use his reason, why wasn’t it good for us modern-day Christians to follow his example, I wondered.
John constantly emphasized his role as a “witness.” A witness, in the court-room sense, is considered hard evidence.
Jesus worked “signs.” They pointed the way to the truth. They were meant as convincers that what He was saying was, in fact, true. The Jewish leaders of His day were condemned for their hard hearts and unbelief not because they wanted to see some good reasons in order to believe that Jesus was who He said He was but because they had seen and rejected them. They asked for more signs when many had been given to them. The “sign of Jonah” (Jesus’ resurrection) was given to them (Matt. 12:39-40). Jesus rose right under their noses. They knew the truth of it. They bribed the guards to lie about it (Matt. 28:11-15). And they went on rejecting the truth. That was the kind of unbelief that Jesus condemned, not a little honest skepticism like Nathanael’s and Thomas’s. God brought the honest doubter all the evidence he or she needed.
I began to see it all through the Bible. God was not asking anyone to start off their faith journey believing blindly without evidence. True, the trinity, the incarnation, and Jesus’ atoning death and resurrection are “foolishness” to those who are perishing because they go so far beyond “earthly wisdom.” But they rest on other solid evidences for the truth of the Bible.
Although things have changed in Christian circles in recent years and a robust intellectual defense of the Christian faith has started making a comeback, when I see the mass exodus out the doors of the church of those in their college years and beyond, I can’t help but wonder if we’re still seeing the results of sowing an unbiblical anti-intellectualism that is still bearing bitter fruit.
When my own faith-quakes struck in adult life, I came to see how God used my questioning, doubting, skeptical tendencies in my own life. I already knew what I believed and why.
The negligence of loving the Lord our God with all our minds is steadily being turned around in many churches. But it mostly seems to be the already-convinced adult population of the church that is diving into the world of apologetics (an intellectual defense of the faith). The segment of our church population that is most in need of it (our teens and young adults) is still too often being fed on spiritual Twinkies when they’re craving meat and vegetables.
I recognize that apologetic subjects are not everyone’s forte, and some feel unfit to teach on them because they don’t consider themselves intellectual-types. But the command to be prepared to offer a reason for the hope that is in us is a command to all believers (1 Pet. 3:15).
While it shouldn’t be our focus to the exclusion of all other areas of spiritual growth, I believe understanding the reasons why the Christian faith is a reasonable faith are foundational. We are told we must believe on the Lord Jesus Christ to be saved. To believe means, very simply, to think to be true. In order to be saved, we must think. And we must think what is true. We must be convinced of the truth. Once a person has been convinced of what is true after a careful examination of all sides of the question, that will be a believer who is hard to budge. I think this may be the secret ingredient that’s missing in the “Christian” lives of those who become “Christian” drop-outs: true belief. Without it, was the “ex-Christian” ever really a Christian at all?