The real reason kids abandon faith

If you work in Christian ministry, undoubtedly you’ve seen variations of the following marketing headlines:

Kids are leaving because Sunday-School teachers are telling the stories wrong. Get this new curriculum (three easy payments). Save your church!

Kids are leaving because your church doesn’t contextualize. Subscribe to our service and never be without the latest cultural observations. As a bonus, we’ll throw in a year of edited movie clips. Save your church!

Movie clips and vapid worship music is destroying your church. Attend this Gospel-centered preaching conference and learn how to do church God’s way. Save your church!

So maybe I’m exaggerating slightly. But if you think about it, there seems to be clear agreement among all facets of the evangelical church that we are losing a generation and if we don’t act quickly, the church in America will die.

I wonder if, in all of our alarmism, we’ve missed a simple truth. Could it be that when young kids leave the faith, it’s not a one-time epidemic or the fault of a particular approach to ministry?

As a child of the church, I believe this is less a matter of having the right curriculum or perfect ministry. I think perhaps there is something in the DNA of a generational believer that isn’t present in those who freshly come to faith as an adult.

When I talk to friends who have abandoned the faith, I hear little in their stories about the typical catalysts of rebellion: abuse and neglect and hypocrisy and unfaithfulness. Mostly I hear: “It wasn’t anything anyone did. It was simply my own desire to run away.”

The Scriptures reminds us that natural man is completely depraved with a natural bent away from God. Only the work of regeneration gives us the ability and desire to please Him. Even kids who grow up in the church. Even kids raised on a steady diet of Scripture. Even kids who were taught right theology.

There is within us a heart “prone to wander,” a natural GPS that leads us down the way of wickedness. For Christian kids, perhaps this desire to rebel is even stronger. Consider that first-generation believer, who comes into faith fresh from the fires of the enemy. He has no desire to go back because he has already experienced the sorrow of sin. But his children have not seen that life. They’ve been greenhoused in a spiritual environment. They’ve only known the truth.

So there’s a little voice that temps them, continually. How do you know it’s so bad out there? Maybe your parents were wrong. Maybe all this is untrue. Maybe you’ve been deceived.

This means that no curriculum, however finely tuned, no system, however tweaked, will produce disciples who don’t struggle against the heart’s pull of rebellion.

I’m thinking we need less fear-based approaches, less top-down, systematic approaches to discipleship. Instead we need to recognize that every child of God, even the best Christian kid, fights a war within.

We might realize that every child has a different spiritual growth track, that discipleship is, to quote John Ortberg, “hand-crafted, not mass-produced.” We might allow for honest questions and seasons of doubt during the critical years of adolescence. We might not assume that our children will automatically know and understand the Gospel, but need to be taught freshly the orthodox truths of God’s revelation.

Ultimately, it is God who works in the heart of every child to woo him or her to Himself. Our job as parents, pastors and influencers is to create an authentic environment of grace, where faith can flourish.

What Do You Think?

  • Why do some "generational believers" leave the faith as they grow older?
  • How should the church respond?


Comments (19)

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As the father of two young adult children, my heart is broken. From the time they were small, all I wanted for them was a walk with Christ. I didnt care about any success, as long as they loved the Lord with their whole heart. We did it all - church, youth group, summer camp, family devotions, good example.

Today, both in their mid 20s, they are not close to God at all. Not rebellios. Not bad. Just apathetic. Their eyes glaze over when I talk about things of faith

I wonder if its just a tidal wave that they got caught in? I wish I would know the answer, but now I just pray.

Thanks for sharing David.

We raised out two kids in faith the best we knew how. Our daughter, until midway through her college career, had wanted to work overseas as a missionary or with programs helping to improve the lives of the impoverished. On her own she even found a great church that she loved until she walked away from the faith. Our son rebelled more overtly, partly blaming it judgmental treatment from peers in youth group. But now both, in their mid-twenties, are solid, kind, hard-working people. We are proud of them.

We raised them in faith and in the way they should go. We’re trusting they’ll return to God because He promises they will. Each person’s spiritual journey is unique. As the article implied, it’s hard to know how hot and scary and shameful the fire can be until you’ve walked there. They are still precious to God, their innocent professions of salvation still hold. We talk openly about where they are spiritually and they have taught us a lot.

But sometimes, like David, I wonder if it’s just the cultural thing that swept them away, just as believers we get caught up in the “culture” of Christianity more than the experience of faith and the person of God.

There are interesting tensions on this subject in my own Reformed tradition. On one hand we hold to covenantal theology “this promise is for you and your children”, on the other hand we hold to a strong belief in total depravity as well as unconditional election. We believe that our transformation is not simply helped along, but requires the direct intervention of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and lives.

In spite of all of this theology my tradition has also emphasized Christian day school education, catechism training at church, training in the home, and faithful church participation. We imagine that the sum total of all of this activity will be to insure that our children come to faith.

At some point we have to entrust our children to God.

My heart really goes out to David who made the comment here. In my church there are many seniors whose adult children and grand children have remained apathetic or wandering well into their 50s. I have also baptized men in their 70s in our church and the largest group that I have enfolded have been in their 60s, many of whom finally come to Jesus after trying a lot in life and learning that there is no security in the age of decay.

I also ponder the fact that just as I long to see family members come to faith, or come back to faith, so our heavenly father longs for so many of his children to come to him. We share in Christ’s sufferings and we share in the Father’s longings.

Faith is a resignation, a laying down of our arms (CS Lewis) or a laying down of our worry (Jesus). It is easy to say we trust him with our souls after death, but the real test is whether we trust him with the things in our life that we are anxious about. We are left to rely on his strength and his character that he revealed.

My kids are still young but we are trying to raise them in grace. My husband and I are both generational believers who thankfully stayed “on track” with our faith. But we both did have a time in our lives when we had to decide for ourselves if we did believe in this God we had been taught. We were both brought up with a lot of rules and guidelines for a Christian life. It felt at times like grace was secondary. I don’t want that for my kids.

I want them to know that in Christ everything is permissible - they don’t win or lose salvation on their actions - but that not everything is beneficial. We talk a lot more about the reasons behind our choices than asking them to be obedient just because I said so. God never forces us to obey so I am not sure why some in the church feel the need to demand unquestioning obedience from our kids.

I want my kids to question, think, and decide for themselves each step along the way. And then I pray and pray and pray some more.

Exactly, Paul. As God’s people under the New Covenant we live in a tension of being called to preach the Gospel always, including to our children, yet also trusting that God is completely in charge of choosing who will respond to that Good News, including our children.


I rather agree with your “create an authentic experience” notion. People don’t ‘wander away’ from things that enrich their lives, that provide comfort and community, family and fellowship. There are some things that I return to again and again no matter what life throws at me because they satisfy a deep need. My faith is in this category, becoming something I’m always trying to grow. 

However - I wandered away from organized Christianity in my late teens, because there was nothing beneath the shallow lip-service-to-the-Lord worship that surrounded me. I wasn’t a completely stupid child. I could tell when someone believed themselves when they spoke of their faith versus when the words, rituals and socialization were the point in and of themselves. I didn’t want church for the sake of church. That’s what a lot of those ‘Act Now! Save your Church!’ sound like. In an ideal world, I’d go to church for the sake of nourishing a deeper faith.

Knowing many people who walked away from the church—and having myself left the church tradition I grew up in (evangelicalism) for a different one (Episcopalianism)—I’ve observed a few factors:

First, educated young adults in particular tend not to live where they grew up. That means that the community that was part of their lives growing up—and often the only Christianity they’ve ever really known—isn’t part of their lives where they are. I think that’s particularly acute for people who grew up in a single church their whole lives; if that level of “family” is what they’re used to in church, then any other church community, where it would take years to build that level of community, isn’t going to feel the same.

Second, and this may just be a reflection of my own circles, there’s a *lot* of disgust with the right-wing politics of evangelicalism, particularly regarding LGBT people… as young adults have LGBT friends and coworkers, they feel uneasy about a church that they perceive as hating people they care about. One of the reasons I’ve abandoned evangelicalism is because I couldn’t look my LGBT friends in the eye if I were materially supporting a church that saw them as unequal in any way to hetero/cis people.

There are a few other factors that come to mind too, but I think I’d want to collect my thoughts before expounding further on those.

Hopefully when they are older they will not depart.

As parents we do all we can and they we have to leave it up to all the seed planting and the hope that God will give the increase.

I have a 12 year old that I’m grateful loves Christian music and is wanting to go to youth group without us making him. I’m hoping that it stays this way. Already I have been trying to get him to look at the hard questions about society and I’m trying to show him that there are answers to the questions that are posed.

But, as you have found out, there is only so much you can do. Then we have to be faithful ourselves and allow God to do the rest.

I hope and pray that God pulls the slack out of your children and brings them home.

Great comments. Thank you for sharing your stories. I want to respond to David and Theresa. I have seen and known kids who walked away from the faith for a very long time, but came back. I’m not saying its a guarantee, but if I can give you some encouragement, know that you did your job in depositing truth into the next generation. It is the Spirit’s job to convict and woo them to repentance.

My brother walked away from the Lord for seven years. I prayed, cried, wrestled, doubted during that time. But eventually he came back to the faith.

Fortunately, we have a Father who is fathering your wayward children and loves them even more than you do.

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