Young People are Leaving the Church… Is Apologetics the Answer?
Over the past few months, I’ve been promoting an Apologetics conference which will equip young people to understand and defend the Christian worldview.
As I've talked to local church leaders about the conference, questions have come up about its effectiveness. Do young people really need to attend an Apologetics conference at this stage in their lives? Will Apologetics actually help them stay grounded in their faith as they enter into college?
In order to determine if there is a need for young people to be trained in Apologetics, three questions related to young people leaving the church need to be addressed. Before getting to these questions, I should clarify that leaving the church is not a sure-fire indicator of someone leaving Christianity, but consistent church attendance is an indicator of a growing Christian.
With that said, let's start going down the list.
1. Are young people actually leaving the church upon entering college?
Yes, many are
Recent studies done on this topic indicate that a majority of young people who grew up in the church leave it for at least a year upon entering college.
For example, a 2017 study by Lifeway Research indicated that 68 percent of Protestants ages 18 to 22 who went to church regularly in high school stop attending church on a regular basis for at least a year after they enter college. Some percentage of those people do eventually come back to attend church. But the 68% figure still indicates many do leave permanently.
2. Why are young people leaving the church?
Multiple reasons, including life transition and intellectual barriers
There are multiple reasons why young people are leaving the church, which makes this question a less obvious one to answer. The same Lifeway research study from above indicates that a change in life situations and priorities is the main reason young people leave the church, at least for a time. In fact, the study indicated almost all young people who stopped attending church did so for this reason.
This study doesn't give the full picture, though. The young people polled could only pick from a preselected list of reasons to explain why they left the church. Other studies give young people a chance to provide their own reasons for leaving, giving us a deeper look into what is causing them to leave.
An extensive study done by Barna gave young people an opportunity to list their "barriers" to the Christian faith. A few of the top answers they gave were intellectually focused. From the young people polled:
29 percent indicated that they have a hard time believing a good God exists when there is so much evil in the world
20 percent indicated that science refutes too much of the Bible.
19 percent indicated they don't believe in fairy tales (aligning with the common Atheist mantra "The Bible is just a bunch of fairy tales")
So while the transition to college and changes in life priority play a large role in young people dropping out of church, specific intellectual difficulties can also play a role. These findings bring me to the final question.
3. Is Apologetics the answer to the problem of young people leaving the church?
Not exactly… let me explain
If there is one "answer" to the problem of young people leaving the church, it's the Holy Spirit. As Christians, we can't ignore the Spirit's power in leading young people them into a dynamic relationship with Christ. The Spirit is an important answer, but there are several other answers that can help young people continue in their Christian faith once they enter college.
One of these answers is an emphasis on strong Christian community. Of course, youth groups are set up to promote strong community among young people. But churches can also help young people grow in community with other generations through opportunities like mentorship or church-wide events. When young people see the benefit of strong Christian community, they will be more likely to seek out a similar community when entering college.
Another answer comes through the role of parents to lead and teach their children. By teaching their children what Christians believe and why they believe it, along with modeling the character of Christ through moral actions, parents can help their children build up a strong foundation for their faith that will last.
Okay... But what about Apologetics?
To move to Apologetics, let's look back at the intellectual barriers to Christianity that many young people listed in the Barna study mentioned above. These barriers involve topics like:
The Problem of Evil (How can a good God exist when there's so much evil?)
Science and Faith (Doesn't science conflict with the Bible or even faith in general?)
Historical Investigation (Isn't the Bible just a bunch of fairy tales?)
These topics have been thoroughly addressed by numerous people and ministries engaged in Apologetics. The Problem of Evil is perhaps the most difficult topic to address since there is a strong emotional side to it, but people like C.S. Lewis and Ravi Zacharias approach the topic in a way that touches on both the intellectual and emotional sides. The Science and Faith topic has been extensively covered by organizations like Reasons to Believe for many years. And Historical Investigation of the Bible is covered in depth by authors like NT Wright and Richard Bauckham, and covered in a more accessible way by Lee Strobel and J. Warner Wallace.
These people and ministries provide only a taste of the library of Apologetics resources available to young people. Resources that will:
Help them dig into their intellectual barriers to Christianity.
Give them reasons to think that Christianity does describe the way the world actually is
Show them the relevancy of the Christian worldview to their lives
When we have an abundance of Apologetics resources that do these things for young people, why wouldn't we connect them to those resources? At the very least, Apologetics provides some benefit to young people. And more optimistically, it can play a primary role in keeping their faith grounded as they move into college and beyond.
Apologetics is not the all-encompassing answer to the problem of young people leaving the church. But it certainly is one of several key answers. And that is reason enough to support a conference that connects young people to some of the best Apologetics resources out there.