Kids leaving the church: What you can do now to turn the tide

by DiscipleLand Staff Children's Ministry Curriculum, Children's Ministry Resources Add comments

The culture we live in is greatly influencing our children’s moral behavior and development — the vast majority of Christian kids today have no spiritual foundation. Fun and games are fine, but as the research indicates, we’ve raised a generation of children who have missed out on essential Bible training. When the world comes calling, many are falling prey to dubious activities and deceptive philosophies — and they are walking away from their faith.

In this week’s newsletter, Jon Nielson provides insightful and practical tips you can use now that will help your children when they reach their teen years just a few short years away.


“What do we do about our kids?” The group of parents sat together in my office, wiping their eyes. I’m a high school pastor, but for once, they weren’t talking about 16-year-olds drinking and partying. Each had a story to tell about a “good Christian” child, raised in their home and in our church, who had walked away from the faith during the college years. These children had come through our church’s youth program, gone on short-term mission trips, and served in several different ministries during their teenage years. Now they didn’t want anything to do with it anymore. And, somehow, these mothers’ ideas for our church to send college students “care packages” during their freshman year to help them feel connected to the church didn’t strike me as a solution with quite enough depth.

The daunting statistics about churchgoing youth keep rolling in. Panic ensues. What are we doing wrong in our churches? In our youth ministries?

It’s hard to sort through the various reports and find the real story. And there is no one easy solution for bringing all of those “lost” kids back into the church, other than continuing to pray for them and speaking the gospel into their lives. However, we can all look at the 20-somethings in our churches who are engaged and involved in ministry. What is it that sets apart the kids who stay in the church? Here are just a few observations I have made about such kids, with a few applications for those of us serving in youth ministry.

1. They are converted.

The apostle Paul, interestingly enough, doesn’t use phrases like “nominal Christian” or “pretty good kid.” The Bible doesn’t seem to mess around with platitudes like: “Yeah, it’s a shame he did that, but he’s got a good heart.” When we listen to the witness of Scripture, particularly on the topic of conversion, we find that there is very little wiggle room. Listen to these words: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17). We youth pastors need to get back to understanding salvation as what it really is: a miracle that comes from the glorious power of God through the working of the Holy Spirit.

We need to stop talking about “good kids.” We need to stop being pleased with attendance at youth group and fun retreats. We need to start getting on our knees and praying that the Holy Spirit will do miraculous saving work in the hearts of our students as the Word of God speaks to them. In short, we need to get back to a focus on conversion. How many of us are preaching to “unconverted evangelicals”? Youth pastors, we need to preach, teach, and talk—all the while praying fervently for the miraculous work of regeneration to occur in the hearts and souls of our students by the power of the Holy Spirit! When that happens—when the “old goes” and the “new comes”—it will not be iffy. We will not be dealing with a group of “nominal Christians.” We will be ready to teach, disciple, and equip a generation of future church leaders—“new creations”!—who are hungry to know and speak God’s Word. It is converted students who go on to love Jesus and serve the church.

2. They have been equipped, not entertained.

Recently we had “man day” with some of the guys in our youth group. We began with an hour of basketball at the local park, moved to an intense game of 16” (“Chicago Style”) softball, and finished the afternoon by gorging ourselves on meaty pizzas and 2-liters of soda. I am not against fun (or gross, depending on your opinion of the afternoon I just described) things in youth ministry. But youth pastors especially need to keep repeating the words of Ephesians 4:11-12 to themselves: “[Christ] gave . . . the teachers to equip the saints for the work of the ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” Christ gives us—teachers—to the church, not for entertainment, encouragement, examples, or even friendship primarily. He gives us to the church to “equip” the saints to do gospel ministry, in order that the church of Christ may be built up.

If I have not equipped the students in my ministry to share the gospel, disciple a younger believer, and lead a Bible study, then I have not fulfilled my calling to them, no matter how good my sermons have been. We pray for conversion; that is all we can do, for it is entirely a gracious gift of God. But after conversion, it is our Christ-given duty to help fan into flame a faith that serves, leads, teaches, and grows. If our students leave high school without Bible-reading habits, Bible-study skills, and strong examples of discipleship and prayer, we have lost them. We have entertained, not equipped them . . . and it may indeed be time to panic!

Forget your youth programs for a second. Are we sending out from our ministries the kind of students who will show up to college in a different state, join a church, and begin doing the work of gospel ministry there without ever being asked? Are we equipping them to that end, or are we merely giving them a good time while they’re with us? We don’t need youth group junkies; we need to be growing churchmen and churchwomen who are equipped to teach, lead, and serve. Put your youth ministry strategies aside as you look at that 16-year-old young man and ask: “How can I spend four years with this kid, helping him become the best church deacon and sixth-grade Sunday school class teacher he can be, ten years down the road?”

3. Their parents preached the gospel to them.

As a youth pastor, I can’t do all this. All this equipping that I’m talking about is utterly beyond my limited capabilities. It is impossible for me to bring conversion, of course, but it is also impossible for me to have an equipping ministry that sends out vibrant churchmen and churchwomen if my ministry is not being reinforced tenfold in the students’ homes. The common thread that binds together almost every ministry-minded 20-something that I know is abundantly clear: a home where the gospel was not peripheral but absolutely central. The 20-somethings who are serving, leading, and driving the ministries at our church were kids whose parents made them go to church. They are kids whose parents punished them and held them accountable when they were rebellious. They are kids whose parents read the Bible around the dinner table every night. And they are kids whose parents were tough, but who ultimately operated from a framework of grace that held up the cross of Jesus as the basis for peace with God and forgiveness toward one another.

This is not a formula! Kids from wonderful gospel-centered homes leave the church; people from messed-up family backgrounds find eternal life in Jesus and have beautiful marriages and families. But it’s also not a crapshoot. In general, children who are led in their faith during their growing-up years by parents who love Jesus vibrantly, serve their church actively, and saturate their home with the gospel completely, grow up to love Jesus and the church. The words of Proverbs 22:6 do not constitute a formula that is true 100 percent of the time, but they do provide us with a principle that comes from the gracious plan of God, the God who delights to see his gracious Word passed from generation to generation: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”

Youth pastors, pray with all your might for true conversion; that is God’s work. Equip the saints for the work of the ministry; that is your work. Parents, preach the gospel and live the gospel for your children; our work depends on you.

Why do you think teens are leaving and what do you propose as the solution?

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Article used with permission. Jon Nielson is the college pastor at College Church in Wheaton, Illinois.

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11 Responses to “Kids leaving the church: What you can do now to turn the tide”

  1. Preschool in Yorba linda Says:

    Right from the start itself, children must be given the correct bit of knowledge and information about Church and God. Unless they realize its importance and reason behind it, they won’t find going to Church compelling enough. The Kids Ministry in Yorba Linda works for such social causes so that young children remain connected to their religion.

  2. Sue Johnsson Says:

    I believe there are two important factors that cause teens to leave the church:
    1. Michelle Anthony in her book “Teaching Kids Authentic Worship”, discusses that we have taught children ABOUT God, but not taught them to KNOW God. This is where knowing Him as Savior and developing that personal, living relationship with Him comes in. They have not connected with the One, Who is love, truth, power, etc.
    2. We have spent too much time entertaining our youth instead of teaching them to do ministry. I started teaching at the age of 12 and I believe that is part of the reason I have been in ministry all my life. At least half of my VBS Team consists of our great teens, some are also involved on Sunday mornings either teaching or assisting in classes or the nursery. They are involved in mentoring, discipling and Bible studies with each other, as well as the missions’ trips and outreach ministries. They feel a vital part of the church – it is their church and their ministries. It has been exciting to see the youth mature and desire to serve God.
    So I agree with the author and challenge our churches to take discipling our children and teens more seriously.

  3. The Vision for Ministry to Parents and Children | FBC Children's Ministry Says:

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  4. Dale Stewart Says:

    Great article with very accurate advise. I would only like to correct one issue. From a biblical perspective -the job of the youth pastor is not to get the parents on board with their program, but just the opposite. The youth pastor is never a position given biblical authority to children, but rather the parents are the biblical authority over the children. Youth pastors need to be a resourse to compliment the teaching of the parents. The youth pastor needs to get on board with the parents programs and reinforce that teaching. Which leads to another subjects of raising godly parents!

  5. Laird Says:

    This was an excellent article. I might add that, in a book called Already Gone, which deals with this topic, the authors state that one of the fundamental characteristics of youth who leave the church is a questioning of certain parts of the Bible that seem very difficult to believe, such as the account of Jonah being swallowed up by a great fish. Perhaps we parents need to be engaged in helping our kids grapple with some of these portions of Scripture that may seem difficult to swallow (no pun intended). I know that, as a Christian who happens to be a dad, I have questions myself. I need to model discipleship by asking appropriate questions and proactively seeking answers from credible sources (Matt. 6:33). I can’t just ignore these questions.

  6. Kids Leaving the Church: What You Can Do to Turn the Tide | Says:

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  7. PKinney Says:

    Here is my take as a mom of teens. The church does not allow our youth to do meaningful work in the church. They are not trained to do the important jobs of running a church. They are fine to help setup chairs, babysit, clean up, even give a devo on occasion but no real job of sustenance. I was losing my teen, he had no interest in the church or even hanging with his friends. We finally joined a church where my teen learned the sound board and is the sound board lead, is uploading the sermons, running the slides, videoing baptism stories & the list goes on. He’s the most committed non-paid staff member in the church. Why? Because he was given a chance to actually do an important job & be counted on to be responsible. And, give them Grace, if 1 Sunday they don’t do the upload correctly doesn’t mean “they failed”. We all make mistakes. Its a win/win – committed Youth to the church, jobs being done by those who have energy & enthusiasm = more work force, more families committed to the church. Youth Pastors & Senior Pastors – find meaningful jobs for your Youth in the church. Give them responsibility for the long haul, not just occasionally.

  8. Brittany Sharpe Says:

    This is great, and I agree that there is not necessarily a formula for those that leave and stay in the church. I think the second point here can really hold up for all areas of the church as well – that we are continuing to equip leaders and teachers and not just entertaining our people. How important this is!

  9. Gladys Springer Says:

    As a parent of 5 adult children, tell me why 3 of them are still involved in the church as they were all taught the same values. We never read the bible at home, but took them to church.

  10. Benjamin Says:

    The exact same things apply to many of us who did leave. We were “converted”, equipped, supported and encouraged by parents. And then something changed. Or we noticed what we hadn’t before. Or whatever. People leaver for all kinds of reasons. I don’t think you’ll find that this criteria is an accurate predictor of those that stay. Especially since you have provided no data whatsoever to support these assertions.

  11. Olga Whitehead Says:

    My church has been on both sides of the issue of teens leaving the church. Up until the past 3 or 4 years, we saw teens (especially those without Christian parents), leave after they got to high school. However, that all changed when we had a small group of serious, motivated high schoolers begin helping in our weeknight Awana club. We needed more leaders, so they stepped in. With the guidance of their Handbook leader, they were given specific jobs working with the Cubbies and Sparks clubbers. They even took over the game time when our game leader was out of town…an adult did not have to step in to cover for him. Now, as the grade 8 clubbers, those in Trek, go into high school, they are excited about serving as well as learning. It has now become a “culture” to be in the High School Journey group and be a L-I-T. We’ve also established a Performing Arts group that participates in the services through drama, flags, skits, and music. They also participate with our Worship Team on occasion. As adults we see that our Awana club (and Sunday School) will be well taken care of when we depart this world. Praise God!

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