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  • Writer's picturejoel

Why Are Young People Leaving the Church?

Updated: Dec 25, 2021

A Crisis of Identity and Redemption

The purpose of this article is not to be critical of Christian parents of teenagers or youth workers. After spending much time as both, I have a couple of observations that I would like to share. I hope these will be encouraging, and constructive to you.


The Problem:


I have been a leader in the service industry for decades as a business owner, and leadership trainer. I have worked with and employed hundreds of teenagers or young adults. My wife and I have been foster parents for several years and had the privilege of serving in Sr. High youth ministry for 12 years. Working with teenagers, and often their parents, has given us an appreciation to the challenges young people, and their parents are facing. We know those people, we are those people.


It’s no secret that young people are leaving the church at a greater rate than 25 or 30 years ago. It has decreased significantly since the early nineties and remains somewhat consistent at 65-75% over the past 10 years. That is a disturbing rate.


So... why?


There are only two over-arching possible scenarios that explain it:


Scenario #1 The Biblical account of the Gospel message is not truth. With the help of an "enlightened" secular culture, they are discovering how misguided the church is.


0r...


Scenario #2 The Biblical account of the Gospel message is truth. Their understanding of it is misguided, distorted or at best incomplete.


These are the only two options. Either it's not true and they are realizing it, or it is true, and they are misunderstanding it. It is that binary. For the sake of sticking with the purpose of this article, I am going to operate on the assumption that the latter is true.


Where do they get their ideas?


These ideas may come from many sources including the education system, the media, political bias and other religious ideas or worldviews. It’s easy to point fingers at all the opposing and sometimes hostile views that our culture takes toward the Biblical Gospel message.


I want to take this time to explore NOT the external messages our young people are being exposed to by the world. Rather, the message that we in the church are communicating to our young disciples. Our children are not going to learn Biblical truth from the secular world, and the ideas they learn in church must be more compelling than the ideas they learn from the secular world. That has got to come from their family, their circle of friends, the Church community, but most of all through Gods Word communicated with integrity.


The cultural separation between generations is widening. The battle for the minds of our children is in a full-scale battle mode. We must speak their language and we must make sure the message we are sending is not misunderstood.


My Challenge to the Church:


I would like to explore two specific, but subtle ideas that are often communicated in the church. These generally accepted ideas are contributing to this crisis without us realizing it.


Identity:


For this purpose, I would like to use the simple definition of identity as “who we believe we are”. It’s the label that we have either given ourselves, labeled by others, or inherit by default and assume. I am not talking about your cultural identity as perceived by others. I am talking about who YOU believe you are. This is your self-concept that leads to your self-image and your self-esteem. How you see yourself in God’s eyes plays a big part.


The Bible has many verses that give us an idea of who we are as believers or as non-believers. It also teaches us about sin and how our behaviors measure up when compared to the commandments. It’s easy to confuse how God labels us by our identity (or position), and how God labels our behaviors (our deeds or works).


A few verses to consider about our relationship with sin:

  • Rom 3:23 “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,”

  • Isa 64:6 “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;”

  • Rom 7:24 “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?”

  • Psalm 51:5"Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.”

  • Jer 17:9 “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; Who can understand it?”


It is important that we understand the difference between being a sinner positionally (who we are), and, secondly, being a sinner practically (what we do). Many believers do not make the distinction.


A Closer Look:

  • Rom 3:23 focuses on our actions, our past sins. It helps us understand how we measure up to the law. The law the ultimate scorecard for behavioral righteousness. This is necessary to understand our shortcoming and the reason we need Christ.

  • Isa 64:6 uses the term “have become like one who is unclean”. Even when our identity is with Christ, our behaviors often resemble those that have not yet been cleansed by the blood of Christ. It does not imply that our new identity remains as “Filthy rags”. It says “all our righteous acts are like...” or resemble filthy rags.

  • Rom 7:24 Paul is using an argument of logical sequence from birth to conversion. He acknowledges his position as a “wretched sinner” at that very moment he realized he needs a savior.

  • Psalms 51:5 is talking about our inherent nature at birth, born separated from God.

  • Jer 17:9 is also talking about inherit sinful nature prior to saving faith.


Born in Our Old Skin:


The Bible clearly tells us that we are born positionally separated from God through sin.


Isa 59:2 “But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear.”


At birth God assigned our identity as a “sinner” due to the natural separation from God. Our allegiance is to self. We continue to fall short of the law with a debt to pay. Our actions, or deeds will never measure up. We can never repay our debt on our own, thus making us deserve our positional label as a “sinner”. (see Rom 3:23 above)


Stuck in Our Old Skin:


I have heard believers identify themselves as “Sinners saved by grace”, “Filthy rags”, “Wretched sinner”, or “Desperately wicked”.


This innocently seems like the humble approach to take as believers but wreaks havoc on your self-image. We mistake identity with deeds. We mistake humility with self-deprecation. Humility is realizing the responsibility of our new identity in Christ and having the self-awareness to know when we fall short.


"I think, therefore I am" Rene Descartes


Self-deprecation shows itself as helplessness that comes from negative self-talk that stems from our self-proclaimed identity as sinners. We still see ourselves as a grounded caterpillar, rather than a butterfly, fully capable of flying.


There is a story I have heard a number of times describing the training of young elephants. When they are young one of their legs is shackled and a chain or rope is fastened to a stake in the ground. The elephant is conditioned to understand their limitations. When the elephant grows up under this condition, they do not question the boundaries imposed by this external force. If the grown elephant had a keener awareness of their own strength, they would realize they can pull the stake out of the ground with ease. The limitation was only in their mind. They have been classically conditioned.


Wrestling With Our Old Skin:


But Joel, when I use those terms to describe believers, I am just talking about our sinful actions. I am not saying that is our position. Don't put words in my mouth. I know better.


Fair enough, but do those that hear you know that?


When we continue to assign our identity as a “sinner” in conjunction with our position as "saved" we create an internal conflict. This is called cognitive dissonance. It’s the conflict that happens when our brain tries to rectify two ideas believed be true but have opposing positions.


This is an internal conflict that subconsciously or consciously can cause much stress. It makes us feel anxious when the topic or thought arises. Some will dig in and wrestle with it. Some figure it out. Some will disengage and move to easier thoughts.

We struggle to simultaneously hold onto both positions. We think we are a “sinner” (unworthy, fallen short) and at the same time, we are “righteous” (spotless or blameless in the eyes of God). Our "position" can't be both, however our actions can. It puts us at odds with how God truly sees us. Are we a sinner “prepared for destruction” (Rom 9:22), or are we are a saint “prepared in advance for glory” Rom 9:23.

This truly is one of the biggest roadblocks I have seen in the journey of discipleship. Do you struggle with this?


Putting On Our New Skin:


The Bible tells us that we gain a new identity or position when we are “made new in the attitude of your minds;”


Eph 4:21-24 “when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. 22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; 23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.”


Leaving Our Old Skin Behind:


There is clearly a difference between “old self” and “new self” regarding our identity. Our actions can “resemble” our old selves (Isa 64:6) when we take our eyes off the author of our new identity. But that is not who we ARE, it is simply what we choose to DO in the moment. We are no longer anchored to or identified by our old identity as “sinners”. If we were, we would still be “objects of wrath”.


Php 3:12-15 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you.


When we keep focusing on who we were, or identifying with what is behind us, straining toward what is ahead is impossible. Try running forward looking backwards, or running with an anchor tied to your ancle. We are called to cut the ties to our "old self" and embrace our "new self" as one straining to win the prize. We can focus on what is behind convinced we will keep losing, or we can focus on what is ahead, the greatest prize of which Christ has already taken hold of on our behalf. Change of action always starts as a change in thought.


You may say "but isn't it biblical to be fully self-aware of our depravity and of our despicable deeds? Don't we want people to know we understand and recognize our enormous need for Jesus?"


Absolutely. When we stand in our new position, next to Jesus in the radiant light, we become acutely aware when we fall short. We can't hide in the shadows when in the light. There is a distinct contrast, between our new identity, and our sinful actions. Sin does not co-exist with light, rahter exposed by light. If we instead view ourselves as “saints,” then we will begin to see our sin in a whole new light, because we identify as one standing in the light.


When our position is standing among sinners, that which we are trying not to be, our identity and actions are blurry at best. Do we do what we are? Or, are we what we do? Are we claiming victory or running from defeat?

When our position is depravity, it becomes what we try NOT to be (hence the internal conflict of dissonance). When we are focused on not sinning, we stand very little chance of changing our familiar thoughts of guilt and shame of not measuring up. Do you want to spend your time confident in who you are now, anchored in Christ, or ashamed of who you continue to be, a sinner?


Even Paul refers to his old identity as something that he has moved on from. "I was once" or "I acted" past tense.


1 Tim 1:13 "Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief.


Our New Identity as Saints!

  • John 1:12 ”Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”

  • Romans 8:28 “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. "

  • Ephesians 1:7 “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace. “

  • John 15:16 “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. “

  • Genesis 1:27 “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

  • Jeremiah 1:5 “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”

  • 1 Peter 2:9 “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.“

  • Galatians 2:20 “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

  • John 15:15 “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.”

  • Ephesians 2:10 “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

  • Philippians 3:20 “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ”

  • Colossians 3:1-4 “Since then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

  • Romans 8:37 “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.“

  • Psalm 139:14 “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well”

  • 2 Corinthians 5:17 “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.”

  • 2 Cor 5:20 “Therefore we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making His appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ: Be reconciled to God.”


Wow! What a completely different perspective on who we are as believers.


God says we are…

  • Children of God,

  • Called for a purpose,

  • Redeemed through His blood,

  • Forgiven of sins,

  • Appointed to bear much fruit,

  • Created in his image,

  • Set apart and appointed,

  • A chosen people,

  • A royal priesthood,

  • God’s special possession,

  • Crucified with Christ,

  • A friend of Jesus,

  • Gods’ workmanship,

  • A citizen of heaven,

  • Raised with Christ,

  • More than conquerors,

  • Fearfully and wonderfully made,

  • A new creation,

  • Ambassador for Christ,


Okay, this brings me to the second issue I would like to address...


Redemption:


Webster defines Redemption as: the act of saving people from sin and evil: the fact of being saved from sin or evil.


The Bible says:

  • Eph 1:7 “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace.”

  • 1 Cor 1:0 “And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.”

  • 1 Pet 1:18-19 “Knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold. But with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.


We are shepherds:

As stewards of young people's hearts, we are responsible for helping them understand what it means to be redeemed in Christ. Unfortunately, in recent years the church has often done an inadequate job of teaching the full truth to our young disciples.


Our identity in Christ is linked eternally to the single act of Jesus dying once for all. He came to redeem us from eternal damnation and thwart us into an eternal life of fellowship with God. A life granted us by his grace through faith apart from our continued sinful actions. We are saved because of our new identity, and the elimination of our old identity. It is 100% because of who we are now in Christ. It is our new position before God.


Our understanding of redemption is warped when we believe that our identity as a “sinner” remains after we are saved. The internal dialog goes something like this:


  • If I will always be a “sinner,” I will always let God down. I will always let my parents down. I will always let myself down because the Bible says...


“...every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize” them.” Mat 7:17


  • What else could possibly happen? I am a sinner; a bad tree and I can't change that unless I strive to be perfect.

  • I am destined to bear bad fruit because I am a bad tree, a sinner. I will be cut down.

  • God says unless I am perfect (without sin), I will be cut down.

  • Maybe I should just cut myself down, so I don’t continue to cause others hardship.


When it comes to being saved by Grace it continues like this... (taken from actual conversations with teenagers)


  • Since I am a sinner, I obviously can’t stop sinning.

  • My pastor teaches that when I sin, I must “ask for forgiveness” for my sins to be forgiven.

  • If I die and any of my sins are not forgiven, I will go to hell, right?


Doesn't James says, “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.”?


  • How in the world am I supposed to ask for forgiveness every time I sin? I don’t even know that I am sinning most of the time!

  • What happens if I forget, and I die?

  • This is way too much pressure. It may be easier to just believe something else.


When we don’t get our identity in Christ right, we don’t get our understanding of salvation right. Understanding our Identity in Christ is essential. It is foundational for a new disciple to fully grasp the concept of Redemption.


We cannot live a life of confidence and assurance if we identify with all that is wrong with us. This is not to be confused with having self-awareness of our shortcomings. Understanding what we are forgiven from, is essential to grasp our new identity in Christ, who we are reconciled to.


Freedom in Christ:


Gal 5:1 “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”


There is no way we can live a life of freedom in Christ when we are still living with the mindset of the “old self”. When our “identity” is unworthy our actions are unworthy, we naturally continue a life of unworthiness. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy propelled by who we are. Garbage in, garbage out.


We conclude, “It doesn’t make sense to us that Jesus would die for a sinner like me. I can’t change my stripes. Doesn’t he need to see a change in me? Doesn’t James say, “Faith without works dead”?


At best we decide we will believe it even though it doesn’t make sense. Then we will go on living a defeated life of double mindedness. We hope that we are saved because we prayed the prayer and keep asking for forgiveness. That’s not freedom in Christ.


Chasing Salvation:


When we communicate the need to “ask for forgiveness” as believers without distinguishing between "confessing our sins", it may be interpreted that there is still an outstanding need to be forgiven. We can easily onclude we are still in our sins. Otherwise, why would there be a need to ask it?


Many believers find themselves chasing salvation by way of “asking for forgiveness” over and over. I have met believers that have been saved many times, so they say. Asking for forgiveness as a believer is not off base. It may even be theologically sound. But, if you believe salvation is conditional upon your future actions or confessions rather than Christs single act, you will always be chasing salvation.


Christ died once for all (Heb 7:27). When we chase salvation, we fail to fully experience God’s gift as attainable in this lifetime. Freedom IN Christ.


I have met many people who struggle daily with the uncertainty of their salvation. They don’t have freedom in Christ. They may have unfelt eternal freedom, but they don't get to experience the freedom in this lifetime because they juggle two different identities, dissonance.


Confessing Our Sins with Confidence:


Salvation comes when sin that separates us from God (Isa 59:2) is fully paid. We gain our new identity. Transparency and intimacy with God continue when our direct personal pipeline with God remains clear and uncluttered by sin.


1 Jn 2:1“My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.”


But doesn't John also say:


“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”? 1 Jn 1:9


Yes, however John is not speaking to Christians. He is speaking to Gnostics. This is an example of how we can believe subtle nuances of scripture in error.


Transparency Through Confession:


Our continued intimacy with God depends on a clear pipeline. When our transgressions begin to add bricks to the wall, we start to become cut off and distant. When we confess our sins, we remove those bricks clearing the way for transparency. Through confession we are free to walk into the light enjoying continued fellowship with our Father and Savior.


When we as believers confess our sins to God with a proper understanding of the Gospel, we are actually CLAIMING His forgiveness. We know that we have already been forgiven, as opposed to chasing it. We work from the security of knowing what has already been done. We can approach the throne with confidence and assurance.


  • 1Jn_3:21 “Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God

  • 1Jn_4:17 “This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus.

  • 1Jn_5:14 “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.”


Conclusion:


When new believers hear the message that they are “sinners” by position, they lose hope, or struggle to find it. Hearing that they are ALSO saved by grace, doesn't simply clear up the confusion. It only intensifies the conflict in their mind.


Most teenagers already struggle with believing they don’t measure up. When they are led to understand that they ARE sinners, that becomes their identity, who they are.


Is it any wonder why young people are searching under every rock to find something that will give them a sense of value? When the liberal, secular humanistic world, even if it’s baseless, gives them a more appealing perspective of who they ARE than what the church gives.... [exhale], I don’t even know how to finish that sentence.


Competing with the Secular World:


The Church can’t compete when we don’t lead with Grace and the Truth. Unfortunately, the secular world CAN compete with a false or incomplete gospel message. The secular world CAN’T compete with the true life-changing message of the Gospel.


Jesus Christ paid the entire price for us to be identified as a child of God (see list above)!

He didn’t just pay the price for some of your sins.

He didn’t pay the price for just your past sins.

He didn’t pay the price for just the minor sins.

He didn’t pay the price for just the sins that you remember to ask for forgiveness for.

He paid for ALL your sins!

He paid for your past sins, and your present sins.

He paid for the sins you don’t even know you have committed, and he has already paid for your future sins.


When you believe that Christ IS who he says he is, and that he HAS DONE what he says he has done, you ARE NOW who he says you are, NOT what you were! Your identity is indeed in Christ.


I need to stop; I am going to have a brain hemorrhage.


joelsmithcoach.com


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