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Faith Abandonment: Questions I’m Asking

 —  April 9, 2012 — 8 Comments

At Saddleback, we are neck-deep in trying to address the issue(s) of faith abandonment, sticky faith, retention of our college graduates, helping parents disciple their children etc. The process has probably served to raise more questions in my mind than answers, which I think is a good thing. I’ve listed some of the stuff that I’ve wondered, and would LOVE to have you pick one or two and share your thoughts in the comment section:

* To what degree is temporary faith abandonmentt normal? Most of us walked away from faith for a time, regardless of the methodology of the youth group we grew up in. Scripture seems to indicate that most of the “soil” the gospel is sowed upon non-condusive.

* What do we do with students who come from non-believing households; who have parents with ZERO desire to disciple their own children?

* Have students always wandered from faith in high numbers, or is it a new issue? Maybe we are just more aware of it today? If teens have always wandered, then is it fair to attack modern youth ministry as the culprit?

* Is a little bit of inter-generational stuff good enough? Are baby steps effective?

* Should efforts look different for different age-groups? Should churches be more concerned about college-age (because clock is ticking faster) than Junior High when it comes to the issue?

* It seems like vast majority of churches have ALWAYS had quite a bit of inter-generational culture. Whether it’s serving together, teenagers attending adult worship services, etc. tons of churches have never totally segregated their youth ministry department. If this is the case, how can modern youth ministry be blamed for faith abandonment?

* Parents should be the primary disciplers of their children, but where does scripture say they should be the ONLY people investing in their child’s spiritual growth? How can we create a “village” (Sticky Faith uses the “5-adults” goal) that helps teenagers on their journey?

Kurt Johnston

Kurt Johnston


Kurt Johnston leads the student ministries team at Saddleback Church in Southern California. His ministry of choice, however, is junior high, where he spends approximately 83.4% of his time.

8 responses to Faith Abandonment: Questions I’m Asking

  1. Guys, these are some great questions and many of us are asking the same ones. After hearing Kara speak and reading Sticky Faith I have to admit it messed me up. After 17 years of student ministry I don’t think it’s a “new” issue, but is something that churches and student pastor’s must tackle.

    So, I am in a beta testing stage right now. I started an intergenerational small group and hand selected a wide array of people. We have a family with a 2 year old, a family that has kids from 6-14, our family with an 18 and 16 year old, and then an older couple who are empty nesters. We are attempting to do life together and do a small group where everyone is included and not isolated into their individual ministries. Of course, they have opportunity to do that within the regular weekend services.

    The goal from the outset was to create a village. Tonight our family went and watched a soccer game of one of the other children. Time will tell, but I have seen a cool connection beginning to form amidst all the children and families. My daughter has not only been impacted by two other ladies in the group, but is impacting the younger children as well. She has 5 people who care about her and that’s a cool thing! On a side note, she was starting to disconnect from the church and the typical youth ministry stuff. She’s seen and heard it all and isn’t impressed. She seeks deep relationships and doesn’t feel that can be accomplished in a huge group. So we are praying that a big web is created that keeps her sticky.

    Can’t wait to see and hear how you are handling what’s next.

  2. Thanks for the post Kurt.

    I’m pretty passionate about this topic, so I decided to respond to all your questions.

    1. I don’t think faith abandonment of any sort is or should be “normal.” When people walk away from God it is a bad thing. I think you’re onto something with the Parable of the Sower comment.

    2. I work at a seeker-sensitive (is that still a legit term?) church, where many of my students have absolutely no Christian influence from their non-believing parents (if you include “churched parents” who don’t disciple, it’s about 75% of my students), so this is where I live. I am the only Christian adult who has an influence on these students’ lives, so obviously, I have to be the primary spiritual caregiver. If someone has a problem with that, I’d be curious as to their thinking.

    3. I’m going to go in a different direction with this one. Yes, those fundamentalist nut jobs (I’m conservative, so I can say that in love) that say youth ministry is entirely the problem with young people walking away from the church need to have their heads examined. Obviously, if you have two godly parents who are effectively discipling their kids, they should be the primary spiritual caregivers. Who is going to argue with that ideal situation (hey – in my ideal world, I would be driving an Audi RS5)? However, we live in the real world, and in my church at least, families like that are a rarity (evidently, that’s not the case in their fundamentalist churches). The fact is, the Church is full of broken people and broken families.

    However, as a career “youth ministry guy”, I think some of the blame has to lie with youth ministry, along with the church in general – but maybe not for the same reasons that others postulate. As someone who has had a ton of people I grew up with walk away from their faith (that’s why I believe the 60-80% stats), this is a topic I think about a lot. It’s personal. While there are certainly many causes and theories of faith abandonment, the one I’ve been focusing on the most is what happens at secular colleges, because that’s what happened to the people I know. I think two of the reasons the drop out rate in the church seems to have gone up recently is because 1) churches stopped effectively equipping their youth (teaching theology, doctrine, apologetics, etc.), while 2) secular colleges (and profs with agendas) have become more hostile towards Christianity. Because so many students’ faith is “a mile wide and an inch deep”, when challenged like never before in a hostile environment like a secular college, they realize they don’t really know what they believe and their faith begins to crack. Throw in tremendous amounts of temptations that would be difficult for any Christian to resist, and these shallow youth ministry alum’s faith shatters. And yes, rebelling against parents and their upbringing, along with having to find and plug into a new church also is a factor for college freshman.

    And honestly, I don’t understand why it is that churches fail to equip their youth. Whenever I talk on theology or doctrine, my students eat it up (and remember, I’m at a seeker church). Our theme for Summer Camp last year was “The Word.” I was absolutely shocked when I had one of my interns teach on biblical inerrancy for 45 minutes and heard from the students (12-14 year olds!) that they loved it. They were mesmerized and you could have heard a pin drop. I wondered what happened to j. highers’ famous 15 minute attention span! In February, we did a sermon series called, “Theology” – and again, the students couldn’t get enough of it week after week. I seriously am considering writing a book someday about it. I think too many youth pastors underestimate their students and think that they can only handle a little theology at a time, buying into the lie that youth either don’t care or aren’t able to have a deep understanding of their faith. What worked 20 years ago, clearly doesn’t work anymore. The world has changed. Youth ministry needs to change with it. Rant over. ;)

    4. I would say a little intergenerational ministry overall is a good thing. We actually technically use a generational model for our youth ministry, although we stopped having combined worship (j. high – young adult) last year for several reasons. We still have periodic “Merge” events throughout the year, where we combine the j. high, high school, and young adult ministries for a special worship service, and they are a good thing for us. We have young adults serving as leaders in high school and j. high and high schoolers serving as leaders in j. high – also, a good thing. We have done Serve Projects with adult groups in our church – good thing. We cancelled youth services on Easter so that the students could worship with the entire church body – good thing. But are we going to get radical and kill our weekend large-group programs so that our students can attend the adult worship services anytime soon? No.

    5. I wish all churches would realize the facts about faith abandonment so they can “see the big picture” and show more concern towards youth ministry as a whole.

    6. With this line of thought, logical people would say youth ministry can’t be solely blamed.

    7. It doesn’t. In a few months, I’m going to see my old youth ministry prof, Chap Clark, discuss “Sticky Faith”, so I’m sure I’ll have more to say on this then. One of the reasons I love hearing Chap speak is that I don’t always agree with him and he stretches me to think differently. Honestly, while good in theory, the whole 5 adults thing seems like an unrealistic ideal to me. Although I’m not a parent yet, I have observed people for years, and I believe that most parents are too selfish to care about about investing in someone else’s kid. Heck, I wish more parents would care more about their own kid! And I don’t think finding youth workers to fill this gap is a realistic expectation either. I recently heard Mark Matlock say that the primary problem in youth ministry today is a lack of youth workers – I agree. If a kid is lucky, he/she will find one youth worker to invest in them. Having said that, I love it when one of my students goes up to a small group leader other than their own and talks with them. Maybe that’s what “Sticky Faith” is referring to – I’ll find out in a few months. ;)

  3. Tom,
    I love the intergenerational small group beta test. Please share an update after it has been up and running for a while. I think my biggest question there would be when do teens and adults get opportunity to dig deeper, ask questions, share struggles etc. in an age-appropriate, “safe” place?

    DUDE! Thanks for adding your thoughts. You and I are very similar in our thinking on the topic, which is probably at least partly due to the fact that we are both in seeker-sensitive/attractional churches.

  4. Dude! Have some questions! Good night! ;^)

    I’m not sure where to start! All of these questions prompt more questions! for example: For students who take a break from faith, how sincere was their conversion in the first place? Were they converted to church, to Jesus, to closer relationships with peers (yes, yes, and yes).

    I know so many people that grew up in church, walked away, and when they had kids decided, “I think they should be in church.” And then they had a new awakening to the gospel. Tale as old as time.

    I can’t help but consider that the real issue is identity. But even then, for middle school and high school students, they are just figuring out WHO they are and identity is probably too fluid. And how many of us really understand identity until we experience life as an adult?

    There are SO many issues. There is no magic bullet. Instead, it’s like if we can add solid spiritual people into our kids’ lives, then that will certainly help. If we can help students take another step deeper in their relationship with God, then that will certainly help. If we can have more lock-ins…..no. That doesn’t help.

    I would throw out in this discussion, to what extent do parents shoulder the responsibility? I wish I was one of those parents who really “discipled” their kids, but I’m not. Most of my “discipleship” comes from WHO i am and WHOSE I am. It comes from my relationship with God. I wonder how much more we could influence student’s spiritual lives by helping adults grow deeper in their faith?

    Another question I have been wrestling with, is how much could student’s faith be impacted by SIMPLY helping parents develop better parenting skills? Conversely, how much of our student’s faith is impacted by poor parenting? Could non-believing parents give their kids a better understanding of God by having healthier parenting skills?

    (course this begs the question: what is “good” parenting or “healthy” parenting skills).

    Great stuff, Kurt. Makes me the summit. And of course, partnering up with you for “Notorious.”

  5. KJ

    The basis of many of your questions rotates around the premise “what happens when students are outside our ministry context”

    You know I think that the very issue of our role as youth worker has to be shaped around faith and doubt to face most of these questions. At the heart of what we have done in youth ministry is create culture in our church silos that give or often assume answers. Youth worker as speaker or teacher , even in a small group is the genesis of most of these issues. Creating and training adults to “guide” students into crisis and doubt rather then predetermined theology creates space for God to show up. I found my “teaching” model worked as long as someone else was guiding that student … parents, leader, etc. I wanted God to show up but theology… not faith was my primary tool. easier to question and walk away from theology then a first hand experience with Jesus.

    The oposite of faith isn’t doubt… its certainty. A. L.

    I think most of my ministry is been well intended “certainty”

  6. Hey Kurt! Love your thoughts and questions as always! Here are some thoughts on a few that struck me….

    * To what degree is temporary faith abandonmentt normal? Most of us walked away from faith for a time, regardless of the methodology of the youth group we grew up in. Scripture seems to indicate that most of the “soil” the gospel is sowed upon non-condusive.

    I’m not sure if faith abandonment is normal as much as it’s young people gaining independence and discovering who they are and what they’re about. I think for many “Church” students they might not be walking away from their faith as much as it is checking out other churches, ministries, schools of thought trying to solidify their own faith. Sometimes in student ministry I think we spend so much time looking for a system, process, step by step approach to make students disciples so they don’t walk away that we forget the true discipleship is relationship/mentoring. That’s hard to do b/c the workers are few, it takes time and it can get messy.

    * It seems like vast majority of churches have ALWAYS had quite a bit of inter-generational culture. Whether it’s serving together, teenagers attending adult worship services, etc. tons of churches have never totally segregated their youth ministry department. If this is the case, how can modern youth ministry be blamed for faith abandonment?

    I think there is still a mindset from “Big” Church echoes that of society at times and that is “your young and you need this, this and this before you can be a contributing member to society. Many churches exist that way. The norm is to create a student ministry that is going to help them grow while at the same time keep them out of our hair in main church. “They’re not ready yet” or “They’re too young to understand” are thoughts that I think are societal and they have filtered into the church as well. Youth ministry gets the blame because I think they expect young people to be finished products once they get of the youth ministry assembly line. What it comes down to is that our students haven’t had enough exposure to adult church, the commitment of main church is to some target age that doesn’t include young people, and our young people haven’t been given a voice outside of student ministry.

    * Parents should be the primary disciplers of their children, but where does scripture say they should be the ONLY people investing in their child’s spiritual growth? How can we create a “village” (Sticky Faith uses the “5-adults” goal) that helps teenagers on their journey?

    I think there needs to be more collaboration amongst organizations, churches, and ministries who work with young people and their families in every community. Youth pastors should interact way more often with crisis centers, after school counselors, small group leaders, tutors, coaches, teachers, other youth pastors….the list could go on and on. If it takes a village, the village has to start talking even if you’re theology is different

  7. Cesar Santamaria May 3, 2012 at 7:33 am

    about youth ministry been blamed for faith abandonment: http://www.dividedthemovie.com/

    This documentary really blew my mind and made me ask questions about whether youth ministry actually contributed to the lives of our kids; I guess is a question worth asking this day, because the fruit we produce is the measure of our decisions and actions. If our youth group/ministry is not producing in the long term adults committed to Jesus and his church, something is wrong or missing.

    About boys with no christian family: i’ve seen in our group kids rise as young committed christians leaders from families where no one was/is christian; the key to that ‘success’ I believe was definitely through small groups and connecting with a more mature christian friend, whether older or the same age; I believe it was instrumental in making them develop roots in Christ and to have strength when the family opposed or discriminate them for been ‘santurrones’(like ‘super-saint’ in english)

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