Losing the way


As young christians grow in understanding, they can find difficulties with what they have been taught. And they can end up in very different places, from continued faithfulness to questioning to disbelief.

There are ways to prepare and help them on their journey and (unfortunately) ways that don’t adequately prepare and help them.

Four roads diverged …. ?

Over many years involved with youth and young adults in churches, I have observed some clear patterns. Of the many who pass through church youth groups, I have seen four main trajectories.

Gone but not forgotten

A large number (certainly more than half) disappear from the church’s radar within a few years. The busyness or pleasures of life claim their allegiance and church attendance just becomes irrelevant. Sometimes there are church teachings that they cannot believe as they mature and sometimes they grapple with these questions for a time before they give up.

Easy as is goes

A smaller number have no problems with church teachings. They remain happy to accept it all, and they go on to become active christians and good church members.

It’s all too hard

Another group have doubts about christian faith and church teachings, but are not able to either resolve their doubts or give up on God. So they become passive believers, not fully confident that it is true, but unwilling to totally part company with the church. Their involvement in church tends to be perfunctory.

The reconstructors

Finally there are the ones who pursue their doubts. They read books, listen to podcasts, watch videos and discuss with a small group of like-minded travellers. Their faith is challenged and re-shaped, but remains intact. They generally become more progressive in their theology and living. Their doubts have been a gateway to a new understanding.

A good gardener prepares the ground

Some of these trajectories could be changed if christians were better discipled. Evangelism could include some well-based reasons to believe the christian faith is true. Instead of continual evangelism in youth group and church services and re-statement of basic truths of the faith (often it is over and over and over), new christians could be far better prepared for the challenges of life ahead when they finish study, begin careers and families – and face questions and doubts.

No doubt those who seem strong christians could still lose their way, but we could maybe forestall that.

For example, when Hillsong song-writer Marty Sampson publicly expressed his increasing doubts a few years ago, saying his faith was on “incredibly shaky ground”, he listed a number of evidence-based issues as problems for him. These included conflicts between science and religion, the lack of miracles today, God’s apparent indifference to suffering, contradictions in the Bible and God’s dependence on human evangelism to prevent people going to hell.

He said he had been checking out the arguments of christian apologists, atheists and other religion, but it seems to me his questions are all answerable, and don’t alter the evidential reasons why I believe christianity is true. He is clearly sincere in his doubts and his response, but I can’t help wondering if some better preparation in his earlier years as a christian might have made a difference. Who knows?

Targets to hit in discipleship

These of course aren’t all the things that should be included in discipleship, but they are the ones I think are most relevant to people losing their faith.

Evidence-based apologetics

Much christian apologetics is based on only some of the facts:

  • It is easy to find claims that archaeology confirms the Bible, but this is only partly true. There is very little archaeological information from the early Old Testament (nomadic people left behind few traces) and New Testament archaeology provides little more than background information (e.g. the existence of Nazareth). Only the second half of the Old Testament is reasonably supported by archaeology.
  • Arguments from the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy often use only selected facts.
  • Many arguments about who Jesus was are based only on christian apologists. This ignores much of what secular, atheist and agnostic scholars conclude. This is still enough to justify christian faith, so why not use these more useful sources?
  • Miracle claims are often presented without documented evidence.
  • Some answers to difficult questions, especially about the Bible, don’t fairly represent the facts. The Bible is more complex and diverse than is often taught.

Use of inadequate arguments can give young christians a false sense of confidence, and their faith can be rocked if a knowledgable atheist points out well-documented facts that undermine the apologetic, or if the young christian does their own research.

It is important that we use credible apologetics that are evidence based and so stand up to questioning.

Lifestyle is the real apologetic

Personal experience is likely to be more important than logical argument. Personal example is likely to be more influential than instruction. A loving, supportive community is likely to be the strongest influence on a young christian.

Walk with them

Because personal example is likely to be more influential than instruction, one-on-one mentoring can be very helpful to new converts provided the older christian knows how to give space, listen, encourage and avoid making decisions for the younger christian.

Avoid dogma when it isn’t necessary

The more doctrines we include in the essentials, the more new converts have to accept and believe. And the more possibility there is that there will be something that they find hard to swallow.

Core doctrines are essential, but we need to recognise that there is considerable difference between christians’ views on non-core doctrines. We do well to allow liberty on these matters, and not burden new converts.

Don’t be scary!

Some christian evangelism and ethics is built on fear. But the Holy Spirit isn’t an agent of fear (2 Timothy 1:7). Fear and rules may bring about temporary change, but they don’t transform the heart like love does. Encourage young believers to respond to God’s love. Those manipulated to believe by fear are likely to reject a religion of fear later.

Youth is made for heroism

We are most idealistic when we are young. So don’t waste it. Give young christians challenges and opportunities to serve “big” causes, both spiritual and social. Avoid stifling their enthusiasm and go along with their aspirations whenever we can.

Encourage honest questioning

Don’t be afraid of questions, doubts and faith reconstruction. Christians from christian homes will often need to go through a time of questioning to make their faith their own. Let it happen, don’t stifle it. Don’t step in too quickly to “put them right”, but allow freedom without judgment. (But be praying all the time!) The more their questions are allowed and answered now, the less problems there will be later.

Be culturally relevant

Modern western culture is generally strong on acceptance, freedom, being non-judgmental and welcoming diversity. Young believers live in this culture and are likely to be critical of legalism, hypocrisy, non-acceptance and sectarianism. So we need to be very sure before we express attitudes that are against this culture. “Just because we know something doesn’t mean we have to say it!” There may come a time when we must speak up, but words need to be chosen wisely.

Helping faith reconstruction

I believe these matters are among the most important facing US and Australian christianity today. If the church rises to the challenge, it will find itself being challenged and changed too, in a good way.

I have written more about faith reconstruction on this site.

Faith deconstruction – for those who feel like their faith is falling apart.

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