When churches find a dearth of young people in the congregation, it is never long before questions start being asked. The questions become even more pointed when children, who otherwise seemed engaged, drift off when they become teenagers. Were there not enough programmes available for them? Were they isolated from their peers? Did we just not pay them enough attention? The hand-wringing begins and the cries of ‘won’t somebody please think of the children?’ go up.
The fact is, however, the lure of the world is as great among adults as it is teenagers. Nor do teenagers leave the church because there are not enough programmes for them. At best, in certain cases, young people may leave your church and begin attending another one in which they feel they might be better served. This doesn’t account for why they drift off altogether.
The reality is that the number one reason young people drift off from the church is because they are not believers. It is as simple as that. They have not come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ nor entered into personal relationship with him. They either do not understand the gospel or they know it well enough and have decided they don’t want it. In either case, they leave the church because they never came to faith.
When we understand this, the issue is brought into sharp relief. The main reason teenagers drift away from the church, just like adults, is because they are not real Christians and never came to faith in Christ. The answer to how to stop them leaving, then, becomes more obvious. It rests in teaching our young people the gospel and praying that Christ will effect in them a positive response.
Coupled to this, we must recognise where the responsibility for teaching and training our children lies. Contrary to popular belief, it does not lie with the pastor, elders or Sunday School teachers. Whilst each of these people will be held accountable for what they teach, they are not charged with the spiritual welfare of your children.
Ephesians 6:4 makes clear that it is fathers who are responsible for teaching and training their children in the Lord. Deuteronomy 6:6-9 puts it this way:
These words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
It is the responsibility of fathers at home to teach their children. It is not good enough to outsource all of our children’s spiritual teaching and then wonder why they never came to faith given we sent them out of the service for half an hour every week. This is neither talking of the scriptures in your house nor the incorporation of them into your everyday life that Deuteronomy expects. It is likewise not fulfilling the imperative of Ephesians 6:4 that fathers are responsible for the spiritual teaching and training of their children.
Notwithstanding the responsibility of fathers, if the church does offer teaching programmes for children, we must make sure they are gospel-centred. It is so easy for the Sunday School to simply become a time dedicated to little more than keeping the children quiet while the adults sit under the “real” teaching. We can so quickly fall into the trap of singing a few songs and then spending most of the time on a craft or activity with no spiritual value. Even if we intend to offer Biblical content, it can quickly descend into mining the Bible for moral lessons or treating the children as though they are already ‘little Christians’ despite having no understanding of the gospel.
Our Sunday Schools would be well served if they made a concerted effort to be gospel-centred. That is, teaching the children about the reality of sin and the only remedy that is found in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Though we can rightly teach the traditional Bible stories, rather than mining them for moral content, we must teach them in a Christocentric way. There is no problem with learning of David & Goliath, but let’s rightly interpret David as a type of Christ, the anointed one sent to save God’s people. This leads us to Jesus, who was God’s anointed messiah sent to save God’s people. This then needs to be applied to children in the same way as to adults. There is a problem (sin/Goliath) which we (children/Israel) are unable to defeat. But God has set forth his anointed one (Jesus/David) to defeat our enemies that we could not. It is only by trusting in God’s anointed that our enemies are defeated and we may receive peace and freedom. This would be a gospel-centred, Christocentric approach to the story.
The key here is not simply teaching our children facts about the Bible. It is to teach them the gospel as presented in the lens of those stories. Likewise, it is to not presume that all the children in front of us are believers. Similarly, it is to apply scripture as we would to adults. Recognising that children, like adults, are sinners and need to repent and believe in Christ in order to enter right relationship with him. These stories and Christocentric readings of scripture must be primarily taught in the home – with the gospel modelled by parents in the way they live – which are simultaneously reinforced through the teaching programmes of any children’s works in the church.
We cannot be surprised if young people, who never became believers, drift away from the church. We similarly cannot be surprised when young people do not become believers when their parents don’t teach them the gospel at home and our Sunday School programmes focus more on morals, or nice lessons, than they do on the Christ and his gospel. If our children never hear about sin and the means of salvation, we can hardly be surprised if they never see a need to repent, come to Christ and submit to his Lordship. If they see no need for all of that, we can hardly be surprised if they see no value in the church.