A recent study by LifeWay revealed that the dropout rate for young adults leaving the church in the US currently stands at about 70%. That is in line with where the figure has, apparently, been for a while. The church does not have a brilliant retention rate. I’m not quite sure what the UK figures would reveal but I sense we wouldn’t be doing vastly better. But regardless of what the specific figures happen to be, there are some ways you can definitely encourage your children to ditch church when they are old enough to do so.
Treat church as optional
If your children see you treating the church as optional, you can be sure enough that they will grow up to reckon it to be optional. If you only bother going to church when you don’t have anything better on, your children will probably find better things to do as well. This is even better if you instil into them early that any club they want to join will take precedent over church. If their football matches, scouts, Duke of Edinburgh, trips away, various parties all clash with church and you are totally fine with it, you can be sure your children will see that the church never really mattered all that much.
Hop from church to church
Nothing embodies the consumer mentality toward church more than a habit of jumping around different churches so you can access whatever it is that each one does for you. It is almost impossible to achieve this without negatively landing on whatever Church A doesn’t have that warrants you jumping ship to Church B to access their particular thing. But it also sends the message to your children that church is merely there to meet whatever needs they happen to feel they have. Of course, the moment they perceive some felt needs that the church simply doesn’t cater for, it’ll be bye-bye church. If church exists to meet my needs and serve me, and I perceive it isn’t serving me, it is the most natural thing in the world to simply jack it in.
Don’t let them question (and don’t give credible answers when they do)
One way to ensure your children see that the church has no real answers to their questions is to not allow them to ask anything. Certainly, if you do give in to entertaining any apparent dissent, don’t give them any proper answers. Shutting down dissent in the church, especially the honest questions of those trying to understand why things are as they are, will quickly send the message that questions aren’t welcome, with the assumed answer being because you don’t really have any. If the church doesn’t really have any answers to life’s big questions, we can hardly be surprised if our children soon decide that there isn’t any real point to sticking around.
Outsource all discipleship to the church
Not only will children learn by our example of how we treat the church, they will also learn from our example in the home. If we are not about the business of discipling our own children at home, we can’t be that surprised if they don’t see the value of sending them off for other people to do it.
The fact we fail to get to grips with is that we will be discipling our children in the way that we live at home anyway. And we will either be discipling them well or leading them to believe all sorts of untruths. If our children see that we don’t value discipleship, nor will they. If they see us living differently at home, uninterested in the Lord except on a Sunday, they will pick up those same clear vibes. It’s a short step from there to our children jumping out of the church altogether.
Unlike some, I am not against children’s ministry. Whilst I understand the case that children must stay in every part of the main service, I don’t find it ultimately convincing. I think there is room for both involving children in corporate worship together whilst also having teaching more specifically geared up for them. But most people recognise there comes a point where children, should they go out, need to transition from Sunday School or from teen groups into the other stuff going on geared towards adults.
But two things need saying. First, all too often we badly patronise our children. We expect very little of those sent to us and often treat Sunday School and teens ministry as glorified babysitting. There is minimal, if any, genuine gospel input. Even if there is some gospel, it rarely extends beyond a 5-minute epilogue after an hour or so of games. It is very much tagged on rather than a meaningful part of any discipleship of our youth.
But second, even if we manage to avoid patronising our children, if their sole experience of church is youth-centred, they only ever see Sunday School or teen groups without any real engagement with the normal things of church life, we can’t be that surprised when they drop everything when they are told those things are no longer for them. If the aphorism is true – what you win them with, you must keep them with – we need to be careful that we are not winning them to very specific, youth-centred ministry that is not really reflective of normal church life.
If we patronise our children when they engage with youth ministry and we never involve them in the wider life of the church, we can’t be that surprised when they reach adulthood and up and walk away. Not least if they go away to other churches and realise so many of them can really compete. They just don’t have the staff or budget to offer specified ministry this way. If that’s what your children have been won to (passim: the bit on church hopping), they aren’t going to last long in the majority of churches that just can’t provide it.