Yesterday when Zondervan's newsletter "To The Point" arrived in my inbox I was reminded again that Christianity is struggling, at least in this part of the world. One of the most noticeable headlines read: College-age Exiting Church The Church Is At Crisis Levels. The accompanying news blurb went on to talk about how youth leaders are preaching the alarming exit of college students from the church and yet churches don't seem to be grasping the significance of the loss of even one youth. Later they mention that according to some youth ministry groups 70% to 80% of youth involved in Christian ministry in high school walk away from their faith within one year of graduation. In response to these very sad statistics, there are a number of high profile youth organizations who are coming together to help youth "transition from high school to college so that they more readily retain their Christian faith".
As I have thought about this report there are a number of things that come to mind. First, the statistics are tragic because behind each one is a real person who has been exposed to Christianity and has walked away thinking that it is not all that it was presented to be. This in spite of specialized youth ministries, campaigns to save them from dating, an endless array of Christian educational options, the rearrangement of church services to cater to the younger generation, special music and camps and programs and on and on. And the fact that they have walked away like this means they will be even more difficult to reach again because now they will have a "been there, done that attitude toward Christianity."
Second, this is not just a structural, organizational problem. The use of language borrowed from the business world like "helping youth transition from high school to college so they more readily retain their Christian faith" is theological nonsense and perhaps begins to reveal the real heart of the problem. Genuine Christian faith cannot be lost. If teens or anyone else has not come to participate in the New Covenant there is nothing that anyone can do to help them more readily retain their faith. Our problem today is with inadequate views of the gospel and the Christian life. What we are facing is a situation where far too few have experienced the life changing power of the Spirit of God in which he writes the law of God upon the hearts of those in whom he comes to dwell. It is time to face the fact that too many who participate in church programs are not Christians.
Third, I am fully aware that there are ups and downs in the Christian life. I know all too well that believers can backslide and sometimes fall into grievous sins. But these experiences must not be allowed to warp our understanding for the gospel and the change Jesus makes in our lives. Otherwise, we are left with a very inadequate message indeed. A telling example of the point I am making can been seen in some of the things that have been said about the recent revelations of Ted Haggard. There is no denying that his difficulties are tragic and the damage done is profoundly disturbing. But equally disturbing in my mind are commentaries in which the writer/speaker laments the fact that we are all totally depraved and then reminds us that except for the grace of God we are all in the same boat. While it is true that by nature we are totally depraved, if we are Christians we have known the liberating, life-changing power of the grace of God! We are not what we once were! Sin is a contradiction to the work of grace within us. As Christians we know the "exception" of grace and this makes all the difference in the world! This is precisely why situations like Haggard's are so remarkably sad.
Personally, I think the time has come to look seriously at New Covenant Christianity. The demands of the New Covenant are far-reaching. We are told that without holiness we will not see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14) and that is not speaking about our positional holiness or the righteousness of Christ that has been imputed to us. The holiness in view is that righteousness of life that is produced in us; that's right, in our lives and hearts as a result of our experience of God's grace and our subsequent and inevitable battle against sin. We are not perfect, nor will we be until glory. But we must not give the impression that we are all wallowing in sin and uncleanness as if we have not known God's amazing grace. As Christians we are supposed to know joy and victory over sin now, in this life. In glory God's work in us will be complete and every last vestige of sin will be removed, but that should not take away from the fact that something significant has happened to us now!
Returning to where I started, all of this is significant for youth ministry because it means that what needs to be recovered is the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ in all of its New Covenant splendor! This is what needs to be taught to young people. The need for repentance and faith. They must be told that while it is a privilege to have Christian parents, that in itself does not make them little Christians. They are not the "King's Kids" unless they have personally known that regenerating work of God. And if they have known that work they will live for the glory of God through all the ups and downs of life including the time when they "transition between high school and college". Jesus is a powerful Savior! And if we have not known his power and are not continuing to know it, it is because we do not know his salvation! We must stop distorting the biblical presentation of salvation to fit our weak, backslidden and disobedient lifestyles. We must not give false comfort to the people of God by speaking as though the only difference between us and famous fallen preachers is the fact that we have not been caught. Unfortunately, that is probably true more often then it should be but if that is the case it merely shows how far we have wandered from the truth and experience of the gospel. It should not be this way. No wonder the world is unimpressed. If this is the way it is with us then we have seriously misrepresented Jesus when we speak about him as the Savior who saves his people from their sins!
"Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness. For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace."
"Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation--but it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it. For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live. For those who are lead by the Spirit of God are the children of God."
Romans 6:13-14 and Romans 8:12-14