Why Do Kids Leave the Church? Don’t Forget Bad Theology!

There has been a lot of talk recently about why kids leave the church, including this recent post by Bishop Robert Barron, and books such as You Lost Me (Kinnaman) and Sticky Faith (Kara Powell and Chap Clark). These authors, and many others, rightly point out that issues are complex and can involve a number of different factors (moral, volitional, emotional, relational, intellectual, etc.).

Bad Theology Kids

And yet there is a component often left out of these discussions—the influence of theology—that is so often at the heart of why kids leave the church. In my experience, there is often a faulty theological view driving why kids disengage the church (and many times their faith). Consider three examples:

1. Misunderstanding the nature of man: Recently I was speaking at a youth group in southern California, not far from where I live. After the service, a college student, who described himself as a former Christian, wanted to discuss the “Problem of Hell.” We talked for nearly 45 minutes and he raised the standard objections against the justice of Hell:How could a loving God send someone to Hell? How can a finite sin warrant an eternal punishment? How can people enjoy Heaven knowing their loved ones are in Hell? I did my best to respond with both kindness and truth (and by the way, most of my apologetics points were borrowed from C.S. Lewis!).

After our talk, it seemed that I had made almost no “dent” with his questions. He still thought God was a moral monster. And then it dawned on me: His problem was that he saw human being as basically good. If humans are basically good, and simply commit a few “sins” in their lifetime, as he believed, then Hell does seem like overkill. Moreover, Hell can only begin to make sense when we grasp the biblical view of mankind—that we are made in God’s image with infinite dignity, value, and worth, but our natures have been deeply corrupted because of sin (See Romans 3:9-18; John 2:24; Mark 7:14-23). An unbiblical view of the nature of man was at the heart of his rejection of the faith.

2. Misunderstanding the character of God. Some time ago I was having a conversation with a former youth minister who had rejected his faith. We discussed both his story and the apologetic question of what best explains the origin of the universe. After I shared that I believe the beginning of the universe is one piece of evidence in support of the cosmological argument for the existence of God, he raised the standard response: Who made God?

I am not surprised to hear this objection from non-believers. In fact, philosopher Bertrand Russell raised it in his 1927 book, Why I Am Not a Christian. But I was surprised to hear it from a former youth minister. Why? Simple: The objection assumes a faulty view of the nature of God. It assumes that God is an object within the universe, such as water, a rock, or a cloud. If God were this kind of object, then He would clearly need a cause. But the biblical view of God, which has been held long before this objection was raised, is that God is the eternal, self-existent, all-powerful, and personal creator of the universe. By definition, God cannot be made or caused. If such a being had a cause, then it would not be God.

Although many issues were likely involved, a faulty view of the nature and character of God was at the heart of why this former youth pastor rejected his faith.

3. Misunderstanding the nature and purpose of sex. This one is possibly the biggest. After all, our culture is immersed in sex and sexuality. Recently I was listening to a podcast about people who had deconverted from the faith, and at the heart of each of their stories, was their belief that the Bible has a negative view of sex. They all agreed that the Bible teaches that sex is bad, and that when people imbibe such a view, it leads to unmitigated harm.

My heart broke that these young people had been taught such a harmful view. If I thought that the Bible taught sex was bad, I would probably disengage the church too! But the Bible has a very different view about sex and relationships. The abuse of sex is certainly bad, but sex itself is good. In fact, the biblical view is that sex is a beautiful gift from God, but is to be experienced within certain guidelines, which are meant to protect us and provide for us (Gen 2:24; Song of Solomon, Proverbs 5:15-23, 1 Cor 7). Rejecting these guidelines is what so often brings hurt, pain, and regret.

There are many more examples I could share. And yet the larger point is that bad theology lies at the heart of why so many young people disengage the church (and the faith). If we are going to help kids develop a vibrant faith, we must unequivocally help them develop deep and balanced theological convictions.

My point is not to argue that theology is the only issue. After all, even the demons have perfect theology (James 2:19)! But in our postmodern world, many people downplay theology at the expense of community and relationships. The reality is that we need both the gospel (and the theological understanding of how it relates to all of life), and healthy relationships. The Apostle Paul said it best: “So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thessalonians 2:8).

Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author of over 18 books, an internationally recognized speaker, and a part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog: seanmcdowell.org.

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5 replies
  1. david brainerd says:

    that bad theology that refuses to admit Paul said celibacy is the ideal and marriage a mere consession to weakness is largely to blame for it, both in celibates leaving because the church despises them, and in the rest becoming sex perverts.

  2. Keith says:

    I believe that Sean makes a good case but misses the point. Not simply bad theology believed but rather wrong doctrine received thus believed. I.e. wrong scriptural and doctrinal teachings (including errant gospel presentations) coming from parachurch organizations and Churches.

    Which directly means that they never received (heard with ears to hear) Matthew 11:15 & Luke 8:8) and or were never given the gospel aright.

    “14 How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? 15 And how shall they preach, except they be sent? as it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things! 16 But they have not all obeyed the gospel.” (Romans 10:14-16 KJV)

    That is that these kids, along with those whom claim to have once been a Christian or have been churched, old or young, former youth pastor’s or not were actually never born-again.

    Consequently the idea of: why kids leave the church, why kids disengage the church (and many times their faith), rejection of the faith, and those whom have deconverted from the faith are in and of themselves not scriptural and or doctrinal ideas or truths this is simply wrong/bad theology.

    The fact is that they are proving by going back to the way that they were that they never were Christians and or part of the body of Christ. In fact we might better describe these as anti-christs, neverwere’s, or not at all’s!

    “18 Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time. 19 They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us.” ( I John 2:18-19 KJV)
    As is always the case in bad theology, wrong theology, bad doctrine, or wrong doctrine miss-interpreting scripture and or misrepresenting it is the culprit.
    I must also with all due respect (to God first and Sean also) say that all the demons not even the Devil has perfect theology nor does James 2:19 suggest such a thing.

    In Christ,

    • Brady Mayo says:

      Yes bad theology is part of it. Also contradictions within today’s churches theology is also a huge problem. For instance: Many churches preach that the Gospel is good news because of God’s grace and that we can have assurance of salvation. But then the church will cause these same young converts to doubt their salvation by adding works to either prove they are saved or to maintain their salvation. This is not the good news! Also kids today cannot relate to those who are righteous and do not admit their own struggles within the church. There is a lack of humility and brokenness like never before in the church. Kids are smart and can see that all Christians struggle with something but these struggles are hidden behind a wall of self righteousness. Sound familiar? Legalism is alive and well in today’s churches.
      We need to start being real with this young generation more than we need to be right! We need to share the “good news” which is a salvation that comes by faith alone in Christ alone – not by works that any man should boast. They need to know that the man behind the pulpit struggles with sin too. They need to be able to relate with the leaders within the church and with other members and to do that we must become less preoccupied with being right and perfect and instead become real and boast in our weaknesses.

  3. Frank says:

    Sean, I agree with your examples 2 & 3, but you’re entirely mistaken about point 1. Regarding the nature of hell, your comment that “an unbiblical view of the nature of man was at the heart of his rejection of the faith” is unjustified. You wrote that “his problem was that he saw human beings as basically good,” but the student did not indicate that at all; rather, he indicated his problem was that the punishment didn’t fit the crime. In short, the student was struggling with how to harmonize the love and justice of God, given the traditional view of hell, and he was right not to be moved by your explanation.

    The idea of eternal conscious torment is so offensive to the human mind that even Christians have to construct a justification that says “they chose it” or “their torment is eternal because their dignity is eternal.” This reasoning is indefensible and it maligns the character of God. This view reduces God to a spurned lover who actively sustains in existence the once object of his love for the sole purpose of retribution. We tell people “God loves you so much” and then say “but if you reject His advances, he will torment you in the flames of hell forever.” People are right to reject this notion of God, and the doctrine of eternal conscious torment—it is, after all, unbiblical.

    The irony is that this doctrine of hell stems from man’s unbiblical view of the nature of man! The influence of Plato’s teaching that the soul is innately immortal came into the church when many Greeks converted to Christianity (some of them philosophers, like Athenagoras). So Satan’s original lie, “You surely shall not die” (Genesis 3:14) was successfully smuggled into the church and ensconced as orthodox Christian doctrine. But the scriptures faithfully argue against this.

    There is a hell, or more precisely, a Lake of Fire which is the “second death” into which death and Hades (Sheol) are thrown:

    “13 The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. 14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. 15 Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.”

    All of the unsaved human souls that are thrown into the lake of fire perish. Since they don’t receive the gift of eternal life in Jesus, they die the second death. The distinction between the first death and the second death is that people come back from the first death via resurrection to judgment, but nobody comes back from the second death—they aren’t resurrected; they perish and are “no more.”

    “Let the sinners be consumed out of the earth, and let the wicked be no more.” Psalm 104:35

    “Consume them in wrath, consume them, that they may not be.” Psalm 59:13

    “Because just as you drank on my holy mountain, all the nations will drink continually. They will drink and swallow and become as if they had never existed.” Obadiah 16

    So the saved receive eternal life, but the unsaved don’t. The traditional view (the unscriptural, Platonism-infused view, in my opinion) says that the unsaved do receive eternal life – it’s just eternal life in a bad place. But there is no scriptural warrant for that view.

    From Genesis to Revelation the language is clear. In Genesis 3:22 God says, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil; and now he might stretch out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat and live forever,” so God kicks them out of the garden because He didn’t want them to live forever.

    In John 3:16 we are told that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” John doesn’t contrast eternal life in a good place (the New Earth) with eternal life in a bad place (Hell), he contrasts eternal life with perishing, because he assumes the Jewish view of the soul which is conditional immortality, not the Greek view of the soul which is innate immortality.

    In Romans 6:23 Paul says, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord,” clearly meaning that the only way people get eternal life (i.e. live forever) is through faith in Jesus Christ. Thus the unsaved don’t live forever—anywhere.

    I think this issue is important because it seems that God has made it clear for a reason. And I’d say that Satan has attacked this particular truth for a reason as well; he has successfully maligned God’s character using the very ones who claim His name! Doesn’t scripture teach the importance of us not causing others to stumble in regards to having faith in God? (Mark 9:42) When we portray God as keeping people alive forever in order to endlessly torment them we cause people to stumble. Conversely, we can share with people the very attractive truth that God’s love and justice perfectly harmonize in the judgment of unrepentant sinners in that their destruction results in a literal death, where they are “no more.” It is a punishment that fits the crime.

  4. Kerry says:

    I am working apologetically with a young man who holds all three opinions as expressed in the article and unfortunately I don’t think I am making any headway with him. So if anyone reads far enough into these comments, I would really appreciate ongoing prayer support for this challenge. And for the wisdom to know if and when to pull out and leave him in God’s hands.


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