My first grade Sunday school teacher told me the only way I could go to heaven (and not hell) was by repeating her prayer asking Jesus to come into my heart. Also, if I accepted Christ that day, I could pick a prize from the prize box. So yes, I accepted Christ at the age of seven. I wanted a prize! Oh and um…not burn in hell.
By no means am I criticizing my Sunday school teacher for presenting the Gospel and inviting me to make a decision to follow Christ. What I am criticizing is that after I publicly professed my faith in Jesus Christ, the church forgot about me. I grew up in the church with a completely unchallenged, incomplete view of the God I had given my life to.
The “Churched” Become the “Unchurched”
According to a 2013 Barna Group study, “Nearly six in ten (59%) of these young people who grow up in Christian churches end up walking away from either their faith or from the institutional church at some point in their first decade of adult life…when asked what has helped their [millennials’] faith grow, ‘church’ does not make even the top 10 factors.” Let’s talk about this for a second.
We’ll start with the first part of that statistic. Over half of those raised in the church leave the church. Wow. Assuming young people attending a church are taught the Gospel, their identity in Christ, God’s character, and how to have a relationship with Jesus, that statistic doesn’t seem right, does it? Nope, it doesn’t. Unfortunately, the majority of young people in the church aren’t taught any of these things.
I experienced this first hand at the age of twelve. My seventh grade youth group regularly discussed our prepubescent feelings about issues rather than look to the Scriptures to discover what God’s Word has to say. I remember feeling frustrated because these Tuesday evening gatherings were more of a preteen therapy session. One night I had enough, so I raised my hand and respectfully asked my small group leader if we could learn something from the Bible instead of our usual discussion on our feelings. A few leaders promptly escorted me from the auditorium. They so kindly explained to me that not all the students in our youth group believe in the Bible. In their opinion, talking about biblical truth might make those students uncomfortable enough that they wouldn’t return. What they were really saying was that growing in numbers was more important than growing our faith and relationship with Christ.
I didn’t want a Snickers bar for bringing a friend to church. I wanted the truth of the Scriptures, sincere prayer, and worship. More than anything, I wanted to know that God valued me, He cherished me, and that He had a divine plan for my life so when the world seemed hopeless, I could put my hope in Jesus Christ.
The Church Abandons Its Influence
Now let’s talk about the second part of that statistic. When millennials were asked what helps their faith grow, the church didn’t even make the top ten factors. Excuse me, but WHAT?! Now I do not consider myself a scholar, but I don’t think you need to be one to recognize the absurdity of this problem. It seems appropriate to assume people attend church to learn about their faith. The logical result of their attendance should be spiritual growth. That’s not exactly a notion I think we need to spend any time debating.
Nowhere on that list was anything associated with the institutional church. Instead, millennials attributed their spiritual growth to death or illness of a loved one, marriage, friends and family, and having children. Here’s the thing: these factors may evoke feelings of love and emotion, but it seems like a stretch to attribute these to genuine spiritual growth.
I count myself blessed because God pursued me and placed people in my life who discipled me. These people taught me how to pray, how to read Scripture, and what it means to have my identity in Christ. Through these mentors, I learned doctrine and more about God’s character. Let me make this clear: I did not grow in my faith because of what my church taught me. I grew strong in my faith despite what the church taught me (and intentionally omitted).
You might be thinking, this is one young girl who probably has her Hillsong United t-shirt all in a twist after just one bad church experience. Wrong. My family didn’t sit idly by and wait for our church experience to change. In my twenty years of life, I have attended nine different churches in three different states. My sisters and I attended each church’s children’s ministry or youth group. My parents participated in small groups and Bible studies. On more than one occasion, my family approached church leadership seeking discipleship for our family and for others who desperately want to grow deeper in their faith. Often the church leaders would look at us confused because they either didn’t see the value of discipleship or they were clueless as to how to minister to families in a way that would produce genuine spiritual growth. Until this year, I did not have a church home that I felt was genuinely invested in helping me grow closer to God. Do you know what that is? Sad. That’s just sad.
Pastors and Church Leadership, I Hope I Have Your Attention
Here are four points church leadership needs to consider while evaluating how to minister to those who have grown up in the church:
- Christians do not develop faith through osmosis. When you make the entire congregation stand up and shake hands with one another for three minutes before the message on Sundays, shaking hands with someone strong in faith is not going to magically make my faith grow too. Sharing a pew with the pastor’s family is not going to make me a Bible scholar. If you actually want us to grow in faith and knowledge, teach us how.
- If you’re not discipling our parents, you’re trapping us. Contrary to what some believe, adulthood does not mean we know everything. *gasp* My parents’ faith and spiritual growth is vital for our family. When the church disciples my parents, they equip them to fulfill their God-given roles as caretakers of my sisters and me (physically, emotionally, and spiritually). This helps elevate our family unit as God intended it to function.
- DO NOT DARE deemphasize our salvation experience. It is very easy to look at someone who came to Christ in a dramatic, unusual way and celebrate how God worked in his or her life. Note to pastors: you often neglect to celebrate with the same enthusiasm when a person who is raised in a Christian home accepts Christ at a young age. I used to feel rather unimportant until my Theology professor, Dr. Allen McFarland of Calvary Evangelical Baptist Church in Portsmouth, Virginia, taught me otherwise. He emphasized no matter how one comes to Christ, the SAME all-powerful, all-loving, all-knowing God sets us apart for His Kingdom. The SAME complete transformation and redemption is gifted to every believer under the SAME grace, mercy, and love by the SAME beautiful sacrifice from Jesus Christ. And THAT, friends, is something to celebrate.
- Our salvation experience is not the climax of our faith. There is more to our faith than accepting Christ as our Savior. We are part of the kingdom of God. The Holy Spirit empowers each of us to live here on earth and fulfill the Great Commission. God pursues a relationship with us. Friends, if you accept the false notion that salvation is the pinnacle of your life, then you are missing out on truly understanding who you are in Christ and God’s plan for your life. Do not settle for spiritual mediocrity, but pursue the truth and fullness of life you inherit when you walk with the Holy Spirit.
Church Leaders, Don’t Forget about Us
Churches, if your definition of “being on fire for God” means you’re really only interested in the numerical growth, you have quite literally set the rest of your congregation on the back burner. Instead, I challenge you to step up and fulfill the Great Commission. Do not simply make new Christians of all nations. No, Jesus Himself said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19, ESV; emphasis mine). Advance the kingdom of God as the Father Himself called you to, by making disciples. Do not concern yourself with the numbers of newcomers entering your doors. When we are discipled to pursue holiness and righteousness, our witness of a transformed life will cause people to flock to your pews.
Pastors, do not forget those of us who have gone to church every Sunday for as long as you can remember. Do not assume we have it all figured out and that we are ready to pursue Jesus on our own. We are hungry for the Word and for discipleship. God has entrusted you with the task of leading us to the pursuit of holiness and that does not stop the moment we answer your alter call. Teach us to be bold, strong in faith, and to unashamedly proclaim the Gospel. Teach us how to pray and read the Bible for ourselves. Disciple us so we can disciple others. If you want your church to grow, grow us.
Christians, if you are like me and grew up in the church and still struggled to understand God, pursue Him with all your heart. Surround yourselves with believers who build you up and point you back to God in everything. Find a church that is genuinely invested in you as sons and daughters of the one true God. Seek discipleship. Do not give up on the church because you are frustrated by the hypocrisy and neglect that surrounds you. Instead, find hope in knowing if you pursue holiness and righteousness, God will bring people to you that will help you advance the kingdom of God for His glory.
Sarah Thielen is one of NETAFIRM’s student interns and is currently a Junior at Liberty University. She is studying Communications with a Video Production minor. Her interests include reading, animals, movies, video games, and adventuring.
Read Sarah’s previous article, “Dear America’s Churches: Millennials Are On to You.”
NETAFIRM’s book, Saving the Saved: How the Church’s Greatest Omission Led to a Post-Christian America, is available in paperback or Kindle editions at Amazon.
 “5 Reasons Millennials Stay Connected to Church.” Barna Group. September 17, 2013. Accessed July 17, 2017. https://www.barna.com/research/5-reasons-millennials-stay-connected-to-church/.