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Outgrowing the Faith?

Discipleship by adults is needed to keep young people in church

By Christina Quick

When an online forum for college students asked participants to explain why they don’t go to church, the responses were both predictable and heartbreaking.

A student named Emma, who said she had attended services faithfully until a few months before, wrote: “If God really loves me as much as everyone in church says He does, then He should be cool with me focusing on bettering myself and trying to get the most out of the life He’s given me. Listen, I think [He will] understand as long as you’re still a good person.”

A student from Florida said, “I used to go to church regularly. But for the past couple of years I haven’t been, mainly because I got a job. But also, I’ve had a hard time finding a church here that I feel like I fit in at. Many churches just don’t feel very
loving.”

Another student, also a former attendee, wrote: “I lost my ‘faith’ when I started questioning the Bible and God. Now I’m just starting to believe it’s a lie. This doesn’t mean I automatically became materialistic, superficial and a rebel in the world. I still have strong morals, and now I have my own perspective of the world, instead of someone else placing their ideology on me.”

Even as church attendance enjoys a temporary holiday surge, these young adults represent a sobering trend. An alarming number of kids raised in church are growing up and walking away from the fold.

More than two-thirds of those who attend church as youths drop out between the ages of 18 and 22, according to a 2007 survey by Nashville, Tenn.-based LifeWay Research. The study found that 34 percent did not return — even sporadically — by age 30.

“The reality is, we’re failing,” says Wayne Murray, senior pastor of Grace Assembly of God in New Whiteland, Ind. “We have an 80 percent failure rate to pass on our faith, which is not acceptable. We have to be more intentional about reaching our kids.”

Though the physical transition away from church may not take place until the college years, Murray says the problem should be addressed at the earliest stages of spiritual development.

“A worldview that children have when they’re 9 is the one they’re likely going to have when they die,” Murray says. “Kids who don’t have a solid Christian worldview start walking away from the faith in middle school. We need to train and disciple them when they are young.”

For that reason, Murray is an enthusiastic supporter of Junior Bible Quiz, a competitive program that encourages children in first through sixth grades to memorize 576 questions and answers that teach Bible verses, facts and doctrines.

Approximately 40 percent of the eligible children who attend Grace Assembly participate in the program. A team from the church took second place at this year’s National JBQ Festival. Murray’s son, Braden, was also among the top three individual quizzers in the nation.

“We make Junior Bible Quiz a huge priority at our church,” Murray says. “I don’t think JBQ is the only tool that can help. But it’s about doing things on purpose, intentionally passing on faith to kids rather than hoping they’ll just pick it up.”

For his degree work at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, Mo., Murray recently wrote a master’s thesis proposing that Junior Bible Quiz can help stem the tide of young people leaving church. Based on data previously collected by others involved in the program, as well as interviews with coaches, district coordinators and former quizzers, he concluded that children who remain in JBQ for several years and have parents who help them study rarely turn from the faith as adults.

“All the responses from former quizzers I interviewed were overwhelmingly positive,” Murray says. “About 90 percent of them were still serving the Lord.”

Murray says parental involvement in the discipleship process is key to guiding children toward a faith that will last.

“It’s not just about rote Bible memorization,” he says. “JBQ works because it provides a tool for parents to take the lead in discipling their kids.”

Candy Tolbert, director of Assemblies of God National Girls Ministries, agrees that spiritual training should begin at home.

“Church can only be an extension of the home,” Tolbert says. “The most important aspect of discipling any child has to be at home. There has to be a moment when the child makes a relationship with Christ just that — a relationship.”

Ideally, Tolbert says, parents and church leaders should work in partnership over the years to point children toward Christ.

“When my own girls left for college, I knew they could no longer ride on the coattails of our faith,” Tolbert says. “All those people who built into their lives along the way were important in helping them form their own faith. My girls can point to Christian mentors who invested in them when they were 10, 11 or 12 years old. Those relationships mean so much.”

Doug Marsh, national director of Royal Rangers, says involvement in church ministries can help reinforce what is taught in the Christian home.

“When boys in Royal Rangers see people other than their parents living by the same principles that Mom and Dad espouse, they realize this is the real deal,” Marsh says. “It’s not just Mom and Dad, but a whole church family.”

George O. Wood, general superintendent of the Assemblies of God, says reaching young people for Christ is a topic that should concern everyone in the church.

“The Assemblies of God has 1.1 million of its 2.9 million adherents in the U.S.A. who are 25 and under,” Wood says. “We must do everything in our power to successfully pass the torch of the faith to the next generation. This is one task we dare not fail. We must be purposefully committed to discipling this new generation, making it at the very top of our priorities.”


CHRISTINA QUICK is a freelance writer and former Pentecostal Evangel staff writer. She lives in Springfield, Mo., and attends Central Assembly of God.

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