One of the only parts of being a high school teacher that I don’t like is seeing some of the kids who seemed so grounded – philosophically and spiritually – leave for college and emerge having completely conformed to the world. I know that the pressures of “growing up” are immense, and I know there is an enticing element of feeling that becoming like the world is somehow “rebellious.” But seeing so many who lack the strength of character to be able to resist worldly conformity can be depressing.
It’s one of the reasons I now spend so much time doing seminars and speaking to, equipping, and training upper high school kids to not just defend their faith, but to go on offense when they hit either the college campus or the workforce. I’ve seen the blueprint the enemy uses time and again, even on the church’s most promising young minds (who else would he target, after all), and I am committed to spending my days here on earth trying to sabotage his efforts.
That’s why I was so intrigued by a fascinating article written by a minister from Illinois named Jon Nielson. Rather than focus on the often-discussed topic of why college-aged kids leave the church, he thought it might be more productive to look at the ones who stayed, who are thriving, committed, and devout disciples of Jesus. What worked with them? Why did they stay when so many others left? What made the difference, and is it something we can emulate?
I took his ideas and began surveying some of the great Christian kids I’ve taught over the years – the several who went to college and fell away, and the others who went to college, joined a church, involved themselves in ministry, and are now courageous and outspoken future leaders in the church who can’t speak without mentioning Jesus. What I found was a striking consistency to some of Nielson’s points – which I think is a really good sign if we’re looking to pinpoint what “works.”
For instance, each of the kids who have remained faithful to their churched foundations had experienced a real and true conversion to Christ, not just a good group of church friends they associated with, and a fun youth group. Nielson writes,
Listen to these words: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17). We…need to get back to understanding salvation as what it really is: a miracle that comes from the glorious power of God through the working of the Holy Spirit… When that happens—when the “old goes” and the “new comes”—it will not be iffy.
When I really sat down and thought about the “churched” kids I have seen become worldly conformists, this point is more accurate than you can imagine. For almost every one of them, the storyline was simple: church had been compelled by parents, and youth group was an activity agency to help fill a social calendar with “good” things. Their profession of faith was more about what was expected and culturally applauded than what was real and life-defining. When cultural surroundings and expectations change, why shouldn’t we expect them to?
Certainly there is nothing wrong (and in fact everything right) with parents making their kids go to church. But that isn’t conversion.
And that anticipates the second part of the formula for making actual disciples who won’t fall away: parents must play an active role in preaching the gospel to their kids. For the kids who became disciples who didn’t fall away, there was a strong correlation to parents who didn’t rely on the church to proselytize them. Nielson affirms from his research:
The common thread that binds together almost every ministry-minded 20-something that I know is abundantly clear: a home where the gospel was not peripheral but absolutely central.
As a high school teacher, I’ve always told parents that there is no one who is positioned to be a better educator of their children than they are; and the same is true for preaching the Gospel. And after conversion has taken place, there is no one better positioned to equip kids for Kingdom work than parents. That means not resting on the work of the church to train, outfit, and develop soldiers of the cross, but to take that responsibility seriously in the home.
A common understanding in the world of education is that you don’t really know a subject until you can teach it. That’s a great barometer for the depth of our children’s spiritual lives. Could they lead a Bible study? Could they teach others about the saving grace of Christ? And more than a surface, emotional, “come cry at the altar” testimony. Actual teaching of the truth.
Nielson is careful to point out something else I agree with wholeheartedly: nothing is guaranteed. Faithful parents can and will still have children who go astray. And terrible parents can and will still have children who end up on the straight and narrow. But God gives us the Proverbs 22:6 principle for a reason.
It’s easy to find the churched kids who fell away and use them as cautionary tales of what college and young adulthood can do to the spiritually untethered. But if we truly want to work against that trend, let’s look to those who make it through the gauntlet and find out why.