Recently, 20-year-old Bailey, a student at a local college, heard her professor of comparative religion tell the class, "The Christian faith uses terms like sanctification, justification, and propitiation. But church members have no idea what these terms mean."
Bailey raised her hand and said, "Professor, they do in my church."
A few days later, this same prof, who seems to be making a career of misrepresenting believers, told the class, "There are 66 books in the Christian Bible. But only the professionals can name them all."
Bailey said, "Sir, in my church, even the children can name the books of the Bible."
I'm a member of Bailey's church and she's right. Our pastor, in fact, is nearing the end of a series of Sunday morning sermons in which he preached one message per book of the Bible. Next Sunday, he preaches on Hebrews.
Bailey demonstrates why not everyone raised in the church strays or drops out altogether when they reach young adulthood.
A stat often quoted from Lifeway Research -- the study was done in 2007, so it's slightly dated -- says 2/3 of all young adults raised in the church will stop attending services between the ages of 18 and 22. Most will never return.
In the study, asked about their withdrawal, dropouts said they were too busy, churches too irrelevant, Christians too judgmental, leaders too hypocritical, and denominations too political.
I suspect the dropouts omitted one huge factor for their non-attendance in church: the heart is a rebel. The temptation to renege on life's commitments -- even those we feel strongest about -- is continually present, not always complicated, and ever a concern for even the most faithful of believers.
I'm not challenging the statistics. However, I know a great many people who emerged from the church's youth program into full adulthood without missing a Sunday of worship and Bible study.
From all I know and have observed, here is why they stayed.
Five reasons why many young people raised in the church never drop out:
1) A GENUINE, PERSONAL RELATIONSHIP WITH JESUS CHRIST
Now, those with a personal relationship with a particular church or youth group or student minister cannot be counted on to stay.
Only those who have internalized the gospel message, who have settled once and for all that Jesus Christ is alive and within them and that He hears their prayers and is intimately concerned about the minutest details of their lives, only these can be counted on to hang tough through these difficult years of transition and growth.
I recall reading years ago where Dick Van Dyke told how his children, then in their teens, had become active in a thriving church youth program. However, when their student minister left, the program fell apart and the kids dropped out. Van Dyke asked, with good reason, "What good did that youth minister do? He won the kids only to himself. When he left, they did too."
Those who know the Lord personally are more likely to stay.
2) A SOLID FOUNDATION
Young adults like Bailey who grow up with strong roots in the doctrines of the Bible cannot be easily pulled off course by errant professors or pleasure-seeking friends.
This "solid foundation" is no mystery and does not have to be complicated. It's simply the result of discipling young believers, teaching them, in the words of our Lord, "to observe all the things that I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:20).
And this, we must point out, is the most basic assignment of any church, a part of the very Great Commission itself. The church which converts youngsters to Christ without discipling them is disobeying its Lord's instructions.
3) THE SECURITY OF SUPPORTIVE FRIENDS
No group on the planet is as vulnerable to peer influence as young people. While this is generally viewed as a negative, it can be made to work for us. Young people reach their friends for Christ. (In contrast, churches with no youth at all find it nearly impossible to begin a ministry to them.)
On the dock where fishermen unload and sell their morning's catch, observers often note that a bucket of crabs will be left unattended and without a cover. Ask the fisherman and he will show you something fascinating about crabs. Every time one tries to climb out of the bucket, the others pull him back. That's peer influence.
As a college sophomore, I was reached by a church with a strong youth ministry. In a matter of days, I went from knowing hardly anyone in the city to having a hundred friends my age. We did everything together - Sunday School, mission trips, church banquets, after church socials. Nothing locks a young person into church like having a strong battery of friends who also love the Lord and are committed to His church.
4) GREAT ROLE MODELS
Once or twice during those college years, when professors or my reading material caused me to question my Christian faith, the Scriptures, and even the existence of God, nothing pulled me back from the brink like looking around at the sharp men and women in my church who were devoutly following Jesus Christ. Before I learned how to study the evidence for the faith myself, these were my proofs that God is real and Christ is alive and the gospel is true.
In fact, as I compared the Christian men and women I knew with the typical miserable atheistic philosophy major or the professor who prided himself on his agnosticism, there was no question which I would prefer to model my life after.
The older adults in church usually have no clue that the next generation is checking them out, but they are. They're looking to see who's authentic, whether you have brought your brains into the Christian life or checked them at the door, and what your manner of life says about your faith in Jesus Christ.
5) NO VIABLE ALTERNATIVE
Young adults are not stupid. They can see the church has problems.
However, as they think the matter through, they frequently come to the same conclusion as the Apostle Peter. When our Lord noticed the crowd leaving because they'd found His teachings difficult, Jesus said to the disciples, "Well, how about you? Will you go away too?"
Simon Peter said,"Lord, where would we go? You have the words of eternal life" (John 6:66-68).
It's not as though the universe has presented us with a cafeteria of choices for life and eternity. Jesus said, "No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6).
That one fact more than anything else may account for believers through the ages hanging tough with the Lord's church when times were hard, temptations strong, questions proliferated, and the enemy was active.
Dr. Joe McKeever is a preacher, cartoonist, and the Director of Missions for the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans. Visit him at joemckeever.com/mt. Used with permission.