I’m speaking from my experience here–no polls or surveys, though I know what I say here lines up with those I’ve seen over the years.
As is well known, the trend among young people raised in conservative churches is to leave their Bible, and often their faith, behind.
In my experience, one big reason (not the only reason) behind this trend has to do with the Bible–maybe not the Bible itself, but how they are implicitly taught to read it:
*As a collection of go-to verses that tell them definitively and absolutely all they need to know about the world they live in and what God expects of them.
*That this kind of Bible is their sure anchor for maintaining their faith. Stray from it and their faith is shipwrecked and their eternal destiny is in jeopardy.
But as they grow older, especially when they enter high school or college, they find that their structured world supported by Bible verses is not adequate for providing a compelling explanation for the complex world around them and how the Bible can continue functioning as the anchor it once was.
So here is a simple plea–from a biblical scholar with his feet firmly planted on the ground, who has raised now adult children, and who now teaches young adults and sees the stress they are sometimes under to shelve their questions and misgivings and “hold on” to their faith.
*The way to reach them is not simply by promoting a more aggressive Bible reading program. If they are having problems with the Bible as it has been taught to them, shouting at them to keep reading the Bible they have been given “or else” won’t do much good.
*The way to reach them is not by taking an even more rigid, protectionist, “here I stand, the gospel is at stake every 5 minutes” position. That is the very attitude that contributes to them wanting to walk away. A reinvigorated apologetic for a faith that already doesn’t connect with them isn’t going to make them want to connect more.
*The way to reach them is not by glitzy rallies and hyped up motivational speakers with tattoos and torn skinny jeans. These young people are not shallow. They are worried and even despairing that the faith they have been taught is actually unable to support them once they leave the nest. They are not consumers looking for a cool deal. They are looking for meaning, whether their faith matters.
What may help reach young people is modeling an attitude of vulnerability:
*A genuine willingness on the part of their leaders and mentors to acknowledge the legitimacy of their experience of disconnection.
*Honoring them by being willing to engage with them the difficult hermeneutical/theological challenge they face.
*Deliberately creating a culture where the sometimes overwhelming difficulties of joining contemporary faith and ancient text are a welcome and expected conversation and where the outcomes of those conversations are not predetermined.
Vulnerability like this is risky, but worth it, because our children are worth it.
It will mean accepting the paradox that helping promote the continued spiritual vitality of your tradition will likely require some adaptation and change of that tradition for the very sake of those you wish to pass it on to.
It will mean not simply a preoccupation with training young people to be faithful to the past, but a genuine willingness to be faithful to the future, to deliver a viable faith to our children and children’s children.