Sunday, November 2, 2008

Why Do They Leave the Faith?

I have recently been reconnecting with many of my former students through the magic of Facebook. I love reading about their lives, especially those who have continued to live for Christ beyond their years as students in the Christian school. But it is also heartbreaking to see so many who left Jesus behind when they left home for college and beyond. It brings up the age-old question of where we are going wrong in Christian education, as we are losing so many once they leave the fold.

A favorite show of mine comes on A & E and is about companies that buy an old, decrepit house, gut it, and turn it into a modern, beautiful home (then sell it for a huge profit). Of course, the process does not get accomplished without some heartburn on the part of those doing the transformation. But their frustration and the challenging circumstances are what make the show fun to watch.

On one particular episode, a South Carolina company purchased a home that had a renter currently living in it. The man was barely surviving. He was unemployed, drinking too much, and living like an animal. The house was trashed. But rather than evict the renter, the company took it upon themselves to improve his life for the better. They moved him out to a hotel while the work on the house went on. He was taken for a haircut and a shave, given new clothes, and in keeping with his new image, even given a new job. Finally, at the end of the show, the man was given the keys to his newly renovated home. A happy ending, to be sure.

Then a few months later, the same company was again featured on the show. An employee of the company stopped off to check on the man they had worked with months before to collect the rent. She was disgusted to find the man had already trashed the house. He had quit his job and resumed living like an animal. None of their efforts had done a thing to change this man’s life for the better.

In reality, the transformation months before had only been a surface one. We don’t change a person by changing their circumstances. Who we are remains, no matter where we are planted.

I once had a disagreement on this very subject with a fellow faculty member in a Christian school. He was convinced that if we made students tow the line on the uniform rules, it would impact their spiritual lives. “Make them conform on the outside,” he told me, “and they will conform on the inside.” I shook my head at such foolishness. No permanent change happens because of what we impose on another. Change only comes as a result of the work of the Holy Spirit in a life.

And that is what God has provided for those who believe in Christ. Ephesians 4:22-23 tells us, “In reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your new mind, and put on the new self, which has been created in the likeness of God, in righteousness and holiness of the truth.” The change God has accomplished in us is more than a surface change. It involved the creation of a whole new self, created in the likeness of God. We are a new creation.

Our circumstances did change. Yes, there is hope where their previously was none. Yes, every minute of our lives now has meaning and purpose. But God did not just change our circumstances. The biggest change is in who we have become. We have been changed from the inside out. And the change is permanent.

As I ponder over the children who leave their faith along with the Christian school upon graduation, I have to believe that this truth is crucial to understanding the problem. So many who are educated in Christian school have only learned the language and outward actions that made them an acceptable part of the Christian community. They have adapted to their environment. Yet the circumstances imposed upon them will not bring a permanent lifetime change. True transformation is a work of God.

So what can we do as Christian educators and parents desiring to see our children walk with the Lord throughout their lives? We should pray for the Holy Spirit to do His work within their hearts. We also must be careful not to be a stumbling block to this all-important process by talking one way about God and living another. If we are forgiven, recipients of grace, loved unconditionally, then these same qualities must mark our lives. Kids can smell a phony a mile away. We represent Christ to them. We had better make sure their understanding of Him is not warped by our actions. We need to make sure our outward selves reflect the change that has happened on our inside.

But ultimately, God is the One at work in our children’s lives. My son Adam once told me, “Pretty much the kids you knew ‘got it’ while we were in school are the ones who continued on for the Lord.” There were not too many surprises, according to my kids, as to who stood firm and who walked away. It was the ones who had obviously been transformed from the inside out all along.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

For people who have been brought up in the Christian way, they have never known what it is to be "lost", they've always believed in Jesus and talked to him. It's hard in this situation to know what you actually have and it's easy to take the relationship with God for granted. There hasn't ever been a time when they've been lost in sin as Jesus and his forgiveness have always been there. People who have met Jesus later on are more aware of the difference between the life they had before they found Jesus and afterwards. Whereas it doesn't seem anything special much to people who have always known God and it hasn't changed their lives as they're already there. I think young people who have grown up like this, almost always have to have a time out. In this time most realise who they really are and realise their true nature. As the truth of how sinful we are comes clear to us, the need for a Saviour becomes more urgent.
I also think that people who have been in church since a baby are very vulnerable as teaching in Sunday School can send mixed messages. People who grow up "lost" may be slaves to sin, but people who grow up iin church often have rules imposed upon them and they become slaves to rules. This can be just as damaging. So when people leave church in late teens/early twenties, it's not always a bad sign. They might for the first time be discovering the freedom of Jesus and be discovering what it meant in the Bible when it says that Jesus no longer calls us slaves, but friends. People leave because they're tired of "trying to be good" not tired of Jesus. If we never went to church ever again, God would not love us one iota less. He comes with us wherever we go geographically and emotionally - it's impossible to leave him behind.

Julie Coleman said...

Anonymous:
Both of your points are excellent and well put. Thank you!

I agree with you-- children raised in the church can become slaves to rules. When I taught fifth grade in the Christian school, I was always amazed at the kids' response to a clear gospel message-- that the gift of salvation was without strings attached. They would skeptically ask, "But what if right before we die, we murder someone? Wouldn't that sin send us to hell?"

I would reply, "Didn't Jesus die for that sin as well?" The looks on their faces as they understood grace for perhaps the first time was unnerving. Mostly because these kids had been raised in Christian homes and attended Christian school all their lives. Yet the gospel was not clear to them.

Kids raised in a Christian environment struggle with equating the culture we train them in with the relationship we want them to have with Christ. We need to somehow make a distinction for them. Otherwise, they will be slaves to rules.

Michael said...

Julie,
I think that you are very sincere in your faith and your questions about why people leave the church. I am a 53 year old male who went 12 years to strict Catholic school. As a child I believed whatever they told me and tried to live my life accordingly. I had a very nice mother but my Father would attend church on Sundays but verbally abuse me and my mother weekly and skip out with his girlfriend on Saturday nights. (Nice role model hugh?)To get to the point, at age 17 my father started hitting my mother and I interfered. I struck my father and the police finally took him away. Shortly after I had my first breakdown from PTSD and depression of which I still suffer today. Where was Jesus for me? It takes more than just Christian education. A child and adolescent need a healthy home environment which is probably more important. I am just saying that you cannot say that the
education is stronger than the environment because you do not know
what problems these kids are living with. Many of us leave the church because the Church does not UNDERSTAND the social environment in general. Most priests and ministers are tucked away from violent homes and abusive relationships. It is a social thing. When we ask Jesus to help us with our innermost beings and he does not help, then you pretty much lose Faith in the institution that taught you. Sorry about the long response but I know what I am talking about. I have seen and talked to many people about GOD, Faith, etc. and they have just given up. The Church does not have the resources to combat society's ills. Sorry to be negative....just realistic.

Mike