Why are young people not coming to the traditional church? An apology for reaching young people

(photo courtesy freely photos)

By Spencer D Gear

Why are 20-year-olds not responding to the Gospel and coming to church?” This was the provocative question asked by Rev. John Roth[1] in his Good Friday sermon in 2008. The following was my email response to his question with a few additions.

Many years ago J. Gresham Machen (d. 1937) wrote a booklet, “Christianity and Culture.”  I don’t have the booklet (which is only 15 pages) but I am reading quotes from this book in William Lane Craig’s, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics.  Machen wrote, “The chief obstacle to the Christian religion to-day lies in the sphere of the intellect. . .  The Church is perishing to-day through the lack of thinking, not through an excess of it” (Machen p. 13, in Craig, p. xv).

William Lane Craig is one of the foremost evangelical apologists in the world today.  He is addressing intellectual issues of our day.  See his homepage HERE.  Some of Craig’s debates and articles are HERE.

Craig states the following that, I think, addresses some of the problems in engaging 20-year-olds today:

Our churches are filled with Christians who are idling in intellectual neutral.  As Christians, their minds are going to waste.  One result of this is an immature, superficial faith. . .  They know little of the riches of deep understanding of Christian truth, of the confidence inspired by the discovery that one’s faith is logical and fits the facts of experience. . .  If Christian laymen don’t become intellectually engaged, then we are in serious danger of losing our children.  In high school and college Christian teenagers are intellectually assaulted on every hand by a barrage of anti-Christian philosophies and attitudes.  As I speak in churches around the country, I continually meet parents whose children have left the faith because there was no one in the church to answer their questions.  For the sake of our youth, we desperately need informed parents who are equipped to wrestle with the issues at an intellectual level (William Lane Craig 1994, Reasonable Faith, Crossway Books, Wheaton, Illinois, p. xv).

I know how destitute I was in 1984 when I was pursuing doctoral studies in the USA at university and the professor said to me in front of the class when I questioned a theory: “Your views are b-s” (and he didn’t abbreviate).  From that very moment I have spent a lot of time equipping myself to defend the Christian faith against challenges to the faith.  My churches did not equip me to do that.  They should be doing it on the basis of Eph. 4:12.

Then we have to counter the trash from some pulpits and the mass media.  Did you read the anti-biblical challenge from within the church from clergy such as the Rev. Dr. John Evans, Uniting Church minister at Church of All nations, Carlton (Melbourne) “Ditch Good Friday as holiday.”[2] Then there is the heretical material coming from people such as John Shelby Spong, Barbara Thiering, John Dominic Crossan and the Jesus Seminar.

Therefore, I suggest that we are not reaching 20-year-olds (and others), because we are not answering the questions they ask about God, the world, and even in spiritual matters.  How can we overcome this problem?   These are my suggestions:

1.  Equip the people in our churches to be defenders of the faith.  Surely we have examples of this approach with Paul at Athens (Acts 17:16ff) in reasoning in the synagogue with Jews, devout persons and in the market place with those who happened to be there (v. 17), as well as Epicurean and Stoic philosophers (v. 18).  Then we have Paul on the Areopagus (Acts 17:22ff) addressing one of the issues of the day, “To an unknown god.”  We don’t seem to be doing this much today.  In fact, I don’t know of any church locally that has an outreach ministry of apologetics that is answering the questions 20-year-olds and others are asking.

2.  We have resources by the droves to help pastors and teachers to equip God’s people for ministries of apologetics.  William Lane Craig, Ravi Zacharias, Norman Geisler, John W. Montgomery, Winfried Corduan, John Frame, Cornelius van Til, R. C. Sproul, John Gerstner, Craig Evans, Gary Habermas, Douglas Groothuis, Douglas Geivett, N. T. Wright and others have helped me with answers to the questions of our day.

3.  As we equip God’s people in apologetics, have focus groups where young people gather: high schools, universities, skate parks, etc.  In fact we have an ideal opportunity to do this in high school with RI in Qld (religious instruction, but there are limitations here).  I don’t see it being done.  We could ask high school teens questions such as these?

a. Do you believe in God?  If not, why not?  What is stopping a teen from believing in God?  Explore this in open, honest discussion.  Most lay people teaching RE are not equipped to do this.

b. Why is there so much evil in the world?  How can your good God allow genocide and even contribute to it in the time of Noah?

c. What’s the big deal about God?  Why even bother with him?

d. That religious stuff in the Bible is unbelievable (raising the dead and casting out demons’ crap – that’s what a person said to me).

e. In the world of science, can Bible stuff be believed?

f. I’m living alright without God.  Why even bother with him?

4.  Then we have outreach to address these needs with mass media advertising—even use the classifieds in newspapers and billboards.

5. I engage with atheists on Christian Forums on the Internet, to try to reach them, but also to help sharpen my skills and answer their penetrating questions.  One of them stated:

    • Please show me where your religion counts as proof. Can you prove that babies are aware of sin or not?
    • Some things are wrong regardless if they are sins or not. Sin is only an action contrary to religion.
    • Sin doesn’t equal wrong. Sin is contrary to religion. For example genocide is wrong regardless of religion. Gay marriage is not wrong regardless of religion.
    • Your religious laws do not apply.
    • Personhood is not proof of god. Nature is not proof of god.
    • Anyone, even a creator, who creates beings, gives them free will and then commits genocide on them if they disobey is a TYRANT. Sentient beings are different than an object. As soon as people had free will then they were not owned by god. God cannot do as he sees fit. If he kills them then he is a tyrant.
    • Using the bible to prove your point is meaningless to me. Your bible means nothing to me. Sin is an action contrary to a religion. If a person doesn’t follow your religion then they are not sinning (by your religion).

Image result for photo Francis Schaeffer public domain

(photograph, Francis Schaeffer, courtesy Domain for Truth)

6.  Francis Schaeffer did this kind of thing magnificently.  We all don’t have the gifts of Schaeffer, but we all must engage secular young people and others to begin to answer their penetrating questions.  When we start to do this, I think that the young may begin to take notice of Jesus, God and the church.  To this point, most of our answers are stereotypically Presbyterian, Baptist, Anglican, Pentecostal, Roman Catholic, etc. However, if we are to engage our culture and attract young people, it will mean outreach activities with a sharp apologetic edge. How long is it since you, as a pastor, were engaged in a debate (either public or in your church) with a local young adult? We have a local university. Why debate one of its students on a hot topic for the young? What about debating topics such as the following?

    • Why does vandalism attract young people?
    • The truth about illicit drugs.
    • Why does premarital sex not make sense?
    • The abortion death squad.
    • How to make marriage work.
    • Why defacto relationships don’t work.

7.  Please understand that I am NOT advocating a seeker-sensitive contemporary approach to marketing Christianity.  Take a listen to what Bill Hybels thinks of the very model that he helped to invent and promote with vigour. Hybels, one of the seeker-sensitive church gurus has made this confession:

Some of the stuff that we have put millions of dollars into thinking it would really help our people grow and develop spiritually, when the data actually came back, it wasn’t helping people that much. Other things that we didn’t put that much money into and didn’t put much staff against is stuff our people are crying out for (“Willow Creek Repents,” (Christianity Today, 18 October 2007)

After 30 years of promoting seeker-sensitive programs and investing millions of dollars in the venture, he says:

We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and become Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become ‘self feeders.’ We should have gotten people, taught people, how to read their bible between service, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own (“Willow Creek Repents,” Christianity Today, 18 October 2007).

What I’m suggesting is vastly different from that.

8. However, I am of the view that a church can have solid biblical lyrics in its songs without maintaining a hymn style of 2-3 centuries ago. I was raised on traditional hymns but that does not reach today’s generation. We could sing the great hymns of the faith accompanied by contemporary instruments rather than be anchored in another era of a pipe organ, electronic organ or piano. You can still have guitars and percussion in your music, maintain a moderate level of sound, and sing songs of substance biblically.

9. Too much that comes from our pulpits does not answer the questions that people are asking.  We can begin to do this by application in our sermons. Why not address topics like these?

    • How can I believe in God with so much suffering in the world?
    • Surely it’s arrogant to believe that there is only one way to the best of life after death.
    • What makes Jesus different from Muhammad?
    • Too much of Christianity is unseen. We live in a scientific age that requires empirical support.
    • Many within the church say the Bible is myth. Is it or is it not? Can you trust the Bible?
    • Who made God?
    • How can I believe in God when there are so many hypocrites in the church?
    • What can we do about the march of militant Islam?

There is another dimension to why the church might not be attracting all people, including 20-year-olds:

But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. (2 Tim. 3:1-5 ESV)

These are some thoughts from a believer who is also concerned over why we are not reaching all people, especially the young.

Appendix A

Ditch Good Friday as holiday: cleric[3]

March 20, 2008 – 2:32PM

Sydney Morning Herald

Good Friday should be dumped as a public holiday and replaced with a national reconciliation day recognising Aborigines as integral to Australia’s identity, a Melbourne cleric says.

The Reverend John Evans, the Uniting Church Minister at the Church of All Nations in Carlton, said Good Friday had lost its religious significance outside the Christian community.

He also said Australia was becoming a more multicultural, multifaith society and having Good Friday as a public holiday may no longer be appropriate.

Dr Evans applauded Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s public apology as a major step towards reconciliation, but said a day such as Good Friday should be set aside to mark the recent steps forward.

“We have done a great thing with the national apology but when you look at our public holidays there are no public holidays that recognise the role and place of Aborigines as the first people of this land,” he said.

Dr Evans said any day, not just Good Friday, could be suitable for a national reconciliation day.

The exact day should be put to the Aboriginal community, he said.

In a statement released today, Dr Evans said: “Whether Good Friday is a public holiday or not will not change or challenge the day’s significance. In fact, in the place of Good Friday, there should be a national holiday to mark our endeavours towards Aboriginal reconciliation.”

When asked about the statement, Dr Evans said: “That would be the gift that I would be prepared to make, that if the only way we could get a public holiday for national day of reconciliation is that it’s Good Friday, I’d be for it.”

He said Good Friday would not lose its name or significance as a result.

“We will never not have Good Friday. The question is should it be a public holiday,” he said.

“And I would welcome it to be a public holiday but I would also observe that it is not being treated as a holy day.”

Dr Evans said a national reconciliation day fits in with the message of Easter, which he said was about reconciliation between individuals, God and each other.

But Catholic Auxiliary Bishop of Melbourne, Christopher Prowse said despite the importance of reconciliation it would be inappropriate to have such a day on Good Friday.

“Aboriginal issues are very important for Australia, however the Good Friday observance has a different focus and that focus should not be deflected by other issues, however important.”

But another day could be set aside for reconciliation, he said.



[1] Rev. John Roth was the pastor of Hervey Bay Presbyterian Church, Denman’s Camp Road, Hervey Bay 4655, Australia. It was in his Good Friday sermon on 21 March 2008.

[2] See Appendix A.

[3] Available from: http://www.smh.com.au/news/national/ditch-good-friday-as-holiday-cleric/2008/03/20/1205602551698.html [21 March 2008].


Copyright © 2018 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 12 January 2018.