If We Don't Do X The Young People Will Leave

It’s trite but just in case you’ve not heard the story: During the Vietnam war a Marine Corps colonel is reported to have said: “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.” See RRC for documentation of this story.  An analogy to this approach is the argument, “We have to make change x in order to keep our young people.” Again, as I documented in RRC, examples of this sort of pious pragmatism can be found as early as the high medieval period. Doubtless Christians have always been tempted to say, “If we don’t make our worship more interesting we will lose our young people.” There are two great problems with this argument. First it’s not true and second it’s not true.

Recent research has shown that the notion that young people leave church because the worship service is not sufficiently exciting is simply not true. It is why feckless Baby Boomers leave church and I’ve known Boomers to claim that “if we don’t do x, the young people will leave” but the premise, that young people are dissatisfied with traditional worship, is most probably false. They don’t need the church to provide a pale imitation of what they have on their ipod. They need from the church what they can’t get on their ipod. It has been the Boomers who have demanded that the church reflect their popular culture. Could we have here is what some psychiatrists call “projection” or perhaps “transference?”

Further, Reformed churches have been swallowing and acting upon this premise for decades and to what effect? We’re still holding committee meetings about how to retain our young people. Maybe the problem of retaining young people has nothing to do with how exciting or contemporary or hip our worship services are? Maybe it has to do with the way we are (or are not) catechizing our children? Maybe we should try being more consistent with our confession and not less? There’s some evidence to suggest that might be more effective than being less consistent with our confession has been.

The same research which shows that young people are not leaving church because it doesn’t have x (drums, guitars, choruses, hymns whatever) also shows that the main reason young people leave is because they see a contradiction between what we say and what we do. The thing that young people want most from us grown ups is to know that we really, truly believe what we say. As they develop from the parrot stage to the pert stage, they also develop a sensitive hypocrisy meter. As young people emerge from naivete, as they learn that the world is more complicated and fallen than they realized, they are tempted to cynicism. When they see hypocrisy in us, whether in the family or in the visible church, it can tip them toward cynicism. If we’ve taught them that we believe something but we demonstrate by our actions that, we will compromise to gain their approval, it does not impress them.

The second reason why the argument is wrong is that if we destroy what we’re trying to save then, well, there’s nothing left to save is there? If it is true, as the research of Christian Smith and others suggests, that young people are looking at us to see if we really believe what we confess, the best thing we can do is to continue to be faithful to our confession. If our young people wander (briefly, we pray) let us be what we confess and wait and pray for them to return. Young people are counting on us to be the grown ups. They need us to be the grown ups. They are counting on us to be steadfast, to be reliable, to be there. What if the prodigal son returns home only to find a brothel?

We didn’t need the American military to teach us this lesson. Long ago our Lord said, “What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world but lose his soul?”

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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