Recently, I interviewed Daniel Darling, Senior Pastor of Gages Lake Bible Church, about his new book - Real, Owning Your Christian Faith. The book tackles the question we've all asked - Why do some kids walk away from church when they grow up?
Here's the interview...
What was the driving force behind writing this book?
My primary motivation was to encourage and challenge 2nd Generation Christians - believers like me who have grown up in the faith. I wanted to present a fresh look at the unique struggles of those who have always known Jesus.
What is the primary message of the book?
That every generation of believers, regardless of their heritage, need to discover the gospel for themselves. Even though you grew up in the church and have known the Scriptures for your entire life, you are still a sinner desperately in need of God’s sanctifying grace.
How can this book help parents?
I hope it helps parents resent their expectations for their kids. We often import into our Christian parenting a man-centered philosophy that relies so much on methods and tactics. We measure our “results” as if God tasks us with the spiritual life of our kids. I hope to both relieve parents of an unnecessary pressure to “produce” good kids. I also hope to challenge parents to create healthy, authentic environments where faith can grow.
How can this book help Children,Student, and Family Ministry leaders?
I think it will help leaders understand that the good kids, the kids who grow up in church - they need grace just like the troubled kids who come in “from the world.”
I think it will also help them get into the mindset of a 2nd Generation Christian. Further, hopefully it will inform the way they conduct their ministry. I hope to encourage all of us to emphasize the gospel, to celebrate the gospel, and to pass down the “pure” faith, not one cluttered with our preferences or methods.
You talk extensively in your book about "2nd Generation" Christians. What exactly is a "2nd Generation Christian?
A 2nd Generation Christian is anyone who grew up in an evangelical home and church environment and came to faith at a young age. So, it could be you come from a long line Christians. Or it could be that your folks, like mine, were the first in their family to come to faith and you are 2nd Generation.
Lots of people are talking about the exodus of young people from the church. Some blame the church. Many blame parents. Some blame the culture. But you say that the reason could be a built-in set of faith struggles. Can you explain?
There is so much angst these days about kids leaving the faith. And it’s amazing how almost everyone has glommed on to these statistics to advance their pet idea. So you have folks saying we need no more youth groups, because that’s what has ushered kids out the door.
Others are saying we are too political and that’s why kids are leaving. Some say we need to be more vocal about the origin of the earth, others say we need to be less vocal. But I think these are all just factors. And I’m not quite sure there is the epidemic that some claim. I’ve read the work of Bradley Wright who has debuked some of the alarmism.
But the bottom line, for me, is that kids struggle to keep their faith, not necessarily because of a flaw in the system, but because of an old, dusty doctrine called “original sin.” Even Christian kids in good, Christian community wrestled with doubt, fear, and sin.
You say that Christians who grow up in church need to reacquaint themselves with the "dusty doctrine" of original sin. Why is this so important, especially for 2nd Generation Christians?
This doctrine is so central to everything. For the parent, it dispels the surprise when their kids suddenly engage in behaviors antithetical to their family values. For kids who grow up in church, it relieves the pressure they feel that they are to be perfect and forces them to fall in desperation on Christ.
I remember growing up in church and being told, “After all you have been taught, how could you do this?” I thought I was weird for having temptation. But, the truth is that “all I’ve been taught” doesn’t eliminate my fleshly, sin nature. Even Paul, years after he became a believer, admitted the struggle with sin (Romans 7).
What words would you say to the young Christian who is turned off by his church experience and considering abandoning God altogether?
I would first acknowledge the abuse they received and remind them that it’s not right what happened to them. I would also caution them against painting the entire church with the brush of their one experience.
But furthermore, I would encourage them with the truth that their experiences were not random acts, but God allowed them to happen for a specific purpose. In other words, it was no accident they were placed in the family in which they were placed and the church they were placed. God wants to use this pain and this experience to drive them to Himself. And, God may use their experience as a catalyst for others who’ve been similarly hurt.
Lastly, I would challenge them with this: at the end of their lives, they will face God. What will they say when giving account of their lives? That they could have lived in relationship with God and lived for His glory, but they couldn’t get over the hypocrisy and sin of the church of their youth? Don’t let someone’s sin keep you in that prison.
What advice would you give parents, educators, teachers, pastors to help stem the tide of kids leaving the church?
I would simply say this: keep the main thing the main thing. Celebrate the gospel afresh. D.A. Carson said something like this, “What we emphasize and what we celebrate is what we believe.” So there are many church environments where the gospel is affirmed in creedal statements. And yet what is most important is something other than Christ. It’s loyalty to the church or a political agenda or purity before marriage. Those may be important things, but not as important as the gospel.
When kids get a glimpse of the beauty and the majesty and the all-encompassing power of the gospel, they get excited. This is why Timothy “caught” the faith of his mother and grandmother. They had “not insincere faith” (2 Timothy 2:5). The faith that is contagious is faith that is real.
So don’t clutter it up with your preferences, your music styles, your denominational distinctives. Those are important, but not primary. I have certain preferences when it comes to church. But I have no doubt my children will worship differently in their generation than I do. I have to be okay with that as long as they have “the faith” (Jude 1:3).
Many young people who grow up in church sort of “push off” everything they learn. But you counsel young Christians to avoid this trap. Why?
It’s sort of a feature of youth to reject everything your parents taught you. It’s part of your finding your independence. Some of this is good. But, be careful to live a life against your heritage. Because when you do this, you reject good things, wholesome things, godly things.
When you are forming your theological beliefs, don’t form them in a reactionary mode. Dig into the Word of God and allow His spirit to form your beliefs. I see a lot of folks in my generation ride the pendulum. So, for instance, if their parents were perhaps too involved in right-wing politics, they spring to the other side the aisle and become just as partisan, only for left-wing causes. Or they do this in parenting or in church philosophy or in theology. This is dangerous and unbalanced.
What about those like yourself who never “left” the faith, but experience seasons of dryness and seeming spiritual lethargy? Are there practices and steps they can take to revive their spiritual lives?
Yes, I was one of those guys. I never “left” but in my heart I left during many seasons. I got really good at pretending I was good, dressing up, carrying my Bible a certain way, and smiling in just a way so that people knew I was a serious Christian. But underneath I was in a dry spiritual season.
This happens with longtime Christians. So what do we do? I think we first need to get back to the spiritual disciplines. Pray and ask God’s Spirit to revive your Spirit. You might also seek a less comfortable environment. So if you are attending the church where you grew up, you may consider committing and joining a church where nobody knows you and where your faith is not assumed. A place where you might be challenged with new contexts.
You might also sign up for some radical service opportunity at your church or in the community or overseas. Something that completely takes you from your comfort zone and forces you to depend on the grace of God for any fruit.
I’d also encourage you to read widely. Read books from a variety of authors, folks not in your denominational circle. Read biographies, histories, novels. Love God with your mind.
You write that the church needs to “have grace for the churched” as well as the unchurched. Why does it seem so hard for those who “know better” to find grace?
Well, we dump buckloads of grace on the unchurched. This is good. We want those who are far from God to be objects of our love and come to faith in Christ. But quite often we stop dispensing this grace. We expect a level of perfection, because “they know better.” We are harsher with them than with new believers.
But Paul writes in Galatians 6:10 that we should reserve our greatest love for those in the “household of faith.” The pastor’s kids, the elder’s kids, the deacon’s kids. The Christian school kids or homeschool kids. The kids in the youth group. Give them grace. Let them grow. Be patient with their slow process of sanctification. Encourage them.
End of interview