I grew up in a "Christian" home. We attended church twice every Sunday and once every Wednesday. I was also there many other times for activities involving kids my age. The church was the center of our life.
Mom was deeply in love with Jesus. The real deal. Dad died when I was 10, and my stepdad was something of an enigma. He professed to be a Christian, but in his daily words and actions, it was hard to tell. Nevertheless, we were seen by those who knew us as a family of Christians.
I am the first of seven brothers, boys who grew up in the church. And as we came to adulthood and made our own choices, three of seven chose to live as followers of Jesus. The other four walked away from what they grew up in, seeing it as empty and a fraud, or at least unworthy of consideration. Three of seven is appalling, and a failing score by nearly any measure. But it could be far worse, I suppose.
Some years back, two Christian organizations - one a large association of churches and the other a missions organization - did some similar research. Both wanted to know what happened to their kids. So they began studying them, to see how they turned out once they were living independently of their parents. They focused on those kids who grew up in the church or missions group, who were there from a young age and had maximum exposure to the church or organizational culture over many years.
The results were more than interesting. The kids who grew up in the mission organization then graduated high school and left home, came back into the mission on their own about 95% of the time. (It's important to note that they were not automatically accepted because of their family. They had to apply and then go through extensive training, in addition to raising their own financial support.) I expect the leaders of that organization were delighted at these findings.
The church organization had less cause for celebration: Their number was also about 95%, but in their case, most of the kids simply vanished. They had no known contact with the church after they left home. Once they were making their own decisions, they chose a different path.
I have thought many times about this. Why is there such a difference? Surely there is something at work here that's important to understand. Different doctrine? Different demographics? Something else entirely?
We can probably rule out the doctrine issue. Both groups are conservative and evangelical in their belief and practice. No major differences. Demographics? Both groups are predominantly Caucasian, middle class, typically with a high school education or perhaps some college. Both are predominantly from the more conservative parts of the country.
So what's the difference?
I don't know for sure. But since I'm willing to take a guess at nearly anything, there's no reason this should be an exception. My guess would be this: Kids on the mission grew up in an environment of purpose, of a sense that they were engaged in a task that was challenging, highly rewarding, and supremely important. Kids in the churches grew up where "being a Christian" and going to church was as much a cultural experience, there was little pervasive sense of mission or purpose, no sense of being about something greater than themselves, something supremely important, commissioned by God himself.
This brings us to the matter of leadership, whether church leadership, mission leadership, or parental leadership. Leaders are important because they are the ones who shape the basic environment and set the priorities of the organization or family. They in large part create a culture that encourages the nurture of kids who grow up with a sense of vision and purpose, of being part of something larger than themselves. Without this culture in a church, it becomes difficult for parents to live and convey to their children a sense of overarching purpose. And without a similar sense at home, the kids don't see their primary role models involved in something that matters.
The ones most influential in this, of course, are the parents. They are the "leaders" of their family and the primary teachers and shapers of their children. So, I think it comes down to the question of what parents are teaching their kids about the world and life in it. What's important? What's not important? Where does God fit?
Even the best parents cannot guarantee the path a child will choose through life. That knowledge gives parents ulcers and worse. The hardest time in the life of a parent is when the child makes a choice, either to make the parent's values his or her own, or whether to reject those values and go a different way through life. At a certain point, we all make our own choices, and are accountable before God for them. Nevertheless, the influence of parents is great.
In many "Christian" homes, the lesson taught is to be a nice person and not do socially unacceptable things. Or at least not too much or too publicly. And perhaps go to church now and then. God is probably real, but don't get fanatical about it. It's enough to give him the spare change of your life. Never the firstfruits. Never the best. Take God too seriously, and you become a fanatic, and we certainly don't want that.
Many churches and parents are teaching their kids that God is nothing to get excited about. Churches entertain kids, rather than challenging them to the greatest possible calling and task possible. Parents pay lip service to God, but are careful to keep their priorities straight, and God is not a priority. Rather than raising up kids who know and love God and serve him, who consider nothing so exciting or rewarding as working with God in the task of redemption, they are inoculating them against the gospel, giving just enough of it to be sure the kid will become immune to anything of God in the future.
This is tragic, and it is simply astonishing that parents and churches could be oblivious to the demands of living in such a world as ours, with such a God as ours. We live in a world of tragedy, suffering and terror. As I write, there was the recent mass killing in a theater in Aurora, Colorado. Twelve people died. A couple days later, in a park near where I live, five young people were shot, two fatally. Murders are commonplace in our city, and we are not an exception.
Nobody has a guarantee of a long life. Nobody knows how many days are left to live. And yet we play games and permit our children to play games, paying lip-service to God. We don't teach them how to live, and we certainly don't teach them how to be ready to die.
If there was ever a time in history that cried out for a dynamic, committed, people of God, this is it. God seeks those who will follow him and serve him, giving no care to their own lives. What higher calling could our children aspire to? Or, for that matter, their parents?