I’m sure you know at least one of them. You know those people who grew up in church. They were at all the fellowships. They went to church camp every year and probably even cried during that emotional final night of the week. They might have led worship during youth group and maybe even taught a Bible study.
But today, they are grown up and they are not in the church. In fact, they might even be professing atheists today. And you look at them and wonder, “What happened to you?” Maybe you believe in the doctrine of eternal security which says that you can’t lose your salvation (as I do) and this kind of person makes you question it. Yeah, people will say that those kids probably never knew Jesus, but that is hard to compare with how passionate they were for him during their youth years.
I have known many people who fit the bill for this description. I’ve even had really close friends who fit this description. I can’t say I know the answer to the question above of “were they ever really saved?”, but maybe I can offer some insight as to why I think they are no longer in church and no longer following after Jesus.
Disclaimer: I am not claiming that this is the case with every kid who grew up in church that is not in church anymore.
A big reason that church kids leave the church is because of the adults in their lives. That could be their parents, the adults in their church, or any other Christian adult they know.
You get well-meaning adults who genuinely do want the best for kids and they begin teaching Christianity to those kids, but in a wretchedly wrong way. They don’t teach them the truth of the Gospel. Rather, they teach them morality.
So those church kids grow up knowing a list of moral commands that they must keep in order to be a “good” Christian with no emphasis on Jesus. They know that true love waits. They know that we shouldn’t drink beer or cuss. We shouldn’t do anything more than hold hands with someone we are not married to. We shouldn’t see any movie that is rated “R” (we make an exception for “The Passion of the Christ”). They know that every good Christian votes Republican and only votes on 3 issues: traditional marriage, pro-life, and the right to bear arms. They know that being a good Christian means that you are a generally nice person in public and don’t end up in jail. They know that in difficult situations, they should ask What Would Jesus Do (and they probably wear bracelets with WWJD on it). They are taught to pray when they get up, before their meals, and before they go to bed.
And they are taught that if you don’t do these things or if you screw up and slip into a sin, God is sitting in heaven disgusted at you. In fact, you’d better ask for forgiveness quickly or he might blast fire out of heaven and kill you where you stand.
So this exhausting list of moral impossibility is taught to the church kids while they are young. During their young years, they understand it as proper obedience, until they move out or go off to college. Then they realize they are free to do whatever they want. With this freedom, they leave the church and start doing everything they were ever told not to do.
While some of these things above are true laws for the Christian to flourish in their relationship with Christ, if they are the basis of salvation, we are no different from the religions that seek to earn God’s approval. Often, people openly say they don’t believe salvation is by works, but then they teach a works-based system like this.
Church kids, along with all the church, must be taught over and over again the power of the cross of Jesus Christ. We did nothing to obtain salvation. It was all because of Jesus. In fact, we are completely unable to reach God’s perfection. It’s time we stop splitting the world into good and bad people. You and all your friends and loved ones are not the good guys. We are all the bad guys and Jesus is the good guy who took on our badness to save us from ourselves.
And so, as he is nailed to the cross, he cries out to God, “Have you forsaken me?” He says this so that forever, those who believe the Gospel do not have to. They will be forever with God! The “good” Christian is not the one who successfully keeps the ten commandments of American evangelicalism. It is the one who believes the Gospel. “For our sake, he made him to be sin who knew no sin so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)
Your works don’t determine if God looks at you with favor. Jesus Christ on the cross determines that you have favor with God.
And the even more exciting news is that you can’t lose that favor. I can’t sin my way out of God’s love and favor, for Christ is the one who died. This means that when you screw up, as you will a lot, you don’t have to put yourself in the penalty box and wait a couple of days to come back to God. You can come back now! You are still righteous before God by the cross of Jesus Christ. There is no condemnation for those in Christ!
Maybe you think this kind of teaching will lead people to sin like crazy with no worry. And that is a temptation sometimes. But if you truly understand this grace that God has given you in Christ, you won’t do it. Yes, you will sometimes turn, even willingly, to sin, but your allegiance will be to Jesus Christ, who you love with all your heart.
This is the message that youth in the church, as well as adults in the church, need to be taught. That God adopted Christians in Christ. That Christians are his children who he will never cast out. That he has made us holy and blameless in his sight. And that he continues to lavish his grace upon us every day.
Oh, this grace on which I stand!