Why Do Our Children Leave The Church?

Why do so many people—with incredible conversions—parent children who leave Christianity? History m223951120overflows with great saints whose offspring lose faith:

  • Samuel was a mighty prophet of God. His sons were a mess.
  • David was a man after God’s own heart. His children were a disaster.
  • Harvard, Yale, and Princeton were founded on the gospel. Now they lead the opposition.

I’ve witnessed dozens of families (churches, ministries, and prayer groups) who began with a furious fire of love for God whose next generation couldn’t blow a smoke ring.

Our children lose fire because of our mother-of-all-assumptions; we assume the gospel. This is how the gospel is lost:

  1. The gospel is Accepted —>
  2. The gospel is Assumed —>
  3. The gospel is Confused —>
  4. The gospel is Lost                         (Mack Stiles, Marks of the Messenger)

The author continues, “For any generation to lose the gospel is tragic. But the generation that assumes the gospel … is most responsible for the loss of the gospel.

That generation is us. We are most responsible. Who has bewitched us?     

We’re converted by one message and we teach another

It’s virtually 100% predictable that we are converted by one message and then preach another. We are converted by the unbelievable hope of God’s love for the undeserving, but we lecture on behavior. We all do. Including you and me.

A friend of mine lived wildly until the age of thirty. He slept with scores of women, drank an ocean of beer, and was a self-admitted, abusive jerk. In a desperate time of brokenness, he heard the hope of the gospel and talked with Jesus. He became a pastor.

He was converted by grace yet his sermons nagged and scolded:

  • You should never tell coarse jokes or cuss.
  • You should be generous, and that includes making sure you tip 20%.
  • You should always bring your Bible to church

Day after day, week after week, he proclaimed the Nike gospel, “Just do it!” We do too.

The damnable presumption of assumption

One day I asked him why his messages concentrated on behavior and not the gospel. He replied, “My congregation knows the gospel. Now they just have to know what to do.” He assumed the gospel and then wondered why his shrinking congregation was joyless.

His own moral life was empowered by a gospel-fueled heart, but he rebuked and lectured on resulting behavior. In his personal life, he remembered, “What DID Jesus do?” yet he publicly harangued and scolded WWJD, “What WOULD Jesus do?”

Martin Luther wrote in his Commentary on Galatians,

“Continually listen to the gospel that teaches not what I ought to do (for that is the job of the law), but what Jesus Christ has done for me.

This is the gospel. It is the primary article of all Christian truth. It is most necessary that we should know this article well, teach it to others, and beat it into our heads continually” (slightly edited).

The gospel is God’s love first, our behavior second. Moralism simply teaches behavior. The Gospel is God’s initiation first, then our response. The heresy of the Pharisee is our initiation first, then God’s response.

We need to beat the gospel into our heads continually. Or we’ll assume it, confuse it, and lose it. And so will our kids.

What fuels our lives?

Will-power fuels moralism; the gospel fuels godliness. “What we do” is Pharisaism; “What God did” is gospel. Will-power hardens us: “I straightened out my life, why can’t you?” The gospel softens us: “God loved me though I didn’t deserve it, how can I look down on any one else?

Besides, who gets the glory when our morality increases, us or God?

The gospel is always about God’s actions. Even the Ten Commandments begin, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Ex. 20:2). Only after God’s action does it command, “Have no gods beside me” (vs. 3).

Jesus says of the prostitute, “She loves much because she was forgiven much” (Luke 7:47), and the Apostle John says, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). But we forget God’s action and moralize, “Don’t worship idols and love your neighbor.”

Our kids reject Christianity because they can’t distinguish it from mere morality.

How does a constant gospel reminder change us?

Time and time again, scripture (Jesus) says: Unless you know the why, you’ll never be able to do the what. Unless we have his power, we’ll never obey his commands.

What will make us tell the truth when a lie will get us out of trouble? There are only two options. We harden ourselves with, “Grit your teeth in times of temptation.”

Or the gospel softens us with, “God promised to be faithful even when we are unfaithful, and he kept his word though it meant derision, rejection, thorns, and the cross.”

Which god will we worship, the god of self-powered moralism, or the Lord of all grace?


To read more about grace and moralism ,BookCover_1500x2400see my new book, Is Sunday School Destroying Our Kids. Chapters include:

  • Why Do Our Children Leave the Church?
  • Graceless Goodness: The Problem with Moralism
  • The False Gospel of “Just Do It”
  • The Temptations of Christian Publishing
  • The Ugliness of Religious Righteousness
  • The Insidious Danger of “I’d Never Do That”
  • We Read the Bible the Wrong Way

See also: I Wonder If Sunday School Is Destroying Our Kids


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What do YOU think?

26 thoughts on “Why Do Our Children Leave The Church?

  1. Hi! I want to help answer your question. This is exactly why young people are leaving the church:

    – We to express our doubts without ridicule.
    – We to contrast ideas contrary to the Bible in a safe place.
    – We want to welcome our gay, lesbian, and transgender friends to church and let them know that they are safe, welcome, and affirmed.
    – We want you to know that the Internet is filled with atheist, and their arguments run rings around the fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible.

    – We want to know that women are treated equally to men, including within the church’s leadership and teaching positions.
    – We want the church to stop being a counterweight to science and start working with science. Evolution is real. Astronomy is real. Geology is real.

    – We want the church to stop demonizing atheists. We all have atheist friends. They are cool people. They don’t care for organized or creed-based religion (and not caring for that isn’t a bad thing).
    – We want to contribute to our faith and truly make it ours. We want this faith to be inclusive in much the same way Jesus tried to make his entire mission teaching inclusive living.

    For more information, please read with an open heart and mind:


    • Hi JCC,

      Thanks for joining into the conversation.

      I agree that real gospel living will allow freedom to express doubts and concerns, allow questions that are shocking, welcome others with whom we disagree, join with atheists (or anyone who disagrees with us) in meaningful, open discussion, explore science the Bible openly (though it cuts both ways).

      But we also need to let Jesus (and the Bible) speak for itself; not put words in the mouths of God. Too often I hear people say, “I like to think of God as … X.” We want to deal with the real God who reveals himself, not the God we want him to be.


    • Thank you for the welcome!

      Certainly, we should not look down on others, especially for something which is so often a result of a person’s upbringing and the religion and culture they were born into.

      However, while bias is always a concern (and something we should be on the lookout for), I don’t think we can equivocate in this case – in science, bias is something to be identified and eliminated, which is why we see scientists submitting work for peer review and explaining thoroughly the process they used to obtain their results. Then, others can repeat the experiment, or design their own to test the reliability of the results. It shouldn’t matter what culture, religion, or background a scientist comes from. And, the current scientific understanding can always be disproved by new evidence, which is not true of creationism. One thing I love about science is how our understanding of the world can be proven wrong, changed, and improved upon as we learn more!

      As for science and the supernatural, certainly we now have found natural explanations for things thought long ago to be supernatural (lightning, solar eclipses, comets, etc), but the supernatural by definition is outside the natural world, and therefore, outside the realm of science. So if we’re talking strictly scientifically, we shouldn’t say anything one way or another about the supernatural.

      The problem seems to come when the two mix: people claiming scientific knowledge about the supernatural (i.e. somebody trying to say science proves the supernatural does not exist), or, getting back to the main topic of the post and discussion, when young people are told that to be Christians, they must forgo a scientific study of the world and accept creationism. That, combined with the tendency of many creationists to repeat claims that have been refuted or are based on a misunderstanding of science, can surely lead to the “I’ve been lied to” feeling many experience, and which jcchurch tells of in his post below (above?).

    • JCC-
      You are absolutely correct. The rejection out-of-hand turns anyone off and should. We need to risk having our beliefs falsified in order to have them verified.
      I agree with Sam. In many cases, science and religion pursue their dogma for the same reasons – neither wants the risk of having their beliefs falsified. Walls get erected and true dialog doesn’t occur.
      There are many questions that religion and/or Chrisitianity cannot answer directly about how we got to where we are today. Broad principles yes, but the Bible is not meant to be a scientific treatise. In the same way, evolution cannot explain all cause and effect. Saying it is predictive is wonderful if you are looking forward. Looking backward, I would argue that there has to be another explanation for original cause. It takes a lot of faith to believe that a primordial broth organized itself, possibly due to the action of an external energy source, and life sprang into being. Even more fantastic is the belief that it was deposited here on a meteor as a crystalline life form from another planet.
      I struggled with the concept of evolution and what it posits as opposed to faith-based belief in a creator. I do not doubt that God would put a mechanism in place to allow creatures to adapt and change over time. Where I really got hung up on evolution was with the dogmatic scientists resorting to “Christianity and God are crutches. This is science, dammit!” Science that cannot explain the origin of life or the evolution of male and female. “It happens and I believe it and it’s the only plausible explanation, so you need to believe it, too!” That required an amount of faith I just couldn’t conjure up. If single celled organisms magically appeared from chaos, how did they then differentiate into separate organisms that were “male and female” and still compatible? Much less more complex organisms with the tremendous cascade of interwoven events that need to occur to make reproduction possible.
      Unfortunately, science is biased. In some cases more so than any religion. Expelling researchers or denying them funding when their findings contradict accepted dogma is certainly a bias. Once science makes a “decision”, it is very difficult to introduce new evidence that contradicts it. Too many funding grants and reputations tied to “proving” the original thesis. Peer review is great – as long as you go with the tenured researchers!
      In the end, I do not believe that science and religion necessarily contradict each other. Dogma, by its very nature, will contradict.
      In the end, we need to question everything. Because a preacher says it, it doesn’t make it true. Similarly, scientists apply their interpretation and leave the difficult questions to the Science of the Gaps methodology. Both sides need to be more open to what the evidence actually shows and what can actually be explained.

  2. Where to start? Oh, my. Best place to start is Eph. 6: 4. What are “fathers” supposed to do. Not being done. Not even close. Not commanded to “take them to church.” Command is not to parents, Mom’s, Sunday School teachers, Yourth Ministers, but to “fathers.” What happens if the “father” is not in the home? What if he is not a believer? What if he is a believer, but doesn’t know what he is supposed to teach? Can “fathers” sell what they don’t OWN? Where are preachers that challenge men to assume the role prescribed by God in His word? I promise you that many of the “dazed and confused” comments you will see here, are the direct result of failures of some father in following God’s Word.
    According to Proverbs, wisdom is KNOWING and DOING what is right. I would contend that DOING is highly unlikely, if KNOWING is absent. Reading “christian books,” participating in church small groups, attending Bible classes, and participating in Men’s Ministries, and the like, will not improve the likelyhood of fulfilling a father’s role in his children’s lives. Unfulfilled roles (call it disobedience to God) WILL create major problems for children.

    • I agree that many fathers (and mothers, and pastors, and Sunday school teachers, and ministry leaders) fall short of all they are called to do. Actually, we all do.

      The issue continues to be our heart motivation. Are we motivated from knowing God, or just doing good. Will we be the “older” brother, the prodigal brother, or the true father?

      And the only way to become the father is to be fathered by God.

      Thanks for sharing.

  3. Amen! I recently left a church that mixed the messages of God’s love for us and grace with “homosexuals are headed for an eternity in hell.” I discussed with my pastor, and he kept preaching that message. I left. God loves sinners, as the Bible teaches and you reminded readers in your Sunday School column. I came BACK to church and the Bible because God loved me in spite of my previous doubts and sins.

    • I love your closing line, “I came BACK to church and the Bible because God loved me in spite of my previous doubts and sins.”

      He not only loved us in spite, he paid the ultimate price to get us back. Now that is real love.

      We all tend to forget that it wasn’t the prostitutes and drunks that arranged for Christ’s crucifixion, the was the first century equivalent of the Moral Majority—the pharisees and the scribes.

      That doesn’t mean we should all become prostitutes and drunks (“should we continue in sin that grace may about?…).

      But it helps to understand where we get our identity: from our goodness or from his goodness?


  4. Great post. Funny I often find myself making this same statement. “Unless you know the why, you’ll never be able to do the what. ” In fact I would take it further and say any message that does not give the why (We are Dead, powerless, broken) with the Biggest But the world has ever seen “But because of his great love towards us” may be nothing more than a law based message that deals with behaviour modification than living what we already are. This was Paul’s message in Ephesians 2:1-10.

    Thanks Sam from a new reader!

    • Thank YOU.

      Why are we so reluctant to admit what you said, that we are “Dead, powerless, and broken”?

      Pharisees are cocky yet scared (otherwise, why would they even bother killing Christ?).

      Gospel followers are humble and bold (If God is on our side–despite our failures–who can stand against us?).


  5. Yes to everything you said, and even though jcchurch’s comment below is a pretty thorough list of millennials’ specific reasons for leaving the Church after the whopper you discussed above, Sam, I would add one more that is related: not letting go of the reins. A LOT of millennials leave the Church in part because there’s nothing for them to do there. They’re never allowed to grow up into their full potential as brothers and sisters in the Kingdom of God, instead either being pressured to work work work at pre-determined positions that support the Church institution instead of utilizing the gifts God has given them to serve Him with or are treated as perpetual children by people who rule as the discipline police and can’t see that their primary task as leaders should be to raise up the next generation as leaders themselves so that they can be replaced. You don’t replace your leadership and instead drive the young pups away and your institution dies, religious or not.

    • Laura,

      Thank you for this BRILLIANT insight. You are absolutely right on.

      I grew up in a college-aged prayer group where we lead meetings and “old” adults (maybe in the forties or fifties) humbled attended and received.

      As we “college-aged” kids grew up, did we also grant authority and position to our kids?

      My generation rebelled against our parents authoritarianism; alas, they may have been a thousand times humbler than us.


  6. Hi Sam,

    I have another take. The reason people leave the church is because of an errant suppostion. We can’t leave the church…we ARE the church.

    Just noticed the logo. Cool.

    • Timm,

      Good point. Sometimes the institutions just leave us.

      But I still think there is value in checking our heart’s motivations. LIke the Galatians, we all start with the Spirit and end with the flesh.

      And the “flesh” in the book of Galatians (in that verse) isn’t the flesh of sensual living, it is the flesh of “I can do it” moralism.

      I, at least, find it a constant battle.

      Good comment. Thanks.

  7. Sam,
    My wife and I recently left a “church” we were attending every other Sunday which closer to home. I was on the men’s ministry team, even though I was not an official member. (We are members of another congregation where the only requirement is to answer whether you call it your home.) The Sr. pastor at the first congregation left and appointed a relative (the assistant pastor) to take over with the Elder board’s approval. In short order, the new Sr. pastor created a new position (Church Administrator) and installed one of the three elected Elders without a conversation including the other two Elders. The other two, who had been there for years, stepped down and left the church.
    The new Sr. pastor was very patneralistic in controlling all decisions (e.g., 1. The men’s ministry must supply its own finances, but can’t have a surplus of more than $100 after any event. 2. We can’t show a promotional video for the men’s ministry during announcements, because it doesn’t address the needs of the whole congregation. 3. All decisions must meet the approval of the Sr. pastor. 4. No alcohol or tobacco is to be consumed at any men’s event…even if it is just a social activiety solely composed of members and held in your home,). Too, that congregation preaches salvation by grace and misses the point of being new creatures in Christ. Legalism (and moralism) at its finest.

    Bottom line is that I felt like we were reporting to a daddy instead of a brother in the Lord (I’ve been walking with the Lord for 30 years)…and that a division in that church is likely looming on the horizon. It was time to leave, and I sensed the Lord’s release.

    Much of my angst about all this comes from Frank Viola’s revised edition of Pagan Christianity, where he points out that the modern church (in almost all its current forms) was created by Pagan thought and practice. The modern “church” is not following the model of the first-century assembly. It is an amazing read, and gives hundreds of historical citations. When one realizes that we ARE the church, there is only one person fitting to lead it: Jesus. The notion of the assembly has been turned upside-down for me in that regard.

    Your comments about motivation are extremely relevant here. If you believe you can “go to church,” you miss out on being the church every day. I did. You also give away power to a hierarchy that determines your path, instead of Jesus. This is a huge challenge for me, as I am the type of man who seeks indentity through the affirmation of others. My motives have been all wrong.

    Good discussion!

    ⬇ Drag and drop your images here to upload them.

    • Hi Pete,

      Thanks for sharing this. It is a great example of leaders grasping for power.

      And it is a tough issue. What would I do if I was in power? I’d probably try to set up a system so no one could grasp for power … I’d try to enforce my will.

      That is why the gospel is so important; it goes to our hearts. We have to say, “I’m no better than anyone else.” That humbles us.

      The only one person in the whole world who could say he was better than everyone was Jesus. But he “did not grasp for equality with God” but emptied himself.

      May I learn to do the same myself.


  8. We really love God and are raising our children to love, trust and serve him but….we no longer attend “church”. People have forgotten that church is the people and not the building. Churches are more concerned with finances, programmes and numbers than loving the members of the body of Christ. Young people particularly have great “hypocrisy” detecting radars. They know that people in the church are not authentic. Christianity seems to be a lifestyle choice for many people rather than a living out the revelation of gospel of Jesus Christ.

  9. Ken Ham has addressed this in his book Already Gone. It’s a great examination of why our kids are leaving (have left) the church. And he makes a strong statement that it’s my generations fault, just like you said, we assume…

    This is a significant responsibility we must shoulder in order to correct.

    Thanks for posting!

  10. This is a great post! The church I grew up in was more focused on moralism than the relationship with God. This go tiring. I can therefore relate to the comment of the bible being a manual to guide us to make moral decisions, its a call to be NICE. What if I don’t want to be nice? Is that all God wants from me, niceness?
    Yet the most freeing thing that has ever happened to me was discovering a relationship with God. A one-on-one relationship that’s not pegged on how moral I am. Seeing how He loves me despite the mess that I am, seeing Him woo me for Himself, again despite me being the beast itself. That has won me over. It then makes the bible not a moral compass but food for knowing this God all the more.
    The second thing that has truly freed me over the years is knowing that salvation belongs to God. And He choses who He saves and who He does not. A read of the book of Romans just reveals this strongly. We often struggle with this, the sovereignty of God, that He chose Jacob over Esau even before they were born. Reconciling with this reality, that He is God and He gets to chose His people means I do not need to hound anyone to believe what I know to be true. I am secure in who He is enough to not debate evolution. For me, He is such a personal God that its not debatable, that frees me to accept others views without needing to prove to them otherwise. And as we do that, as we love people as they are, somehow God’s love comes true for those He has chosen as His.

  11. Two comments: First, Sam, I appreciate your perspective. My blog is focused on what Christians do–how our faith works out in real life. It’s always a good reminder that what we do is a response to what God has done for us. It’s easy to get out of balance. So thanks. Second, I’m also part of the generation that is leaving church. I have not, but I have friends and acquaintances who have. JCC’s perspective matches some of what I’ve seen, but I’ve seen more relational hurts of some kind. People in the church didn’t “act like Christians should,” someone gets hurt, the bitterness isn’t resolved, and people decide they might take Jesus or God but they don’t need His people. How might this aspect tie into moralism?

    • Hi Rachelle,

      Great question, “How might this tie into moralism?”

      Your example shows the very thing I’m talking about, “Someone gets hurt, the bitterness isn’t resolved….”

      Moral-ism is getting our identity from our own goodness. So naturally we look down on others who aren’t so good,”Why can’t they be more like Jesus … or maybe more like me?”

      Humility is recognizing our own weaknesses and failings. How can we look down on anyone else? We’ve been forgiven “ten thousand talents;” how can we fail to love and forgive those who owe us one hundred denarii?”

      Your own blog on morality (not moral-ism) is always a great example. Just a couple days ago you wrote, “I felt a little grumpy because I….” You begin by admitting your own weakness (grumpiness).

      I bet it will be extremely hard for you to look down on anyone else who is grumpy! Because you know what they are made of, and you know we all just need grace (“them” no more than “us”).