It's THE mysterious question. Everyone in church culture is talking about it: "Why are the kids leaving?"
And then the follow-up questions, "Should we start new programs?" "Maybe we should have even awesome-r music?" "Maybe we should rename our church something cool?" "Should our pastor try the half-tuck?"
Actually, if this researcher's right, and I suspect strongly she is, it has nothing to do with any of that.
Kara Powell works with Fuller Youth Institute, and talks with Relevant Magazine about their extensive research:
The students involved in our research definitely tended to view the Gospel as a list of dos and do-nots, a list of behaviors. We asked our students when they were college juniors, “How would you define what it really means to be a Christian?” and one out of three—and these were all youth group students—didn’t mention Jesus Christ in their answer; they mentioned behaviors. So it seems like [young adults] have really picked up a behavioralist view of the Gospel. That’s problematic for a lot of reasons, but one of which is that when students fail to live up to those behaviors, then they end up running from God and the Church when they need both the most.
So youth group kids got the impression that the Gospel was about what we do, not what Jesus already did. They went to church, and got the t-shirts, but they don't understand the Gospel. We can blame THEM, of course - we love doing that, when people don't go for our programs - or we can wonder, did they ever really understand it?
Did they understand that because of what Jesus already did, God's approval of them is NOT based on their behavior? Did they understand that Jesus knows that we cannot fulfill the law ourselves, and therefore fulfilled it for us? Did they understand why He said, "It is finished!" and the temple veil was torn in two, once and for all? Did they understand they are - truly, seriously, literally - no longer under the law?
Let's be honest: Probably not. Because when people actually hear the scandalous Gospel, they don't tend to forget it. They can't. If they "got it", they wouldn't, then, define what it means to be a Christian with behaviors.
And, as a former youth minister, I can guess why they probably didn't hear it: Because of the well-meaning hey-let's-not-get-too-crazy-with-the-grace folks, who think the radical message of grace needs "balanced", lest people, you know, go nuts and start having sex and killing people simply because their Sunday School teacher convinced them of how good God is. Thing is, that grace, through the Holy Spirit, actually CHANGES people. Once they grasp how wonderful it is, how - truly! - amazing grace really is, they don't tend to start sport-hunting humans. They are changed, with a faith that lasts, yes, even through four years of glorious brokenness and learning at State Tech.
We want to control people. But, there's a problem: We can't control people.
You can make a slave out of someone, sure - but even then, you can't control his heart. Perhaps his heart could be won by the shocking love of God, the one that sets him free of religous tyranny, once and for all?
So I say we go all in. Let's tell them. Let's go ahead and give people the Gospel, the whole, stunning, wonderful thing, and take our chance that God wins their hearts. The risk of telling them the truth, of course, about how GOOD the "Good News" is, is that they'll go morally crazy, which, as we noted, when people "get" grace, doesn't tend to happen. (I realize my parents love me unconditionally. This makes me want to please them.)
If we tell them the Gospel, which is anti-moralistic, they will not confuse Jesus with moralism. Good thing, too, because moralism is boring. And it doesn't work. And it's a lie. There's that, too.
The risk of NOT telling them is this: They grow up thinking Jesus is just another religion, and they suspect they are moral failures, and go through life missing out on the romance they were made for with their Creator. They'll feel like their beating their heads against a wall, constantly playing a morals game, with the sneaking suspicion they're not really winning. They'll either become Pharisees, or, worse... they'll just walk away. (Wait, is that worse...?)
And, by the way, that last scenario...? It's happening all the time. So let's go ahead and try the Good News.
Oh - one more reason to go ahead and tell them the whole, scandalous, amazing truth about the Gospel: