Why Kids Leave Christianity (And What to Do): Drs. Sean McDowell & John Marriott
“Will my kids leave the faith?” It's a legitimate concern. Drs. Sean McDowell and John Marriott reveal why kids leave Christianity, what happens in deconstruction, and how parents can both prevent and respond to faith crises.
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Drs. Sean McDowell and John Marriott reveal why kids leave Christianity, and how parents can prevent and respond to faith crises.
Why Kids Leave Christianity (And What to Do): Drs. Sean McDowell & John Marriott
Why Kids Leave Christianity (And What to Do): Drs. Sean McDowell & John Marriott
John: Christianity to a young person isn’t this historic 2000-year-old faith that is diverse and believed all around the world. It’s basically the few people who are living it out in front of me, whether that’s Christians they know at their church, whether it’s their parents, or maybe some other public figures that they see. So if they look at these Christians and don’t think their life is captivating and compelling and backing up what they say, a certain urgency with the gospel, then why on earth would they believe it?
Shelby: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Shelby Abbott, and your hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson. You can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on the FamilyLife® app.
Dave: This is FamilyLife Today!
I guess it might the number one fear of every Christian parent—
Ann: --That their children leave the faith.
Dave: Yes. It’s like we’re married, you know?
Ann: I know. We are one.
Dave: You finished my sentence. Yes, I think that’s it. It’s like it’s visceral. It’s so strong in your heart. “I just hope my son or daughter when they’re an adult, they’re walking with Jesus.” I don’t know if there’s anything we want more.
Ann: And we’re living in a time where if our kids are having questions they can just go on YouTube. They can google it; they can find out any answer, but that feels scary, too, because there’s so much on their minds that they’re being bombarded with that could be contrary to what they grew up with spiritually.
Dave: Yes, and it’s scary because it seems they know more about our faith than we know about our faith, and so we need some help. So we have help in the studio. Sean McDowell and John Marriott are back with us from Talbot Seminary, Biola University. Both teach there. We’ve already talked about this for one day, but let’s talk about it for another. Welcome back.
John: It’s good to be here again.
Dave: You guys wrote a book together called Set Adrift about this whole idea of deconstruction. What does ‘set adrift’ mean? Why that title?
John: Oh, because we use the metaphor of a paddle boarder who goes out from shore, and then the fog sets in and they’re just not sure exactly where they are because there are no points of reference for them to see. They can’t see the shore; they don’t know where they are; and that’s a terrifying feeling.
That kind of encapsulates what it is to go through deconstruction, where you say, “I think I’m a Christian, I think I still want to believe, but I don’t know what it is I believe anymore and I’m not sure where to turn, and I don’t know what my next move is.” Our goal is not to tell people what to believe, but maybe how to think through this process well, in the hopes that they can land somewhere within the historic Christian orthodox faith that lines up with maybe who they are and what their values are.
Dave: So you’re writing about something—have you experienced this fear that we’re talking about as a parent?
Sean: I don’t know that my kids have questioned the faith on this level, that they would leave it. I’ve had moments where I didn’t know remotely what to do, how to deal with the situation my kids were going through, but I can tell you one thing I’ve done is since I went to my parents (and my dad obviously is an apologist) and told them, “Hey, I’m not sure I believe this.”
As a kid how I experienced that was very different than I am as a parent imagining my son or daughter saying that to me. So I have played it through a thousand times in my mind how I would hopefully respond if my kid said that to me.
Dave: Well, how would you respond?
Sean: I would respond the same way my dad did.
Sean: I would say two things. I would say, “Thanks so much for telling your dad. I can imagine you’ve been thinking about this so long.” And second, “I love you no matter what.” And I guess the third thing I would say is, “Do you mind unpacking this for me? Tell me your story, when you started having questions, what’s going on, how can I help?” and I would just listen and affirm my love, step number one.
Ann: When you guys wrote this book, John, did you have in mind, “I hope parents read this. I hope kids read this.” Who were you hoping?
John: I think both audiences. I think we specifically had in mind the high school, college student who is really trying to think through this, but also maybe for a parent to go through the book with one of their kids or a youth pastor to have, because we think it’s as important for people who are leading young people to also be aware of some of the things that they’re struggling with and that they’re going through, and to try and help them think well about what it means to deconstruct and deconstruction, because it comes with all kinds of different meanings if you were to look it up online.
Dave: One of the quotes I found fascinating in your book is from Dr. Russell Moore. I’d love to have you comment on this because it was very insightful to me. He said, “We now see young evangelicals walking away from evangelicalism, not because they do not believe what the church teaches, but because they believe the church itself does not believe what the church teaches.”
There’s a lot more to that quote, but that’s enough to say, “Okay, let’s talk about that,” because there was something that resonated when I read that. What’s that getting at?
Sean: Here’s what the research consistently shows. The primary influence on a young person is their parents, hands down. It’s not Netflix, it’s not the educational system, it’s not their friends. It’s not Google or YouTube. It’s their parents, but it’s not only the relationship with parents, it’s the example.
So Christianity to a young person isn’t this historic, 2000-year-old faith that is diverse and believed all around the world. It’s basically the few people who are living it out in front of me, whether that’s Christians they know at their church, whether it’s their parents, or maybe some other public figures that they see.
So if they look at these Christians and don’t think their life is captivating and compelling and backing up what they say, a certain urgency with the gospel, then why on earth would they believe it, especially when this generation is arguably asked to sacrifice more for living their faith than previous generations?
So the last thing I’ll say is what this really shows is when a young person is questioning their faith, the first thing we have to do is look within. Rather than trying to fix them, look within and say, “Okay, have I played some role in contributing to this?” If so, give myself grace, but “How do I change it and how do I respond?” because that’s what I can control.
Dave: Any thoughts, John?
John: Yes. I’m not sure if I can put this very succinctly, but I do think that there is a relationship between Russell Moore’s quote about them not seeing the church live out what the church says it should be, and how Jesus pictures it, and perhaps the way that they portray and perhaps the way they see the church being so imbedded in some political issues. I think that there’s a connection there.
Ann: So they’re not necessarily rejecting Jesus as much as some of the stance Christians could be taking. Is that a way to say that?
John: I think so. There are people who would identify as someone who would say, “I’m a done.” Right? There are people who are “nones” who say, “I have no religious affiliation, no religious beliefs,” but then there are people who are “dones” who say, “I have religious beliefs but I have no religious affiliation. So I might affirm the truth claims of the Bible, I might affirm some of the claims of Christianity. I like Jesus, but I don’t really like the church. So I’m done with organized religion; I might be spiritual but I am not religious.”
Dave: Most of the conversations I’ve had with a person deconstructing—not talking about my own kids—I shouldn’t be surprised, but it often didn’t come back to faith or intellectual beliefs. It came back to hurt; it came back to misunderstanding.
Dave: Sort of Russell’s quote a little bit, but somebody in the church or a group of people had done something, said something, and they’ve seen it enough times, not just personally but in the church, they said, “I’m just done. I’m out. I can’t associate with those people,” more than “I can’t associate with Christ.” Is that common?
John: I think so, and along with that I think comes the influence of social media. I have good friends who, because of Covid, stayed at home. Everyone stayed at home. When church came back, they just realized, “Hey, most of the time I go to church I just listen to a boring sermon anyway, and I don’t really love the singing, so why don’t I just watch a sermon that I really enjoy online, from somebody who’s a better preacher than my pastor.”
And “I can get all the same kinds of goods that I get when I go to church, and I don’t have to put up with people, who kind of get under my skin and irritate me.” So I think a combination of those kinds of things are what keeps people away.
Dave: But yet you say in the book, “If you’re going to walk this journey, don’t do it alone.”
John: Don’t do it alone.
Sean: Don’t do it alone.
Dave: Talk about what that means, because a lot of people do this alone, and it leads to a very dark place.
John: Part of the reason they do is because it’s hard to open up and admit to someone who is safe that you’re wrestling through these questions. “I have some more to say. I don’t really know what I think about men’s and women’s role, or I don’t really know what I think about LGBTQ issues.”
If you don’t open up to the right person, then you can find yourself either shamed or you can find yourself maybe on the outs, people start talking about you because you have questions, and that’s the worst thing in the world that can happen with somebody who’s kind of on the fence and not knowing what they believe. So that’s one reason why people don’t open up and have these conversations.
Sean: Probably a decade ago I had a student who was in my high school Worldview Apologetics class. He came out to me that he had totally become an atheist, out of the blue, like this kid was the opposite in my class. We went out to coffee twice, and one thing I said: “Tell me your story, how you got here.” He said, “Well, I went through this questioning period and just blocked out all voices and had to figure it out for myself.”
I said, “Well, you didn’t block out all voices. You were listening to some voices. We’re all listening to somebody.” And then at the end I realized he had kind of dug in his heels, and all I said to him was, “If you ever revisit this question, one request: Will you let me just be a part of the conversation? That’s it,” and he promised. So I’m hoping I get that text or that call someday. But when you do it alone, emotionally you can’t handle it.
Sean: You can’t intellectually ask the right questions. It’s like you’re setting yourself up for failure in so many circumstances.
John: Even on top of that, too, I think that our culture is a very individualized culture, right? We need to be authentically who we are, and so I need to believe what I think is true, and I need to search that out for myself. This is a phenomenon that is really kind of a new thing in the western world. Nobody was deconstructing their faith 30 years ago.
People had questions, people had some apologetics, but nobody was putting the whole of Christianity on the table and pulling it apart and asking which pieces lined up with their values like they do now. And that’s because there’s a shift in the way that we view the self, and the self is the one thing that we need to be loyal to, our inner feelings, who we are to be authentically me.
I think that’s another reason why people kind of go about this alone, because we are primed to go that road, but historically it’s an unhealthy practice because we’re part of a community. We’re not just individuals.
Ann: I was going to say, go into that a little deeper, because that is what we’re hearing in our culture. “This is what I feel. This is what I believe.” There are no absolutes in it, so “what I believe, this is to be true.” How do you respond to that, because you guys are doing that all the time?
Sean: Part of what’s happened is a shift in what you might call the locus of truth. It used to be typically thought that “Truth is something that I discover and I conform my life to, whether it’s convenient or not.”
Sean: Now it’s “You be you. Live your truth. Being authentic,” like John said, “To the self is the highest form of the good.” So in part, you can’t just say one thing and fix this. I try to have conversations with young people about things like, “What is freedom? What does it mean to be free?” and point out that you cannot be free apart from truth. It’s actually truth that sets us free.
So for example, G.K. Chesterton said, “You can take a tiger and free it from the zoo, but don’t free a tiger from its stripes. Having stripes is what it means to be a tiger. You understand the truth of something, then know how it should live.”
So I thought, “We have to have a conversation with young people about ‘What is truth? Can we know truth? What’s the relationship between truth and freedom? What is the good life?’” because they’ve imbibed so many things without realizing it from watching TikTok videos, watching our world that says it’s all about the self. So it takes a lot of deconstructing, so to speak, or rewiring these bad ideas.
Ann: And is there a way that we talk to our kids that they don’t conform to that worldview? As your kids were growing up and they’re little you’re not saying, “You be you.” What are your saying to your kids?
John: My son is 14, so he’s at the place where we can have these conversations.
John: I will tell him about this. I’ll tell him about how there’s been a shift in the way that Sean talked about where truth was outside and that we tried to conform ourselves to that rather than it being all about us. Then as we go through Walmart, and as we go through the record store, or as we go through the mall, I will start pointing out advertisements that say that “It’s all about you. You be you. You’re going to do what you want to do. It’s your truth.” It’s at the point now where he will start pointing those things out to me.
Sean: That’s awesome.
John: He’ll say, “Hey, Dad, look at that ad over there. It’s exactly what you talk about.” I’m like, “Yes.” It’s a very subtle message, but when it’s reinforced over and over and over again, it’s the highest value in our culture to be authentically who you are.
Ann: As parents we can’t be lazy. We have to be intentional just to be aware, but it’s hard because as parents we’re tired, we’re stressed, we have all kinds of demands on our lives. But our kids are at stake, and our relationships with them are at stake. I love that you guys are bringing this up.
Dave: Yes. I think what I heard you say is in a sense you’re deconstructing true statements all around you all the time. And so when our kids start to deconstruct their own faith, that’s not always a bad thing. They’re doing the same thing, like “Wait, wait, wait, is this true? Let’s deconstruct it and say ‘yes’.” You talk in the book about primary beliefs and secondary. Often we walk away because of a secondary belief. Explain that a little bit.
Sean: The main Christian message is God exists, He created the world, Jesus is the God-man who lived a sinless life, rose from the grave on the third day. These are essential beliefs. Then there are secondary and third-level beliefs that are very important for Christian living. They are not unimportant to have an answer for, but they’re not the kind of questions that should make me jettison my faith.
So partly what we’re encouraging people to do is say, “What are primary questions? What are secondary ones? What is the heart of the faith? Why do I believe?” And again, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t entertain and consider the importance of secondary beliefs, like “Is the Bible inerrant?” That’s really important for its authority and how I live, but if I discovered a genuine error in the Bible, I wouldn’t leave my faith the way I would if they found the body of Jesus in a tomb in Israel.
That’s just one kind of distinction that I can think empowers people when they come across a contradiction they can’t answer, to say, “Okay, I can take a deep breath. I realize what’s at stake. Now let’s go see if we can find a resolution to this question.”
Dave: I’ve talked to people who said, “I can’t buy that. I’m out.” It’s like, “Well you don’t have to buy that to stay in.” There are essentials, like you said, that are crucial, but there are many secondary that there’s reasons I believe them, and there are reasons you should, I think, but it’s not that critical.
John: Yes, that’s right. We have to be careful of setting up an all-or-nothing ultimatum, that you buy this entire package I’m passing on to you, exactly as I’m transmitting it to you, or you’re not a Christian at all.
John: Unfortunately what is usually getting passed on is not unadulterated pure Christianity. It’s an interpretation, it’s someone’s interpretation of the Bible, and it can be very close to being what the Bible actually means, right? But nevertheless, it’s an interpretation, and there are lots of different ways of being faithfully Christian, being biblical, being within the orthodox Christian faith, that don’t look exactly like the church that I go to right now.
I think it’s good for young people to know that, because there are some young people who love Jesus, who are committed, who believe right things about Him, but where their heart really is, is not in parsing out doctrine as much as it is getting out and serving and helping and trying to correct injustices. And if they feel as though that’s not part of the faith, if they feel like Christianity ignores that, then it’s going to be very hard if they’re wired that way to stay where they’re at.
But if they know, “Hey, I can faithfully, lovingly follow Jesus, be committed and a disciple, and I can incorporate these passions that I have, but it might mean I’m going to a different church over here,” as long as it’s within the broad scope of Christian orthodoxy and it is biblical in the broad sense, then they need to know that they can have the freedom to think through those issues.
I think the Apostles Creed is a good set of fenceposts. Maybe some of the other really early creeds are good fenceposts that the early Christians all agreed on. Those would be the ones that we would want to say, “Hey, stay within here,” and then, even within there, then you have different secondary issues that come often down to interpretation, and there should be some freedom on those.
Dave: I was sitting here thinking, three of us out of the four at this table, sort of went on a skeptic’s journey. My wife just never doubted. She’s sort of perfect, and I think a lot of people do that. We had a guest on, Brant Hansen, who’s written several books, and is a well-know radio host. He made a comment about his skeptic journey. I’d love to play the clip and just let you two guys respond. Just whatever comes to your mind, respond to what Brant has to say right here.
Brant Hansen: I am a highly skeptical person. I’m so skeptical it chases me back around, because I feel like a lot of people are one-way skeptics when it comes to faith, and I think my experience of “Okay, what are the alternatives?” but I’m skeptical about those, too, and ask questions. I don’t think they work. I think Jesus is the only One Who makes any sense, for crying out loud, in the world—
[Laughter] —because He calls out human nature and sin and then does something about it, instead of acting like, “No, we’re all good,” or “I don’t know what to do about it.” Human nature is so obviously askew, but that chases me back around to Him calling out self-righteousness, calling out the way we won’t rethink, calling out the way we want to point the finger at others, all that sort of stuff. I love that.
Dave: Any thoughts?
Sean: I’m a highly skeptical person, too. I doubt everything, from shoes that I buy, to the car that I buy, to where I go on vacation. And for a while I used to beat myself up, because I have a friend with a gift of faith who just believes. He’s like, “God is going to come through.” I’m like, “How do you know? Give me some proof.” But then I realized he doesn’t write 350-page dissertations or 600-page books on the evidence.
There is space within the Christian community for people who naturally have faith, people who are highly skeptical, and I hear his story and I think of so many other young people who grew up in the church who are highly skeptical and felt like they didn’t belong, and felt like somebody needed to say, “You know what? Your questions are okay, and they’re invited, and God can help you through this.” That’s why we have so many people deconstructing in a way that leads to deconversion.
Ann: How did you like having John and Sean in the studio? I know this topic is right up your alley.
Dave: Oh, this is my wheelhouse. I love what we’re talking about. And I honestly, and I said this, I love the way they approached it.
Ann: Me too.
Dave: It’s fresh. It’s so incredibly important for us in families and in the culture we’re living in, to help especially our children, and even ourselves, know how to grapple with faith issues in a way that’s healthy. Deconstruction sounds like a bad term, and actually if it’s done well leads to a stronger faith. They modeled for us how to do this well, and as parents how to lead our families to walk through these discussions well, as well.
Ann: And how to not freak out. That’s always helpful for me, who is. [Laughter]
Ann: And it just helps us to know what this could look like, how can we do this, and how can we think about this in our culture as we’re facing so many of these different things?
Dave: If there’s something we should be talking about right now in this culture, this is it.
Dave: Deconstruction is happening all around us. It often ends badly, but if we do it well as they’ve modeled for us, it can really end in a beautiful place, a stronger faith for our families and our legacy. Let me just say to you who listen to FamilyLife, and some of you give financially to FamilyLife, thank you. You are allowing programs like this that will change the future of the next generation.
Ann: And we not only appreciate you, but we need you to continue to do this kind of work.
Dave: Yes, and if you’ve never jumped in, you can jump in right now. Jump in with us.
Ann: Be our partners.
Shelby: Yes, that’s really well said. Partnership is really community, and we appreciate you joining our FamilyLife community by donating to make what we do possible. I’m Shelby Abbott and you’ve been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Sean McDowell and John Marriott on FamilyLife Today. Sean and John have written a book called Set Adrift: Deconstructing What You Believe Without Sinking Your Faith.
This is a book that really strips away the nonessential aspects of Christianity, and then helps you to rebuild on solid biblical principles that shape a strong faith in our great Savior. You can pick up a copy of their book at FamilyLifeToday.com.
And speaking of partnering, August is a really special time to give, because when you do, we’ll send you FamilyLife’s Art of Parenting® online video course, and an engaging card game called Ferret Flush™. The game will really provide wonderful opportunity for you and you family to bond and gain deeper insights into one another.
Tomorrow is the last day to participate to receive the Art of Parenting course and the card game, so you can make your donation now at FamilyLifeToday.com, or you can give us a call at 800-358-6329. Again that number is 800- “F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word “TODAY.” Or feel free to donate and drop us something in the mail. Our address is FamilyLife, 100 Lake Hart Drive, Orlando, Florida 32832.
Tomorrow Dave and Ann Wilson are joined by Drew Hunter to talk about the importance of community and companionship in human life, and how the lack of it in modern society is affecting our friendships. That’s tomorrow. We hope you’ll join us.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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