The recent New York Times article, “Evangelicals Fear the Loss of Their Teenagers,” has stirred up a great deal of conversation among fundamentalists and evangelicals alike. While the article focused on broader evangelicalism, many fundamentalists are wrestling with the same phenomenon. Upon graduation from high school, far too many teenagers follow the call of the wild, drift away from the church, and (in some cases) repudiate their faith in Christ.
There is a sense in which this development should not be surprising at all. Since World War II, youth ministry in the United States has taken on a life of its own. Parachurch organizations were founded to focus on evangelizing and serving teenagers. Pastoral positions were created for the sole purpose of meeting the needs of high school students. And the Christian school movement has deluded some parents into thinking that their children’s academic environment will inevitably produce a disciple of Christ.
Such things as these are not inherently evil. But their proliferation over the last half-century has unwittingly taught our children a destructive notion: the church exists for them. For the first eighteen years of their lives, we tailor an unending succession of programs and events to cater to them. We entice them to come to church activities by telling them what they will get out of it. We create competitions based on spiritual sorts of things—Bible memory, sword drills, even personal devotional time—hoping that somehow God’s Word might lodge in their hearts. None of these things is inherently sinful, but taken together they give young people the impression that the church revolves around them. Even the phrase youth ministry implicitly teaches them to view themselves fundamentally as the objects of service.
Once teenagers graduate from high school, however, they are suddenly confronted with a church that no longer revolves around them. We explain to these young adults that God expects them to serve others and not themselves. But for years our example has taught them that the church exists for them. So when the church stops meeting their perceived needs—when the church stops existing for them—they have no reason to stick around.
Our discussion must transcend simply answering the question, How do we get them to stay? If that is all we do, then we may think that the solution is either to remake the rest of the church so that it would continue to exist for them (a strategy that surely is being tried in various quarters) or simply to create more service opportunities at increasingly younger ages. But neither of these strategies addresses the heart of the matter, for both are horizontal answers to an essentially vertical question. The problem is not primarily the loss of recent high school graduates. The drop-off between high school and young adulthood is symptomatic of a much bigger issue: a failure to teach the centrality of God in all things and to demonstrate the centrality of God in our youth discipleship. Nothing exists for them—or for us, for that matter. All of life is all about God.
For believers the thought of the centrality of God in everything almost goes without saying. The Scriptures teem with passages that speak of God as the source and the end of all things. “There is one God, the Father,” Paul writes, “from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Cor. 8:6, ESV). Christ is the one “for whom and by whom all things exist” (Heb. 2:10; cf. Col. 1:16). Since all things are “from him and through him and to him,” God is the only one worthy of eternal glory (Rom. 11:36). Addressing the centrality of God in any matter seems virtually unnecessary since this truth is self-evident.
But far too often believers fail to live with God’s centrality in mind. Though God’s glory in all things is quite obvious, our finite and fallen minds often seek to shut God out of our thinking so that we can go about our lives in our own way, for our own purposes. Why else would the apostle need to exhort us, “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31)?
Therefore, the greatest need that our teenagers have is not a new program, a new enticement, or a new competition. Neither they nor we need a better activity than the last one or another list of dos and don’ts to govern our lives. Their greatest need—and ours—is to see God in all his glory. If our children and teenagers would see, know, and love this great God, everything else would fall into place.
Isaiah exemplifies this dynamic (Isa. 6). What brought about his willingness to be God’s ambassador (v. 8)? It was his vision of the greatness of God (vv. 1-4), a vision that brought about a genuine brokenness and humility over his own sin (v. 5) and the tender word of forgiveness from a God who is as good as he is great (vv. 6-7). We cannot make our teenagers willing to serve others. We cannot atone for their sins. We cannot force them to contrite admission of their own sin. But we can expose them to the glory of God. And we must.
Exposing children and teenagers to the glory of God sounds good and right, but it requires much more than merely implementing a new program. The glory of God is not something that we can simply add to our task lists; it is a wholly different paradigm through which we view everything. And if we ourselves are not seeing his glory in all things, can we reasonably expect the coming generations to do anything but follow our lead?
So where do we begin? We begin by following the example of Moses, on our knees begging God, “Show me your glory!” (Exo. 33:18). We begin by searching the written Word so that we might see the incarnate Word, in whose face we see “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God” (2 Cor. 4:6). We begin by exegeting life—every circumstance, every conversation, every relationship—to examine what this great Sovereign is seeking to demonstrate about himself (Ps. 115:3). In short, we must become people who are consumed, not with ministry and events, but with God and his glory. Whatever else we do in youth discipleship—or anywhere else in the church—must flow from that.
Renewing our commitment to seeing and speaking of the glory of God in all of life may not alter the direction of teenagers who insist on going their own way after high school. Discipleship is not a mathematical formula that requires only the right input in order to churn out a lifelong follower of Jesus. And no church will have a perfect track record of success. So recovering the centrality of God in our lives and in our churches is not a new strategy that we should try for a little while to see if it works. The glory of God is not a means to the end of discipleship success. The glory of God is not a means to any end; it is the end. All of life is out of him, all of life now exists through him, and all of life will return to him as the object of eternal glory. And every teenager who sits in our churches will glorify God forever—either in their salvation or their condemnation. Therefore, we must confront our young people with the reality, centrality, and glory of God early and often so that they might find him to be the sole object of their hearts’ affection. May God be pleased to use us in his gracious work of saving young people for his eternal glory.