Why do kids really leave the church? SEX!


After I read David Kinnaman’s newest book, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving the Church and Rethinking Faith.  I have been wrestling with some of the implications from his findings.  His chapter on sex is the one that has got my wheels spinning the most. In that chapter, Kinnaman highlights how the church’s views of purity and abstinence are directly in conflict with the lengthening of time people, including Christians, are taking to settle down and married.  Individualism is becoming the core value, and when marriage, sex, and sexuality are seen through that lens there is bound to be conflict and tension with the traditional church.  These aren't really revolutionary thoughts.  That is, until you place the changing sexual ethic and overlay it with the renewed passion in which professional church people are trying to understand why so many church kids are leaving the church and not coming back.


In every survey, in every conversation, in every seminar, and in every book we are given a host of reasons for why kids are leaving.  The fault almost always lays at the feet of the church and the poor expression of faith they portray, or the faulty model of a one eared mickey mouse student ministry, or the fact that there are not enough adults in the lives of students.

But as I thought about Kinnaman's book and my years of anecdotal evidence, it seems that those reasons are simply smoke screens to the deeper issue:  Kids and young adults want to have sex.  They want to have a lot of it, and they don't want to wait until they are 30 and get married to start.  But this reason seems so carnal, so self-indulgent, so simple.  So these students develop amazing smoke screens to throw us all the scent.

What about the dinosaurs?  Can't explain it?  Than this faith is a joke so let's have sex!  My youth pastor is uncomfortable with me because I have slept with three girls in the youth group.  This church is so judgmental!    My parents don't want me to live with my girlfriend.  I know they did before they got married!  What hypocrites!

These are not straw men:

Think about all the students that have gone through your youth group.  Think of all the students that have made strong professions of faith and then bailed.  When you unpack their protests and smoke screens, isn't the root cause some sexual encounter or lifestyle that makes them and us uncomfortable to the point where they back away?

When I ask my colleagues and as we pry back the layers, sex is always the root.  Drinking: For whatever reason, the students who drink still manage to participate in Christian community (until they have sex).   Doubt: The apologetics to address doubts of most 12-20 year olds have been written about for decades.  Sex: But once sex happens, the lines of communication get strained and ultimately cut off.

There was a time only a generation ago, where sex only was the cause for students to drop out of community.  But because many of them would get married in their early 20's, it wasn't a hard leap to jump back in to Christian community now that their sex was legitimized.  This was the case with many of my first generation youth group kids and my own peers.

Have you noticed how tentative people who are living together feel at church.  They come but they don't get too close because they know they will be judged for living together.  Many times this is too uncomfortable so they quit coming all together.  For those couples who love Jesus and long for Christian community this jump is easy to do once they have tied the knot.

"I couldn't abstain until I was married, but these young people should."

What is even more wild is how everyone seems to forget this history with their own kids or others at church.  The vast majority of couples at church have slept others and each other before they were married and many also lived together.  Once they are married, they all seem to have forgotten their past infractions and plan to put this burden of purity and abstinence on their children.  This burden was one that they couldn't carry and one that they seem to have little or no grace for people who are in the middle of this struggle.

This struggle is really for those Christians who marry in their early 20's.  But now that people are getting married much later, often into their 30's their distance from the church and Christian community has now been put on the back burner for over half their life and returning to it is like returning to a foreign land.  With so much water under the bridge, many never make it into the church or Christian community again.

We want to blame ourselves, but the sexual ethics of students and young adults is the core reason for the departure.  Is this statement too bold?  Does your experience differ from mine?  If you didn't settle for the smoke screen, would you too find sex to be the root cause?

If my hypothesis is correct, here are some questions I have moving forward:

  • Can we not let smoke screens work?
  • Can we allow students and young adults to carry the consequences of their choices and not blame ourselves?
  • Do we need to encourage students to get married earlier?
  • Why do people who failed in this area put such a high burden on our students regarding sex and sexuality?
  • Is it unrealistic to expect purity and abstinence from our students?
  • Does the church's teaching on sex and sexuality actually cause more harm then good in the discipleship of our students?
  • What do we loose if we treat sex and sexuality like we do with gluttony and materialism?  Give it a head non but don't hammer at it too much as to make people uncomfortable.
  • Is it the right call to lose so many young people as long as we teach TRUTH?
  • Can we, or should we make space in our ministries for students and young adults who are sexual active?  (and not make them hide)

What questions does this hypothesis raise for you?  What answers do you have?  May God be gracious with us all as we wrestle through this increasingly challenging issue.