If kids are leaving the church, it’s because we’ve failed to give them a view of Jesus and his cross that’s compelling enough to satisfy their spiritual hunger and give them the zeal they crave. They haven’t seen that Jesus himself is better than any “Jesus program.” He’s better than the music used to worship him. He’s better than a missions trip. He’s better than their favorite youth leader. He’s also better than money. Better than video games. Better than romantic teen movies. Better than sex. Better than popularity or power.
We’ve failed too many kids. We’ve fed them things to do. We’ve fed them “worshipful” experiences. But we’ve failed to feed them more than a spoonful of the good news. Now they’re starving and they’ll eat anything. They’re trying to feed their souls with something—maybe even a churchy thing—that feels like it fits them, when what they need is some one utterly better than themselves.
Who Has the Best Answers?
Church kids don’t just need the good news as much as other kids— they need it more. I saw an example of this while teaching at another Bible camp. Most of the campers were church kids, but not Ryan. His mom had signed him up because a neighbor had invited him and because camp was cheaper than other activities. Ryan had seldom been to church and didn’t even have a Bible at home.
At the start of the week I wondered if Ryan would be able to keep up. I needn’t have worried. He was my most attentive student, asking good questions and listening with excitement as I taught.
Most Bible teachers have experienced this phenomenon. Kids who are new to church are transfixed, while church kids hear the same lessons and remain ho-hum. Accepted wisdom says this is because the church kids have heard it before. But this time there was more to it. I was teaching the good news with every Bible story and the church kids were interested enough—they just weren’t excited by it. I soon realized that they weren’t even noticing the good news part of my teaching.
One evening near the end of the week I taught about King David and Mephibosheth. David had become king after his nemesis, Saul, died in battle. Not many descendants of Saul were left, which was good for David; they were a potential threat to his throne.
Mephibosheth was Saul’s grandson. As a boy he’d been crippled, but survived and lived in an obscure home on the fringe of Israel’s territory, away from his family’s land. From David’s perspective, this would have been a safe end for a potential enemy. But David was an extraordinary man who wanted to show kindness to a member of Saul’s family, so he summoned Mephibosheth to the palace. The lame man must have been terrified, but David told him, “Do not fear, for . . . I will restore to you all the land of Saul your father, and you shall eat at my table always” (2 Samuel 9:7). David treated Mephibosheth like one of his own sons, and the Bible mentions three more times how Mephibosheth always ate at the king’s table.
I asked the kids an open-ended question: “What can we learn about life with God from this lesson?”
Several hands shot up. “We should be kind too,” said one. “God wants us to love our enemies,” said another. More heads nodded in agreement. These were good answers. But were any of them the best answer?
“Anything else?” I asked. Nope. Everyone seemed to have the same thought.
Then I saw Ryan’s hand. “It sounds like us and God,” he said. “We’re like Mephibosheth. We’re the hurt guy who’s not on God’s side. But God is kind to us anyway. He’s so good!”
Yup. That was the best answer, all right—and Ryan saw it before any of the church kids did. The church kids had years of experience with Bible lessons and had learned to respond to questions about God by thinking first, “What do I have to do for him now?” They’d need to unlearn this before they could admire Jesus as the King who invites them, his crippled enemies, to sit at his table. Both they and Ryan had heard the good news for a full week, but only Ryan was ready to respond to a question about God by thinking, “He’s so good!”
There’s one more reason kids who are raised in Christian homes and familiar with church need more of the good news. This time it isn’t because of anything wrong; it’s because that’s just how Christian growth works.
As kids learn about God’s goodness and holiness, they ought to increase in awe of him. That’s growth. And as they examine themselves and see the ugliness inside, they ought to increase in conviction of sin. That’s growth too. But the combination of these will drive them to despair—unless their understanding of the forgiveness and righteousness they have in Jesus also grows.
Think of a kid who’s a new Christian as one starting to see God’s light. As he learns, the beam of light in his life shows him two things: (1) God’s holy demands and (2) the kid’s sin in falling short of those demands. We at Serge use a helpful illustration of this. The diagram shows these two things as the top edge and bottom edge of God’s light. The kid also sees the cross, which covers the gap between the kid’s sin and God’s demands. The kid has joy and confidence. He’s eager to live for God.
As his Christian life goes on, the kid learns more. His understanding of God’s holy demands grows. He also sees more fully how neither his life nor his heart can ever measure up, so his understanding of his own sinfulness grows as well. The beam of light widens. And if he hasn’t also been growing in appreciation for the good news—if the cross remains roughly the same size in his life—there will be gaps.
The kid becomes an Anxious Alice. He’s aware that his good deeds aren’t good enough and that his feelings for God aren’t strong enough. He knows he’s a hypocrite and is secretly haunted by guilt. He becomes a pretender, constantly scheming to make himself, his friends, and his parents believe the situation isn’t so bad.
He tries working harder to do better, but with no success. So he also acts like a Complacent Kyle. He fills the gap between the cross and God’s holiness by pretending that God’s demands aren’t really so extreme. Whatever little obedience he can muster up, he tells himself, must be okay.
The same kid acts like a Smug Sarah too. He fills the gap between the cross and his sin by pretending his sin actually isn’t so horrible. He stops repenting. Instead, to keep up a Christian image, he will lie, get defensive when corrected, tear others down, and do churchy things or obey his parents only to look good.
In short, the kid’s Christian growth stalls. Learning more about God’s greatness can’t help him because he can’t handle it. Telling him to sin less and obey more can’t help either, because he fights back, tunes out, or does both. For a church kid, this stall can happen very soon after becoming a Christian because he already knows so much about God and sin.
The solution is for the cross to grow along with everything else. The more a kid learns about himself and God, the more he must learn to trust and delight in the good news too. He must become ever more certain that he’s totally accepted in Christ, forgiven and adopted by God. It’s the only way he can keep growing.
The Bible tells us to expect this dynamic. Consider the prophet Isaiah, who had a thundering vision of God in the temple. His understanding of God’s holiness grew huge in an instant, and he couldn’t handle it: “Woe is me! For I am lost” (Isaiah 6:5). But an angel touched his lips with a hot coal and declared, “Your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for” (Isaiah 6:7). Only then, once Isaiah’s bigger understanding of God’s holiness and his own sin was matched by a bigger confidence in his forgiveness, was he ready for ministry.
A kid who’s fed by the good news has a growing appreciation for Jesus and all he has done for him. That kid will be an amazing, non-pretending Christian. He won’t try to look better than he is but instead will dare to confess sin openly and repent earnestly. He also won’t have to pretend God is easily satisfied with a little churchy behavior, but he will dare to draw ever nearer to a holy God. This is because his sin and God’s holiness just show him how much more he’s been forgiven. They enlarge his love for Jesus.
Jack Klumpenhower is a Bible teacher and a children’s ministry curriculum writer with more than thirty years of experience. He has created Bible lessons and taught children about Jesus at churches, camps, clubs, conferences, and Christian schools all over the world, including Serge conferences. Currently he is working on a middle-school gospel curriculum in conjunction with Serge staff. He lives with his wife and two children in Durango, Colorado.