This is not a post about salvation.
It’s a post about what happens after.
According to a Pew analysis released in May, Christians are constantly seeking out new identities and altering the relationship they have with their faith and their church. Sometimes this results in denominational shifts – the report points out that non-denominational churches are gaining members from other denominations in a higher proportion to those they are losing: there are roughly four people who join non-denominational churches for every one person who leaves. More “traditional” denominations, on the other hand – Catholics and the various Protestant subgroups – are dealing with far less growth: they lose almost two whole people for every adherent they gain.
And many Christians have left the faith altogether. In fact, what strikes me most about the study is that Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism are all more successful than Christianity at “retain[ing] adherents within their group.” 80% of people raised Hindu remain Hindu as adults; about three quarters of Muslims and Jews do the same.
These outcomes can be chalked up to a lot of things, and a great deal of digital ink has been spilled on what we, as Christians, can do to – I cringe at this business speak – increase our retention rate. We worry about our churches and how they are performing and what they are doing; we worry about the way we’re delivering messages and doctrines; we worry about any number of things. But I would like to posit another reason that Christianity struggles to hold on to some people:
Few young Christians are prepared in a rigorous, individual way, to continue to choose Christianity for themselves beyond the walls of their church or an “inherited” faith. Not many have the tools to, as the Bible puts it, “work out” their salvation – to go beyond the commitment of a moment to the commitment of a lifetime.
I was raised in the church. Jesus was always presented to me as a fact. I learned Bible stories and Bible verses from an early age. And, ultimately, I became saved at eight. My conversion to Christianity was real and authentic – I knew exactly what I was doing, and the choice was my own. At the same time, I had been steeped in the Christian tradition from pretty much the moment of my birth; it’s everything I knew, and it was with what I was familiar. I’d never been exposed to what it might be like not to believe, never really desired any other life outside of Christianity. My mother and father were Christians; one grandmother was a church matriarch and the other a Sunday School teacher with an active fellowship life. My faith was an individual choice, but it was also an inherited one.
Many other children in my church were the same. And yet later in life – not coincidentally around the age of adulthood – many of those children fell away. They became the numbers mentioned in the Pew study above. They got into college or they got a job or moved out and all of a sudden they just…disappeared, attending church only as a matter of token grace to their families. The response to this falling-away, their absolute disinterest in a faith they claimed they were a part of, almost always came as a shock. What happened? These kids were saved; they were raised in the church! They said they wanted to give their lives to Jesus.
I believe that most of them meant it. But salvation is both a moment and a lifetime process, the consistent return of a believer to God’s truth and the ramifications of God’s truth in one’s life. Salvation is not an end, but a beginning – a starting point from which one can diligently grow and root oneself individually in faith. After salvation, it becomes necessary to make faith your own, rather than a practice you participate in from afar or with only the understanding you have gleaned from those around you about what it is and how it should work.
One of the difference between me and the children like me who left, I suspect, is that after my salvation I became concerned with learning about my faith, with understanding it, with growing in it. With making it mine. I read apologetics, learned about other faiths and the differences between them and Christianity, tried to understand the hows and the whys. I wanted to know what God’s love meant to me. I wanted to know what God’s word said to me. I wanted to know what the Holy Spirit wanted to know from me. I wanted to have an individual relationship with God based not on what people told me God was like or on the simple conception of Him I had as a child, but on what God Himself told me He was like. Most importantly, I wanted to know for myself why I needed Christianity, and what Jesus had for me, and what a life dedicated to my faith would look like.
I believe that a large part of working out our salvation with fear and trembling is figuring out why we believe what we believe, and what role that will play in our lives. People raised in the church cannot be content to believe something just because their family does or because it is “good” or because salvation seems like enough on its own, like an achievement you can mark off. Very early on, I learned that there is a difference between inherited faith (believing because your family does, or borrowing from a family tradition of belief) and individual faith (choosing faith for yourself and embracing your walk as a truth in your life). Children raised in the church almost always encounter the first, but growing the second must be a willful act and a personal decision.
When the kids I was raised with in church went to college, they encountered a world that was not shrink-wrapped in the gospel. Perhaps some of them encountered questions about Christianity for which they had no answer. Perhaps what they had learned about faith didn’t fit in with the world they saw around them. Perhaps their perfunctory Bible studies and every-now-and-then prayers hadn’t allowed them to have a meaningful relationship with God that would’ve anchored them. Perhaps they wanted to explore everything they weren’t told, or didn’t know. Perhaps they simply discarded a relic of faith that had always been more for their families, and not for them. I know that, for me, college was an incredibly liberating time in terms of my spiritual walk. I met other people who believed different things. I met people who didn’t believe at all. Many of us became friends. And through that process, and through the different kinds of Christian friends I also met, I was able to actually grow in my faith – mostly because I had decided long before, on my own, that I wanted Jesus in my life, and wanted God in my life, and wanted to work out what it meant to live in love and forgiveness and God’s immeasurable grace.
If you are given a heavy, heavy book, and you are told it is good for you and that you will like it, and you feel like it is an honor to have the book but you’ve never read it yourself beyond the first few chapters and don’t care to – well, it’s not so surprising that you’d eventually decide it was too heavy and dump it by the side of the road. But if you are given the book, and you read it and you love it and you come to cherish it, and you learn about the things in it you didn’t understand or found confusing, you won’t want to let it go. It will become a part of your life that is non-optional. It will become a part of you. And so with faith.
If we want to save the children we are losing, then I suspect the first step is to encourage young people who get saved to move from the simplicity of the salvation choice and their understanding of the inherited faith from their parents to a real, individual relationship with Christ. To ask hard questions. To learn. To grow. To explore what interests them. To understand God’s love on their own terms and with their own desires so that, when the trying time comes, they will choose to grow in faith not out of obligation or lack of options or the promises made in childhood, but out of a real adult understanding of what it means to have chosen God and His love.
Our will to choose Him is the greatest gift God left us; it also explains the way Christianity “leaks” adherents. When Christ permits us the freedom to stay or to go of our own discretion, I imagine it’s easy to leave. He knew the painful truth of this, and He did not try to stop those who decided to walk away. To foster a hunger in young people to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling, to discern their own will and understand what it means to choose God on their own terms and for their own life, is the duty of the church – not just the great work of salvation, but the great work after salvation, too.