I grew up immersed in typical Christian culture: heavy emphasis on morality, fairly dogmatic, linear, and authoritative. Because my experience was so homogenous and my skill set included Flying Right, I found wild success within the paradigm. My interpretations were rarely challenged by diversity, suffering, or disparity. Since the bull’s-eye was good behavior (we called it “holiness”), I earned an A.

But as I careened into adulthood, my firm foundation endured some havoc. I noticed very few of my Third Day Acquire the Fire Disciple Now Weekend Mercy Me compatriots sticking with church after high school, all of whom had been “on fire” just a few short years before. Because I chose a small Baptist college, my youth group environment was preserved in a collegiate setting and I remained confused and slightly betrayed by the mass exodus of my friends. My own spiritual tension was delayed and I didn’t understand the migration until later.

The Bad News

Here is where this gets real for us mamas: this is absolutely the trend. Ranier Research found that nearly three-quarters of American youths leave church between ages 18 and 22, while the Barna Group estimates that by age 29, 80 percent of the churched population will become “disengaged” with church culture.

That’s 80 percent. Gone.

These are our kids.

The mechanism is not holding. Religion is leaving young adults disinterested at best, hostile at worst. It must be failing to capture their loyalty because these numbers don’t lie. A quick investigation reveals common objections to church:

  • Its emphasis on morality and voting records over matters like justice and transformation

  • A me-and-mine stance against you-and-yours

  • A defensive posture, treating unchurched or dechurched people like adversaries

  • An opposition to science

  • Its consumerism

  • Its group hostility toward the gay community

  • An arrogance rather than humility

Our second graders might not navigate this tension yet, but their seminal moment is right around the corner. Better to regard the dominant trend than assume our kids will be in the satisfied (but shrinking) 20 percent. What can we do? How do we raise our kids to love Jesus long after we stop taking them to Sunday school?

The bad news is there is no system, no ten-step program to ensure success. Kids are their own people; this is a clear downside of children. Parents of littles think they are still in control of outcomes, but mamas of bigs know better. Kids are actual humans with hearts, minds, ideas, and laundry lists of sins to handle. There is no secret way around their humanity.

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Raising Disciples

As parents, we are only marker-makers—it is the best we can do—so I have some ideas for markers. First, pay attention to the grievances listed above. This is no time to defend our perspectives and dig in our heels. We have to raise the kids we have, not the kids we were. Young adults are abandoning church, so we can either listen carefully or watch their backs as they go. We cannot be more committed to our methods than our message. Do we want to raise disciples? Then pay equal attention to what isn’t working as much as what is.

Treat their questions and concerns with respect, because in my opinion, they have a decent pulse on cultural Christianity. Rather than starting with, “You are young and clueless,” maybe we say, “Tell me what you see and what concerns you. What draws you to church? What pushes you away? What do your friends say?” Humility attracts the next generation as easily as arrogance alienates them. This is so crucial. If we dismiss this conversation, we dismiss them from the church.

Deeper still, we examine the spiritual temperature of our homes. Are we arrogant and judgmental? Do we subtly (or overtly) teach our children to suspect anyone “other”? Do we put mainly defensive spiritual tools in our kids’ hands, fostering an “against them” rather than “for them” posture? Do we emphasize behavior over character? Because good behavior won’t guarantee anything. If they don’t love Jesus and people, it matters zero if they remain virgins and don’t say the F-word. We must shepherd their hearts, not just their hemlines.

Jesus operates beyond the tidy boundaries of good behavior. Rather than simply enforce his rules, we should show our kids his kingdom. That’s where they’ll discover a Savior to fall in love with. Out where life is messy and relationships are complicated. Where the poor struggle and grace is a lifeline. If we want to raise disciples, we’d better take them to where Jesus is working, because they’ll discover his appeal more quickly in the field than in sanitized church classrooms or on behavior charts.

Failure to Connect

We are raising postmodern kids in a postmodern generation. An incredibly reduced explanation of modern thought (which most of us have at least one foot in) would be: I have all the answers and so can you. This drove society for three hundred years. The shift to postmodernism began in our childhoods and absolutely defines the next generation. Their mantra is: “I don’t have all the answers and neither do you.” No wonder we are experiencing a major failure to connect.

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Postmoderns experience God differently than most of us did at their age. I learned apologetics and practiced defending my faith (I have all the answers and so can you). They hunger for community and justice, humility, and anti-consumerism. They don’t like slick. They don’t trust a leader without a limp. Since they question everything, they require safe spiritual environments where struggles are welcomed and discussed (I don’t have all the answers and neither do you). They must be allowed to wrestle without being shamed, or they’ll default to their open-armed peers and we will lose them.

We cannot shrug this off because this is the next generation of the church. If we drop the baton here, sociologists predict a fully post-Christian culture within two generations. Our kids need spiritual mentors, and if a new language and posture will lead them, then we better hit our knees, pray for humility, and beg God to help us raise disciples that love him beyond our homes. We prioritize transformation over methodology, because our rules have a shelf life but loyalty to Jesus does not. Let’s keep the baby and change the bathwater.

Finding Common Ground

Postmoderns share several key values with the gospel, and in these places, Jesus makes sense and the church feels relevant. These biblical touch points fuse the generational divide. Care of the poor and outcast, for starters. This makes sense to our kids. And to Jesus! Bonus! Same page! Mama, love outliers in the name of Jesus and your children will notice. Make this a family priority. Teach them: This is how we love, this is where we spend our dollars, this is how we serve our city. This deeply matters to our kids now, certainly into adolescence, and urgently into young adulthood. If the idea of Jesus gets muddy in the sanctuary, Jesus becomes clear again in the margins. Give “Sanctuary Jesus” something to stick to in the real world and the Bible will feel true once more.

Protecting open, nonjudgmental dialogue with our kids is key. Start young, because when they are 16, they may feel as though they need permission to ask hard spiritual questions without getting shut down, patronized, or dismissed. Fear makes parents react dogmatically (Slippery slope! Dangerous questions! Future heretic!), but God never turns away a seeker and neither should we. Our children can press extremely hard on the gospel and it will hold.

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Give Them Jesus

Remember this: No matter what, our children belong to God and he is very much paying attention. He is always at work; we are but one piece of their story. Our kids may detour. So many will crash and burn. They could walk away and they could come back. They will ultimately make their own spiritual decisions, and no formula ensures any outcome. We cannot guarantee their safety or loyalty, their path or decisions. The best parents can have children who self-destruct, and the worst parents can have kids who thrive.

The best we can do is give them Jesus. Not rules, not behaviors, not entertainment, not shame. I have no confidence in myself but every confidence in Jesus. He is such a relief, isn’t he? He is always the true answer, the strongest touchstone, the best example. When I am grasping as a spiritual mentor to my kids, there he is. When words and ideas and “right answers” fail me, his life and legacy deliver. With good reason my kids may doubt their parents, church, Christian culture, and their own understanding, but it is harder to doubt a Savior as good as Jesus. He is so incredibly dependable.

Jesus is the only thing that will endure. Jesus is the best marker that exists, so let’s raise him high.

Jen Hatmaker is a mom to five children, a pastor’s wife, a popular speaker, and a bestselling author of such humor and insight that she has been called, “the Christian Nora Ephron.” She is best known for her award-winning 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess. For More information, visit JenHatmaker.com. This article was taken from For the Love: Fighting for Grace in a World of Impossible Standards by Jen Hatmaker. Copyright © August 2015 by Jen Hatmaker. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson. www.thomasnelson.com