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When It Comes to Church, Are Your Children Already Gone?

By PHS Staff
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #89, 2009.

PHS interviews Ken Ham
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         Ken Ham
We already knew that between 60 and 80 percent of Christian youth leave the church for good after going away to college.

In his new book, Already Gone, Answers in Genesis president Ken Ham reports on the results of an extensive new survey. It says the problem starts much earlier.

Since the majority of homeschoolers are Christians, and the #1 reason for homeschooling among all homeschoolers is “religious reasons,” Practical Homeschooling felt this story needed to be told. We caught up with Ken Ham a few weeks ago and asked him to give us the “inside story” on why Christian kids are disengaging from the church in droves, starting in elementary school.

PHS: According to pollster George Barna, “61% of today’s young adults had been churched at one point during their teens years, but they are now spiritually disengaged (i.e., not actively attending church, reading the Bible, or praying).” Other polls have found an even higher figure.

Ken, when did you first begin to realize the problem of today’s youth leaving the church in droves?

Ken: I’ve been in this ministry for 30 years. Particularly in the last 10 years as I have traveled around lots of churches and countries, and especially America, I’ve seen more and more evidence of young people just questioning whether they really understood Christianity and what it means to be truly saved. Also, more and more parents are telling me their teenage kids don’t see Christianity as relevant. This has escalated in the last 5 to 6 years.

PHS: How much of this is due to the public schools and the media?

Ken: It’s a combination of the lack of training at home and church and the forcefulness of the teaching of atheistic philosophy at school.

The public schools have great bearing on this. Ninety percent of kids from church homes attend public schools. We all know that public schools have become increasingly antagonistic to Christianity and teaching evolution as fact has become more aggressive. Many teachers who are atheists or agnostics have become more aggressive in an anti-Christian philosophy.

When they threw God out of public school, they didn’t throw religion out, just Christianity. Now if you open up any biology textbook, you see how they explain all of life without God or creation. This point of view is naturalism, which is atheism.

The public school is either for Christ or against. There is no neutrality.

PHS: Is it really Jesus they are rejecting, or just “churchianity”?

Ken: They are certainly rejecting the church, because the church to them is hypocritical, boring, irrelevant, and inconsistent. When you analyze deeper into where all these attitudes are coming from, it’s because the Bible is not being taught to them as a book of history that is relevant to them. They really want answers as to what it’s all about. They are rejecting how the church operates and what it’s doing. Many of them truly don’t understand the Gospel and who Jesus is.

Kids tend to think school is where you learn real stuff. Church is where you learn stories.

PHS: Your book, Already Gone, is largely based on the results of a massive study, involving 20,000 interviews, that Answers in Genesis commissioned in order to find out why today’s kids are abandoning the church. What made you decide to commission the study?

Ken: We are an apologetics organization who equip and challenge the church. We believe the church has lost biblical authority as we have seen in this nation and across the world. We know from George Barna’s research that 2/3 of young people are leaving the church. Only when we address why and when it’s happening can we solve this problem.

We also wanted to see if any topics such as the age of the earth came up.

PHS: How is this study different from those that went before?

Ken: Most other surveys tried to find out what young adults believe, but not why they believe the way they do and not when they started believing this way.

When? Kids today are leaving the church, but not in college. They’re mentally “dropping out” in middle school and high school.

Why? Because they are not being taught the Bible as real history. They are not being taught answers to the skeptical questions of the age. They are not being taught that the Bible is true and relevant and we can defend it.

They are being taught relationship things and moral things. They are only taught spiritual things in a very shallow, experiential way.

PHS: Describe the “Sunday school syndrome.”

Ken: Chapter 2 of Already Gone particularly dealt with this. We divided this group of 20-somethings who went to church but no longer do so into various subgroups: for example, those who attended Sunday school regularly and those who did not. We were amazed to find that those who attended Sunday school regularly were much worse off spiritually than those who did not.

Here are some of the shocking results: those who went to Sunday school were more likely to defend abortion, gay marriage, and premarital sex; more likely to believe in evolution and “millions of years”; and more likely to have become anti-church.

Keep in mind that these young adults had attended conservative churches. If we had included all types of churches the results would be worse.

That’s why Already Gone makes the statement that going to Sunday school is not good for your children’s spiritual health.

We were careful in the book to help people understand we’re not advocating getting rid of Sunday school. Rather, we are advocating some radical changes in the curriculum and how they choose teachers.

The reasons are found in the statistics themselves. Those who went to Sunday school are more likely to have heard a pastor, teacher, or other church authority tell them it’s OK to believe in millions of years or even evolution, as long as you say God did it. They hear they can believe what’s taught in the public school, and they know it contradicts the Bible. This reinforces to them that you can’t really trust the Bible.

PHS: What about the actual Sunday school curriculum?

Ken: We summed it up in this way. Most Sunday school literature teaches what we call “Bible stories.” We are advocating that parents, teachers, etc. stop using “stories” when it comes to the Bible, because one of the definitions of “stories” is “fairy tales.” Kids go to school and learn what they think is real history, and they come to church and learn “stories.” Sunday school does not connect the Bible to the real world, and it certainly does not teach apologetics, the study of how to deal with skeptics’ questions.

Take Noah’s flood. If you tell children it really happened, but teach it as a story, you’re not connecting the flood to fossils, which connect it to the real world, and to biology. If you don’t deal with questions such as “millions of years” and how the animals fit on the Ark, it comes across as no more real than a fairy tale.

When you think of the history from Genesis to Revelation, everything we teach in Christianity anchors somewhere in that history. Whatever we teach should be anchored in history at the appropriate places. E.g., the Christian doctrine of marriage is not just based on the words of Paul in New Testament, but at the origin of marriage in Genesis. Then ask “what is the world doing right now to stop kids believing that history?” and teach them those answers.

PHS: We’ve talked about the curriculum. What about the teachers and other leaders of Sunday school?

Ken: Most Sunday school teachers are chosen because they volunteer. They are not trained. Most churches don’t have programs to teach people how to teach.

PHS: That’s true, but how much of what is wrong with Sunday school and church teaching of the youth is cowardice? I have personally talked to youth pastors who got agitated at the mere phrase “confronting the culture.”

Ken: Our culture has a mantra of tolerance. You don’t take a stand and say certain views are right and others are wrong. The secular emphasis on separation of church and state has caused many Christians to think there are neutral positions. If you don’t really believe biblical authority—let’s face it, many of these people aren’t sure what they believe about Genesis and other things—they can’t preach even the Gospel with authority.

We’ve been told it divides people if we confront issues, but the truth is always divisive. Jesus came to divide (Matthew 10:34—36). He didn’t say, “I’m one of the ways.” He said, “I am the way.”

There’s an idea that if you teach children something, you’re forcing your views on them. But if you don’t, someone else will force their views on them.

There is no neutral position. It’s false to aim for neutrality. It’s not a question of if you’re indoctrinating your children, but what you’re indoctrinating them in.

That’s why teachers will bear a stricter judgment—we are not just responsible for imparting knowledge, but for imparting a whole way of thinking.

PHS: Should Christian kids even attend Sunday school?

Ken: Parents shouldn’t delegate authority to the Sunday school and church unless they check out the teacher and the curriculum. Parents have a responsibility.

That’s the only way we’ll force some of these churches to change anyway. Revolutions come from the people; only when enough parents say, “Unless there’s change, our children won’t be attending,” will there be positive change.

PHS: Did you go to Sunday school?

Ken: In some areas when I was a child there were no churches or Sunday schools. In those places my parents actually started Sunday schools, so they had a great influence on what was taught.

PHS: Is homeschooling enough by itself to keep kids true to the beliefs taught at home?

Ken: I’ve seen this at homeschool conferences. A lot of parents don’t know what curriculum to use. There’s even influence within the homeschool movement to encourage the teaching of “millions of years.” You can homeschool kids and have them isolated from the public school system, but if you aren’t teaching the Bible as a real book of history and how to defend their faith from the world, then don’t be surprised if your homeschooled children end up the same as those others, leaving the church.

On the other hand, I’ve met homeschool families where the kids have been brought up on apologetics materials—not just creation apologetics, but general apologetics—and those kids are always very strong in their faith, compared to other kids.

PHS: What is missing in what kids today are learning about church history?

Ken: I have a number of heroes of the faith. I know they have feet of clay, but they are heroes. But today kids are brought up to admire football heroes and film star heroes. They need to know about Christian persecution. If they know what’s happened in the past, it will give people more courage to stand up for what they believe in the future.

When I was a child, my parents had Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. That has a great influence in your life, when you read about the sacrifices these people made and how they stood on God’s word. It certainly had a great influence on my life.

PHS: What is the next step?

Ken: At home, I encourage people to immediately get some supplemental apologetics materials, such as we have at Answers in Genesis. These books, DVDs, and courses list questions kids are going to be asked: “How do you know there is a God? How do you know the Bible is true? How did Noah get those animals on the ark?” That will make the Bible relevant to them and prepare them for the world out there.

As far as churches, they need to evaluate their curriculum and their teachers. One church decided to dismantle everything—Sunday school, youth group, etc.—and start rebuilding from the ground up, training the teachers, using apologetics curriculum, and making it relevant.

In most churches you would never expect to see a fossil bone or a photo of geological strata. But you need to change the way people look at church, and see there is a place where you talk about astronomy, anthropology, geology, etc. from a perspective of history. I’m not talking about peering into microscopes, but that the Bible does deal with history and science. The world teaches a history that contradicts the Bible. That’s why we need to be teaching that history correctly.

The Bible is not a textbook of science in the sense of teaching you how to build a motorcar. But it is a textbook of science in terms of history. The Bible primarily deals with knowledge concerning history rather than technology, because it’s a history book.

PHS: If Sunday school teachers need to be taught, and nobody is doing this, when will Answers in Genesis begin offering seminars to teach Sunday school teachers?

Ken: We hope to have a complete Sunday school curriculum available by 2011. We’ll also be broadcasting Sunday school lessons—maybe on TV, certainly on the web.. This might start in the fall. Keep checking our website, www.answersingenesis.org!

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