I was born and raised in St. Andrew’s, baptized by Father Jeff (and I claim credit for bringing him to the church), and a member of the EYC for nearly five years. My childhood was shaped by the church, by Christian teachings, by the Bible, by my family’s beliefs. Like so many children, I had Christian influences all around. But something happens in teenagers. Church attendance gradually decreases. By college, 70% of Christian teens stop attending services. 34% of those never return to the church. Why does everything change so much, even after a lifetime of Sunday services, youth group meetings, and involvement?
Recently, I started believing it’s pretty similar to why I didn’t run on my high school’s track team this year. After three seasons of track and three seasons of cross country, I was, as we athletes like to say, “burned out.” I have such fond memories of all my experiences on these teams, but, eventually, every practice became a chore. It was not enjoyable. My passion for running was warped by my need to compete and perform perfectly at all times. At first, I loved the thrill of competing. The runner’s high. The comradery. But I couldn’t live up to those standards I set in my mind, and my love for running was slowly stripped away, until all that was left were memories of the days when running was effortless (although I know there are some serious rose-colored glasses in those memories). Every run felt like a failure. So, I decided to return to my original passion: running for the sake of running. No obligations, no expectations, no stress.
Basically, that story seems to parallel Christian faith in children. At first, it’s easy, and you don’t realize its significance, because it’s just what you do. You get out of bed on Sunday mornings, put on your good clothes, and go to church with your parents (or grandparents, as is the case with me and many other kids in our church). Then, as you begin to realize what being Christian truly is, you join groups and want to excel at this concept of being Christian. You attend all the services, like always, like a habit, and add in other meetings and service projects. But, at some point in high school or college, life outside the church takes up more time. You start to stress about planning around church. Maybe you just start skipping it entirely. School, work, and friends are all important things, and you feel like you can’t balance everything. Church becomes a chore. You crave that time years ago when you committed to God and felt faith well up in you, but everything falls short now. Stress builds and builds, and something has to change. The “right” solution to this situation is to take a step back, reevaluate your faith, prioritize God. But we all have trouble making “right” decisions.
Falling away from God seems to be easier for people; the world we can see, taste, and touch is much easier to believe in. That’s why, after years of following Jesus, witnessing every miracle, the disciples had trouble believing he came back to life. You’d think they might suspect after he brought Lazarus back to life that he probably had the power to bring himself back. But the lost and grieving find it hard to believe in the truths of yesterday. In the readings from Acts and Luke, both Peter and Jesus call us to be witnesses of the Truth. And the truth is hard to swallow¾hence the high dropout rate for teenagers, who are still trying to find their place in the world.
But there is good news in all this: many do come back. Maybe they switch denominations. Maybe they discover a new church. Maybe a little change is good for the soul. Some people can feel the same overwhelming love for God every minute of every day. Most can’t. Sometimes, we all just need to take a step back and remember that first mission trip or an inspirational sermon or that day when everything went right, and you never thought you’d stop feeling that overwhelming love for God.
Humans have always been afraid of the unknown. And for us, Heaven is unknown and intangible. Yet, Jesus is there with us, behind locked doors and through our times of doubt, to remind us of how even he could become tangible. If he is real, then his mercy is real. His love is real. Even when we run away, our heavenly home awaits.