A look at some possible reasons and what we can do about it.
According to the Barna Group and the subsequent book, You Lost Me by David Kinnamon, the contemporary church is facing a serious situation related to young Christians leaving the church and—in many cases—abandoning the faith. Despite the recent research, we aren't the first generation to experience this problem. The apostle Paul confronted issues with his young disciples on more than one occasion, with varied outcomes. So, we would do well to mark the Demas story in the New Testament as a starting place in our search for some answers.
The apostle Paul had a vision for evangelizing the Roman Empire and was directing operations from a Roman prison cell. No longer a young man, he wrote to his friend, Timothy, in Ephesus and told him, “Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia... Tychius to Ephesus.” And he added,” Get Mark and bring him with you…when you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas” (2 Tim. 4:10-13). Evidently he was dispatching Timothy, Crescens, Titus, Tychicus, and Mark to their spiritual battlefields—and they were ready to go! But one of his men was not heading for his assignment. “For Demas, because he loved this world,” Paul wrote, “has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica” (2 Tim. 4:10).
Paul didn't divulge the details of Demas' desertion, but he told us enough to form a picture of a young man, previously described as Paul's “fellow worker, (Philem. 24) apparently struggling with his faith. Not only is this a poignant insight into Paul's personal life and ministry, but it's also a sad story of spiritual deflection that is being replicated, in some respects, today.
So what happened?
- Love for the World over Love for Christ. Demas, having responded to Christ and joining the apostle Paul in his missionary enterprise, had experienced a change of heart. Paul contrasts “love” for the present world (2 Tim. 4:10) with “love” for Christ's appearing (v. 8). Demas had apparently chosen the immediate, attractive offerings of the contemporary (present) secular environment (world) over the challenge of living the good fight…keeping the faith (see 2 Tim. 4:7). Perhaps he had concluded that a life of discipleship was less desirable than a life of immediate enjoyment of a worldview that focuses on the here and now while offering prompt satisfaction and instant gratification. In other words, his faith stopped short of discipleship. Could it be that today's young people whom, according to Kinnamnon we have “lost,” never really experienced the call of discipleship, settling rather for a youthful, inadequately formulated, self-centered faith majoring on fun and celebration?
- Modern Secular Influences. In Demas' case it may have been the attraction of a more amenable lifestyle in the big city rather than the rigors of apostolic Christianity and the cramped conditions of Paul's imprisonment that caused him to lose his way. We don't know specifically what Demas was attracted to, but we ought to be well aware of the modern secular influences that make an impact on our young people. Let's face it, a good case can be made that aggressive atheism, inane social media, pervasive sexual stimuli, an overconsumption of questionable music—all play their part in a “world that is too much with us,” a sentiment penned by poet William Wordsworth. Our young people are subjected to such a barrage of information, contradiction, and entertainment that the voice of the Spirit is easily drowned out in a cacophony of contrariness. And their lifestyle choices and attitudes, and aspirations and longings display the effectiveness of the communications.
- The Church is Cramping Their Style. But what is it about the church and a discipleship lifestyle that leaves them floundering in the wake of a fast moving secular world view? Modern young people are not cramped by prison cells, as Paul was, but they see the church as cramping their aspirations, thwarting their desires, and failing to answer their questions. Many find creeds too dogmatic, commands too oppressive, disciplines too overbearing, leadership too inflexible, the elderly too elderly, worship too boring, preaching too irrelevant, and relationships too superficial. So they're leaving.
- Generationalism was Born. Paul's heartfelt words, “Demas has deserted me” may point to some kind of personality conflict between the two or perhaps a failure of communication between generations. Generationalism is a serious issue in the contemporary church. It all started with the Boomers insisting that they were “different.” They were right about that! And accordingly they majored on difference and uniqueness, demanding and getting special treatment to accommodate their differences. They, of course, raised a generation of “Busters” who, having recognized their parents' uniqueness, understandably began to demonstrate their own. And generationalism was born, a state of affairs where that which divides is more important than that which unites. Sadly, the church bought into this point of view and responded by designing services for specific groups and even designing churches that appeal to specific generations. The result? Division in the church, lack of community, and tensions between the generations. It's worth noting that Paul had previously taken a very hard line with another young “fellow worker” called John Mark. When he had failed in his assignment on the apostle's team, Paul was unprepared to give him another chance—unlike Barnabas who did take the young man under his wing. (See Acts 13:13; 15:37-40.) Subsequently John Mark, presumably through his relationship with Barnabas, became, as even Paul admitted, “helpful to me for ministry” (2 Tim. 4:11). It looks as if the church had “lost” Demas, but John Mark was redeemed in every sense of the word. There's a lesson here!
- The Faults of Idealism. We aren't told why Demas headed out to Thessalonica. Did he have a girlfriend there who was pulling him away from a life of service? That happens! Or had he heard that the climate was more pleasant, the wages were more generous, the nightlife was more fun, or was he simply bored and looking for something new? Let's give him the benefit of the doubt – perhaps he decided Paul's methods were out of touch and needed a revamp – something he could provide in a new environment. William Barclay, in his Daily Study Bible on Timothy, was certainly willing to give the benefit of the doubt to young people in the church when he wrote, “One thing is to be noted—the faults of youth are the faults of idealism. It is simply the intensity and the freshness of the vision which makes youth run into (these) mistakes.” And the mistakes in question were? “Impatience,” “Self-assertion,” “Love of disputation,” and “Love of novelty,” according to Barclay.
One thing we do know—Demas was going his own way, carving out his life on the assumption that it would be better than what he was presently experiencing. Paul and his ideas, practices, and vision had no part in them. And that is very similar to the situation in which the modern church finds herself with many of her “next generation.”
There is Hope
I'd like to return briefly to John Mark, the author of Mark's gospel, because if the church lost Demas it certainly did not lose John Mark. Mark proved to be thoroughly useful in the life of the church and Paul's life. It would not have been surprising; however, if after Paul's criticism and rejection, John Mark had become embittered by his treatment of him. It's not hard to imagine a modern-day scenario. The young man, already feeling he was a failure, is now humiliated by rejection. He becomes embittered against not only Paul, but the church he represents. In time he begins to doubt the validity of the faith he has professed. He begins to absent himself from the fellowship, finding new friends who introduce him to a lifestyle previously off limits. The absence of the responsibilities of a disciplined life gives him a sense of relaxation. He gives up on the struggle to match behavior with belief and experiences a rush of “peace” (where there's no tension there's a kind of peace!). His new friends question his philosophical presuppositions, cast doubt on his assumptions, and undermine his fundamental beliefs, because he has no answers. The drift away from the fellowship hardens into a drift away from the faith until finally he joins the statistics of the young people we “lost.”
But in John Mark's case it didn't happen, and the human agency that stopped the rot was Barnabas, the “Son of Encouragement.” We are not told how Barnabas encouraged John Mark, but we know how he encouraged others. A study of Barnabas is immensely valuable for all those who are concerned about the loss of young people to the faith.
- He was open to new ideas. “When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done (in Antioch where the church had sprung into existence without the Jerusalem church knowing!) he was glad” (Acts 11: 23).
- His focus was sharp. “He exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord” (Acts 11: 23, ESV).
- His character spoke volumes. “He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith” (Acts 11: 24).
- He gave other people opportunities. “Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul” (Acts 11:25).
- He was committed to teaching truth that transforms. “(He) taught a great many people” (Acts 11: 26, ESV).
- He went to bat for the under-achiever. “Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark” (Acts 15: 37, RSV).
- He took a chance with a known failure. “Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus” (Acts 15: 39).
- He had the courage of his convictions. “They were all afraid of him (Saul of Tarsus) … but Barnabas took him” (Acts 9:26-27).
There is, of course, no guarantee that every potential Demas, if hitched to a Barnabas, will turn into a John Mark. But there can be no doubt that many of the criticisms that are contributing to youthful disaffection with the church would be—and should be—dealt with effectively and convincingly by men and women of the caliber of Barnabas.
In short, if we want to cut down on the flight of our present-day Demases we need to concentrate on intercepting them with contemporaries like Barnabas.