There has been a lot of discussion recently about why kids leave the faith. People have rightly drawn attention to the role of poor theology, the importance of kids owning their faith, the significance of intellectual issues such as the apparent tension between science and religion, and more.
But there seems to be a core issue that is often overlooked—to develop a lasting faith, kids need to grasp their need for God. Let me explain.
C.S. Lewis and the Four Loves
In his book The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis makes a distinction between “Gift-love” and “Need-love.” As for Gift-love, he gives the example of a father who works and plans for the future well being of his family, even though he will die without seeing them benefit. As for Need-love, Lewis gives the example of a lonely and frightened child who comes to its mother’s arms for comfort and protection. Such love is neither selfish nor improper, because children are intended to have nurturing mothers, and mothers are intended to care for their kids.
According to Lewis, God’s love for mankind is entirely Gift-love: “The Father gives all He is and has to the Son. The Son gives Himself back to the Father, and gives Himself to the world, and for the world to the Father, and thus gives the world (in Himself) back to the Father too.” God does not need our love or worship. Rather, He freely loves us as an extension of His grace.
But our love for God is different. While we may be able to offer God Gift-love, our love is primarily need based. Lewis explains: “But man’s love for God, form the very nature of the case, must always be very largely, and must often be entirely, a Need-love.” We desperately need God in both this world and the next.
And then Lewis makes an additional (and helpful) distinction—while our objective need for God will never change, our awareness of that need can. And if our awareness of the need for God fades, then so may our faith. Thus, Lewis says:
There seems no reason for describing as hypocritical the short-lived piety of those whose religion fades away once they have emerged from “danger, necessity or tribulation.” Why should they not have been sincere? They were desperate and howled for help. Who wouldn’t?
In other words, if someone believes in God because of an immediate need for safety or comfort, then as soon as the danger or pain ends, so may the faith. How does this relate to students? Think about it. If a young person believes in God for social or relational needs in the family, church, or school, then when those needs fade, so will his or her faith. If belief in God fulfills some external need, then as soon as that need fades, or another venue provides satisfaction of that need, the student will likely abandon his or her faith (or minimally, have a marginalized faith).
Young People and the Need for God
As a child, I remember asking my mom why I really needed a Heavenly Father. After all, my earthly dad spent time with me, and cared for me, as a father should. I simply didn’t feel any further need for a Heavenly Father that I couldn’t see, touch, or talk to.
It wasn’t until I matured, and came to a personal realization of the depth of my own sin, that I grasped how deeply I personally needed a savior. My faith in God became real when I understood the gravity of my own sin, and experienced the grace that comes from embracing Jesus as my Lord and Savior.
Young people today ought to go on mission trips. They need mentoring. They need space to ask tough questions. And they need good theological training. But if these experiences are to make a lasting impact on their faith, young people (and really all people) will need to realize that their brokenness requires a savior, and experience God’s forgiveness and grace.
When students understand their personal need for God, and experience God’s grace firsthand, they can develop a faith that lasts.
Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, best-selling author, popular speaker, part-time high school teacher, and the Resident Scholar for Summit Ministries, California. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog: seanmcdowell.org, where you can find the original version of this article.
 C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves: An Exploration of the Nature of Love (New York: First Mariner Books, 2012, first published 1960), 1-2.