Why Are Young Adults Leaving Church? A Comprehensive Answer

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There has been a mass exodus of young adults from Christian churches (including but not limited to Churches of Christ) over the last few decades. As I mentioned a few posts ago, there is a flurry of debate in blogs, facebook, etc on why young people are leaving the church in their early 20s. What you end up finding is that the experts tend to give the one thing they are most passionate about as the one reason young people are leaving. Well, there isn’t one reason. There are many. There are two big questions that are on people’s minds when it comes to this issue: 1) Why are they leaving? (what this post is about) and 2) what can we do about it? (future post). There are a variety of reasons young adults leave the church in their early 20s. They are not all leaving for the same reasons and not every reason is the church’s fault (which tends to be the chorus out there…the church is fully to blame. Not really). I believe there are four categories that all work together into a devastating mix that have resulted in this movement.

Re-frame the discussion: Who/what are they leaving?
Before I dive into the four reasons let me say this. The whole discussion needs to be re-framed from the start. We are stating the problem in terms of young people leaving “the church” when what is more concerning are young people who are “leaving the Lord”. One reason for that is, it is easy to measure when someone leaves the church. They stop attending. It is easy and measurable but it gets us off on the wrong foot in the discussion. Our goal is not first and foremost to get them back to church attendance but to get them back to Jesus. That is an important distinction. I do mean to diminish the church in saying that. I am just trying to get everything in the right order. I want to credit Eric Brown for pointing this out to me sometime back.

1 – Themselves

 Them factor #1 – Identity Formation
Young adults are at a transition point in life where they are trying to figure out multiple major decisions. What career will they pursue, where will they study, who will they marry, how many children will they have, and the big question “Who am I and how do I go about answering that question?” It is a time of investigation, experimentation, transition and stress. We might assume that, if they grew up in church, they should already know who they are through years of Bible class, youth group, summer camp, etc. Many didn’t develop a faith of their own during those years.

When you are a child, our society guides your path. You know you go to first grade after kindergarten and you know you go from middle school to high school. It is all mapped out for you. But when you enter your young adult years the map is removed and all you have to go on is whatever you have been taught and experienced up to that point in your life. The way isn’t clear and it isn’t easy. They are going to make a lot of mistakes along the way and, from what they remember about church, it is not necessarily the place they want to be because they don’t believe they will be welcome their given the decisions they have made or are currently making trying to form their own identity. Many are forming an identity and that identity no longer identifies with “church” as they knew it growing up.

Them factor #2 – Freedom, decisions and experimentation
Adulthood comes with a new set of freedom to make a path for yourself in the world. Finding that path comes with experience, experimentation and the influence of others. Many are already engaging in risky behaviors (drug usage and sex) in their teens years (yes, even while in the youth group). When they get the increased freedom of adulthood and being away from home and influenced by a new set of non-Christian peers, the behaviors that were so private in high school may be taken to a whole new level. They know those behaviors were preached against in church. They may not feel like church is the right fit for them because they don’t see how church has anything meaningful for their life to influence them into a better way of living. They just anticipate condemnation from those who disagree with their choices.

Them factor #3 – Never a disciple to begin with
Another “them” factor is whether or not they were ever “bought in” to being a disciple of Christ in the first place. In the past, the assumption was that faithful attendance equaled mature disciple. When they got on their own they ran for the door. They did that because in adulthood they now had the freedom to choose and finally chose what they would have done years prior had their parents not been forcing them to attend.

For this crowd, they were a part of our attendance number…but they weren’t really serious about their faith to begin with. They never made it their own. This transitions us into the next two categories that may have had an impact on why they never made their faith their own in the first place: 1) the church & 2) the family.

2 – The Church

 Church factor #1 – The “institutional appearance” of the church
There has been a lot of talk about how institutional the church has become. I think there is some truth in that but I think we also have to be careful to not talk institutionally of Christ’s bride. That also, though, means the church has a responsibility to not relegate itself to the level of institution along the way. What does it mean when someone talks about the church as an institution? What most people mean when they say that is that the church has lost sight of its mission and has become an organization that exists to perpetuate it’s own ecclesiology, often not seeing much distinction between tradition and scripture.

There aren’t going to be many churches who actually do this in a purposeful way. Most churches are doing what they believe God’s mission for them is in some sort of way…even if they just think it is worshipping for an hour on Sunday each week. The problem is that many congregations are presenting themselves in institutional ways and don’t realize they are doing it. For example, the practice and attitude that spiritual things must happen at a building and not in homes communicates that the church is an institution.

We frame this whole discussion from an institutional perspective – the big discussion today is why young people are “leaving the church”. That is an institutional way of framing a deeper problem. Shouldn’t we be framing this as young people are leaving the Lord? We talk about how they have left church because that is how we measure things, by an institutional measure we call attendance. Counting is fast and easy. Discipling someone is slow and difficult.

When a young person is looking for answers and for a relationship with Jesus but all they find is what appears to be the spinning of wheels of an institution with little warmth and no visible mission other than to get back again on Wednesday and Sunday and do it again that young person may go somewhere else where they can find that. Then we say they left the church. Did they? Even the thinking that people are leaving the church is institutional

There are several more “church factors” but they are all influenced by the problems that come along with institutional church. Here are the rest…

Church factor #2 – Woefully Inadequate Discipleship
As a teen, if I was there regularly it was assumed I was a disciple of Jesus. Even more basic than that, if I was baptized then everything was good as long as I kept attending. I never experienced any intentional discipling until I was in graduate school studying psychology. My major professor discipled me in clinical psychology. Not what you expected? She did. We worked out major projects together. She taught me, mentored me, took me under her wing. She gave me guidance in the field. She was the expert and I was the student and I spent hundreds of hours with her helping me grow into being the best psychologist I could be. How is it that a state school graduate department has a better method for discipling people than most churches?

My experience has been that we do a better job teaching someone why they need to be baptized (which is important) than we do actually teaching them to follow Jesus. The truth is, you teach those things the same way. It is all under the umbrella of helping make a disciple. Many churches have missed the boat on this. If you want to know more on how to do this have a look at Mike Breen’s material. It is excellent. We are working on our own discipling material that will be done in 2013.

Church factor #3 – Age segregated ministry, a body divided
A body that is divided cannot grow unless you are a worm. A few decades ago the youth ministry model became really popular and still is today. There are many good things that came through youth ministry. I was blessed by a good youth ministry in my teen years. But we cannot be blind to the problems that it fosters. 1) It isn’t geared to disciple. There are some exceptional youth ministries out there who do better at this but for the most part that is true. 2) Teens don’t know anyone in the rest of the church. Eric Brown said that if you have a viable youth ministry, you have at least two churches that are meeting in your building on Sunday. The teens don’t know the rest of the church. When it comes time for them to graduate out of the youth group the leap is too big and they jump ship. There are some transitions that can be made that will be discussed later.

Church factor #4 – Ecclesiology
Some churches haven’t changed their worship service in decades, if ever. I am not saying that is a sin, I am just making an observation. The tempting route here is to talk about how we need certain things in worship in order to make it relevant. I won’t deny that certain things will help connect with a younger generation but I that discussion comes after a much more important one. The discussion that has to happen first is to understand why a church can worship with the same order and the same songs and the same topics for 100 years and never make much of a visible change. This is a value issue that points to something under the surface that needs to be examined if we are going to reach the next generation. Here is how I can say that with confidence. Go into a church that has been doing it like that and move communion to the end of the service and see what happens. People will be up in arms over it! Why? Because we haven’t ever done it that way, it’s not scriptural to have it after the sermon, the guys who started this church would roll over in their graves if they knew we did that and on and on it goes. What you won’t hear is an actual scripture that says its wrong or that God even cares. What you will find is value in tradition that is so deeply rooted that it becomes destructive, stifling and insulating.

It is not the lack of powerpoint that will run young people off or keep new young people from coming in the first place. Faster songs won’t heal an unhealthy dynamic in a congregation. It is the actions, attitudes and underlying values that will take care of that. Before you can deal with the young people leaving issue you have to dig around in why you do the things you do and whether God is more concerned about when you have the Lord’s Supper or that your attitudes and values are driving away your own children. I think scripture is clear about the second and is absolutely silent on the first.

Church factor #6 – Leadership & Change
In Churches of Christ we are notorious for having a difficult time with change. Fear can keep us from addressing this issue. I grew up being taught that on every issue there is a right and a wrong. Change was bad because change could logically only have two outcomes (and both were to be avoided), 1) you either had to admit that what you were doing was wrong in order to do something different or 2) what you are doing now is right and the new way is wrong. Some churches are willing to go to their grave and shut their doors rather than tweak the negotiables. Some believe there is no such thing as a negotiable. There is a fear that the only way to reach 20 somethings is be negotiating core beliefs or even some very important, non-core beliefs and doctrines. We fear we will have to compromise scripture in order to reach them. That is just not the case. Leadership must be willing to disseminate control and responsibility even to young adults. They aren’t kids any more. They need a voice and they need to be heard. We might even fear what they will say if we let them speak. Well, get over it because some are leaving because no one cares enough about them to listen or love them.  Some will fear that these young people will want us to do some crazy things and it will all get out of control, nothing worse than losing control right? Control is an illusion. Did we ever really have control of things in the first place? What isn’t an illusion is their absence.

3 – The Family

 Family Factor #1 – Families are broken
The divorce rate remains high, even among Christians. Kids are experiencing trauma and hurt in their lives at a very young age. Teenagers today are exposed to things that you cannot even imagine. Substance abuse is becoming common place. Teenage pregnancy is running rampant. This is not just “out there” but in the church as well. Families are broken and the kids are feeling the pain as a result.

Family Factor #2 – Families aren’t  discipling their own kids
Youth ministry worked well when families were intact. As families have started to deteriorate and our churches have less and less intact families, the spiritual development of teens has been left in the hands of youth ministers as the families have spent less and less time developing their kids spiritually. It used to be common for families to eat together, pray together and even read scripture together, that is happening less and less. What is more, in our attempts to show how vibrant our youth ministry is parents have assumed that the ministry can disciple their kids. Again, if they attend, it must rub off. Youth ministry only works well as a supplement to what the parents are doing. Parents are doing less and less spiritual development. These kids are growing up and we are seeing the effects today in the mass exodus of young adults from our church.

About 10 years ago I worked with a bus ministry. Every week we knocked doors and every week we would bring in around 100 kids and 0 parents to the church. We formed relationships with them. We sang with them, taught them, baptized them and loved them. Now those kids are adults and very, very few of them that I am aware of are still actively involved in their faith and relationship with God. It wasn’t for lack of effort. The family card trumps the church card nearly every time. For more information on how families can disciple their own children see Impartfaith.com

4 – Culture

 Cultural Factor #1 – Post-modernism, Perceived Relevance & Questions
It is easy to see that the world has changed. Christianity is on the decline and agnostics are on the rise. Post-modernism has put the world in a “question everything” state of mind. That can be healthy. In some instances, the church wasn’t ready to give an answer to those questions. Or let me put it this way, we were so out of touch with the culture that we weren’t even aware of what questions people were needing answers to. Instead, some kept answering the same worn out old questions over and over again. When you spend your time answering questions no one is asking and ignoring or are ignorant of the questions people are asking you box yourself out of relevance.

Cultural Factor #2 – The Church’s position in society has changed
The church no longer holds the position in society that it once did. Church scandals, this lack of relevance, and a general distrust of absolutes (both moral, ethical and epistemological) have resulted on the macro level in a growing distance between the church and the unchurched. The politicizing of the church has also played a role for some in recognizing the church with one political party over another. It muddies the water of what the church exists for. However, on the micro level Christians have become so much like the surrounding culture that it can be hard to tell the difference between Christians and non-Christians. The actions, attitudes, and beliefs of both groups have gotten blurry. That can make church an unattractive place for a young adult who is looking for something different than they find in the world when they come to church and find the same antics they see in the world.

All of this to say, the church is losing its identity and place in the world. Now, that is to be expected if we are following our biblically mandated mission, that the world will not understand or even hate the church. It is tragic, though, if the church loses its place in the world because those inside and those outside the church are not radically different from one another. The church loses its relevance because people can find the same thing in church that they find in their workplace, their home, and everywhere else.

Culture Factors #3: The Need for Real Experience/Encounter
95% of the activity of the church is geared toward less than 1% of the week, that special hour of corporate worship on Sunday. They want a faith and teaching that translates into the other 99% of their life. The church “experience” doesn’t seem to reflect real life or the early church at all. We have traditionally favored logic and reason over emotion and yet emotion is still a part of real life and worship should not be distanced from reality. When worship is unengaged and seems like it is going through the motions, it doesn’t click with a culture that values transparency and authenticity. This includes things like a lack of celebration. Big things happen in the church…a lost person is saved and no one seems excited. It just doesn’t add up so it must not be real. They will leave. The structure of the church and its activities don’t match up with real life. There is no lament. The order of worship has too much order and not enough worship. Life is messier than what we put on on a given Sunday. Let it happen when it needs to happen.

 Combination of Factors Over One Main Reason

 What I have attempted to show here is that, while we all have our pet reasons about why young people are leaving, there isn’t one answer to that question. There is a constellation of issues that all culminate in a mass exodus of young adults from church and even from faith. There are more things that could be added but I figure 3200 words is a good enough running start. I am going to tackle what it is we can and should do about this in the next post.

For more information you can read my handouts from the 2011 Tulsa workshop on reaching 20 Somethings.

Bottom line – If you want to know why someone left, don’t get bogged down in all of this…go ask them. Let them know you love them and miss them. Invite them into your home and show them how much you care about them, even if they have made every mistake in the book.

Additional reading:

20s & 30s Section here at Kingdom Living – 40+ posts on ministering to 20s & 30s
James Nored
Why are Churches of Christ Shrinking (Part 1)
Why are Churches of Christ Shrinking (Part 2)

Danny Dodd – Everything Has Changed
Lynn Stringfellow – Why Our Kids are Leaving the Church
Russ Adcox – When I Grow Up

18 Responses

  1. GREAT summary Matt. We don’t need a simple, golden bullet. We need to ask questions about the nature of God, the nature of church, and the nature of change/growth. Thanks so much for your ideas here.

  2. Family is a HUGE reason. I have been blessed with an amazing family, we still do communion when all of us are together, we did family devotions, my parents pray with us over skype or google, we started every day praying as a family before we all went to school, I can’t even imagine not eating with my family if we’re all in town…and *everything* for me, started at home.

    Seeing my parents try their best to follow Jesus, seeing them love each other and us, having them talk about spiritual things with us – all of that, and so much more, made that relationship they talk about in church, that much more real.

    I think that culturally we treat the church much like how many parents treat the schools. “well if they go to school, I don’t have to teach them anything, it’s all on the teachers” And it’s not that the schools *can’t* teach their kids things, but it means so much *more* to kids when their parents are positively engaged in their education…and now, as teachers, we’re expected to parent their kids too =P but that’s a separate rant =P

  3. Well done and well said.

    I’d like to highlight something that you touched on. Our discipling process (such as it is) is woefully crippled by our binary view of doctrine.

    We assume that there is one right answer to every doctrinal question raised in the bible and that once that answer is found, we can stop seeking.

    Discipleship is the process of continually seeking to learn and obey what Jesus taught.

    Let me put it another way – our current model is to invite people to question every belief they’ve ever had and to adopt a radically different worldview, but we aren’t willing to do the same thing. Your psych professor was a good mentor because she walked with you and showed you exactly what it was she expected.

    If we expect others to be willing to question every belief they have and adopt a radically different worldview, then we need to lead by example. There can be no off-limits questions. We have to be willing to entertain any question and to re-examine every belief. If it was right the first time, it’ll still be right when you re-examine it, so there’s nothing to fear.

    Our refusal to walk with people in asking questions about faith and re-examining our beliefs is, in my opinion, at the root of our failure as disciple makers.

  4. church factor 1 – AMEN! I call this the stats over souls approach. To quote a pastor, “a thriving church, on paper, has more christenings than funerals per year… so we have to bring in 20-40 year-old married couples who can have babies to be christened into the church so statistically we look like a thriving church on paper.

    1. Thanks Darin. It is important that “relevant” be kept in quotes. The Gospel is always relevant to a dying world. But too often we dress up relevant and emphasize the wrong things, giving it the appearance of relevance but that actually makes it less relevant or relevant to the wrong things.

  5. It is sad that churches will not listen to the advice the younger generations want to offer. What other organization has people they do not want? Businesses generally don’t. The younger generations are reasonable people who are highly educated and yet churches are run by a few old donors. There is no way to learn than by doing, making a mistake, yet learning from it. Learning theory won’t cut it these days. Nor will just doing it the way it has always been done. The author got it right when he said churches weren’t answering the questions either. I believe that some elders/churches/ministers are scared to give an answer. Ministers fear for their jobs or being called down by the elders, who may not be as moderate. The elders fear the old donors will not donate like they once did if their opinions are not being propagated.

    Also, we all have doubt at times, and if you get angry at the doubter and don’t address that doubt with a legitimate well-thought response, then the doubter walks out. Do ministers who have been through years of seminary not know how to formulate a relevant homily? I hear so many sermons on Paul and Timothy, but they are not made relevant to the modern world. Isaiah would be far more relevant since he seemed to know what was going on. Go listen to the homily of an Anglican/Episcopal priest and then the difference will be obvious.

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