Hot Topic of the Week – Why are Young Adults Leaving the Church?

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This topic has been brought up for every generation of young adults since after the Vietnam War. It has received a lot of attention over the last several years especially and has been something I have spent a good deal of time writing about, speaking about and actually ministering to people from this “missing generation”. So this is of great interest to me and I know it is of great interest to many of you who read this blog. I want to point you to a couple of key reads that have come out recently so that you can enjoy some of the great conversations that are going on out there and also point you to a few of my own past posts on this topic:

A few recent posts you should read on the subject:

  1. Scot McKnight’s post Millennials are Leaving Church: really? is a brief review of Brad Wright’s Book “Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites…and Other Lies You’ve Been Told: A Sociologist Shatters Myths From the Secular and Christian Media.” which takes the record for world’s 10th longest book title and also challenges the idea that young people are actually leaving church at a faster rate than any other age group. Richard Beck of ACU posts in the comments and is cited in the book. If you don’t read Scot or Richard you should.
  2. Rachel Evan’s post Why Millennials Are Leaving the Church where Evans talks about what young people are really after. They want substance. They don’t want the old stuff spiffed up to seem knew and hip. They want roots. They want deep meaning. They want relevance and community and belonging. Getting below the surface is vital and sadly few churches know how to do that well, especially with a generation they just don’t understand.
  3. Richard Beck’s response to Rachel Evan’s post What Does Rachel Evans Want? is a very thoughtful post about a generation that desperately wants to be heard and the struggle of staying with a faith tradition that you think needs to change or jumping ship to another tradition and leaving your roots behind.

Note to Church leaders
You have to figure this one out. Forget everything you learned in seminary about how to do ministry. Forget everything you ever heard about what makes good worship. Forget everything those old books say about how to create community. Stop studying. Stop looking for the next quick fix. Stop scouring the web for the next ministry that is sure to get them in the door.

Instead, here is what you do…

  1. Pray for them daily
  2. Pick out a few young adults and actually get to know them outside of worship times
  3. Ask them questions
  4. Care about their answers
  5. Ask about their friends…and meet their friends (then do steps 1-4 for their friends too)
  6. Take what you learn from them and make that your textbook…let that shape your approach
  7. Involve them in leading the church in what comes next. Give them a seat at the table. We wait until people are 60 to put them in “leadership” positions and fail to develop new people while still in their 20s & 30s.

You aren’t going to like or agree with everything you hear them say. Get over it. The church will die because we were too proud to listen to them.

Here are some of my previous posts on why this group is leaving:

16 Responses

  1. Matt, in the case of those children that have been in church from the beginning, I would also add that they are usually not being discipled by their parents which is imperative. I think most parents take the modern American mindset that “my children are not my responsibility”, whether it be education or spiritual matters. Especially in the case of fathers, we must “bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord.” And, of course, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.”

    Also, because we live in a society that is not burdened with responsibility and accountability, it is no wonder that young people do not feel any need to be held accountable for their walk with the Lord, or lack thereof.

    1. Kevin,

      Your comments are right on track. There are a lot of things that have changed in the last few decades that lead me to believe this generation is different. I don’t think it means we act all hopeless or anything…there are great opportunities and openness among many young people even still.

    2. In the case of a friend of mine, I’m not sure if your statement applies (although I am sure there are parents who *don’t* disciple their kids). She and her husband have two kids. They took them to church, lived as models for Christ outside of church, talked to them about God outside of church. Both boys were baptized. One has left the church. There are times you can do everything right and you still don’t get the results you want.

    1. Young people are more drawn to Christ than many in the previous generation. When our culture was more Christian and it was easy to assume the people you knew had a Christian background of some sort, it became more interesting to get into doctrinal discussions via studying Paul than immersing oneself in Jesus. This generation wants to sit at the feet of Jesus and learn from him. That is a huge plus!

    1. The hypocrisy is a deal breaker for many teens and young adults. Parents have to learn how to model for their children not just what Christianity looks like when we “have it together” but also when we don’t. Don’t be afraid to admit you are wrong!

  2. Lets look at demographics. Most ministers are middle aged. Most elders are older if not just flat out old. All are generally white men; there is nothing wrong with that, I am one. Most ministers went to uni and seminary and got out with very little debt. Most minsters and elders got their jobs easily right out of school and their houses cheaply. They came from an era when a family could comfortably live on the man’s salary. These men got accepted into civic organizations, politics, and businesses easily and were welcomed, for the most part.

    How much do they know about the modern world? Today, both genders graduate uni or grad school with debt. Competition was fierce for college slots, grad/med school slots, first jobs, etc. Now, there is the constant fear of being laid off in some industries every quarter after the earnings announcement. Today young adults stay single longer, postponing family formation and live hand to mouth every month. Males may make less a their female counterparts. Females have even more pressure because some (religious) conservatives want to restrict medical care for women. Young adults do not feel like anyone who is charge in churches understands anything about today’s world. The same demographics are present in civic organizations, political parties, etc. Also, any time membership is by winning a vote, there is always a chance their ag and gender will be used against them. Churches of christ have a problem with females in any role other than subservient. Couple all this together and the world have changed very quickly.

    1. We have to be in tune with people. Everything you said can be found out by having a conversation with people in their 20s. It is no secret. The question is whether or not church leadership is interested or willing to listen and care. I am a huge proponent of giving this group a voice in the church because they have so much to offer and because it prepares them for future leadership and involvement in kingdom movements (if we are involved in any to begin with).

  3. If the leadership isn’t interested then the last man standing can choose which realtor can list the building and close the door behind him.

  4. In my humble opinion, as an Elder I am not concerned with what people want. My job is to give them what they need. What they need is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is the Gospel that has the power to save. It is God’s word that man needs to feed on. Their need, is the blood of Jesus. Gimmicks of all kinds have been tried over and over and they will fail. We need to seek the old paths, we need to do as those in the first century did, preach the word, be ready in season and out. The only thing that will convict a man’s heart is God’s word, so let us preach it. I’m not concerned with numbers, God provides the increase. Each one in the church has the responsibility of personal growth. If we will live the holy and righteous lives we are called to live, preach the truth, the numbers will come. If we catch them with a gimmick, it will take gimmicks to keep them. The lost need to connect to the Father and His will by way of the implanted word of God. If they only connect with me, what do I have? nothing more than a lost friend.

    1. Jeff,
      Your lack of concern for what people want, especially as an elder, scares me. What if people want an in depth bible study? What if people want a homily that they can apply to their lives? What if people want to be heard as part of a church? What if people want answers to difficult questions? These are all wants, but I do not believe for one moment they are wrong, immoral or improper.

      I agree with you re the need for the gospel. However, I do not think everything else is a gimmick. I think you need to sit back and think about what you said and consider how it can be read and see if you still hold that view.

  5. Dear Matt,

    I almost made the mistake of answering the wrong question, i.e. not why are there so many youngsters leaving the Church these days, but why is there a loss of interest in the Church amongst today’s younger generations. Well, maybe it is the same question. I read the spirited defence of traditional eldership by Jeff, but “the voice of one crying in the wilderness” occurred in a believing culture eagerly awaiting the predicted imminent arrival of their Saviour. (Even the Sanhedrin knew the Daniel 9 prophecy, could do their sums, and wondered if John the Baptizer was the man who ought to have been arriving about then.) The normal attitude of today’s culture towards the Saviour is more like 10CC’s “The second sitting for the Last Supper”, and that’s only when guilt over their own sinful state and the ineffectualness of good intentions kicks in.

    I’m sorry but today’s is a different kettlle of fish. The society is not driven by some spiritual vision like Augustine’s ‘City of God’ concept, but by a humanistically-PRd balancing act effected by an unholy mix of pragmatic materialists and self-enhancing know-it-alls & chancers. It doesn’t have, from the Bible, a vision of future glory that it can conceptually imagine – it lost that somewhere in the past (during the Napoleonic Wars I think) when our ‘leading thinkers’ decided that the race would be the arbiter of its own future regardless. It then spent the next two centuries sloughing off the skein of the ancient regime while, in the process, losing somewhat the meaning of “walking humbly before” and “showing reverence to” Almighty God. The relative security of today’s society encourages people to say whatever they want with impunity, even to mock and disbelieve in heavenly powers that they should be terrified of, given what they can do. For many of those not old enough to shoulder the burdens of adulthood, God, Christ, the whole religious ethos thing is at best a successful example of long-term humanism changing society for the better; otherwise, these are impinging uncomfortable and inconvenient topics best left confined to aging church congregations and zealot do-gooders working in rthe overseas and internal social missions scene.

    Consequently, given that the society has reached a relatively civilized hiatus, many people think that they can get along just fine without considering imponderable issues regarding continuance and the spirit, never mind God’s righteous impending judgement of them. It’s a cliche, but probably true, that in a non-perilous situation, one doesn’t get round to considering death and afterwards till it’s staring one in the face. Therefore, when they live in a secular society that seems to get along without many hiccups (as ours seems to), the younger generation are not going to go into panic mode like Job (and those many people who lived thru some of the terrible events that seem to make up a lot of recorded history) and go seeking answers from God, until it’s too late. If their parents and community supported church worship they might, if community-minded, follow in the well-trodden footsteps – we are for-the-most-part community-minded in our up-bringing and life-habits. However, the move to a modern networked society is, I’m afraid, leading to increased solitary ways-of-living where the hedonism of the online media and TV soaps and movies, rather than enquiry after knowledge of God and the purpose of existence, seems to be enslaving minds and puppyfying bodies. I feel that if you can’t make meaningful conversation on the whole enchelada of existence with younger people (for today’s secular education seems to filter out the concept of spiritual reality, reducing it to cultural myth) then you have already lost contact with them. You’re speaking a language that they don’t understand, and your concerns over spiritual matters seem nonsensical and irrelevant to them.

    Worried? You should be. Right away you need to rein in the up-surge in atheistic educators – thru the entire education system – and those of your silver-tongued politicians and lawyers who care nothing for spiritual matters, or you’ll lose any chance of having spiritual development in your children. These often meticulously clever secularly-minded people are in the process of removing any spiitual dimension from perceived reality. They value materialism and mammon – not the things of God – and because they don’t understand such things, they will tend to destroy any chance of eternal life for those influenced by them. (Eternal life? You must be joking. Make the best of the here and now. It’s all you’ve got. Anything else is for schmucks!) Consider them as souls needing saved if you like, but get your priorities right or you’ll be setting your children up as victims. Jeff is right: it’s generally not the churches nor the message that they preach that is the problem. It’s the hidden agendas in a society where many educators are secularly-minded, and many politicians are apparently mercenary salesmen trading moral values for the chance of new votes. I say register your disgust at the ballot box – if your local representative isn’t pulling his/her weight then pull them out and put in somebody who has spiritual values – and in the PTA and other community-enhancing organisations. It’s not unconstitutional to insist on proper Christian education for your children – the constitution was enframed for a basically Christian (not a merely humanist) society. It’s not unconstitutional: it may be inconvenient. The legislature maybe can’t insist on religious education being part of the curriculum, but it also can’t insist on it being withheld. What can be seen as proper religious education is between you,the electorate, and the educators that you employ. When teenagers understand the importance of what the Christ achieved and who/what He is, because they understand what you are talking about, then, God willing, you’ll fill the pews.

    That’s my thoughts on the matter: ‘carpe diem’ while you still can.

    Best wishes in Christ,

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