Why Do Young People Leave the Church? That’s the Wrong Question

There’s a lot of buzz in evangelical churches about young adults.  It’s everywhere, from church ministries to surveys, books to blog posts.  Speculation abounds as to why youth are graduating high school and leaving church (local) behind and what it means for the future of the Church (worldwide).  In fact, there is even some disagreement about what it means for the individual young adults in question—are they leaving their Christian faith behind, or just the institutional church?  Does this include youth from all of Christianity, or just the evangelical set?

I think that the panic over the loss of young people is twofold.  First, well-intentioned Christians are worried that young people leaving the church means losing their faith, or possibly that they never actually had any to begin with (for those who believe one can’t lose one’s salvation).  For people who see unbelief as a one-way ticket to Hell, then it’s understandable that folks would be afraid for kids who leave the church.  Worry over eternal souls is a powerful motivator.

Second, and probably for most people more at a subconscious level (I hope), is the fear that our churches eventually won’t have anyone left.  If all the young adults leave, who will carry on the ministries when older people retire or die?  Who will be left to fill the seats?  Sadly, this is probably what drives some churches’ “outreach” as well.  It’s hard to argue with the idea that if we don’t get new people inside the building, the church will go the way of so many others and eventually close its doors forever.

Everyone has an opinion on what it would take to keep our young people.  We develop ministries, try to cater to young people, imitate celebrity pastors in an attempt to appear “relevant” to the younger generation.  Are these things making a difference?  It’s hard to tell at this point.

If you ask me, we need to throw it all out and start from scratch.

I notice a couple of things right away.  For one, we’re all a little pessimistic about the whole thing.  (This coming from me, the Queen of Pessimism.)  It sounds dramatic when we give statistics on the number of churches that go under.  But we’re not factoring in the number of megachurches that are continuing to experience growth, or the new churches that are springing up.  We’re not taking into account the reasons why churches close up shop.  Is it because all the members got old and died and all the young people left, or is it a failed church plant, or is it a church that engaged in foolish activity?  Those figures are often thrown about by a particular type of evangelical, the sort who believe they “know” which churches are “Bible believing” or “teach salvation.”  That alone can make it confusing.  Let’s take a step back and dig deeper instead of merely citing scary statistics.

For another thing, in our zeal to stop the bleed of young people, we’ve forgotten about the ones who didn’t leave.  Has anyone asked them why they stay?  Yesterday, my husband and I had the privilege of watching a friend be ordained as a Presbyterian minister.  We’ve known him since he was about twelve.  I have no words for how blessed I was that his first time serving communion as a Minister of the Word was to our children.  As far as I know, no one there was concerned with asking him why he stayed in the church.  Another friend of ours, whom we’ve known since he was younger than our children are now, is a missionary.  When we pledged to support him, we didn’t say, “So, how come you decided to keep on going to church when you graduated high school?”  These two young people are hardly oddities.  We know many young adults who are faithful Christians, actively engaged in the life of both their churches and the world around them.  They are missionaries, ministry leaders, musicians, pastors, and more.  They stayed, and they deserve more from us than stalking them to make sure they don’t change their minds.

Finally, we talk a lot about what we can do to coax young adults back into the church, what ministries or programs might work.  But one thing we don’t do is a whole lot of listening.  Or maybe we just don’t like what we hear when we ask young people why they leave.  We are happy to latch onto it when they say they don’t feel the sermons are relevant to their lives, or when they complain there’s no way for them to connect with each other, or that they don’t know how and where to serve.  But we don’t hear them when they say they see hypocrisy or they don’t like the way LGBT people are treated or they are frustrated by having to choose between science and the Bible as though they’re mutually exclusive.  We ignore them when they say that we’re too wrapped up in what happens inside the walls of our building.  We respond with, “Maybe we need to say it better, so they understand.”  We remind ourselves that we’re teaching “truth,” and that some people won’t like it.  We carry on fixating on intra-church ministry.  But we don’t examine ourselves, or ask young people why they have reached those conclusions.

Let’s stop looking at people as target populations.  Treating people like that doesn’t work in education or health, and it doesn’t work in church.  Jesus isn’t a brand to be marketed and sold, with research on what kind of advertising will attract the right demographic.  Maybe that’s exactly what our young people are seeing through when they say they don’t find church genuine enough.  Are we ready to stop looking for answers and start looking at people?

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