Christian Living

Why Are Young People Leaving the Church?

There is a startling trend that seems to be coursing its way through the veins and vessels of the American church.  It is both alarming and unsurprising simultaneously.  This phenomenon causes anxiety, disbelief, anger, and even a blissfully unaware disposition among the other members of the body of Christ.  What I am speaking of is not new, nor is it hopeless, but it is something that needs desperately to be addressed.  What I am talking about is the number of young people who seem to be leaving the church at a rapid clip.  I think the church has known for some time now that many students quit going to church or even having any sort of spiritual/religious component in their lives at all once they leave high school and embark on their path to college and career.  Before we move on we need to establish what we mean by “young people.”  I feel young (most days) although if you ask my students if I was young, you’d likely see widened eyes and hear smatterings of laughter.  By the definition I am going to use I am no longer a part of the “young people” because that age range is 15-22 years of age.

Christianity Today published findings that 70% of young adults drop out of church [1].  What I want to look at in this post is why is this trend happening, and what can we do to stop hemorrhaging?  So let’s dive right in.  Why are young people seemingly leaving the church?

1.  Churches Are Avoiding Hard Conversations and Failing at Discipleship

By this I am not speaking of a view where everything is permitted and there are no checks and balances.  This is chaos.  No one expects (or frankly wants) the church or any place else to function in a way where nobody can have differing opinions, disagreements, or even wrestle with issues.  When I speak of safe place what I am referring to is somewhere where people can be themselves, baggage and all, and still be met with biblical truth.  A safe place is where a skeptic can ask hard questions without fear of anger or judgment.  A safe place is where Jesus is more important for the church goer than their own bubble of comfort.  A safe place is where a body of believers gather together to life up the name of Jesus regardless of political leaning, race, ideologies, or baggage that is carried because there is a recognition that everyone is jacked up and everyone needs a Savior (John 8:1-11; Romans 3:23; Romans 6:23).

I am not saying the church fails everyone, nor am I saying the church concedes biblical principles in order to accommodate everyone’s personal opinions and the social justice flavor of the week, but what I am saying is that unfortunately most people are more familiar with church’s anger and vitriol on politics and issues they are opposed to than the love of Jesus which should supersede everything else.  My friend Simon once told me, “People know the church more for what they hate than who they love,” and I agree.  I work with youth (7th-12th grader) and have for 17+ years, and in that time I’ve engaged with some really hard difficult questions from students.  I have also seen students ask questions and been offered no response, a canned response, or repudiated and rebuked for even being willing to ask such questions by others within the church.

Let’s face it, there are just some questions we are not going to be comfortable talking about.  Whether we don’t have enough knowledge on the subject, we disagree with a stance, we feel awkward, or we are simply apathetic, this will be picked up on by young people.  Once they sense an unwillingness to even have a conversation they are often turned off altogether or worse they seek answers from sources that are not biblically grounded.  So what happens when church is no longer a place where young people can be real and ask hard questions?  They leave. David Kinnamon found in a study that nearly three out of five young Christians disconnect from church after the age of 15 [2].

Young people, perhaps more than any other demographic are looking for answers to life’s questions.  They are still trying to figure out their place in the world and this looks like, and so they will have a naturally curiosity and perhaps even a cynicism that is blossoming.  The church historically would rather gloss over these issues and questions and just feed young people very safe answers in order to maintain a certain type of image.  Issues like sexual identity, science, and even things like reliability of Scripture, evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, or basic critical thinking questions are often simply discarded and disregarded.  This makes young people (and all people really) feel like they’re opinions, thoughts, and questions are not worth talking about and as a conclusion, neither are they.  The church [body of believers] must do what the Bible says and calls us to do that is to give biblical answers to those who are asking questions (1 Peter 3:15).

I understand there are certain topics that are not part of everyone’s circle of expertise, but there is always someone who can be called upon to help, and in this age of Google there is more information at our fingertips than any other time in history.  Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know, but let me see what I can find out.”  When it comes to the church we can disagree with people, we can say we don’t know, and we can find out as much as we can to better answer questions and lead people to a Jesus shaped life. The only thing we cannot do is do nothing.

If you are a church member and a young person finds the courage to ask you a hard question or raise a controversial issue the best thing you can do is affirm them, love them, and present the Bible. You may not know as much as you’d like and it will likely cause you to exit your comfort zone, but that is exactly what Jesus calls us to do (Matthew 16:24-26).   Invest in young people or else we show apathy in their exodus.

The other part of this equation is churches are with an alarming frequency failing to make disciples with young people.  This is the antithesis of what we are called to do in the great commission (Matthew 28:19-20).  In the area of youth ministry I see this far too often.  Many youth ministries are so focused on getting their numbers up for their weekly attendance or entertaining students they often forget or fail to create disciples.  So much of the time youth ministries focus on games and entertainment, but put little to no emphasis on training the next generation of church leaders and Christ followers.  The same study by Christianity Today remarks,

“If your student ministry is a four-year holding tank with pizza, don’t expect young adults to stick around. If, however, they see biblical teaching as relevant and see the church as essential to their decisions, they stay.”[3]

The focus of the church whether it is youth ministry, children’s ministry, senior adult ministry, etc. is to teach biblical truth unapologetically and truthfully.  We must be willing to understand that our goal is not building up our ministries, but our goal is building the Church.  I understand I am making a very general statement, and there are many local churches which are making disciples who will make disciples, but it is still something we must understand and be honest about.  The only way the church will be able to climb out of this pit and help young people stay connected is by being prepared to adequately respond with a biblical worldview and a resolute yet tender response to tough questions and issues.

2.  It Starts and Ends at Home

While the church and the ministries therein certainly play vital and pivotal roles in the spiritual formation of young people, it cannot be understated that  Christian parents are the primary ministers and influencers in the lives of their children.  There is a real problem which seems to be growing more each day.  What’s the problem?  With an alarming frequency, Christian parents are relying on the church to form the bulk (if not all) their children’s spiritual foundations.  Parents feel awkward too, and often they are faced with questions they either do not have answers or are uncomfortable discussing and so what happens?  They tell their children to ask the youth pastor, pastor, children’s pastor, Sunday School teacher, etc.  Instead of just addressing the awkwardness parents push their children to another source.  This is quite problematic.

Christian parents have an unbelievable opportunity to speak truth and life into their children every day, and yet more often than not they rely on others in the church who only get around one to two hours a week with their children to the spiritual sowers.  This picture is all wrong.  Yes, ministers, pastors, church members are called to help spiritual growth and offer all the resources available, but the primary people who should disciple and minister to their children are dropping the ball and relying on a model that is not found in the Bible.  I’m not advocating that children and youth ministers should not have a place or job in the church, but what I am saying is these positions exist because Christian parenting by the standard of the Bible has largely diminished.  What is the standard?

“What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.” – Philippians 4:9

Monica Geyen writes,

Our children are watching us. Do we merely talk about Jesus occasionally, or are we daily being disciples of Jesus? If children are “like arrows in the hand of a warrior” (Psalm 127:4), we need to be consistently mindful of the bullseye. These arrows will fly aimlessly if they are not aligned with the Great Commission. We have the privilege of cultivating disciple-makers by inviting our children into life on mission with us. [4]

My friend, Jane Wilson of the BGCT, calls parents who expect the church is the place where all spiritual formation takes place “dry cleaner parents.”  What she means so often parents drop off their kids at church for an hour or two a week and somehow expect their kids to arrive at home “clean” and spiritually formed.  Too often parents have relied more on the church and ministers to do a job that was designated as  a responsibility for the parents.  When their young people leave the church they look bewildered and wonder why the church failed them, but the painful truth is they have in many ways failed their own children by refusing to be the primary ministers and disciple-makers within their homes.

In an alarming survey, out of 2,000 Christian parents who regularly attend church were asked to define successful parenting only 24% included their child is godly or has faith in God as a marker for success. [5] Is it any surprise then that so many young people are leaving the church when their own parents are not making concerted efforts at home to promote spiritual formation, growth, and discipleship?

The other main issue that occurs at home that is a key contributor to young people leaving the church is many Christian parents put emphasis on the wrong things and then wonder why their child leaves the church. The blame has often been on college.  College is an easy scapegoat for parents as an answer to why their children have left the church.  Perhaps young people are being exposed to new ideas and religions or perhaps science and philosophy are to blame, but that is not what the data says. Matt Chandler, pastor at The Village Church in Dallas, in a recent sermon affirms the data that is already being found and shared when he says,

Kids are not being secularized in college.  They’re being secularized t home before they’re sent to college by well-meaning Christian parents who can’t tease out the value balance between sports and activities and the gathering of the people of God…this is what’s true about the data, half-hearted obedience to Jesus Christ in this generation leads to full rebellion against him in the next…I’m dedicated to helping my children as best I can understand what is of supreme value and what is a good gift. [6]

As parents, if we do not show the supremacy of Christ in our lives and the value of Jesus over and above every other thing then what we are essentially doing is elevating gifts above Giver.  Neither Chandler or I are advocating that sports or any other extracurricular activities are wicket inherently and provide no value, but rather the argument is those things far too often take precedence over spiritual formation and growth.  Our job is not to make sure our children are the best athletes, musicians, scholars, or anything else, but our job is to make sure our children make Jesus and the church the ultimate priority starting young, and this will extend into adulthood.

I realize that I have made many general statements that are not universally true.  There are tons of Christian parents who are doing exactly what they’re supposed to do.  They are making much of the name of Jesus and created disciples at home.  I understand there are many churches which are engaging culture and difficult issues/questions so please do not hear that I am attacking anyone or any institution.  Rather what I am seeking to do is answer the question, why are young people leaving the church?  I understand it’s a broad topic, but I believe the two reasons I have highlighted here are two of the key components that help us answer that question.

So What Can I Do?

If you’re a church member, minister, lay person, etc. then you can be real.  Be honest.  Be vulnerable.  Be willing.  Allow your comfort zone to collapse and engage young people without fear or ulterior motives.  Instead of trying to convince them you’re right, show them the truth of God’s Word which never returns void (Isaiah 55:11).

If you’re a parent, be willing to be the primary minister to your children.  It’s hard.  It’s awkward.  It’s frustrating at times, but in the end, it will always be worth it.  Showcase Jesus in your own life and model how that looks to your kids.  You’re going to fail.  Be OK with that, but be willing to acknowledge your failure contrasted with the redemptive work of Christ. Your responsibility is mammoth, but the reward is great.

Sources

[1].  “Dropouts and Disciples: How Many Students Are Really Leaving the Church?” The Exchange | A Blog by Ed Stetzer. Accessed April 12, 2018. http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2014/may/dropouts-and-disciples-how-many-students-are-really-leaving.html.
[2]. Kinnaman, David, and Aly Hawkins. You Lost Me Discussion Guide: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church–and Rethinking Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: BakerBooks, 2012.
[3]. Ibid.
[4]. “Stay-at-Home Disciple-Makers,” Desiring God, last modified April 12, 2018, https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/stay-at-home-disciple-makers.
[5].  Magruder, Jana. Nothing Less: Engaging Kids In A Lifetime of Faith. Nashville: Lifeway Christian Resources, 2017.
 [6].  “Dangers of Secularizing Our Children.” YouTube. December 22, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=neGGIN9Y2hg.