Young People Are Leading the Way. Will The Church Follow?

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Young People Are Leading the Way. Will The Church Follow?

By Rev. Dr. Shawn Casselberry

Most of the studies I have seen on young adults and faith indicate that young people are leaving the church in record numbers. According to the source, anywhere from 60-70% of young people drop out of church in their college years. Almost weekly another article surfaces explaining the latest reasons young people are leaving churches. Surely there is a lot to lament here, but I’m not sure these doomsday reports tell the full story.

Let me start by saying, I don’t believe the church is losing young people because we are asking too much from them; I believe we are losing them because we aren’t asking enough. We have made church a safe, clean, comfortable, and very low commitment consumer experience. We have become proficient in entertaining young people, but we haven’t done so well engaging them on things that matter to them. Our churches have more technology and special effects than ever, yet young people still seem bored and averse to church.

At Mission Year, where I’ve been working with 18-30 year olds for over a decade, I see that young adults are waiting for a challenge worthy of their time and commitment. We ask them to give a year to live in solidarity with neighbors in an urban neighborhood, build authentic community with a diverse group of young people, and put their faith to work by using their gifts to work for justice. We are seeing young adults fall in love with God and the city, come alive in their gifts and purpose, build beloved community across dividing lines, and become long-term advocates for justice and leaders who are changing the world.

We have learned that young people’s departure from the church is not necessarily a departure from faith or spirituality. They long for connection with God, they by and large like Jesus and want to live like him, and they’re desperately seeking an authentic expression of faith that looks more like the early church than it does a big box corporate church.

When I am facilitating young adult groups, I often ask them if they feel like they can be their authentic self in church. Sadly, the answer is almost always “no.” One time I asked a group of church leaders this same question and the pastor sheepishly admitted he didn’t feel his authentic self in church either. When I ask the follow-up question “why not?” I usually hear answers like “I feel like people will judge me” or “I feel like I have to be perfect or pretend like I have it all together.” Young people, like the rest of us, want a place where they can belong without judgment, where they know they’re loved, even in their brokenness.

They’re less interested in church as a corporation and more interested in church as a community of vulnerability and belonging. One of our Mission Year alumni is experimenting with a model of church that operates more like a 12 step program than a traditional high church or corporate megachurch model. Young people are eager to re-imagine church and many of our churches could use this renewal.

Young adults may be departing church but they aren’t departing from a commitment to address what’s broken in the world. The problem is, they don’t always see the church caring as much for the issues that they care so much about.

Although I grieve over the exodus of young people from the church, I am overjoyed at the outflow of young people into the world. This generation is wired for action and they are very concerned about justice. Many of the young adults I talk to are leaving the church because they don’t see how justice is connected to faith. More accurately, they don’t see churches standing for justice or standing against oppression. This is tragic, when Scripture is so clear that God is incredibly concerned about justice.

In our work at Mission Year, we try to show young people that justice is a priority of God’s kingdom and what Jesus wants his church to be about. We unpack passages like Amos 5, where the prophet tells the religious folks that God is not interested in their fancy and extravagant worship, God wants a deluge of justice to flood into all sectors of our world. We encourage them to take seriously the words of Jesus when he said the poor were blessed and that we would find him when we follow him to the margins of society.

What we do at Mission Year is show young people that justice is central to the gospel and their faith as Christians. Then we provide all kinds of ways for them to live it out in our messy and broken world. The cool thing is, they get it. They understand that without justice, our worship is shallow and our discipleship incomplete. They are seeking ways to live out their faith in non-churchy ways and in untraditional contexts.

Two of our alumni have started a neighborhood coffee shop on the south side of Chicago, where neighbors can build community and have deep conversations throughout the week. A couple who went through our Married Mission Year program recently started a school in Atlanta for kids falling through the cracks of our education system.

Another alum started a mentoring program for at-risk youth in Oakland after her Mission Year and has kept it going for the last 13 years. Another alum is starting an immigration legal clinic in Seattle. Overall, 1,250 young adults have devoted a year through Mission Year and are living out love for God and their neighbors in creative ways all over the world.

Young people are actually leading the way for the church right now, and we should follow. If they can’t find churches that care for justice, then maybe they are right to leave, because churches that ignore injustice are in disobedience to the God of Scripture.

Perhaps it’s not that young people aren’t interested in worship, but that they want a worship like Amos talked about, where instead of passively singing worship songs, they are challenged to live an active lifestyle of justice that flows out into all areas of society.

Perhaps young people aren’t signing up for traditional mission trips, but they are putting their bodies on the line in protest for the dignity and humanity of all people.

Perhaps they aren’t sitting in the pews, but they are leading us into the streets to put our faith into action.

Perhaps the great tragedy is not that young people are leaving the church, but that the church hasn’t followed them out the door.

Shawn Main BioRev. Dr. Shawn Casselberry is a passionate advocate for God’s justice, author of God is in the City, and Executive Director for Mission Year (www.missionyear.org), a national Christian ministry inviting 18-30 year olds to love God, love people, and be a force for justice in the world. You can follow him on Twitter @scasselberry.

About Benjamin L. Corey