Why are Young Adults Leaving the Church?

Kara Powell wrote an interesting article in Relevant Magazine called, “Why Young Adults are Leaving the Church.” Powell riffs on a Tim Clydesdale saying that young adults put religion/faith in “the identity lock box,” Both argue that when students leave high school they put everything really important to them in a lock box while they turn to embrace their college experience. Most likely they will return to church later on. The problem she describes is that this period of time is when many important decisions are made: career, spouse, etc. These decisions are made with a person’s faith in the lock box.

The reality is 40 to 50 percent of young Christians fail to stick with a church after high school. Many return after school & especially when they have families. There is an attempt underway to curb this reality & retain the demographic – people write about this constantly. The question is, why does this happen?

I’ve heard so many explanations & none of them ring true. The lock-box analogy describes part of the problem, but it still falls short. (WARNING: I’m about to channel Stanley Hauerwas, so brace yourselves 🙂

I believe that part of the problem is that we try to attack this issue via strategies & sociological research, neither of which can adequately describe the problem, nor can they offer an effective solution. We need a theological understanding of our culture, and our churches, in order to understand why this phenomenon is happening consistently.

The continuity of our liberal democracy and consumer capitalistic society requires a certain kind of person. This person must understand their self-worth to be integrally tied to how well their career choice generates income, and how conspicuously they can consume this income to gain social/cultural status. Each new generation of professional producers and consumers must be mobile and malleable without the kind of significant prior attachments which commitment and fidelity to a faith community requires.

College and young adult culture provides a sort of suspended space in which the bonds to family and church can be mitigated. The radical discontinuity of this phase of life allows the university & industry to do the job of making citizens who will be faithful not to the gospel of Christ, but to the gospel of production and consumption. Our society cannot go forward on its current path – with no limits on our consumption and expansion – without a significant period of intentional formation for our young people; forming them in such a way that they have no prior commitment strong enough to resists the demands put upon them by Liberal Democracy and global capitalism. Think about it. Even state universities now are controlled as much by business as anything. Corporations need a work force which is mobile – without roots in a faith community – whose identity is viewed in terms of the ability to “succeed,” i.e. faithfully produce and conspicuously consume. For our society to continue on our current path of limitless consumption and constant expansion, we must create people who believe their identity to be tied to production and consumption, not to the gospel. This formation happens in a person’s twenties.

The problem isn’t sociological, or strategic. It is theological. It’s a problem with the theology of the church, specifically in regard to our understanding of the gospel itself (though anthropology is obviously part of it). The gospel – on the left and right alike – is private, and spiritual. It’s only about you and your personal faith (defined as getting “into heaven when you die”). I don’t care how good their strategy is, if the people who want to go wage war for the soul of the 22 year old are not equipped with a gospel rich enough, or radical enough to entice them away from the adventure of their own start-up company, or a condo in Seattle. The church’s inability to see the system for what it is, to unmask it and counteract it with a story of fidelity – that is the problem. Our gospel isn’t big enough to allow us to see the suspended space of college and the radical discontinuity of 20 something culture for what it is: a period of intentional socialization and habituation (you might even call it discipleship), which is required to build yet another generation of people who will support a culture of limitless and expanding production and consumption.

That we have ignored this reality as we’ve raised our kids, never teaching them to recognize and resist the consumer/producer identity, never equipping them with a gospel that is concerned with ALL OF LIFE… this is the problem we face as the church. When they leave our homes for college or work – still malleable and pre-disposed to “try new things” – our culture can transform them into what it needs them to be: faithful producers and consumers who will literally work and shop until they drop.

20 somethings leave church because our current society depends up this happening. They must become disconnected, more mobile, severing old ties to relationships, church families, etc., so that they can be discipled in Liberal Democracy and global capitalism into the kind of people who will perpetuate the myth of a world without limits. We will never effectively arrest this reality unless our gospel becomes concerned with every aspect of our lives; unless our gospel begins to make all consuming demands upon our lives; unless we allow Jesus to become Lord.

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  • Erik Leafblad

    Tim –

    This is good and incisive commentary. For my part, this is why the doctrine of vocation so arrests my attention. The church tends to have a doctrine of career that mimics the pragmatic, and as you point out, Liberal Democratic values of the world, yet struggles to suggest anything about what it means to be human, and thus live faithfully human. Vocation arises from within a story because vocation carries implicit and explicit values. I've long felt recovering a robust doctrine of vocation as anchoring norm for this conversation will make significant headway for how the church walks faithfully with young people.

  • Good words on vocation. I think of vocation in terms of Christian identity as well. To be Christian is not a belief system or a religious or social belonging, it is a vocation.

  • Thanks for writing this. I'm getting together with some pastors in my community tomorrow morning to talk about why young adults are leaving the church. I have my own theories, but what you've written is quite compelling.

  • Thanks again for this Tim. If anyone wants to wrestle in depth with this as a whole (returning to evangelism as simply declaring "Jesus is Lord"), Bryan Stone's book Evangelism After Christendom is helpful. Don't look for pragmatics there though (that would be contrary to the point).

  • Great piece. I think this is why I'm so drawn to Peter Rollins' work and writings…it's very much a social gospel and there is no delineation. I'm sure you know his stuff, but check out 'How {NOT} To Speak of God' 1st.


  • It's funny that you bring that up, Ross. I'm literally reading Insurrection right now.

    Jeremy – I'm such a moron for not reading Stone's book yet. What have I been waiting on? I saw him at WTS last year – genius.

  • I suppose that young adults in Marxist countries, unfettered by capitalism and wanton consumerism, are models of churchmanship.

  • I suppose that young adults in Marxist countries, unfettered by capitalism and wanton consumerism, are models of churchmanship.

  • Erik Leafblad

    @ Seeker Billy Cox –

    Against better judgment, I'll bite. Of course that's what Tim is saying. For, if one critiques the reigning plausibility structure of Liberal Democratic Capitalism they must, ipso facto, support Marxist ideology. Or, perhaps Tim's point was that the church has its won plausibility structure called the gospel, which calls into question Liberal Democratic Capitalism, Marxism and any other ideology.

    C'mon man, tell me you see that nuance?

  • SBC – You may suppose that, but I do not. It's pretty orthodox to believe that wherever we find ourselves living as Christians, we are to refuse to worship the false Gods of that culture. In our culture consumerism is a false god. We are also to resist any narrative which tries to tell us we are anything other than citizens of the kingdom of Heaven. We are resident aliens in this country or any country – a distinction which extends to financial systems, be they capitalism, socialism, etc.

  • A facebook thread led me here. These are valid points, and there may be some other reasons the Christian theology is driving young people away from the church. No young person should ever be required to choose between faith and physical realities. If any theology is inconsistent with reality, I can confidently predict which one must change if it is to be deemed credible, and thus valuable.

  • Diane

    Looking at this issue as a parent of young adults, with friends who have young adult children and as a spouse of a minister for over 30 years, the anecdotal evidence I have tells me a significant reason for losing young adults is due in no small part to their disappointment with clergy and church leadership in the arena of character and faithfulness. Another criticism I hear often, is the message too often preached is not Biblical; but "Christian cultural."And these young people are intelligent enough to know the difference. The church community is not viewed as any safer, or more credible than the secular culture.

  • "a significant reason for losing young adults is due in no small part to their disappointment with clergy and church leadership in the arena of character and faithfulness"

    That's a sad thing to hear, but something tells me it's a common reality.

  • Diane nailed it! Sad, but true.

  • Tim –

    I don't disagree with your analysis but I think you overlooked a somewhat less nefarious explanation – the loss of community in our churches. As you know, my kids grew up in an evil megachurch, but given my role in that particular church they knew dozens of people who had been part of their lives since they were born (literally).

    Church has lost that connection to "family" – and seems like a chore – since we move,d but when we're back in K.C. they are always excited to go to church.

    In 8-10 years, when they're both out of college, I suspect that they will think of that evil megachurch as their church home because it was the community they grew up in. Sadly, having visited lots of churches over the last two years, we've discovered just how hard it is to find community in the church, and when a church isn't a community it's incredibly easy to walk away at any time because nobody is going to miss you.


  • Good thoughts Clarke. Also – I know you already know this because we've talked about it… but, for the record: I don't think the Megachurch is evil, especially the church you are talking about. I love Heartland & am a fan of their ministry! They have been innovators & effective church-planters. Nearly half of my ministry life has been done in the HCC family. I have tons of friends there & still feel like what I'm doing is an extension of that.

    But, I am trying to make a general critique for the church at large. I'm aware that this will be taken personally by those who are currently giving their lives to a Mega Church & that it calls some of my project into question. I am assuming that living in that tension is worth it, in order for me to be able to try and think theologically about what the church is and what it is for, as well as why the current church is what it is.

    Sorry for the rant, but it's helpful to write this every once in awhile – if for no other reason than to remind myself that I have a history which I cannot escape, and wouldn't want to 🙂

  • I got indoctrinated with Hauerwas at Duke Divinity School so I'm familiar and on-board with your theological analysis. But what's the practical application? I don't think that taking our youth into DC to camp out in Macpherson Square is going to change how they respond to the idolatry of career and consumerism they're faced with when they get to college.

  • Morgan, thanks for the comment. Your question about the practical application is a good one. I think I'm trying to say that the way to understand what is happening will come with a more theological understanding of church and society. The practical applications will be local, contextual, and infinite. The first step, in my opinion, is a clear self-understanding of what it means to be the church, and how we should relate to society. When we shed our identity as producers/consumers and embrace a truly Christian identity, then we will begin to embody a different way of being in the world – a new humanity, which can be lived out in an infinite number of ways.

  • Anonymous

    Maybe they are leaving the Church because they are not saved and are only religious.
    I was raised going to church my whole life, but I was not saved and I followed the ways of the world. Currently the ways of the world do not support attending a church, prior generations did support attending church and being religious. Attending church and being religious does not mean you have been again in Jesus Christ.