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.