Six Reasons Youth Leave the Faith: …and what to do about it (I)

The Barna group has recently released a book entitled, “You Lost Me”, and this article offers a succinct summary of six main reasons that young people are leaving the church.  I’m grateful that church I lead in Seattle is generally swimming upstream against this trend.  We’ve grown from around 300 people to 2500 over the past 15 years and most of our growth has come as people between 18-30 have found our church, some of them returning to church life after a ‘vacation’, either from the faith or from the institutional aspects of it.

Established churches can effectively reach emerging generations for Christ.  Indeed, they need to do so, not for the sake of their institution, but for the sake of the kingdom and the hearts of those millions wandering aimlessly through the maze of individualistic consumerism that has come to characterize life in the prosperous west.  Imagine a generation of vibrant, creative, adaptable, curious youth who have grasped the good news message the God’s reign has begun through Christ, and are intent on making that reign visible?  They’ll enjoy the blessings of their commitment, and will rise up to bless the world.

Why doesn’t this happen?  Barna’s survey results mention six reasons, which I state here, along my own thoughts about what churches must do in order to vaporize these critiques, providing instead, an environment that invites people into the good news of God’s better story:

1. Churches seem overprotective. One student notes that churches “demonize everything outside the church”.  A generation that has unprecedented access to all facets of culture will reject any paradigms that call them to isolate and withdraw.  Jesus’ advocates that His followers be “in” the world.  If they’re to be “in” it but not “of” it, then they’ll need to learn skills of discernment, which means trying to understand what God is saying through cultural artifacts, by recognizing that humanity’s longings for meaning, beauty, intimacy, justice, and more are actually longings for God.  Instead of labeling culture ‘evil’, why not watch movies and discuss them, or play music and show how the lyrics speak of longings for love, or the despair of materialism, or the emptiness of violence.  There’s plenty in culture that points to God, if we’re willing to look at it.  I use lyrics from bands, movie clips, and references to sport in my teaching – not constantly, but enough to create an environment that encourages discernment rather than separation, and enjoyment rather than fear.

2. Their experience of  Christianity is shallow. “Church is boring” or “not relevant to my career” or “Church doesn’t teach the Bible enough” or “God seems absent from church”.  Ouch!  I understand that the church runs the risk of crass consumerism if we simply try to make church “exciting”.  However, “exciting” is merely a byproduct of:

Compelling Worship – Music style isn’t a moral issue.  It’s a language.  If you want to reach emerging generations, you need to be willing to speak their musical language, at least part of the time.

Christ at the center - Paul’s concern about people being seduced away from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ should be every church’s concern too.  To the extent that our paradigm becomes filling programs with people, rather than filling people with Christ, we’ll declare that our real mission is to create institutional loyalty.  That’s not only the wrong mission – it’s a mission that’s doomed to failure.  If you’re McDonald’s, creating brand loyalty is fine.  If you’re a church, that kind of mentality is the kiss of death.  Young people know when you’re real goal is creating institutional loyalty, no matter what your mission statement reads.  Calling people to Christ certainly means calling people to community, but we need to be careful not confuse institutional loyalty with community commitment.  The former is born out of consumerism and branding, the latter out of a passionate love for Christ, who is encountered not only through His word, but through relationships.

3.  Churches come across as antagonistic to science. When young people are taught that belief in anything other than a very young earth is tantamount to abandonment of the faith, we’re setting them up for a later fork in the road.  Eventually, most of them will encounter an avalanche of evidence that the earth is old (and discoveries surrounding the human genome over the past decades only serve to further reinforce this assessment).  In light of what they’ve learned in church, they’ll be forced to choose:  faith or science?

It’s a choice they should never have been forced to make.  Sound Bible teaching, from an early age, will enable people to understand that God’s point in offering the creation narrative to us is to show us God’s character, man’s high calling as image bearer, and the glory of God’s abundant provision for humanity.  I’ve preached about this here, and this book will also prove itself to be a valuable resource.

Taken together, these three critiques paint a picture of a church that is afraid:  afraid of culture, afraid of losing members, afraid of intellectual engagement and questions.  Jesus’ word to us though, numerous times, is this: Do not be afraid!   Stated positively, Jesus says this:  Abide in me and you’ll bear much fruit.  To the extent that we abide in Christ, confident expectation that Christ will bear fruit can displace our fear.  Such hope is what emerging generations are seeking – isn’t it high time they began seeking it in the church?

I welcome your thoughts!

coming Monday – the other three reasons, which have to do with sexuality, pluralism, and freedom to doubt.  See you then!

About Richard Dahlstrom

As Pastor of Bethany Community Church in Seattle, Richard teaches with vision of "making the invisible God visible" by calling people to acts of service and blessing. It's working, as a wilderness ministry, homeless shelter, and community meals that serve those living on the margins are all pieces of Bethany's life. "We're being the presence of Christ" he says, "and inviting everyone to join the adventure." Many have, making Bethany one of the fastest growing churches in America in 2009 according to Outreach Magazine.

  • http://donaldhmills.com Don Mills

    I’m 57 and quit attending church about 10 years ago. It hurts, like losing a friend. I tried a few times to restart. I attended a “cathedral” church last Christmas and wish I’d stayed home. The church to me is like a brick building with all the windows and doors bricked up. I’m standing outside wondering how to get inside. Can anyone tell me how to get back in?

    • Duncan Parlett

      Hey Don, may I ask you a question: What made you quit 10 years ago?

    • Bill

      Don,
      Can’t say how sorry it makes me to hear you’re feeling closed out. Likely you are. Closed out of certain groups of people and programs and institutions. Fortunately, despite the appearance given by many church institutions we are never closed out by Jesus, even when his followers blow it. In fact Jesus is always knocking on OUR door asking to be let in to OUR lives, not inviting us into some brick walled barricade. And his people, where they can be found, strive (far from perfectly) to the same kind of invitation to friendship and community by going to each other, supporting and helping each other through the incredible beauty and unbearable crap of life.
      Be encouraged. God is with you and for you and so am I. Don’t give up. The church is Christ’s body. His people. Us. You and me. Let’s both keep looking for people who have been so changed by Jesus that they can’t keep from inviting others in and let’s both keep inviting people into our own lives. Particularly the One. That most confounding human of all whom God himself became for us.


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