Youth Leave U.S. Pews Like Rats from a Sinking Church

Youth Leave U.S. Pews Like Rats from a Sinking Church February 21, 2023

Youth are leaving U.S. pews like rats from a sinking Church. Nigerian youth are leaving the country in droves. What do they have in common?

Like rats fleeing a sinking Church. Rats on rowboat, leaving sinking ship, with lighthouse in background
Image by Thomas Skirde from Pixabay

Nigerian Japa

In an article on All Things Considered, Emmanuel Akinwotu reports:

Young Nigerians are leaving the country in increasing numbers in search of a better life. It’s a trend that even has it’s own word — Japa — Yoruba for “to run, or escape.”

Japa is a playful Nigerian word that’s trending in that West African country for all the wrong reasons. It’s Yoruba for run away or escape, and many young Nigerians are doing just that in the thousands, leaving the country in search of a better life abroad. It was and still is a sort of comical expression, but it has also evolved into a more serious national talking point ahead of next month’s elections.

 

Japa From the Church

The Church is experiencing a similar kind of loss as its young people leave in record numbers. Attendance was already slumping pre-COVID. The pandemic took a huge toll on membership turnout, with many young people not returning after doors reopened. In a January article, The Guardian’s Adam Gabbatt reports:

About 4,500 Protestant churches closed in 2019, the last year data is available, with about 3,000 new churches opening, according to Lifeway Research. It was the first time the number of churches in the US hadn’t grown since the evangelical firm started studying the topic. With the pandemic speeding up a broader trend of Americans turning away from Christianity, researchers say the closures will only have accelerated.

And the predictions were right. Churches keep closing faster than new ones open. Pastors are quiet quitting the Church in frustration, and some are hanging up their robes altogether. Young people are the largest group of folks leaving the Church. Let’s look at the commonalities between U.S. Church decline, and Nigerian Japa.

 

What the Two Have in Common

You wouldn’t think that the American Church would have much to do with events and trends in Nigeria. But there are seven things the two have in common:

  1. Struggling economy

    Both Nigeria and the Church face a grim economic future. Worldbank.org reports that in Nigeria,“Inflation has surged to 21.1 percent y-o-y in October 2022, pushing as many as five million more Nigerians into poverty since the start of 2022. Fiscal pressures have intensified, exacerbated by the soaring cost of the petrol subsidy which will likely exceed five trillion naira this year.” By the same token, churches across the US are financially failing. Poor church economy leads to pastors pressuring members toward increased giving, and more people leaving because of that pressure.

  2. Influx of “undesirables”

    According to Monsuru Sodeeq, many young Nigerians Japa because of the influx of herders into urban areas. Because Nigerian society has not figured out a way to integrate urban and agrarian needs, many leave. Similarly, the Church experiences a loss of members because it has not managed to incorporate elements of the old and new. Young people arrive and feel rejected by older generations. So, they leave, taking their vitality with them. LGBTQIA+ folks arrive and feel rejected by conservatives. So, they leave, taking their talents with them. When the Church considers one or another group as “undesirables” and refuses to figure out how to integrate everyone, someone’s bound to Japa.

  3. High rate of conflict

    Oyetoun Olabisi writes, “From the research conducted by Pew Research Center, one of the reasons Nigerian adults want to Japa from the country is the high rate of conflict.” Akinwotu says that much of this conflict surrounds the upcoming Nigerian election. This high rate of conflict is true in the Church, as well. Nobody wants to stick around when governmental politics, church politics, and discord over social issues cause continuous strife. Young people simply say, “I’m out!”

  4. Better career opportunities

    Olabisi cites the lack of career opportunities in Nigeria as another reason why young people Japa. This is true of the Church as well. As the Church shrinks, many young people who might feel called to ministry turn instead toward other careers. The result is a minister shortage, which results in churches without pastors. This leads to churches shrinking or closing down. It’s a vicious cycle. But what’s a young person to do, when they feel called to minister, yet they see no future in the church? While those who feel called to ministry probably won’t leave the Church altogether, their Japa from ministry careers takes a toll on the Church.

  5. Need to explore

    Sodeeq cites “the need to explore the world and seek new challenges” as another reason why young Nigerians leave. Young church members Japa for the same reasons. Just as Nigeria (or any single nation, for that matter) has little to offer compared to the rest of the world, so the Church offers a limited perspective. When the Church insists that exploration equals leaving the fold, young people say, “Fine—I’ll leave,” rather than staying put and suppressing their need to explore.

  6. Concern for the future

    Both Nigeria and the Church fear for the future, as a significant number of their young adults leave. Who will pay for the infrastructure? Who will take care of the elderly? Where will we find the leaders of the future? Akinwotu discusses the exodus of talent from Nigeria. The church feels the same pain. For example, how will it grow in an increasingly technological world, when all its young people take their tech knowledge with them? Or how can the church modernize when all of its modernity leaves out the back door?

  7. Absence of hope

    Akinwotu reports that young Nigerians feel hopeless because so many of their contemporaries are leaving. Akinwotu quotes Chioma Agwuegbo, a young person who left Nigeria: “It’s almost like the ship is sinking, and everyone’s just, like, how quickly can you get out?” It’s much the same for the Church. It’s cyclical. People leave because there’s no hope, and that strikes a blow against hope for those left behind. Many young people who remain in the church feel the same despair as they look for peers within their congregations and find none.

 

How Nigeria and the Church are Different

As many similarities as there are between the plight of Nigeria and the American Church, there are three important differences. Lest the Church think its situation is the same, let me point the differences out, with exclamation marks!

  1. The Church is not a country!

    That’s right—I said it! (Although, I shouldn’t have to.) No matter how much Americianity wants us to believe it, the US is not “one nation under the Christian God.” While I highlight some similarities between the status of a whole nation and the situation of the Church in a particular country, I am careful of false equivalencies. Too many American Christians equate the US Church with the Kingdom of God, mixing nationalistic and religious loyalties. Let’s be clear. The Church and nations are different things.

  2. Young people who leave the Church aren’t actually going anywhere!

    They’re still all around you—in your neighborhoods, schools, and places of employment. As such, it’s only a crisis for the organization you call the Church—not a crisis for all of society. Nigerian Japa is a real life-and-death situation that threatens to bring about the doom of a nation. Young people who leave churches won’t kill the Church; all they’ll kill are institutions.

  3. The Church can be reimagined; a nation cannot!

    When enough young people leave a country, it threatens the very lives of those who remain. It leaves a vacuum that can only be filled by death and strife. When enough young people leave the Church, it only causes us to rethink Church. If there aren’t enough young people to run the AV and lights, we ask, “Do we really need AV and lights?” If there aren’t enough young people to pay the pastor’s salary and electric bill, we are forced to reimagine the Church altogether.

 

Reimagining Church

If you’ve gotten to the end of this article, you may have recognized that the Church I’ve been describing is an institution—not an organism. Certainly, we must understand the significance of declining ecclesiastical organizations, not only in the US but in Western society as a whole. But we must also understand that the thing we’ve called the Church for so long is only one conception of it. We’ve got to get past our 21st Century, Western understanding of what it means to be the Church. Even if the Church as an American institution is dying, the Body of Christ is thriving, worldwide.

In the West, we may find that some (if not most) of our churches need to close if we are going to regain the true meaning of what it means to be the Church. We’ve forgotten how to care for one another as the Body of Christ. We’ve replaced care for our communities with a dominion theology which teaches that Christians need to reign and rule in all spheres of society. We’ve made careers in ministry, with pastors’ salaries and buildings taking up most of the church budget while neglecting to feed the poor and care for the widow and orphans. Perhaps we need our young people to leave. Maybe that’s what it means that “a little child shall lead them.

 

Youth are leaving U.S. pews like rats from a sinking Church.

Youth are leaving U.S. pews like rats from a sinking Church. But, instead of realizing what to do about that, we’ve been too busy calling them rats! “They aren’t loyal anymore!” we say. Or, “They just like their rock-concert worship style!” Or, “They’ve abandoned God altogether!” Maybe none of that is true. Maybe, like the young people of Nigeria, they’ve realized how bankrupt the system is, and they’re smart enough to get out. When the rats leave the ship, we have a few choices. We can bail furiously, hoping the ship doesn’t sink (it’ll never work). We can do repair work to the ship as it continues to go down (good luck with that). Or, we can follow the rats right off the ship, and reinvent new ways to help rats stay afloat.

 

What if the Church…

In the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing a few articles with titles that start, with “What if the Church…” Together we’ll find hope in knowing that as the Church shrinks, it might look more, and not less, like Jesus.

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