Four More (BIG) Reasons Young Adults Quit Church

Four More (BIG) Reasons Young Adults Quit Church March 12, 2012

There has been a surprisingly positive response to the article I published yesterday called “Seven Reasons Why Young Adults Quit Church.” And as I noted, it was hardly a comprehensive list. There were several others I thought were worth noting if I’d had the room, so I thought I’d continue with the same theme today.

And as I said in yesterday’s article:

  • Although the answer(s) vary from person to person, there are some general trends that I think apply in most cases, and;
  • In the list below, when I refer to “we,” “I” or “me,” I’m referring to younger adults in general, and not necessarily myself.

We Don’t Want to Be “Talked At” Any More: There’s a very strong case that can be made for the value of sermons. Jesus did it. There are times when someone in a position of expertise has something they need to share with a group, and the best way to do it is didactically. But what if people stop listening?

I asked a friend of mine, who is a minister, if he was planning to attend an upcoming conference. He said no, not because the content was off-base, but because he said he couldn’t tolerate more passive learning environments where he sat back and was a receptacle for more information.

Our daily realities are becoming more interactive. Compare the passivity of reading your daily paper with the engagement a blog offers. We expect to be able to take part in the learning process now, rather than it being so one-sided. More churches are going with a model that reflects this, dispensing entirely with the traditional sermon. I’m not sure this is the answer, but more active engagement in one’s discipleship is a must going forward.

Christians Are Seen As Hypocrites: From the scads of TV evangelists busted for impropriety to Catholic priests sexually abusing children under their care, there’s a face on Christianity in the media that says one thing and does another. Though this is hardly the baseline for all Christians, there’s a phenomenon of human consciousness that tends to seek out examples that reinforce existing stereotypes. Things that don’t align with our prejudice get filtered out. The result: everywhere we look, we see examples that reaffirm what we already thought about Christians.

This may not be fair, but it’s reality. And the only thing that tends to change a social stereotype as embedded as this one is a concerted, collective effort to break the prejudice wide open, not with a competing media campaign or by shouting louder. Rather, it happens one person, one story and one relationship at a time. It’s the same way other stereotypes are dismantled, so why should Christians be any different?

Church Seems to Lack Relevance: We are swimming in the wake of a self-help tidal wave that swept through Western culture over the past thirty years. This, combined with the custom-built media universes we’re able to construct for ourselves now, reinforce the question: How does this affect me in my life today?

But at the heart of the Christian message is a counter-cultural theme, particularly in today’s culture: it’s not all about you. This can be a tough sell. After all, who really wants to hear that it’s not all about them? And there are plenty of pandering prosperity gospel types who will opportunistically affirm that it is all about us after all.

But it’s not.

That said, we still to have to be mindful in church about waxing theological, while neglecting to identify with the humanity of the people around us in our congregations. At the heart of this connection is story. Not just telling them, but also making space for others to share theirs. And when I say “story” I’m not talking about some inspiring anecdote you plucked form a forwarded email; I’m talking about your story.

If you haven’t already, go listen to the recordings that are part of National Public Radio’s Story Corps project. It is the narrative of a culture, longing for meaning, belonging and to feel something. Church can do the same; we just don’t often enough.

Nobody Looks Like Me: A Young adult commented on my first post on this subject, published on the Sojourners website, that they tried really hard in college to find a faith family that felt right. But despite visiting many churches, she said that all she seemed to find were older people, families with children and a handful of youth, but no other young adults like her. After that it didn’t matter how good the music, the sermon or the coffee were. She didn’t feel like she belonged, so she left.

This long-standing chicken-or-egg conundrum has been a challenge for churches for a long time. It’s kind of like trying to get credit when you don’t have an established line of credit. Where do you start?

First of all, you don’t start by hoping they wander in on Sunday mornings and magically feel comfortable, surrounded by people unlike them. Look into concepts like the ministry of “third spaces” meeting off-site, or spontaneously organizing “hang outs” to help people connect. But I can tell you that we don’t have to look any further than ourselves when wondering why young adults feel marginalized.

My wife, Amy, and I published a book about young adult spirituality a few years ago called “MySpace to Sacred Space: God for a New Generation” (clearly and outdated title now, but what can you do?). We were frustrated when it was labeled on the back of the book as a “youth” book. Why? Because there was no such thing as a Young Adult section in most bookstores and catalogs.

Still wondering why YAs feel ignored?

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  • Great thoughts Christian! I’ve really enjoyed reading them, especially from a perspective of a young adult who is part of the system, i.e. local church pastor.  What I have found is that many churches desperately desire to have young adults, but for the wrong reasons.  They see the future of their specific church tied closely to the young adults.  ‘We need young adults so the church will be here in the future’ is the standard mentality. What I have tried to teach and help my church folks to see is that the church has something to offer, if we believe that Jesus has something to offer young adults that they are not getting anywhere else. And that young adults have something to offer the church as well. Not trying to be too simple, but I see it coming down to relational based ministry, rather than trying to program the heck out of everything.  Just my humble thoughts.  Thanks for your work and keep it up.  We need this dialogue!

    •  I actually just keynoted on this very concept in Kansas over the weekend. Amen!

  • Peter

     Good points one and all. The experience of inner silence that comes with worship is definitely on the run. What with all of the social media beckoning at us, sitting down, making oneself quiet enough to open up to God’s voice, and sustaining the attention span for a conversation with Him are indeed becoming endangered activities. These are experiences for which we all hunger, but in which we receive less and less instruction.

    •  I find a lot of YAs crave it but don’t even know how. I’ve started offering guided meditations at some workshops to help people silence heart and mind. YAs are usually great at it; take right to it. Drives Boomers crazy 🙂

      • Franota

         I’m not so sure, although Canada and the US are quite different in our church cultures. I am a senior Boomer who straddles two faiths,  – in that I have studied in Buddhist circles and find meditation important. What I do find is that the ‘young’ people (in their 30’s and 40’s) are looking for it, but the congregation I serve, on the whole – has no interest in any kind of personal development at all. Particularly here in Newfoundland, the church is “just fine” the way it is. I have a few younger people who hang in there, but it’s hard for them…..

  • I think you have missed something very important, and I think that omission says a lot:
    Christians are leaving the church because they do not believe. Compared to that, all of the other seven reasons you have given seem to be a deliberate avoidance of the central issue. Its omission sends the message that you don’t really want to engage with what people are going through, only with what you wish were the case so that you could do something about it.
    Now, if you were writing a piece about why youth leave the church and who still believe, or who still self-identify as Christians, then certainly you’re on the right track. The childhood indoctrination with Christian tenets creates a powerful cognitive dissonance against heretical thoughts, and these problems may put distance between them and their beliefs, enough so that they then begin to think more critically about their faith. But again, because you have glossed over this (possible) nuance, that you have been less specific than you needed to be, it gives the impression that you’re not really engaging the real problem.
    For myself, I’d add an eighth reason for leaving the church: The conflict between belief systems. When I arrived on my college campus, I immediately sought out the local christian organization, but the confluence of so many different Christian denominations was jarring in the extreme. No few of them were teachings in which I absolutely could not contemplate believing, and seemed utterly alienated from the grace of Christ. This in turn led me to much research into many Christian doctrines and the historicity of the Bible, and in the end I could not put my confidence in any of them. Least of all those which I brought with me.
    How do you address the issue of “they do not believe?” That is the problem I think you’re avoiding. If you can’t show that your faith is true, then whether it’s convenient, or relevant, or otherwise unpalatable is really of small concern.

    •  I don’t think I avoid it. I’ve posted recently about my interest in Christopher Hitchens, and have posted before about Atheist Christianity.

      • There’s not a word about it in this pair of articles ostensibly about “Reasons Young Adults Quit Church.” If you don’t address in some fashion “They Don’t Believe Anymore” either as the Eighth/Twelfth Reason or as the end result of the other eleven, it gives the impression you’re avoiding the elephant in the room. No disrespect meant, but that’s just the way I see it. Without addressing the loss of belief, the reasons given seem like straw men.

        •  I see that as a given, and one I’ve addressed before. This set assumes some continued embrace of faith, yet something else either is driving a wedge or at least isn’t maintaining the connection.

    • George D. James

      I grew up with four close friends in my church. Our parents, and we ourselves, were all involved to a greater than average degree (one parent was a pastor, two others were deacons), and we grew up solidly in the Christian experience.
      Upon the four of us graduating from high school and leaving home, one joined the armed forces, two went to college, and one to trade school.

      Over the course of the next six years (during college and early work years), all of us left the Church for no other reason than we lost our faith. We still enjoyed the companionship of the church community, our commitment to helping others in service and sacrifice didn’t change from what we learned in our youth, we simply did not find that the basic tenets of the Christian faith had any foundational meaning.

      Put simply, once we lost our belief that God created the heavens and the earth, we lost our desire to find our primary community within the church.

  • Ken Southgate

    Hey Christian!  Good stuff.  I am a veteran campus minister, but aware that fewer and fewer church kids are remotely interested in finding a campus ministry to be involved in.  Do you have any thoughts as to how to apply your insights on campus?  I’m seriously asking for your help.  The old ways don’t seem to “scratch” where this generation “itches”.
    Thanks and blessings!

    •  I’d be happy to dialogue more about this, as my wife and I just took a call at an urban church two blocks from a major state university in Oregon. And I’ll be focusing on growth and development!

      Too much to address here, and there’s theory-vs-practice, but for starters, we outline some concepts in MySpace to Sacred Space that are effective, I think. Beyond that, maybe we’ll learn more together as we go.

  • Aspiechristian

    I agree with all your points – great job. Was happy you mentioned “lack of reverence.” We replace Christianity with a parody of Christianity. Young people see right through it.

  • Oakland Peters

    Your first point is one of the major reason’s I became a Quaker, as opposed to a member of other liberal sects. 

    The total lack of preaching makes church life massively more enjoyable. It also reduces the amount of dogmatism in the church.

    • Greenblogger

       I’ve been considering Quakerism as well, and I know that this quest for silence and self-revelation is one reason why I am drawn also to yoga.  Not only the physical aspects of asana, but just the simple practice of being quiet and centering oneself is so not like the rest of my day. 

  • I agree with the second one…I go to church anyway, but it makes me squirm when someone as close-minded as Rick Santorum comes on TV, or when some priest has been busted for a sex scandal…and I know  a lot of atheists I know have said this is a big thing for them. One actually posted a thing all about that, called something like “The Reason I’m Atheist,” although I pointed out that that shouldn’t be a reason to stop believing in God – just maybe a reason to not go along with an organized religion. You know, worship in your own fashion.  But yes, that one is huge.  And it makes me sad. Such people are cringe-worthy….

  • It’s not just young adults.  It’s older adults as well.  I’m Presbyterian “by birth”, but married a Catholic and have a daughter who was raised Catholic.  Tho I attend Mass occassionally with my husband, I don’t feel the need to be in church every Sunday.  I can go for a walk and talk with God if I want without being preached at.  It’s HOW you live your life that counts, not whether you show up in a building every week.   My daughter doesn’t go because she sees, as I do, the hyprocisy that a lot of churches display.  Christianity is suppose to be a religion of love, yet those who proclaim it the loudest are some of the biggest bigots and hypocrites on the face of this Earth.  How can I encourage her to go when I totally agree with her attitude?

    • Cheng Liu

       Yes that is true but you have to put an emphasis on some. It’s a stereotype, like all others there is some truth in it but it’s no different then saying all gay men are promiscuous drug users. Some are but many if not most are not. 

    • Frank

      Believing what Gods word says about certain topics is not bigotry. And when you can honestly say that you are never hypocritical then you have the right to accuse someone else of hypocrisy.

      • jkld

        It IS bigotry when you teach and preach hate. After all, Christ taught about love, not hate. Too many churches LOVE to condemn those who are different while being hypocritical in the process.

        One also must take into consideration that the Bible was written by mortal and fallible MEN, in context to the culture and mores of the 1st/2nd Century. In addition, it often contradicts itself due to that very reason. As such, it can not be taken seriously literally as a lot of what was written about is not longer germane in the 21st Century. And in fact, hasn’t been valid for several centuries. As a book of morality plays/stories, it has a valid place, but not as a book to be taken literally.

    • Juan Riingen

      jkld: If I were the pastor of that church and someone tells me he/she doesn’t want to attend the church because “of the biggest bigots and hypocrisies on the face of the Earth,” I would tell the person “It’s alright. There’s always room for one more.”

      • jkld

        You’re missing the point – the churches preach it but do NOT live it. Those who boast the loudest about how good a Christian they are don’t have the faintest idea about what the word means. I see and hear too much of the crap myself. Christ taught humility, but too many churches, preachers/ministers, and members relish in displaying their riches. He taught to help those who have less, but those who thumb their chests the loudest condemn those who try to. They continually condemn those who are different than they are, yet boast how good a Christian they are.
        As I said, God doesn’t need a building to be in to reach those who believe. Interesting quote from Ghandi (paraphrased) – I like your Christ; your Christians, not so much.
        Yes, you’re right in that the biggest bigots and hypocrites ARE in that building. Problem is, they’re totally deaf to the real message of Christ.

  • Cheng Liu

    I feel like this is true of many churches but not all of them. Christianity is so diverse that there are few things you can say that would necessarily apply to all of them. For instance my church has few sermons if any and  I feel that it is relevant. The last thing is just ridiculous, if that is the case, then find another church. All that said I love my church but it is quite different from the normal one

  • There is no “young-adult” term in the websters dictionary, and neither in the Bible dictionary.  Which means young adults are non-persons.

  • Martin K

    Car Window Stickers for Churches, Schools, Non-Profits and more . . .

  • lhoch

    Not going to church because of all the hypocrites is like not going to the gym because of all the fat people. And, it’s usually the broken, messed up folks that go to church, because they have finally realized how much they need a savior! They realize they will never, ever be good enough to earn God’s love, so they are drawn to the unconditional love of Jesus, warts and all. And, those warts will not be healed instantly just because they are now united with Christ. Change (real change) takes time. So, to boil it all down, Jesus said it Himself… “It’s the sick who need a doctor and He came to heal the sick” – the spiritually sick was His point there. So, there you go. My two cents worth on messed up folks in the church of whom, I am one. haha Oh, and it’s so fun to get in there and let God use me to pray for folks and see them actually touched by God! God is so fun!!!