Seven Reasons Why Young Adults Quit Church

Seven Reasons Why Young Adults Quit Church March 11, 2012

From time to time I revisit the question: why are young adults walking away from religion? Although the answer(s) vary from person to person, there are some general trends that I think apply in most cases.

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’ve Been Hurt: I can actually include myself in this one personally. Sometimes the hurtful act is specific, like when my youth leader threw a Bible at me for asking the wrong questions. Sometimes it’s rhetorical, either from the pulpit, in a small group study or over a meal. Sometimes it’s physical, taking the form of sexual abuse or the like. But millions claim a wound they can trace back to church that has never healed. Why? In part, because the church rarely seeks forgiveness.

Adult Life/College and Church Don’t Seem to Mix: There are the obvious things, like scheduling activities on Sunday mornings (hint: young people tend to go out on Saturday nights), but there’s more to it. In college, and before that by our parents, we’re taught to explore the world, broaden our horizons, think critically, question everything and figure out who we are as individuals. Though there’s value in this, it’s hyper-individualistic. But Church is more about community. In many ways, it represents, fairly or not, sameness, conformity and a “check your brain at the door” ethos. This stands in opposition to what the world is telling us is important at this time in life.

Perhaps an emphasis on a year of community service after high school would be a natural bridge to ameliorate some of this narcissism we’re building in to ourselves.

There’s No Natural Bridge to Church: Most teenagers leave home, either for college, to travel, work or whatever after high school. With the bad economy, this number is fewer, but it’s a general trend. But the existing model of church still depends on the assumption that communities are relatively static, and that the church is at the center of that community. Not so anymore. When I went to college, I was contacted by fraternities, campus activity groups and credit card companies, but not one church. The only connection I had with religion was the ridiculous guy who (literally) stood on a box with a bullhorn in the union garden and yelled at us about our sinful ways. I could have used support in how to deal with my own finances for the first time. I could have used a built-in network of friends. I would have loved a care package, an invitation for free pizza at the local restaurant or help with my laundry. What I got was the goof with the bullhorn.

We’re Distracted: I shared a video by Diana Butler Bass in a recent post about a priest who took his Ash Wednesday service out onto the street. When people saw him, they reacted as if they had been shaken out of a deep sleep. “It’s Ash Wednesday!” they said with surprise as they asked for the ashes. “Lent is starting!” It simply wasn’t on their radar. It’s not that we don’t care; we have so many things competing for our limited time and attention that the passive things that don’t offer an immediate “interrupt” get relegated to the “later” pile. And we rarely ever get to the “later” pile, which leads me to the next point…

We’re Skeptical: We’re exposed to more ad impressions in a month today than any other previous generation experienced in a lifetime. I’m sitting in a hotel room writing this, and in this room (which I paid for in part to have privacy), I see more than a dozen marketing messages. If I turn on the TV, they’re there. Pick up my phone, they’re there. Online…you get the point. So whereas generations before us expended energy seeking information out, now it comes at us in such overwhelming volumes that we spend at least the same amount of energy filtering things out. This leads to somewhat of a calcifying of the senses, always assuming that whoever is trying to get your attention wants something, just like everyone else.

We’re Exhausted: I was lumped in as pat of the Generation X group, also known as the Slacker Generation. This implied, of course, that we were lazy and unmotivated. But consider how many of us go to college, compared to generations before us. And consider that the baseline standard for family economics requires a two-income revenue stream to live in any level of the middle class. Debt and credit are givens, and working full-time while also trying to maintain a marriage, raise kids, have friends and – God forbid – have some time left for ourselves leaves us with less than nothing. We’re always running a deficit. So when you ask me to set aside more time and more money for church, you’re trying to tap already empty reserves.

I Don’t Get It: Young adults today are the most un-churched generation in a long time. In many cases, it’s not that we’re walking away from church; we never went in. From what I can tell from the outside, there’s not much relevance to my life in there, and I’m not about to take the risk of walking through the door to find out otherwise.

I’ve tried to offer insight into what might be done about a few of these issues as I went, but I invite you also to sit with the tension of not having the answers. Better yet, seek some young adults out, ask them if they relate to these. And see if they have ideas about what you (maybe not even “church” but you) can do to help relieve some of the challenges.

I think the conversation that follows might pleasantly surprise you.

To read my continuing thoughts on why young adults walk away from, or never engage in, organized religion, read PART TWO HERE.

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  • To me, the message is:
    Don’t listen to the goof wit the bullhorn.

  • Bill Kerns

    Thanks Christian for sharing the article.  It will definitely help as I enter a new ministry which actually does have some young adults.  Keep up the wonderful ministry of writing you do!!

  • Preston

    Thanks for this. But I wonder if you could back up your claims with research. Sometimes the results can be counter-intuitive, and research can help us see where we are on track and where we are off track in our assumptions.

    •  I did a research-based book on this some years back with my wife called “MySpace to Sacred Space: God for a New Generation.” And as I note in the article, rather than taking these as givens, find a young adult, or a few, sit down with them over a meal, coffee or whatever and ask them what they think.

  • Andrea Robinson

    Interested in the story of one who left the church 20 years ago?I was raised in evangelical churches.  Your mileage may vary.When I reached an age to start critically evaluating my experiences there, what I discovered really put me off my lunch.I saw a huge gap between the way Jesus behaved and how the church did.I didn’t see the love called agape.  The love that says, “So, you’ve made some bad choices.  You’re human.  We love you, anyway.” or “You’re safe here.  You may lay down your burdens.”  I saw judgement, fear, and conditions raining down from the pulpits, instead.

    How often does institutional Christianity truly ask itself, “What would Jesus do?”  All too often, I see the message that the pregnant teenaged girl or that homosexual boy are horrible human beings.  The stories in the bible show me Jesus would gather them into his arms and say, “I love you.”

    Build your church on love, compassion, and understanding so when the young ask, “What’s in it for me?” you can answer, “A safe place where people love you for who you are.”  Tragically, this sort of haven is exceedingly rare and desperately needed.  Be the ambassador of God’s love and leave the judging to God.

    • Anonymous

       You have personally discovered the disconnect in the church, love , forgiveness, acceptance. It is the same disconnect that religion has with Jesus Christ. There are a lot of religious folks but not many born again folks. The religious called Jesus a drunkard & a glutton. he called them white-washed tombs & sons of Hell. An obvious disconnect. Find Him first. Plug into His abundant love & forgiveness and out of your innermost being will flow rivers of Living Water. God Bless you.

      • I do not intend this to be as argumentative as it will read, but it is the thoughts that I feel when encountering “christians.” Both the nice one’s that seem human and the angry one’s looking for someone to blame for their problem:

        So you say. You imply that if a person “plugs into the abundant love and forgiveness” that they will find that acceptance and community. But speaking as a person who grew up in the south, raised evangelical. I have no desire whatsoever to have ANYTHING to do with it. When I realized that I was gay, I nearly commited suicide because of the shame I felt. 6 years later when i was forced out of the closet by someone mailingcopies of personal emails I had sent trying to meet other guys like me, not to date but to talk to ( I really just wanted other people like me in my life that I could talk to stuff about, there was little sexual motivation in it), my church turned on me instantly. A congregation that I had been born into no longer wanted me to volunteer my time or energy at their fundraisers, or community outreaches. I was told not to come on overnight trips because of “concerns for safely accomodating the other youth” Meaning that they didn’t want me roomed with other guys for fear I would prey on them, and they couldn’t room me witht he girls because of outward appearances. I ended up leaving that congregation entirely.

        In later years, from time to time, other “friends” have invited me to their churches, and I have visited, because I really would LIKE to have a community where i can discuss my spiritual thoughts and convictions with my peers. Always I have found smiling pastors and decons who were warned in advance of my “condition” and I was welcomed and told how much they would love to have me in their church family, as long as I met a few conditions. I have had SO many pamphlets, books, cassets, cds, videos and other information about how god will lead me to overcome my “addictions” to live a “normal” life that i could build a bonfire witht hem and guide ships to shore on a foggy night. Ultimatly after a few visits when god didn’t appear in a flaming bush to free me of my afflictions, I began to feel the strain of a worn out welcome. And when i eventually expressed my discomfort with attending the church, the “friend” who invited me drifted out of my life entirely. Proving that I had only been a “project” all along.

        Now I am 29 years old, I have had to figure out the answers to most of the difficult, character defining questions that young adults face by myself. Without peer group influence of guidance of trusted elders. I came of age, at least emotionally and spiritually as a person watching the churchthrough the window, outside looking in. As the writer above said, I see nothing in christianity that makes me want to invest the time and energy to give it “another chance.” I recognize that there are many christians who DO seem to embody the values that your christ preached, but I can find those individuals within ANY religion, in fact; I find a far greater percentage of neo-pagan and unorganized spiritualists who embody these ideals than i do within any organised religion.  At this point, isimply find nothing that sets christianity apart from any other spiritual path, and as such, I do not see any point in investing any further energy into it’s pursuit.

        • Alisa

          Griffin, I am very sorry the church behaved so poorly when you most needed it.  Christian Platt mentioned how so many young adults are hurt by the church, and your story is, well, very sad.  

          The church doesn’t confess its sins very well and doesn’t seek forgiveness with enough resolve.  As you so well expressed, Jesus Christ and Christianity are not one and the same.  Our human institutions are lacking.  

          I can tell you that not all churches are alike. Don’t give up in your search, but keep hoping.  I hope you find a healthy, loving community who nurtures you spiritually, invites your voice,  and encourages you to share your story in ways that help others.  


  • I want to see a Church that outwardly accepts that science explains the physical/material world better than most ancient religious texts ever could with their mystical and magical stories, but a shared faith in a Creator God is the only community-building moral anchor to be found in the world today (for those seeking one).

    • PC Geek

      Well for starters I will mention that science only started in a Christian framework – it started in Christian Europe and stagnated elsewhere. So it was exclusively in the framework of ‘believers in these mystical and magical stories” that science was born. If you don’t believe me – peruse any good history of science and you will quickly notice a common theme among the early scientists and their motivations behind their work.
      This whole faith vs science thing is mirage at best.
      One good place to start reading:
       Now in terms of “science explains the physical/material world better than most ancient religious texts ever could with their mystical and magical stories” – where in the Bible is there an attempt to explain something about the physical world that is known to contradict science? (Note for example that the Psalms are explicitly delineated as poetry so they are openly stated as not being scientific statements.) And before you mention an example, please google it first since likely someone else has already addressed the issue. No need to re-invent the wheel and simply repeat here what others have already written.

      •  very nicely stated. Thanks.

      • Heartfout

         Yes, because absolutely no advancements came out of other areas. There were no studies in, say, the Islamic world, or in China, or India, or any other places in the world. Nope. Nosireee. Just good old, humble Christians.

        • Minus your sarcasm, I would agree that it should be stated more broadly that the impetus of curiosity manifest often in world religions lad to much of what we now know as scientific inquiry.

          • PC Geek

            True that the efforts of others should be recognized – however it is also important to be historically accurate, even if that means that the answer is a little less PC than some would like.

            In this case, a huge % of science originated in Christian Europe, and other cultures did contribute, but they really do pale in comparison. This does not jive with the modern PC narrative, but that matters little in the overall scheme of things.

          • It is true that much of our modern scientific method was developed by priests in monesteries. However mucho f what they “discovered” archeology is showing to actaully be “rediscoveries” as many roman and greek philophers had discovered, or theorized much about the natural world. Much knowledge was lost in the Dark Ages as Rome collapsed and the RCC stepped in to save civilization. However I will not belittle the monastic contributions to the birth os scientific discovery. However, it is also common fact that the RCC actively sought to control early scientific finding and any results that countered their theological cannon was buried. This was the begining of the concept that Amar Rao is getting at. Early in the development of medicine religious doctrin taught that healing and life come only from god, any attempt to medicate or treat illness was interfering in god’s territory. Early doctors were persecuted for saving patients that clergy had given up on. No in modern times religious leaders stand in oppositon of global warming finding, medical research finding, and evolution. Despite the massive amounts of evidence in support of these things. Science and religion AUGHT to be able to coexist, science is the study of that which can be measured and religion is faith in that which cannot. Yet too many churches equate science as being anti faith.

        • PC Geek

          You are attacking a strawman – nobody said that *nothing* came out of anywhere else, but the *overwhelming majority* of science came out of Christian Europe and absolutely no where else.

          It is a simple fact of history that nearly all the science and learning that we have did come out of Christian Europe. Not everything, but nearly all of it. (Most notably the whole notion of the scientific learning.)Read carefully what a person says before you spout off and try to argue against – it would save a lot of time and prevent you from embarrassing yourself tilting at windmills.

          • PC Geek

            ack..typo.. I meant “the whole notion of the scientific method” not “the whole notion of the scientific learning” 

  • Ilongtin

    Hey man, great article.  I really appreciate the honest reflection on this topic.  As a youth and young adult pastor, I struggle regularly with the dynamics which you’ve mentioned.  I recently started blogging about my journey of working with college students and young adults and actually spoke (somewhat) to this dynamic recently.  If you have time, I’d love your feedback.

  • J_

    Mmm, interesting.

    Not seeing  “Because we don’t believe in gods and so feel no compulsion to worship them.”

  • Mellersh

    When I was pastoring, I took a week off every other year to make the rounds of seeing our college students on their own turf — at their schools.  Using my discretionary funds (from wedding honoraria, etc.), I took them out to lunch or dinner (once to breakfast).  If I hadn’t been on the campus before, they took me on a tour.  I don’t know whether it had any permanent effect on their relationship to church or not, but they were always glad to see me — even some of them whom I’d never seen in church.  And their parents thought it was the best thing since sliced bread.  And I mean, it was really tough bouncing around college campuses for a week.  Not.  I’ve recommended it to other pastors, and know of one other who did it, but have not seen any evidence the idea caught on.

  • Ericka

    The church has to be careful when dabbling in dialectic exercises while at the same time engaging in innovative ways to reach people. I read a secular argument on the topic of making a difference between things (“Land of Diminished Distinctions” via Amazon) and I see how tricky it can be to reach the youth of today while still maintaining standards of faith tenets- HUGS!!! 🙂