Young Adults: Forget Church, Follow Jesus

Young Adults: Forget Church, Follow Jesus April 10, 2012

Two recent articles grabbed my attention, partly because they resonate quite a bit with the pieces I’ve written about Why Young Adults Leave Church. It’s also interesting to me that so many people seem to be talking about this at this particular time. Rachel Held Evans and I came out with some pieces at the same time, and then a similar story by Andrew Sullivan hit the cover of the April 9th issue of Newsweek. My wife, Amy, sent me an article by Adam J Copeland from The Christian Century called No Need for Church: Ministry With Young Adults In Flux.

In the article, Copeland recounts three snapshot portraits of three “typical” young adults who are seeking to follow the way of Christ without church:

A young woman told me that she too had grown up in a loving Lutheran church but felt pushed out when she revealed her sexuality. She now prays regularly, attends spirituality retreats at a Catholic ministry center and volunteers in a variety of settings. But she is not connected to a congregation.

A young man described how he had hoped to be a youth pastor in his conservative evangelical denomination, but then the rigid faith he was taught at Bible college sent him into a crisis of faith. Now his questions about the Bible, and about piety and certain theological doctrines, make him feel unwelcome in the church of his youth—and uninspired to try another church.

A young woman explained that she  planned to live in Fargo for only a year. She felt that it wasn’t worth expending the time she’d need to get connected to a congregation but wished she had a place where she could ask faith-related questions, a place where she might grow in her love of God and neighbor.

Why is this happening? There are a number of reasons, many of which I’ve already discussed in the articles I wrote and linked to above. And there’s no need for me to rehash everything Copeland and Sullivan wrote in their own pieces. but there are a few themes that emerge wherever I look for clues about this trend:.

The teachings of the church are seen as devalued. This doesn’t have so much to do with the inherent importance or validity of what is being said, but rather it’s a reflection of the value of information overall. It’s really a matter of supply and demand. Abraham Lincoln probably wouldn’t have walked so far to get a book from the only area library, after all, if he had Wikipedia and Google Books at his fingertips. Most anything being said, taught or preached about in a church on Sunday can be found somewhere else, wherever and whenever we want it. Why wait?

The institutions have outlasted their original purpose. Most of our churches were built when populations were static. People didn’t divorce, change jobs and move around like they do now. This mobility, combined with the diversification of networking opportunities, on-line and through other means,  puts bricks-and-mortar institutions in an awkward spot of hoping people find them where they are. And much of the outreach efforts of church is still an attempt to get people “in the doors.” But the fact is that most young adults don’t particularly care.

Our understanding of community has changed. This builds on the previous point, actually. Community used to imply a specific geographic focus, like a church, country club or lodge. All of these kinds of institutions, incidentally, are not what they used to be. Our understanding of relationship is different, and what we come to expect out of being connected to one another has evolved (or mutated, depending on your point of view) in both size and content. For example, I am still in contact with hundreds of folks from my past who are all around the world. A few years ago, we would never have heard from each other again. But I also don’t have many close friends. Everyone’s too “busy.” People are increasingly wary of investing their limited time and resources into anything new, including other people.

This all being said, there is still a significant interest in, and pursuit of, a life following the path lived out and described by Jesus. In some ways, we younger adults are starving for the very community we’re wary of much like the young woman from Fargo described above. But we’re distracted, skeptical and even a little paranoid, especially when it comes to institutions.

So what’s the answer? Those invested in ministry have to decide what matters most.

There’s a question I ask nearly every congregation I get asked to come speak to. Before we get into any other real substance about congregational transformation, I ask them: “If you could realize your vision for the community today, right now, but it meant closing the doors of your church forever, would you do it?”

If the answer is “no,” then the mission has taken a back seat to something more nefarious. If the answer is “yes,” and if they are truly committed to doing WHATEVER it takes with their personal and material resources to live out the gospel, then we have something to work with.

I’m not saying every church has to – and will – shut down forever in order to meet their new mission field’s needs. But if we’re not even willing to consider the possibility, it’s we who have a distorted value system; and those young adults wary of our motives are actually right in their skepticism about us.

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  • That second point sticks with me a lot. I moved in August and didn’t go to church again until December (except for my one visit back home), just because I wasn’t sure I’d be able to find a church I liked as much as my old one. (Luckily I did find one, and I joined the awesome choir, so now I feel very much like I actually have a “church community.”)

  • “The institutions have outlasted their original purpose.”
    So true. The issue is not that church itself is irrelevant. It’s that Jesus intended his followers to be a movement, not a static institution. So, when we define church by all the trappings rather than by its purpose, the individual institutions themselves remain static and eventually stop fulfilling the purpose, which is to make disciples. Great post.

  • Regarding the “our understanding of community has changed” observation. I agree, particularly with the last two or three lines in that paragraph.. Here in Seattle, it’s noticeable that younger people in particular are “busy” and while they often have a huge number of connections and acquaintances, the missing piece for them is a small, tight knight, physically present community that listens to, challenges, and walks with them.

    The faith communities who are reaching this population in this city are those who put a major emphasis on doing life and faith together in small, extended family size communities.

    •  I think you’re exactly right. Small group outings or gatherings with a purpose, house church, short service projects, “third place” ministries, spontaneous meet-ups, etc…

      Incidentally my wife and I are headed to Portland in a few weeks to work with an established downtown church. We’ll be facing many of these same challenges and opportunities, particularly since it’s two blocks from a huge (largely secular) university.

      • Paul Freeman

         Hey Christian, just thought you’d like to know, FCC in Salem, Oregon has started an every 5th Sunday of going out and doing “outreach” service projects after a short 15 minute worship experience, they then return for lunch afterward.  FCC Salem, is forward thinking on what you are talking about and has a less static institution with 3 separate worship experiences on Sunday morning. 

        University Church in Enid, Ok has done the same in touching the lives of the community through a once a week evening meals to anyone desiring or needing a meal, plus offer a food basket to those in need of it and Second Clothing free to those in need of it.  They do have space in the church where they’ve helped to start several new congregations, some of whom have moved into their own space now.  Further some of the previous members that have moved on from Enid, due to circumstances, that are still considered “Associates” and contribute to the ongoing ministry of University Church.

  • Steve

    I would highlight your comments about the ambivalent desire for community. On the one hand, many people have no time or energy to be intimately involved in a community of close friends. We almost recoil from the commitment. I, too, have no close friends. Yet we long for such a community. (how many TV shows are about a close group of friends, i.e., “How I Met Your Mother”?)  While it’s  harder and harder to get young adults to commit to community, the longing and the need for a real community (geographically close enough to spend time together) is deep. 

    •  This fits my experience. I almost always recoil from the idea of commitment. I think most of us want the benefits of commitment (connection, closeness, friendship, love, accountability) without the work. As a culture we are much better at watching others do it, than actually putting in the hardwork to do it ourselves.

      •  There is an article in this month’s Atlantic about the epidemic loneliness of our culture.

  • KBr5

    I was trained and have served in a “traditional church” setting for over 25 years.  I, and many of my colleagues, absolutely want to connect with people’s desire for community.  We’re not all committed to making sure the institution survives at the expense of meeting those basic and fundamental needs we all have for “community” and a sense of belonging/accountability.  A real challenge that disciples of all ages face is to face down the demon of “busyness”.  It will always be countercultural to invite people into fellowship into smaller groups where accountability to one another and even responsibility to one another are values that are upheld.

  • I read an interesting quote today:

    “The elephant in the evangelical room is that we have info junkies but a relational development deficit.”

    It seems to me that this is true, not just in the evangelical church, or the emergent church, or any church, but everywhere. Too many friendships are becoming Facebook connections, and so we read each other’s news feeds instead of talking.

    Status updates are not conversations — they are announcements. If the church can become irrelevant as a source of connection, what will the new sources be? If a huge cathedral can lose relevance, so can a home group. So what comprises connection then?

  • I’ve followed with interest your posts on why young adults have left and/or come back to the church. It would also be interesting to see reasons why other demographic groups have chosen to stay in church. 

    I wonder if many of those who left the church for valid reasons years ago have given the institution, and especially the people who make up the institution, a fair chance at showing how aware they are of past mistakes and what is being done to correct those mistakes. A visit to services on a Sunday morning may make it seem like nothing has changed except that the words of the songs are now on a screen instead of in a hymnal and the offertory is played by a praise band instead of orchestra, but finding the real changes may require the further step of visiting a small group and taking the risk of connecting with some of the people who make up the church. It takes time and commitment which are hard to come by in our over-scheduled lives, but the pay-off can be those close connections, those real friendships that we all long for. 

    Imperfect institutions are made up of imperfect people, and sometimes the way to change them for the better is from the inside out. 

    •  I agree with everything you said. But I also think that too many churchgoers place the burden of risk on those on the “outside’ to come in and learn otherwise. That’s generally just not going to happen. Thus, we have the ethos of missional church, which is based on the message of the Prodigal Son: drop everything and run to them.

  • Nathaniel E Watson

    This morning I noticed the Newsweek article, it’s what lead me to find your blog. As the Church I also agree we are often slow to reach out to others we know who have no church home. However I think it is great there is a movement to push beyond a doctrinal system and look closer at what Jesus was really trying to get us to understand. God loves us, so much so that he provided a way for us to once again come close to him.

    Mission work is important, vital to the life of the Church, but so is corporate worship. We have to push beyond simply showing up, and come with a mind of truly worshipping. This coming together help build a system of brothers and sister of faith that make our personal outreach in our own world easier.

    God bless.

  • muswell bill

    It seems we are living in these days where there are strange non biblical and unrealatic docterines creeping in the church. As a internet christian and there are many of us I have not the time to listen or hear of some of the abuses that continue to reaccur without prevention to stop it.

    The protestians branch have the prosperity teachings Also self righteous and being the perfect christian which is imposible to achieve and goes against the main christian teaching of christ crucified.
    Where as the catholic has the child sexual abuse scandals with the pope and cardinals failing to act correctly. It is non biblical for a priest to be single as Jesus s jewish background – to be a Rabbi you have to be married first. To say to a married couple have lots of children then after your seventh child like my friend there is no support or help from the church to be found when times are tough.

    These are some of the reasons why people say no thanks. As well as some of the big egos some of the priests pastors have these days.

    Who can blame them

    However our God is nothing to compare to this. God loves us for who we are thats why we ceated us like this. With or without the church he is always there to welcome us with his love and unlimited grace