Six Reasons Youth Leave the Faith: …and what to do about it
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?
#4 – Young People’s church experiences related to sexuality are often simplistic, judgmental. There are several forces contributing to the sexual divide between the church and most young people. Simplistic answers are perhaps at the top of the list. Abstinence is upheld as the gold standard with reasons that are often shallow or wrong. Churches who simply say “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” while they quote some verses about sexual purity are doing more harm than good. For starters, they’re elevating ‘proof texting’ as a legitimate means of build ethics. By the same method, we’ve justified colonialism, genocide, slavery, violence, and much more. We’d better give young people more to work with than that. The good news is that there is more than that – way more. Here’s a favorite book of mine for starters, whose thesis is that sexuality isn’t a private matter, because it affects the whole community (as any church who has dealt with the break-ups of live in lovers who had every intention of marrying well knows). The same book reinforces the point that fear of pregnancy, and “you’ll feel guilty” are terrible reasons to invite abstinence. Give terrible reasons – lose credibility. It happens every time.
#5 – They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity. The earth is small these days, and as a result, everyone knows that there are courageous Muslims, and evil Muslims. There are abusive Catholic priests and good ones. There are arrogant pastors, and servants of Christ. In a pluralistic world, young people aren’t content to believe that those who say “Lord Lord” to Jesus will enter the kingdom of heaven. They’re right to be skeptical, because Jesus was skeptical too. The gospel isn’t some sort of mantra you’re supposed to recite so that God will accept you. They get that. But they’re also wondering about what it actually does mean to believe.
We need to provide fences, and room for conversations. The fence, if we’re take the Bible seriously at all, is that Jesus is central figure of history, the door through which all who will know God must walk. We also know though, from the same Bible, that God is well able to apply the work of Christ to those who respond to God’s revelation by faith, even if they’ve never heard the name of Christ. That’s how Abraham was saved, according to Romans 4. What does this mean? It means that God is able to apply the work of Christ to any response of faith. What does that mean? That’s where the dialogue comes in. This isn’t some sort of mindless liberalism. Rather, it’s the declaration that God saves, through Christ, who God saves. We’re released from our presumptive judgments, and freed up to invite everyone to Jesus.
#6 – The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt. This is because we’ve come to view the Bible as a textbook or legal brief, rather than a collection of stories, recorded through the ages so that humanity might understand the character of God and trajectory of history. Because these stories are written in cultural contexts, there are stories of polygamy, genocide, slavery, the mistreatment of women, and more. The church has done a good job of ignoring all these elephants in the room, but with all the elephants in the room, there’s no space for people with questions. In addition, let’s remember Abarham’s doubts, David’s struggles with God’s goodness and fairness, not to mention the dozens of others who were people of faith, yet had the courage to question.
I’ve found that the questions are, far from threatening or distracting, hugely valuable. We face them, hold them, let them ripen, sometimes for years, as we continue to wrestle with what it means to live faithfully. Of course, this kind of liberty is best enjoyed on a foundation of certitude regarding Christ. That certitude is offered us, both through the testimony of history, and the Bible’s own declaration that Jesus is the fullest revelation of the character of God. Armed with that security, we’re free to ask tough questions, and as those questions ripen over the years, the answers we find have a clarifying affect, enabling us to see the beauty of the gospel and God’s reign with greater clarity than had we ignored them.
This is why we need to create space for questions. When we do, I know from experience, that such space will be filled with young people, because the reality is that young people are eager to live meaningful lives, and our present pattens of hollow consumerism, where even sexuality has been reduced to a commodity, simply aren’t cutting it.