October 1, 2022
By Bishop, W. F. Houston, Jr.
It is becoming increasingly difficult for churches to attract and retain young adults. Many young adults— college-aged through mid-twenties— grew up in youth groups and fell away from the church and their faith during college or shortly after. This mass exodus has been felt in churches across the country, leading pastors to strategize to reach this slipping demographic better.
Before we can address how to fix it, why this is happening needs to be addressed. Why do so many young adults, including those who were formerly so committed to their youth group, seem to have lost interest in religious institutions as they enter adulthood? What does your church or ministry provide that they would appreciate? It's not about catering to a specific age group but about ensuring the long-term vitality of your church and ministry community. There's a good chance that the enormous migration can teach us something about the current condition of our churches and ministries.
WHAT IS CAUSING YOUNG ADULTS TO LEAVE THE CHURCH AND MINISTRY?
If you feel a generational divide in your church or ministry, you are not the only one who may feel this way. In a recent Barna study, 59 percent of millennials from religious families "disconnect permanently or for long periods of time from church life after the age of 15." According to the Pew Research Center findings, elder members of the millennial generation today consider themselves less religious than they did ten years ago.
It's tempting to make a cavalier assumption and blame a lack of moral sufficient for the absence of young people in the church. Some jaded Christian leaders have speculated that younger Christians abandon their faith because they never really believed in the first place or were seduced away from God's ways. Most blame is placed on the massive abysmal philosophies represented by their liberal arts and colleges, LBGTQ friends, or reality TV shows. But let's all be real here. Deep down, we all know that this isn't the case. According to several surveys, many young Christians who once played an active role in their church as children and teenagers but who do not currently attend worship services reject the institution of Christianity while continuing to practice their faith. People are not necessarily driven entirely away from their faith; instead, they are driven away from the communities in which they practice their faith. And if they have abandoned their religion, it's frequently due to disillusionment brought on by the disparity between how Jesus lived his life and the way the church preaches and acts today.
Research has shown that members of the younger generations, such as millennials and Gen Z, adhere to three particular principles while deciding which brands to buy into, how to pursue careers, and even where to invest their finances in their faith-based communities. Those principles are:
* Legitimacy and Clarity
*Objective and Significance
* Education and Development
A Christian culture research firm called Barna has conducted studies on the reasons why young people are abandoning the church. Their findings indicate that young people are turned off by the judgmental, elitist, and oversimplified culture that's prevalent in evangelical faith communities, which is counter to their own personal values:
*36% of millennials say they cannot ask "critical life concerns" their spiritual edifice.
*25% believe that the churches and ministries demonize things that happen outside of their spiritual edifice.
*23% believe they cannot voice "intellectual reservations about their faith.
*22% say that their spiritual edifice ignores the problems happening in the world around them.
*17% believe they are judged at their spiritual edifice because of their mistakes.
So, when young Christians visit a church or ministry and are met with:
Deception and display (making a scene) instead of legitimacy and clarity,
Policies and reprimands instead of objectives and significance,
Answers that have not been fully vetted instead of education and development, it's not surprising that they have a negative impression of their spiritual edifice, regardless of how seriously they take their faith.
Young adults seek meaning and authenticity in their lives and opportunities to develop their potential. We are all aware that the church, and ministry in its ideal form, should serve as a location that is both secure and stimulating to cultivate these qualities. Still, many young adults in today's evangelical culture, whether unintentionally or not, feel condemned, limited, and disillusioned by the hypocrisy they observe. How can we, as a church or ministry, establish an environment that welcomes and cares for our younger members instead of one that pushes them away?
Focus on what is essential and embrace transparency.
It's simple for us to devote our time and money to create an atmosphere that we believe will appeal to young people. It turns out that they don't want smoke machines, more electric guitars, or light shows. While high production values aren't always wrong, they don't give the church or ministry the credibility it needs to grow among young adults. Instead of focusing on making your stage more prominent, better, and brighter, you should devote your time and effort to cultivating genuine relationships and philosophical, insightful teaching.
Initiate profound and thought-provoking discussions.
Young adults don't want you to know everything or expect you to. Absolute certainty comes off as cocky, stupid, and not reliable. The Christian faith is full of mysteries, and young Christians want to figure out how to deal with those mysteries honestly and humbly. When you encourage your Christian audience to embrace mystery, wrestle with doubts and questions, and lead with transparency, you have the chance to build trust and start conversations that can change lives.
Intergenerational connections can be a source of learning and growth.
Everyone needs to have a place to communicate and interact with other people in their stage of life, and young adult groups are a great way to do that. Do you want to discover what option is superior? Developing intergenerational relationships in which younger and older congregation members can learn from one another.
The departure of many young Christians from their spiritual edifice is not a problem in and of itself; instead, it is a symptom of a more significant issue. If we listen instead of pointing fingers, we can begin to pinpoint the areas in which we may have substituted sincere conversation for cliches, rough journeys for polished finishes, and humility for certainty. God cares about every generation. Every new generation brings a critical perspective that our culture should hear.
We’re grateful that you have been listening, praying and finding ways to love your young people as we endeavor together to advance God's kingdom.