why are young christians leaving the church?

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Thursday, October 6th, 2011

why are young christians leaving the church?

i pastor a church primarily comprised of 20- and 30-somethings. amongst that group, a relatively large percentage have come back to the church after a period of time away. generally speaking, like many, at some time after high school, they drifted away (or just made a decision to leave) and had a difficult time reconnecting. hearing their stories of why they left and why they’ve returned is always fascinating to me.

certainly, the people at our church aren’t an exception. barna group president david kinnaman, in his new book you lost me: why young christians are leaving church and rethinking church, presents his findings of an extensive research project that included interviews with teenagers, young adults, parents and pastors. kinnaman focused on 20-somethings who were regular churchgoers during their teenage years but disconnected at some point after the age of 15.

his research found 6 reasons that a majority of young christians (59%) disconnect either permanently or for an extended period of time from the church. here are the reasons:

1. churches seem overprotective
2. a shallow experience of christianity
3. antagonism (by the church) toward science
4. simplistic and judgmental stances on/ways of addressing sexuality
5. the exclusivity of christianity
6. doubt is unwelcome

i rarely write specifically to pastors and church leaders, but this is a good opportunity to do just that. my question is, based on this list, would 20-somethings leave or come to your church?

1. churches seem overprotective
have you created a community where engagement with the broader culture is not only welcomed but encouraged? rather than oppositional, do you view the broader culture as an integrated part of the christian walk? are you equipping people to view the world through a lens of generative friendship, grace, redemption and love?

2. a shallow experience of christianity
are you creating an atmosphere that allows for rich and engaging experiences with god and others in your worship gatherings? are you teaching and engaging dialogue that helps to build a bridge between sunday and the rest of the week? are you teaching the values of jesus or the values of your church?

3. antagonism (by the church) toward science
do you value and practice theological humility or do you present propositional facts that are closed to conversation? have you fostered a dialogue in which logical reasoning is welcomed as a part of one’s faith experience? have you created a dichotomy between science and faith that forces a choice between the two?

4. simplistic and judgmental stances on/ways of addressing sexuality
are you in denial about the sexual activity of your community (nearly 80% of 20-something churchgoers have had sex prior to marriage)? have you created an open, honest and respectful environment where people can discuss sexuality without judgment? have you assumed that opposite gender attractions/sexuality is the only or “standard” view of sexuality within your church? have you fostered an atmosphere of judgment and shame when people engage in sex beyond your assumptions of what is right?

5. the exclusivity of christianity
are you truly familiar with the beliefs of other faith traditions (not just stereotypes and surface level assumptions) to have fruitful conversations about both the similarities and differences? is your church fully inclusive of every faith tradition, race, class, sexual orientation and every other thing that has historically divided our churches? have you created a country club mentality where only a very narrow definition of a person will ever truly fit in?

6. doubt is unwelcome
have you created a safe place for open and honest doubt? have you—as a leader—been honest (publicly) about any doubts you have/had? do you allow for a little space when people in your community express genuine doubt and need time to step away/explore? are you dismissive when people actually open up about doubt?

how do you answer these questions? truth be told, my answers aren’t always exemplary. at eikon church, we’ve tried very hard and have been very intentional to answer these questions in positive ways. don’t get me wrong, we absolutely miss the mark very, very often, but our key has been intentionality and accountability. we also try to be open to criticism. quite frankly, we’ve been challenged with some of these questions, both me personally and more broadly, as a church. usually it results in an initial defensiveness, but we’re often able to see another point of view and respond accordingly.

so, if you’re a church leader, take a stab at answering these questions. if you’re like me (and our church), you’ll struggle greatly with many of your answers. but you’ll have the opportunity to lead people—particularly 20-somethings—into a more vibrant part of your faith community and into more fully discovering what it means to walk in the way of jesus.

5 Comments

  1. I often feel like an exception at Eikon because I still have a deep love of and in fact no major theological/structural problems with the faith tradition (PCUSA) that I grew up in and I guess technically left after we moved away from Arkansas and didn’t return to when we moved back. None of the above mentioned issues to me are problems with the Presbyterian Church– particularly on inclusivism, universalism, and the acceptance of doubt, not to mention a focus on social justice. For me, the answer was far more simple: I was looking for a peer group, and there just aren’t a lot of married, childless 20 somethings in Presbyterian churches. We didn’t want to do youth ministry, we were too old for the college group, and we were excluded (mostly unintentionally) by the marrieds with kids. I have no idea WHY people our age were nowhere to be found in the PCUSA churches (and Episcopalian and Methodist) we tried, but it couldn’t have been any of the above reasons. Of course, now I really miss having elderly people in my faith community… somewhere, somehow, surely someone has a balance, right?

  2. C.E. Moore says:

    It needs to be stressed that Barna’s numbers are skewed towards upwardly mobile, suburban constituencies. These realities do not affect the African-American church to this degree. We experience altogether different issues in our churches. Even when our students go off to school–the time when many caucasian counterparts fall away–AA students tend to find supportive communities in churches because it also tends to understand their ethnic identity.

    • ryan says:

      i really appreciate you stopping by, c.e. and for speaking from a perspective that isn’t represented here.

      while in seminary, i read a book called ‘black and white styles of youth ministry’ and it ended up being a very powerful catalyst for beginning to attempt to better understand both the differences and similarities between the predominantly black and predominantly white church. while the book had a few unhelpful presuppositions, it more or less laid out the position you’re presenting (in terms of african american young people not leaving in the same numbers as white people). one of the things it affirmed (that wasn’t really new information, but a more detailed re-enforcement) was how deep the african american church is tied to family identity. it’s far more communal, whereas the white church tends to promote staunch individualism. in that way, i believe—biblically speaking—that the black church is far more healthy than the white church (particularly, as you pointed out, the upwardly mobile suburban church).

      certainly, i believe (in conjunction with some reading/research) that there are some distinct challenges within the black church, relative to the white church. namely, the struggle to transition young people from a social experience (it’s something i go to because “that’s what my family does”) into a meaningful spiritual expression in everyday life. my wording is a bit simplistic but basically it’s the idea that young people (teenage to college/beyond years) view church largely as a sunday morning event. with that said, it doesn’t mean they’re leaving the church, but rather, there’s a struggle to bridge the disconnect from sunday to the rest of week.

      (it’s helpful to point out that these are also serious problems within the white church, but nuanced a little differently.)

      again, i genuinely appreciate you taking the time to offer a much-needed perspective in this conversation, especially being someone who is a respected voice within the younger christian community. i was wondering, though, if you’ve spent much time in the south/bible belt? i think the dynamics within both the white and black church are very different than other parts of the country. we hosted a group of college students from michigan last year at our church, and they were markedly surprised about the very different dynamics within the church here (in little rock).

  3. How do you deal with the exclusivity that Jesus Himself talks about? He made it clear that there were few that would find it, and it seems like you’re going out of your way to blow out all defining lines. I’m not trying to promote arrogance in the church by any means, but I think the reality is that God’s Word doesn’t sit will with most folks and trying to dilute it to make it palatable to everyone in turn makes it meaningful for no one.

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