Why Are Young Christians Leaving The Church?

411jE8HLutL._SL500_AA300_In preparation for a presentation I was doing at Great Lakes Lectures I read a great book recently.  You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church and Rethinking Faith (published by Baker Books)  is written by David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, a research group in the US that studies the intersection between faith and culture.  Kinnaman says that studies by the Barna Group show that more than half of all Christian teens and twenty-somethings leave active involvement in church and don’t come back. Why are young adults leaving the church and rethinking their faith?

In studies conducted from 1997 – 2010 the Barna group have found a 43% drop off between the teen years and early adult years in terms of church engagement (p. 22). Sixty percent of teens ages 13-17 participate in worship, youth groups, small groups or Sunday school but that number falls to less than forty percent of young adults ages 18-29. “The problem is not that this generation has been less churched than children and teens before them,“ says Kinnaman.  Eighty percent of these same young adults, “remember attending Sunday school or some other religious training consistently before the age of twelve, though their participation in the teen years was less frequent.  Seventy percent of Americans recall going to Sunday school at least once a month (p. 23).  While Canadian authors like Reginald Bibby might say that the figures in Canada are different, Kinnaman’s conclusions ring true: Teenagers are some of the most religiously active people, and twenty-somethings are the least religiously active.  Why?

Skeptics might suggest that this has always been the case. “People wander away from church in their twenties and come back in their thirties when they have children.”  Kinnaman warns however that there are a number of variables that make this generation’s rejection of church something different.  Young adults (called Mosaics in sociological research) are adapting to a radical shift in the cultural, technological landscape but the truth is we all are.  None of us are untouched by the arrival of the Internet, mobile computing and the digital age.  The difference is that this generation of young adults is growing up in a radically different environment than any of us did.  Mosaics are forming values and habits in a world where the way relationships are formed and the way wisdom is evaluated is radically different.  “It’s not that [Mosaics] aren’t listening; it’s that they can’t understand what we are saying.” (p. 39)

Kinnaman summarizes that young adults who drop out of involvement with church fall into three different groups: Nomads (adults who still describe themselves as Christian but are spiritually experimenting), Prodigals (those who leave the faith and self-describe themselves as atheist, agnostic or an adherent to some other faith), and Exiles (those who describe themselves as Christian but can’t see how their faith connects with the practices of their current church family).

Nomads make up 40% (p. 63) of young adult drop-outs.  They are not angry or hostile toward faith.  In fact, a quarter of this group say they may be willing to return to church life later, but it is not particularly urgent right now. While Nomads drop in and out of church services and bounce from active to inactive status, the Prodigal is holding fast to a “no faith” or a different faith confession.  Prodigals are much less common than Nomads (about four times less) (p. 68) and they motivated by matters of either the head or the heart.  Prodigals either find faith intellectually untenable, or they have deeply felt emotional wounds related to their faith.  They express bitterness and resentment for many years after leaving the fold.

Exiles are the largest group of drop-outs, making up more than half of the group but they are hard to statistically isolate. Kinnaman finds the best way to understand this group is to look at their attitudes.  They are largely identified but their strong desire to make a difference in the world.  Exiles are disillusioned when churches work at clearly separating themselves from the world.  Exiles want their faith to matter and they sense God is at work outside the church building.  That is not to say that they are all against the church as an institution, but they will not be satisfied with a church experience that only happens during scheduled times.  23% of Christian adults strongly agreed with the statement, “I want to do more than get together once a week for worship.” (p. 79)

Kinnaman concludes that we need a new imagination for how we look at the generation gap.  He says we might, “assume that the church is a collection of separate generations with the older generation given the responsibility of raising young people.” (p. 202) But instead he says there is a much bigger reality.  “A generation is every living person who is fulfilling God’s purposes.” (p. 203) Everyone that is part of your church at any one particular time is all part of one generation!  Rather than thinking that the church exists to prepare the next generation to fulfill God’s purposes, we should think of the church as a partnership of generations fulfilling God’s purposes together in our own time.  We’re all part of the same generation!

While Prodigals are truly gone and may not come back, Nomads and Exiles are willing to talk.  They are willing to partner with us in ministry.  Are we willing to listen?  We will give them opportunities to lead? To serve?

Kinnaman concludes that what we have here is a discipling problem. There are no quick fixes because discipleship is not a mass production process.  This is why we are failing.  Most of our approaches at discipling and spiritual growth operate on the assumption we set up an infrastructure and then lead people through it and they come out the other side spiritually formed. That simply isn’t true.  Studies show again and again that just as many long-time church attenders cheat on their taxes, and commit adultery and so on.  Being in church programs does not make a person grow spiritually.

On the other hand, a struggling church, no matter how small is always ready to be a place where mentoring and discipling can happen.  All you need are two people who are both humble enough to learn from each other. The younger believer needs an older believer, “to help them identify the voice of God, just as Samuel needed Eli to help him know God was calling him. “ (p. 94) Helping in this way, “requires that we recognize, as Eli did, that God is speaking to the younger generation.” (p. 94) Likewise, more experienced believers need to realize that they also have something to learn from younger believers.

Kinnaman concludes his book with fifty ideas (p. 213 – 241) for finding a missing generation. I think you will find that some of these ideas might work, and some might not, but all of them are worthy of consideration.  You Lost Me is a challenging read that places a prophetic call on the reader’s heart and at the same time gives some practical direction and some hope for a way forward for the church.

Book has been provided courtesy of Baker Publishing Group and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc. Available at your favourite bookseller from Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group.


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