Young Christians and the Church

October 28th, 2011

Generational Differences

“Susan” is a young Christian who now attends church irregularly. She used to come every Sunday with her parents, but when she reached her freshman year in college in 2010, she, like many others, stopped going to church—until this past Sunday, that is, when she appeared back in church along with a few college friends. It was great to see her again, everyone remarked.

During the worship service, while the ushers were taking up the offering, I sent Susan a text message saying how nice it was to see her in church and that it was great she had brought along some friends. She responded with a quick note: “Thanks.”

After church, one of the members of the congregation told me how rude it was that Susan was sending text messages during church. “She was replying to me,” I said. “Well, I told her that she should have her cell phone turned off during worship,” the member added.

And we wonder why young Christians leave the church.

The Great Disconnect

The Barna Group, a private, non-partisan organization that conducts research pertaining to spiritual development, recently made headlines in the church when it published an article entitled “Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church.” The result of a five-year study, their report compiled research from eight national studies and interviews with young adults, parents, and pastors. The report offers challenges to and for the church if it wishes to remain relevant in the lives of young people.

Among its findings, the Barna report states that nearly three out of five young Christians (59 percent) “disconnect either permanently or for an extended period of time from church life after age 15.” David Kinnaman, president of Barna, explained, “The problem of young adults dropping out of church life is particularly urgent because most churches work best for ‘traditional’ young adults. . . . But most young adults no longer follow the typical path of leaving home, getting an education, finding a job, getting married and having kids—all before the age of 30.” Kinnaman notes that these “life events” are being delayed or ignored completely by today’s young adults.

In the face of this so-called “new normal,” Kinnaman says that churches are ill-prepared and ill-equipped. “Church leaders are most comfortable working with young, married adults, especially those with children,” he says. However, he adds, the world that young Christians live in is different than for older Christians, with young Christians having much easier access to the world—and its viewpoints—via technology, a general mistrust of institutions, and a “skepticism toward external sources of authority, including Christianity and the Bible.”

Six Reasons

Barna’s report on why young Christians leave church found no one single reason to blame for their departure. Instead, six reasons, or “themes,” surfaced.

The first reason cited is that “churches seem overprotective.” The report notes that today’s teens and young adults (ages 18–29) have unprecedented access to worldviews and ideas. “As Christians, they express the desire for their faith in Christ to connect to the world they live in,” the report states. “However, much of their experience in Christianity feels stifling, fear-based and risk-averse.” One quarter of the respondents said that Christians “demonize everything outside the church,” while others said the church ignores the problems of the world (22 percent) and is too concerned that movies, video games, and music are harmful (18 percent).

The next theme that emerged was that young Christians have only a “shallow” experience of faith. When young Christians leave the church, 31 percent said they left because church was “boring,” the report indicated. Other reasons: The Bible is “not taught clearly or often enough” (23 percent); and 20 percent indicated that God seemed to be missing from their church experience.

The tension between Christianity and science was the third reason cited, with 35 percent of those surveyed agreeing with the statement “Christians are too confident they know all the answers.” Nearly three out of ten young adults (29 percent) said that “churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in,” while 23 percent said they were “turned off” by the whole Creation-versus-evolution debate.

The fourth reason listed has to do with sex—or rather, how to live meaningful lives in terms of sex and sexuality. While research shows that most young Christians are just as sexually active as non-Christians, this group struggles with how to live up to the church’s expectations of chastity and sexual purity in a culture that does not seem to value the sacredness of sexuality.

In John 14:6, Jesus is quoted as saying, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” This “exclusivity” claim is reason number five for young Christians, who said that churches are afraid of the beliefs of other faiths (29 percent). The same number of respondents said that churches force them to choose between their faith and their friends.

The last of the six reasons cited was that young Christians feel church is not a place where one can express doubt. “They do not feel safe admitting that sometimes Christianity does not make sense,” the report said. As a result, one in three respondents to the survey said that the churchis not a place where they could ask their “most pressing life questions,” nor is it a place where they could express doubt about their faith (23 percent). A significant number—18 percent—said that their experience of faith “does not help with depression or other emotional problems.”

What Is a Church to Do?

Kinnaman says that churches need to strike a balance when ministering to young Christians. Too often, he says, churches fall into “two opposite, but equally dangerous responses . . . : either catering to or minimizing the concerns of the next generation.” The Barna study notes that church leaders often ignore the problem of vanishing young Christians because they feel the disconnection will end when young adults are older and have their own children. The opposite reaction—doing everything possible to hold on to young Christians—also does not work, Kinnaman says, because it ignores the reality of older believers and “builds the church on the preferences of young people and not on the pursuit of God.”

At the Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, a church so large it has five ordained clergy just to do pastoral care (divided up alphabetically), their focus on making nonbelievers into followers of Jesus Christ intentionally includes young adults. In its 21 years of existence, the church has found a balance between younger and older Christians. It was just three years ago that the church launched its “Vibe Service,” which, according to the church’s website, is “an edgy, casual and fresh contemporary service for young adults, teens and their families.” More than 1,000 teenagers attend programs at the Student Center every week, and several of the church’s worship services are streamed live on the Web to a growing audience.

Not every church is a multi-campus church like Church of the Resurrection. The website of the Roswell, Georgia, United Methodist Church states that “fellowship, service, and spiritual growth” are key components of their ministry to young Christians. One such program offered is a “Breakfast Club” that meets the first and third Sundays at 11:00 A.M., not at church but at a local coffee shop. It is sometimes said that young Christians are the “church of tomorrow.” Perhaps Bishop Sharon Brown Christopher put it best when, during the Episcopal Address at the 2008 United Methodist General Conference in Fort Worth,Texas, she commented about the historic inaugural Young People’s Address that had occurred earlier in the conference: “They are not just the church of tomorrow; they are leaders of today’s church.”

This article is part of FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs. The complete study guide accompanying this article can be purchased here.

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