Gone, Baby, Gone

September 5th, 2013

Last month a post on CNN’s Belief Blog by popular Christian writer Rachel Held Evans sparked a firestorm of online response and real-world discussion about why members of the Millennial Generation—young adults with birthdates between the early 1980’s and early 2000’s—are leaving the church when they graduate high school. Reaction to her article has varied from support to strong disagreement, but the reality exists: Many Millennials disconnect from the church when they enter college, even if just for a short period of time; and members of the Millennial Generation are more likely than members of any other generation in recent history to have no church affiliation and less likely to say that religion is important in their lives.

One of Evans’s strongest points is that this generation, even more so than the “Generation X” that preceded them, is torn between “their intellectual integrity and their faith, between science and Christianity, between compassion and holiness.” As she has examined youth and young adults’ departure from the church, Evans has found that churches often take the wrong approach to engaging younger generations by investing in being cool, trendy, or contemporary. But, as Evans and many other commentators have argued, Millennials don’t want the show—they’re begging for some reality.

A World of Gray

Today’s youth and young adults aren’t looking to be entertained, and they’re not looking for easy answers. If the church only gives its youth black-and-white answers, they won’t be prepared for the very gray world they will discover as they become adults. They will be exposed to ideas and perspectives that will cause them to question everything they’ve been taught about God and what it means to be a follower of God (if they haven’t been already). They will get to know plenty of good, intelligent people who have very different worldviews (if they don’t already), prompting these reactions: “My roommate seems like a perfectly reasonable person. Couldn’t she be right, too?” “This group of friends seems willing to wrestle with some difficult issues and, at the end of the night, we all still leave as friends. Why wasn’t church like this?” Young people don’t necessarily want to leave the church. Often their faith just hasn’t grown in such a way that it can outlast the challenges that Millennials will inevitably face.

But if it doesn’t come down just to a style of worship or a high-tech program, what can the church do to help young people build a faith that can thrive in all circumstances? The answer may be simple. Instead of supplying product—such as contemporary music or trendy social activities—maybe we should focus on helping youth establish a foundation and on providing a safe environment in which youth can build on that foundation.

Go Your Own Way

The Millennial Generation is calling out the church. Through their words and their actions, they’re saying that they need more than what they’ve been offered. They need the church to nurture in them a faith that can stand up to scrutiny but that also allows them room to ask questions.

Ultimately, each individual person makes his or her own decision about faith. No parent, pastor, youth minister, or Sunday school teacher can make that decision for another person. Everyone in the church, and especially every person who works closely with youth and young adults, must take these needs seriously and consider how we can support and nurture our young people so that they are equipped to handle whatever comes their way in life.

This article is also published as part of LinC, a weekly digital resource for youth small groups and Sunday school classes. The complete study guide can be purchased and downloaded here.

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