What keeps young people in the church as adults? What are those who leave missing? What must we do to keep them?
Statistics for young people who leave the church after becoming adults have been haunting pastors, teachers, and parents since the early 2000s. As early as 2005, the Barna Group found that 61% of young adults who had been raised in evangelical homes and churches described themselves as “spiritually disengaged.” Similar statistics have been rising steadily ever since. Depending on the scope and demographics being studied, research has found that the current percentage of churched young people turning from the faith as young adults is well over 70%.
On a personal level, I see these statistics as a glaring reality. Growing up in a vibrant youth group with scores of teenagers at any given meeting, I can attest to the accuracy of the statistics. A large portion of the people I grew up with has moved away from any active involvement in church. For many, the personal connection diminished as we grew up, or else was decimated by church scandal. Many, facing the harshness of life, found few answers to the questions thrown at them by circumstances and doubts. Now, as a youth worker and high school teacher, I have seen young people who are heavily involved in our church as teenagers go off to college, never to return. Many have found homes at other churches in other parts of the country, for which I am deeply grateful. However, at least an equal number have simply not allowed church to remain a meaningful part of their lives. A significant portion has walked away from the faith altogether.
At least two things must be admitted about this trend. First, it is as complicated and multidimensional of an issue as the individuals it depicts. Therefore, it can really only be discussed in generalities. Second, it is a reality that nearly every church in the U.S. is facing. The question is, how do we deal with such a broad and ominous issue? Why are our young people leaving?
Fortunately, the past two generations are the most studied generations in history. Recent studies have asked more pointed questions to find root causes. A myriad of books and articles have been written, offering practical advice and institutional solutions. The solutions offered are as varied as the studies performed, and there is much to glean.
If we are not careful, however, I believe it is possible with this issue to miss the trees for the forest, as it were. We risk missing the point, focusing more on statistics than on hearts, more on programs than on people. Meanwhile, the young people before us grow up, leave the church, and reject the faith.
Suggesting a Trend
In my estimation, there is a trend among the myriad of statistics and discussions. Nearly every study I find and every commentary I read in some way expresses a familiar pattern. Essentially, if young people remain faithful to Christianity and stay engaged in a church as adults, it is because they have been given a theological rationale and a relational means for doing so. Conversely, if young people leave the faith and consequently the church, it is more than likely because they lacked theological training and personal connection.
I am convinced that the future faithfulness of our young people ultimately depends on a communication of deep theology and a community of deep relationships.
Allow me to give two examples expressing this trend.
First, Ed Stetzer, writing for Christianity Today, has found the four most predictive factors in influencing teenagers to stay in church as young adults were as follows:
- They wanted the church to help guide their decisions in everyday life.
- The pastor’s sermons were relevant to their life.
- Their parents were still married to each other and both attended church.
- At least one adult from their church made a significant investment in them personally and spiritually.
See the pattern? The initial two factors involve theological instruction, the first in the form of practical advice for issues like vocation and finances and the second in the form of relevant application of biblical preaching. The other two factors involve relational circumstances, the first in the form of biological family involvement and the second in the form of spiritual family involvement. In other words, if young people stay in church as young adults, it is because of the theology they hear and the relationships they form. Nothing else seems to be an adequate substitute.
Second, Jaquelle Crowe, herself a twenty-year-old, addressing why her generation stays or leaves, writes,
You might get us in the door because of free pizza, Bible stories told in emojis, or your radically fun children’s ministry, but at the end of the day our spiritual hunger is not satisfied by what’s “cool” or relevant.
What we need is to see the church loving one another. We need to see Christians of all generations (especially older, wiser generations) in covenant together remaining faithful in an unfaithful culture. We need to see the church standing up for biblical truth and not compromising their convictions. We need the church going out to reach the lost and bringing them in to grow and be fed in the context of the community. What we need is to see the church being the church.
There they are—deep theology and deep relationships. She continues,
We need what every generation needs—Millennials, Boomers, Gen X-ers, and everyone in between: to hear the truth preached. Yes, make your church culture welcoming and inviting to young people, but make a bigger effort to simply communicate the gospel to us and allow us into the community.
These are only two examples, but I would invite you to do your own research on the topic and see the trend for yourself.
Offering a Solution
The question that remains is, what do we do about this? If deep theology and deep relationships are what keep young people engaged in the faith as young adults, then how do we as parents, teachers, pastors, and churches meet those needs?
There is a point at which both our communication and community intersect. That point is in our worldviews.
What is a worldview?
Sparing you a detailed origin story from 19th-century German philosophy, the concept of a worldview is what the compound word sounds like it is. It is our view of the world, a general concept of reality that produces our way of life. Somewhere between the theoretical recesses of our minds and the practical decisions of our lives, our worldview connects our ultimate “why” to our every day “what.”
No need to worry whether you or the young people in your life have a worldview. You do. They do. We all do. Renowned Christian thinker Francis Schaeffer once wrote, “People function on the basis of their worldview more consistently than even they themselves may realize.”
Our worldview is made up of a framework that we have just by merit of being human.
First, there is a narrative.
We all have a story to which we ascribe everything we know exists. I am not talking here about our individual story, or our national story, or our cultural story. This is our meta-narrative, the story of all stories.
Second, there is a belief.
We all have a set of beliefs on which we base everything we think. I am not talking here of our opinions, or our theories, or our doubts. This is our presuppositions, the belief behind our beliefs, causing us to believe.
Third, there is a commitment.
We all have a primary objective to which we direct everything in our lives. I am not talking here of our New Year’s resolutions or our five-year plans. This is our purpose, our reason for doing what we do.
Fourth, there is a community.
We all have a group of like-minded family to which we connect in our shared worldview. I am not talking here about our relatives, or our fellow sports fans, or our social media connections. This is our family, our existential birds of a feather.
What is a Christian worldview?
A full-fledged expression of the Christian worldview is far beyond the scope of this humble blog post. Nevertheless, I would like to build a massively oversimplified outline to demonstrate what I believe is a dire need. I believe we find in the Christian worldview what statistics tell us our young people are searching for: theology and community.
The Christian worldview is one that begins and ends with the Biblical narrative. The Bible does not simply contain our creed and commandments. It asserts an entire cosmology. It is this feature of the Bible that causes it to stand out among the religious texts of the world. John Stonestreet and Brett Kunkle recount a Hindu scholar chiding Christians for underselling the Bible as just another religious book. “It is not a book of religion,” he charged, “and anyway we have plenty books of religion in India. We don’t need anymore!” He continued:
I find in your Bible a unique interpretation of universal history, the history of the whole creation and the history of the human race…. That is unique. There is nothing else in the whole religious literature of the world to put alongside it.
So, how do our young people view the Biblical narrative, as fragmented stories from their youth or a worldview meta-narrative? Their answer to that question makes all the difference.
The Christian worldview is one that is Christocentric, that is to say, it revolves around Jesus Christ. Since the days of the Apostles, the dividing line between Christian and non-Christian belief has been one’s given answer to Jesus’ question— “Who do you say that I am?” Our answer is correct only insomuch as it hugs closely to Peter’s answer—Jesus is “the Christ, Son of the living God.”
Few people have anything but the utmost respect for Jesus, even those without a Christian worldview. Both Islam and Buddhism claim him as one of their own. Renowned atheist Richard Dawkins has expressed admiration for Jesus as “one of the great ethical innovators of history,” even stating at one point that “Somebody as intelligent as Jesus would have been an atheist if he had known what we know today.”
But, who do our young people believe Jesus is, an enlightened prophet whose moralism was ahead of his time or God in flesh whose sacrifice redeemed humanity? Their answers to that question make all the difference.
The Christian worldview is one that is driven by its gospel mission. The gospel is not simply a belief Christians believe; it is the belief that makes one a Christian. It is not just an idea with which we agree; it is the life that we live. All Christians are commissioned by our Savior to not simply live in the gospel, but to live out the gospel and to go with the gospel. Jesus came to seek and to save that which was lost. As he was sent, so he sends us.
In the gospel, we are reconciled, brought close to God in a communion for which we were made. The sin that separated us from God is now separated from us by God. In turn, we are brought nigh to him. The gospel is the power of God unto a salvation that makes us children of the Father, friends of the Son, and students of the Spirit. Through the gospel, we are reunited with the one whose image we bear in a relationship as eternal as the one who made it possible and as personal as the one who dwells within us.
What do our young people see as their great mission in life, to build temporary personal empires in a culture of wood, hay, and stubble, or to build God’s eternal kingdom through the power of the gospel? Their answer to that questions makes all the difference.
The Christian worldview is one that finds its community in the church, the body of Christ. If in the gospel we are the children of God, in the church we are brothers and sisters. If the gospel is the power in which we are reconciled to God, the church is the organism in which we are reconciled to one another. We come together over every ethnic, economic, political, and practical barrier that divides us. Because in light of what unites us in the body of Christ, those barriers seem embarrassingly superficial.
In a social media culture so driven by self-promotion, the church is a healthy dose of reality. In the church, we do not see each other’s highlight reel through Instagram filters; we see each other’s shortcomings as our own through the mirror of God’s Word. We connect, not as virtual friends, but as image-bearing, grace-receiving, sinners-to-saints family.
Where do our young people look for community, a list of nameless faces and faceless names, or a family of eternal brothers and sisters? Their answer to that question makes all the difference.
The Bottom Line of Balance
Here’s the thing…
Statistics demonstrate almost universally that the young people in our homes and churches leave or stay based on the theology they receive and the relationships they form. In the Christian worldview, theology and community intersect. Therefore, parents in building their homes, teachers in building their classes, and pastors in building their churches, would do well to build places where theology is communicated and community is demonstrated.
Christian homes and churches are often characterized by an imbalance toward one or the other. Either they preach theology and lack relationship, or they stress relationship and lack theology. Of course, correction comes swiftly from one of the most powerfully prescriptive phrases in the entire Bible. Paul tells us that we are to be “speaking the truth in love.” (Ephesians 4:15)
There it is—the truth of our theology and the love of our community.
As parents, teachers, and pastors, we ought to examine ourselves. Are we speaking the truth in love? A balance must be struck.
Are we loving more than speaking?
The failure of the entertainment-driven, pop-Christianity model of youth ministry has been widely observed, even by the likes of Time Magazine. The concept of a youth pastor as a popular amusement coordinator may have roots in an honest concern for building youth groups into a place where they can form godly relationships. However, this has proven to be largely at the expense of Biblical instruction. Quoted by Time, Christian author and publisher Justin Taylor cut to the heart of the problem, stating:
So many youth ministries quickly become irrelevant to teens because pastors get kids excited with cool video clips and cutting-edge music, but then when a parent gets cancer and the teenager is lying in bed wondering what life is all about, he or she discovers there’s nothing to sustain them.
In our effort to build them up, we have sold them short. We have played into the lie that they are fun-hungry teenagers who need games and gimmicks in order to be interested in church. As one youth pastor wrote, “It is strange that we teach young people complex calculus and physics but don’t think they can handle or will be interested in understanding the significance of the Trinity or atonement.”
Let us be less concerned with being culturally relevant, and more concerned with being theologically thorough. What good does it do to reach them, if all we have for them once they are reached is some pizza and a relay game involving an egg? If we fail to speak the truth while demonstrating our love, we have failed our young people.
Are we speaking more than loving?
Our young people are growing up in a world in which meaningful relationships are lost in an ocean of anonymous connections. Meanwhile, the two institutions best equipped to fill the void, the family and the church, are relenting to and being redefined by the cultural current. Nevertheless, in the Christian worldview, the community is as solid as the theology; the love is as eternal as the truth.
Commenting on the dynamic growth of the early church in the face of fierce persecution, Francis Shaeffer attributed it to “the fact that they practiced two things simultaneously: orthodoxy of doctrine and orthodoxy of community….” He continued,
By the grace of God, therefore, the church must be known simultaneously for its purity of doctrine and the reality of its community. Our churches have so often been only preaching points with very little emphasis on community, but exhibition of the love of God in practice is beautiful and must be there.”
Let us be less concerned with “preaching points,” and more concerned with being relationally present. What good does it do to establish the pillar and ground of the truth, if they do not see it as a foundation for their lives? If we fail to demonstrate our love while speaking the truth, we have failed our young people.
The balance is struck by a combination. Our love for our young people must be driven by truth; the truth we teach our young people must be saturated in love. Our young people need theology and community. And, they need them both from us.
 A Practical Guide to Culture: Helping the Next Generation Navigate Today’s World by John Stonestreet and Brett Kunkle p 50.
 Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2008), 283.
 Francis A. Schaeffer, The Church before the Watching World (Downers Grove, 1971), 62.