Why Do Young Adults Leave the Church?

by andrewcagle

I still remember a conversation I had with a middle-aged gentleman on a flight to North Carolina a little over a year ago. I was on my way to help train college students from Duke, UNC, and NC State how to start, lead, and multiply I Am Second discipleship groups. He lamented to me that my generation of young Americans had forgotten its Christian roots and was on a path of moral and spiritual decline. By this point in our conversation I was sure he already had me pinned as a liberal Christian on the fringe anyway, but I guessed that he didn’t include me in his generalization.

In truth, many young adults my age associate themselves less and less with the church. Many are disillusioned, or have left their faith behind once their parents were no longer there to rope them into church activities on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights. One of the reasons I was on my way to Durham, North Carolina was that I had discovered that many people are reluctant to walk into a church sanctuary on Sunday morning, but most are open to the opportunity to share a meal and discuss scripture with a small group of friends. That’s what I Am Second is all about and I welcomed the opportunity to share what seems to be a revolutionary idea these days. In reality, it’s nothing more than the model found in Acts.

Last week the Barna Group, a “research organization focused on the intersection of faith and culture”, published an article sharing insights garnered from their research “exploring the lives of young people who drop out of church.” As someone who has spent the past several years in the target range of this study, it is of natural interest to me and provokes reflection on my first hand observations of the subject. The Barna article is titled “Five Myths about Young Adult Church Dropouts” and seeks to provide an accurate picture of why young men and women are leaving the church. I recommend reading the article here before continuing with the rest of the post.

Here are the five myths the Barna Group’s research addresses:

  1. Most people lose their faith when they leave high school.
  2. Dropping out of church is just a natural part of young adult’s maturation.
  3. College experiences are the key factor that cause people to drop out.
  4. This generation of young Christians is increasingly “biblically illiterate”.
  5. Young people will come back to church like they always do.

The Barna Group identifies three types of young adults that leave the church: prodigals, nomads, and exiles. Four out of ten young adults are nomads, who the study says “have become ‘lost’ to church participation.” In the article, Barna Group President and author, David Kinnaman says, “The conclusion from the research is that most young people with a Christian background are dropping out of conventional church involvement, not losing their faith.” Furthermore, in regards to myth number five, the study suggests that most young people who leave the church won’t come back. I know parents that either fear college will tear their child away from their faith or that it is the reason that their child had already left, but according to Barna “As evidence, many young Christians dissociate from their church upbringing well before they reach a college environment”. The time period that shapes whether or not young adults will ultimately leave or not is not so much college years as it is their years before reaching the freedom of adulthood at the age of eighteen. Kinnaman states that, “The problem arises from the inadequacy of preparing young Christians for life beyond youth group… In other words, the university setting does not usually cause the disconnect; it exposes the shallow-faith problem of many young disciples.”

I want to key in on a very important word used by Kinnaman, disciples. For me, this raises the question, “As the church, are we effectively making disciples?” I am going to step on a lot of toes here, and say that as the church as a whole, we are not. In fact, this is unfortunately an area where the American church is failing miserably. In The House Church Book, Wolfgang Simpsons writes, “Even in the traditional church of fewer than one hundred attendees, only 31 percent are involved in a ministry corresponding to their spiritual gifts. In a larger church, the figure is only 17 percent.” Much of this spiritual unemployment has to do with structure. In the US, the way we structure spiritual community inherently guarantees that many church-goers will be unengaged, lack true spiritual family, and be left without a discipleship/mentorship relationship.

If I think about my years in church growing up, we practiced segregation. Not a racial segregation, though that is another church topic, but generational segregation. Once I reached the seventh grade, I left the children’s ministry and was grouped into the youth ministry with a little over one hundred other teenagers who possessed as little knowledge, wisdom, or life experience as myself. Adults passionate about youth spent time teaching classes and curriculum on scripture and other topics. I am thankful for them, and their patience to teach and impart wisdom to a difficult demographic. I was blessed to have a mentor four years older than me to offer wisdom and discipleship, but I rarely interacted with anyone in other stages of life as a practice of spiritual community, shared life, and discipleship. The result was a compartmentalized church. The only regular meeting all of the various generations were gathered in the same room for was to worship and listen to a sermon together. This is not to say that opportunities for multi-generational fellowship and discipleship were non-existent, but they were not built into the church’s DNA. It was too easy for someone to be left out of the church family and fall through the cracks. This is the reality in the vast majority of congregational churches today.

From my own observation, many men and women my age and younger leave the church because they were bored or never experienced the depth of community and love they truly desired. If Christianity is boring, then something is wrong or we need to re-read the gospels. If someone tells you they were bored by church, that’s not on Jesus, it’s on us and I don’t blame that individual for leaving. My twin brother and I grew up in the church together. Now in our first post-college year of life, he doesn’t believe in God as the creator and single path to salvation, I do. I view the Bible as holding absolute truth, he doesn’t carry the same belief. However, despite these differences, both of us can look at the life and teachings of Jesus and find things we both love and find attractive. The radical love of Jesus is powerful and usually fails because we mess it up. Most of the critiques my brother has of the American church, I share as well. Some of that has to do with how we as Christians could do better at loving others (myself included), and some of it has to do with a healthy distaste for Pat Robertson and Christian public figures like him.

For other friends of mine, it isn’t necessarily an experience of being burned by the church that drove them away, it was a lack of any reason to stay or return. The church didn’t offer anything they couldn’t get already. One of my favorite quotes is by Shane Claiborne and is found his book, The Irresistible Revolution. Shane writes, “The more I get to know Jesus, the more trouble he seems to get me into.” I don’t know about you, but loving that radically sounds exciting to me. Contrary to popular belief, I don’t think people come to church to feel safe; they come to feel loved. You can sit at home and feel safe, but if no one is there you won’t feel loved. In the same way, if I want to be entertained, I go to a Radiohead concert or go see a Cohen brothers film. If I want spiritual fulfillment and family, I go to church. This is where most of us go wrong with youth ministry, and it’s no surprise young adults are dropping out.

The most amazing and inspiring young Jesus followers I have met in recent years came in my later college years. Among the young generation of men and women, I have seen a beautiful picture of passionate individuals that believe Jesus’ life was a radical as He claimed it to be. They are following Christ’s leadership and taking on His commandments in an organic and holistic way that is exciting and new. The church in America may be declining in quantity as generations change, but it isn’t losing quality. That said, we still have a long way to go in creating a community of believers that lives in fellowship and makes disciples in the way of the New Testament church. When we do that, we will create a generation of young disciples that will stay in the church because they have experienced intimate spiritual community with fellow believers that spurs them on to love others in radical ways.