This is another one of my old blog posts . . . but again, I think it's still an important issue now even though I first wrote this a year and a half ago. Also, if this topic interests you, check out David Kinnaman's book, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church . . . And Rethinking Faith. These are intense issues, and it's not always easy to write or talk about, but I think we as Christians need to have an honest and genuine dialogue opening up about the 21st century church:
I've had several Christian adults ask me lately, "What is going on with young people and the church? Why don't they want to be in church? Why are they so disillusioned . . . and how can we get them to come back?"
Important question, and most definitely worth an answer. I don't claim to know all the factors involved in why so many people my age and in my generation are leaving the church, leaving the faith of their parents and their families, and looking elsewhere for even an ephemeral sense of fulfillment and meaning in their lives. And for people who have asked me about this, I think they were looking for the perspective of someone within this young generation who may know, basically, what the deal is with young people and church/ faith in general. Without seeking to offend people, I do have some ideas on this issue. As a young Christian who has at times felt frustrated with church, I believe that there are several factors that contribute to people in my generation abandoning the church in large numbers . . . even many who still profess Christianity and many who honestly desire to obey God with their lives.
I think many young people are tired of the tendency within many churches to water down the Gospel to the point where it loses its effectiveness. They're tired of looking at the difficulties and challenges of their lives and then coming to church and hearing well-worn, carefully picked phrases that are said with such regularity that they begin to believe they're a tape recording. Tired of going to services which adhere so closely to a bulletin or a schedule that there is no room for the Spirit to move in profound ways. They're tired of spending their time trying to figure out what to do with their lives, deciding whether or whom to marry, figuring out how to pay the bills, and debating how to share Jesus Christ with their friends, including the drug-addicted, tattooed ones . . . and then coming to church and hearing a sermon that in many cases sounds more like a secular motivational speech than the inspired word of God (or worse, one that barely uses the Bible at all). "Be charitable . . . be at peace . . . God wants you to prosper . . . treat others well . . . you are loved." My peers are desperately seeking real truth and real answers for their lives, and for the lives of their friends who may be everything ranging from atheists to drug addicts to bartenders. Young people are desperate for true encounters with Christ that they don't seem to be finding in many churches today. Young people who are abandoning church aren't doing so because they want less truth in their lives. They're doing it because they want more. This fact alone should make us seriously hesitate.
A lot of us who have been raised in the church are, in all honesty, tired of looking around our churches and asking ourselves, "Why is everyone here white and middle class? Didn't God tell us to take the Gospel to ALL nations, so that EVERY tribe and tongue and nation can declare that Jesus Christ is Lord?" A lot of young adults would not feel comfortable bringing their friends of other races and other socioeconomic backgrounds to their churches. They would hardly dare to bring their tattoo-covered Goth friend with the 15 piercings and ripped jeans to church for fear of what others would say, or simply for fear of their looks of disapproval.
People my age want to hear the real Gospel message and understand its real implications for our lives, especially at this time when many of us are trying to make serious decisions about where our lives are taking us and what kind of contribution we want to make to the world. We want real hardcore truth, not cliches or vague inspirational sayings, and we can take it. We want people who can take our own questions and even our doubts. We want people in our churches who will grapple with us on real issues and ask us important questions, like, "How is your relationship with God? How has God been working in and through your life?" NOT just "How was your weekend?" I'm not saying there's anything wrong with some small talk and getting to know the basics of people's lives...but my peers and I want more. We want deeper relationships with fellow Christians of all ages, and with the Lord. We want people who will be truly honest with us and speak truth in our lives even when we don't want to hear it. We want fellowship with other believers...and not just the kind that, supposedly, happens around a table eating and chatting about mundane things. Many people operate with what I believe is a mistaken notion, that fellowship and friendship are the exact same thing. They think it counts as "fellowship" to watch movies with a group of friends, or go shopping together, or sit at the same table with others during the church potluck dinner. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these activities, and sharing activities together like this is a common marker of friendship. Yet true, God-honoring fellowship is SO much more than just friendship, even though it encompasses the best characteristics of friendship too. Check out Acts 2:42-47 for a description of what REAL fellowship looks like! It is sharing hearts, minds, and resources...meeting together continually to worship the Lord...and doing the work of the Lord together. That's the kind of fellowship I and my peers crave desperately.
We want people who we can laugh with, cry with, and share our hearts with. People who will encourage us to pursue our God-given passions and to sacrifice the world's value system in order to pursue the values and the wealth of the kingdom of God. We want churches where "let's take prayer requests" is not code for "let's gossip about so-and-so's issues." I believe that God is raising up a generation with intense passion for Him . . . this generation needs people who will support them in passionate pursuit of God, even if that pursuit takes young people with a Ph.D. to do long-term missions overseas when the world would only say, "What a waste of your career potential."
I think there are some other causes for young adults' disillusionment with the American church. Although we have often been labeled as an extremely materialistic generation who always selfishly wants more to spend on ourselves, I don't think I'm the only person my age who feels like something is fundamentally wrong when I walk into a church where the plates used to serve Communion cost more than a family in a Third World country would make in a month. We want to be a part of something GREATER than ourselves and greater than our own satisfaction. Greater than our own comfort, even. A lot of young adults would love to give at least 10% of their income to the church, but they're afraid--with good reason--that their money is only going to go to something that comes back to US and OUR "needs," like repainting church walls or replacing a perfectly good carpet. Don't say our generation doesn't think beyond ourselves...though I don't think it's necessary to embrace undue asceticism on Sunday mornings, I can't help but think about how a persecuted brother or sister in Christ in North Korea might think if they stepped into one of our church buildings. Would they think that we have denied ourselves, taken up our crosses, and followed the same Lord and Savior they're suffering and dying for?
I believe that young people are also frustrated by the tendency of many churches to cling to and broadcast their denominational roots with a passion they wish were only reserved for Christ Himself. With respect for the heritage of our churches and those who have gone before us, frankly, many of us don't see ourselves as good Baptists, good Methodists, exemplary Lutherans, etc. We want nothing more--and nothing less--than to be devoted followers of Christ alone. We wish we were not pushed so much to attach a denominational label to everything we do within the church. I know from conversations with my unsaved peers that those who do not know Christ often are very confused by denominational categories and they perceive them as pointing to divisions among Christians, whether or not this is truly the case. At this point in my walk with the Lord, for these very reasons, I've chosen not to affiliate myself with any particular denomination. Yet these extra "labels" are so prevalent that I often get confused looks when people ask me about my faith and I say that I am a Christian...nothing more, nothing less, no other labels.
I also believe that young adults are frustrated when traditional, highly conservative church structures and church leadership try to stop them from using their God-given gifts in creative, innovative ways to honor him and to make HIS name known among all nations. Wanting to do things "the way we've always done them" can be perfectly fine...but if we're not careful, it can be used to quench the Spirit of God. It can be used to lock people in to life paths that God did not design for them to follow. And that is a tragedy! For example, young women who God has gifted with the abilities of leadership and teaching are tired of being told that they need to go somewhere other than the church to use those gifts . . . merely on the basis of the (virtually) unchangeable fact of their biological sex. They're tired of the church basically implying that God made a mistake in making them female AND leaders on the basis of a few passages which have been stripped of their cultural context and have been used to (do I dare say this?) make it look as if God himself has a sexist agenda. I am by no means saying that all churches have the problems I've been mentioning, but the ones that do are pushing young adults away because they don't want a part in churches which are strongholds of patriarchy, wealth, hierarchy, sexism, and white privilege. They want a part in the CHURCH as the living, breathing organism of God's people doing God's work in ALL parts of the world. They're passionate about the Jesus of the Gospels who pursued people of every race, sex, and creed. Especially "sinners." They are unwilling to use the name of Jesus to justify injustices and worldly systems and anything that they can't use their brains and their hearts to endorse. If they can't find Christ as Scripture presents Him in our churches, they WILL look elsewhere.
I don't write this to tear down the church, nor did I have any one church in mind when I gave these examples. Yet because older Christians have been asking me why I think young adults are leaving the church, I felt compelled to be honest about why I think it's happening. No church is perfect and no Christian is perfect, but I believe these are some "blind spots" affecting the 21st century American church. For what it's worth...I hope I may have given you food for thought as we work together as Christians to glorify the name of Jesus in our world.