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The Reasons Young Adults Don’t Stay In Church

The question of why Millennials and those in Generation Z don’t stay in church has been agonized over for years now. Some national surveys suggest that, even for kids raised in church, the retention rate as they enter their late teens and into their twenties is in the single digits. These young adults leave the church and most of them never come back.

As I have studied it up close as a Senior Minister over the last several years, I have come to understand there are four main issues involved, with one common thread running through them all. The common thread is – the church can’t (but shouldn’t be trying anyway) to compete with the world around it. The church should be standing out from the world around it. The four issues listed below begin to have a negative impact on the likelihood of a person staying in church from a preschool age. But since the final results are not seen until after high school graduation, the correlations are not easy to unravel.

Issue Number One: Church Consumerism. A number of individuals have written about this issue relative to both adults and teens. When we make church about entertaining or pleasing the kids (or their parents) rather than teaching them about God’s greatness and denying ourselves and loving God and others first, the church sets itself up against all the other options in the world where the young adult can go and be entertained or pampered.

In today’s cultural climate, too many churches have decided a call to sacrificial commitment is just too difficult of a message to deliver. However, that is not true. Young adults who have been taught that church is about commitment and self-sacrifice, stay in the church at a drastically higher rate according to my experience than those who are not. If church is just a social club or one of hundreds of entertainment options, it will ALWAYS lose out to competing options in the world.

Issue Number Two: A Lack Of Life Change. When young people do not see life change in the people around them at church, their retention rate falls to nearly zero. As I have discussed this with other ministers and church leaders, we have come to realize that there was not a point in the recent past when the life change of church members began to slow. The life change of church members has probably not been where it needed to be for quite some time. What changed was the cultural norm of church attendance.

In decades past, going to church was the default and individuals went regardless of whether they saw other’s lives changed or not. Today, though, the societal norm is to not attend church, so churches must give young adults compelling reasons to do so. If, as young people grow up in church, what they see are adults fitting their beliefs into their life instead of restructuring their life around their beliefs, they won’t see any compelling reason to stay in church instead of joining some other club.

Issue Number Three: A Lack Of Biblical Teaching. As Children and Youth Ministers feel the pressure to build their programs around their kids (see issue number one), the Bible always seems to be one of the first casualties. Teen devotions seem to start with a modern problem (peer pressure, drug use, anxiety, etc.) and then provide a number of pop psychology solutions with a Bible verse thrown in as a tag along. But, again, teens who have grown up in these types of churches are not sticking when they are older. We need not fear the Bible and what it teaches. It is just as relevant today as it was when it was first written! If church is just a psychology-based self-help, self-actualization class, it will be defeated by other worldly options.

Issue Number Four: Righteous Versus Redeemed. The first three points may be bigger issues in more liberal denominations but this fourth point may, unfortunately, be afflicting conservative churches as much or more than others. Everything about the New Testament church is built on God’s grace and yet too many students today get the false impression from their churches that there is something intrinsically more righteous about them (because they attend church) than those who do not attend church.

Instead of preaching against sin (which liberal preachers may shy away from doing for fear of offending someone), conservative preachers too often preach against groups of people as a way to rally the troops and create cohesion in their congregations. As with all the examples above, though, if a young person comes to feel that going to church is about establishing their self-righteousness, they can (and almost always will) find a solution in the secular world that provides this feeling of moral superiority even more effectively. Young people today can easily broadcast their self-righteousness through actions as simple as liking initiatives on Instagram or by voting for certain (apparently moral) causes.

The way to increase retention of young adults in church is easy to explain but extremely difficult to implement. The first step is to cease making church about pleasing the tastes of consumers (kids and adults). Instead center church around God, His glory and the commitment and sacrifices we need to make. If you are a parent who wants to raise a God-fearing child and you know your church is trying too hard to make church a fun place (with two story indoor playgrounds, etc.), change churches. The second step is that youth programs need to have the most spiritual adults involved in them (not just the adults who are trying to stay kids themselves) so teens get a chance to see what genuine Christian life change is all about.

The third change is, though making the examples relevant for a modern culture, to cover the teachings of Jesus and Paul, etc. directly from the Bible. Start devotions with scripture, don’t add scripture to whatever it was felt the kids needed to hear anyway. And finally, be overly cautious that we are not teaching kids that church is about being or displaying our righteousness in a culture that is becoming less and less religious but more and more about moral posturing. It is absolutely necessary that we make church, youth programs most definitely included, about God’s glory, God’s grace and the gift of Christ’s righteousness to us.

We will increase church attendance among young adults when we make it a radical alternative to what the world offers. But if we continue to try and compete with the world, attendance will almost certainly continue to decline.

Andy’s book, Clear Vision: How The Bible Teaches Us To View The World, can be purchased here.

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