Why Young People Leave the Church
A group of SBC leaders consulted with a prominent independent pastor. They were seeking advice on ways to reduce the number of young people leaving church after high school graduation. Reportedly, they estimated they were losing around 93% of their students while perceiving that the independents were losing only 73% of their young people. Can you imagine consulting with someone who has a failure rate of about 75% for advice? Things must be really bad.
Scores of young people “jump ship” when they come of age. Seven in ten evangelical young people ages 18-30 stop attending church by age 23 according to one survey. Talking with many young people, pastors, and youth workers has unveiled some of the reasons for the massive fallout. Below are some of the prominent explanations for the current plight.
INSINCERITY On Sundays students hear things and observe behaviors that seem markedly different than what they see and observe Monday through Saturday. When duplicity and pretense are seldom challenged, it is seen as an endorsement of that which is artificial as opposed to that which is authentic.
LACK OF COMPASSION Many do not feel engaged or welcome. A warm embrace is just as important as a biblical worldview. How many churches actually target the 20 to 30 age bracket even in towns where there are colleges and universities? People will go where they find love, acceptance, and forgiveness. Activities may “attract,” but it takes love to “attach” people. Peripheral things must be treated as such, and not as the main thing. Someone commented, “Wherever you find strong convictions with shallow sympathies there is the possibility for much unconscious cruelty.” Proactive and unconditional love is a powerful incentive not to jump ship.
MORALISM Moralistic preaching majors on duty and external issues to the neglect of heart-felt devotion to Christ. Outward things are not unimportant, but they are not all important. When obligation (what) is divorced from affection (why), the faith becomes just a list of rules. And rules without relationship produce rebellion. Preaching principles without giving the context of how they relate to God’s Person is legal preaching and it kills. Fleshly obedience is not only wearisome—it is impossible! Church kids know about the gospel for sinners, but they need to experience the “gospel for the saint.” Preaching that empowers us to live a God-focused life is what we all need to hear from the pulpit. Gospel meditation will in turn drive biblical application.
INCONSISTENCY IN THE HOME Admittedly no homes are perfect, but lip-service without life application does not promote fidelity to the Lord or His church. Mixed signals register loudly on the hypocrisy meter. The church can never resurrect what the home puts to death.
LACK OF MISSION Ingrown churches become “institutionally focused” instead of missional (mission focused). Maintaining the preferences and prejudices of prior generations does nothing to engage an age group who grew up in a totally different context. Failure to provide “tracks to run on” (service) does not integrate the younger into the larger group. If they spend their adolescence exclusively in age-segregated settings, why should we expect them to change gears at age nineteen? Further, if the only purpose is to keep the museum open during business hours, why expect those who are full of energy and life to rally around an ingrown establishment? They must see the overarching PURPOSE. Some sensitivity to cultural relevance is not always compromise. It would do us all good to sit down with young people in a coffee shop and LISTEN.
PARENTAL DISCONNECT The main thing missing in parenting today are the parents! Fathers left the farm and the home during the Industrial Revolution. Soon the mothers left the home in pursuit of careers. Around 1950 parents handed their children over to the state to educate. Television became the nation’s baby sitter, and it has been downhill ever since. Someone will have the hearts of children—and it should be the parents! When the parents have the hearts of their sons and daughters, children will confide in and seek counsel from Dad and Mom. God commissioned the parents to “shepherd” the hearts of their children (Deut 6:6-7). Without the stabilizing influence of strong parental bonds, many children have difficulty in assimilating the faith of their fathers on a personal level.
UNCONVERTED “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us” (1 Jn. 2:19). Instead of condemning them, we must love as Jesus loved. Check out the “crowd” Christ took into His company. Tattoos, body piercings, and the like are not the problem. Being “in church” does not change people—being “in Christ” does.
LACK OF FIRE Orthodoxy without Holy Spirit power is the breeding ground for atheism. When the supernatural energy of God is missing, there is no transformation on a personal or corporate level. Ed Stetzer says, "People are looking for a faith that can change them and to be a part of changing the world." Doctrinal belief without zeal is dead. It is a sad fact that the fear of man has purged all excitement from many traditional churches. God’s chosen symbol for the Holy Spirit is fire. But we don’t need a symbol—we need FIRE! Ezekiel, through his vision, witnessed a revival in a bone yard. Their need was not to locate the corner pins (landmarks) of the graveyard—they needed resurrection! The preaching of the gospel under the anointing of the Spirit is God’s appointed means to bring LIFE into the assembly.
LACK OF VISION Sight is a function of the eyes, but vision is a function of the heart. The absence of visionary leadership has left a tremendous void. Leaders are those who call us to something larger than ourselves. Being part of a living community where lives are transformed has a captivating power. Standards and principles must be seen as an expression of devotion to Almighty God, not an end in themselves. No wonder scores are not “buying in” when conformity is emphasized apart from a divine relational purpose. We can do a much better job of answering honest questions instead of just hammering away on issues. Unless youth see the larger picture through the lens of a scriptural worldview, they will never grasp the reality of the good news of the gospel.
CULTURAL CURRENTS The pull of unbelief, moral relativism, peer pressure, and hedonism are stronger than we realize. Older people don’t understand the environment in which their children and grandchildren have grown up. The age of the “Oldsmobile” is over. Today American culture, as a whole, bears no resemblance to the consensus of the baby boomers. Unless, the young have a reasoned faith in the Scriptures and strong foundations in spiritual experience, they cannot stand up to the forces around them.
THE GREAT OMISSION Youth ministry should be more than a holding tank that resembles MTV. Equipping young people with answers to relevant issues is imperative. The supplemental teaching children receive from others, in addition to the parents, must emphasize discipleship and service. “Taking up the cross and following Jesus” is the heart of the New Testament. This is a costly call in any generation—especially this one. In brief, compassion, connectedness, conversion, and coaching are essential keys to reverse the trend.
- Harold Vaughan - Learn More about Harold at Christ Life Ministries. Used with Permission
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Pastor Bob Franseen, Pastor of Eagle Heights Baptist Church & Others