How come young adults are dropping out of church?

When people talk about young adults, I hear a David Attenborough voice.

“Observe the wild millennial posting on their Instagram, exhausted from their low-paying job, hours of uni study, and how they are never going to own a house because of the economy.”

Like many generations before them, millennials (roughly defined as the generation currently aged 18-34) seem to attract a significant number of commentaries that sound like anthropological studies. (I always think how the people criticising the millennials were the ones whose parents were concerned about their love of rock ‘n’ roll and mini-skirts. Maybe this whole “kids these days” thing goes full circle, you know?)

What is significant about my generation, though, is that they’re dropping like flies from the church. And it’s not necessarily because they’re losing their faith in God.

Three years ago, a conference off the back of a major Canadian report showed that people aged 18-34 are increasingly leaving the church here in Australia. Census data suggested that some 500,000 young people drifted away from Christian faith between 2001 and 2011, with an increasing number opting for ‘no religion’ as their preference. (Last year’s census doesn’t seem to rebut this trend.)

This is in addition to a large number of teenagers dropping out of church in the transition from childhood to youth.

Predictably, some people may just think generations are getting worse. But, as Rowan Lewis wrote in Equip magazine:

… it is my growing contention that many of our young people who dissociate from church are not initially rejecting Christian faith (though many eventually do) but rather are exhibiting what I call an ‘exilic’ form of faith. It is the faith borne of disorientation in a world that has become rather more complex than a simple, inherited or socialised faith could handle. It is a faith that can still believe in a God who is borne of mystery, who can handle our laments and remain present to our wandering soul, in contrast to a church that may appear to be borne of politics, unable to tolerate our questions and too caught up in attractional forms of ministry to be present wherever they are.

There’s a temptation to think that young people are going astray because they’re rebellious, but I would argue it’s much more complex than that. After all, young people aren’t being driven away from faith outright, but from faith communities. That’s profound. And it’s been happening for four decades now.

We’re in a time where there are major cultural shifts away from Christianity and evangelicalism. Young adults, already grappling with a major time of transition, are leaving the church in record numbers.

What is making them drop out of church? Here are some thoughts.

Question time

Young adulthood is a major time of asking questions. People at this age are making more decisions at this stage than perhaps any other stage of their lives: education, relationships, marriage, sex, career, money, purpose, to name a few.

It’s also a key time of evaluating your faith. Do I really believe in hell? Will I get married, and when should that happen? Does prayer do anything? How do I deal with my sexuality? What’s the value of church? These are all questions that can take a long time to resolve – and may not even resolve fully. Questioning is inevitable and needs to be approached with care. As Rowan Lewis wrote again:

Our young people need safe places in which to doubt and explore the profound questions of faith. They need reassuring contexts to rail against the mystery of God and the depravity of our world. They need presence and belonging in the midst of their prodigal wandering.

Traditional church circles, though, have not been the place for this. There’s often a misunderstanding that if you’re questioning too much or for too long, then you’re not trusting God enough. Our expectation is that of “child-like” faith (Matthew 18:1-5), and there’s no wiggle room for disbelief in this kind of environment. Either you’re all in, or you wrestle with your doubt in private.

Unfortunately, this attitude forgets that being child-like is not the same as being childish. One is about trusting God with the unknowables. The other is about naivete and not growing up. You can see this when Paul uses the metaphor of baby’s milk (childish faith) and solid food (mature faith) in 1 Corinthians 3:1-2 – there’s a clear maturing process that we’re encouraged to have, and that includes tackling questions head on.

My guess is that plenty of young people like to stand up and say that they aren’t sure about the church’s stance on LGBTI people, or gender, or how the church uses their money, but they aren’t able to. There’s a culture of fear around big questions, and young adults aren’t finding answers in the one place where – arguably – they should be able to.

Complex world, simplistic answers

But young adults aren’t just asking questions because of their age and stage. We are facing some turbulent times here in 2018. Consider how many major questions our society has been asking in the past few years:

  • Gender (transgenderism, gender fluidity and body dysmorphia)
  • Race (Australia’s response to refugees; Black Lives Matter and its challenger All Lives Matter)
  • Sexism (domestic violence epidemics in Australia, particularly among church-going couples, the #MeToo movement)
  • Sexuality (responses to homosexuality and other sexualities, how to vote in the same-sex marriage plebiscite)
  • Abuse (historical child abuse exposed in the Catholic and Anglican churches, high levels of domestic violence in families both in the church and outside it)
  • Religion (terrorism from religious extremists and ensuing discrimination)

I could keep going. But what distresses me is when churches give simplistic answers to these complex questions, without acknowledging (a) that there can be disagreement, and (b) that answering one question still throws up one hundred others. We’re doing fine in expositing the Bible, but we’re failing in recognising that even an answer from the Bible doesn’t always resolve the matter.

Think, for example, of homosexuality. Let’s assume you agree with your church’s stance of whether it’s a sin or not. But then comes the next question: how do you apply that? Are homosexual Christians welcome at that church, regardless of the church’s stance? Can they serve? What if you’re trying to cope with your own sexuality – are you welcome in that church? Do you attend homosexual weddings? How do you respond to your friends who disagree with you? How do you stand up for your faith and show love to those who have a different viewpoint?

Maybe what the church is saying is an ultimate truth. But even so, young people may have difficulty getting their heads around these controversial topics, need to ask and process, and often the church isn’t a safe place to talk about these things. You can be perceived as doubting or rocking the boat.

My suspicion is that Christians in church are trying to help this confusion by giving a united front and one answer. To me, sometimes acknowledging there’s a question is more important.

Practical mission

Sitting in a pew isn’t enough for today’s young adult. There’s been plenty said about the idealism of millennials, and this extends to wanting to own their faith through practical action.

Helping young adults to belong is often closely tied to how much of a mission they feel they have. By “mission”, I don’t necessarily mean a mission statement by the church. (I don’t know many people who are motivated by those.) “Mission” here also doesn’t mean evangelism or missionary work, although it can involve that.

What I mean by “mission” is being involved in something bigger that’s practical and makes a difference, even if it’s only a small difference. And working together in a common mission is something I’ve mentioned elsewhere as a key way of building this elusive community that young adults seek.

Having worked at a ministry that’s worked hard to reach young adults, I know that young adults are not necessarily big givers, or big attenders. But what many of them are interested in are experiences. Classically, they’d be the ones intrigued by training and short-term mission trips, for example.

Others might be providing soup for a church group. Skate park ministry. Living in a unit in a disadvantaged part of town to reach out to neighbours. Beach mission. Heading up a camp for youth or young adults. Running stalls to raise money for missions. These are all examples I’ve seen.

There’s a reason why social justice is a classic focus of this generation: it’s a way of making a difference. It’s also a way of recognising what young people have, their status and how their parents might have sacrificed to give them that.

Enough perfection

It’s a sad truth that churches are known more for their hypocrisy and fakeness than they are for their faith and acts of love.

So it’s not surprising that millennials are usually pinpointed as the generation that’s craving “authenticity” (which, by the way, has turned into a buzzword). They don’t want a faith out of the 1950s, but to embrace messiness and complexity – because that’s the world we’re living in.

As one person wrote,

We want to be us with people that don’t pretend to be something that they aren’t. Just add water relationships, plastic pastors and immaculate images have induced gag reflexes… our generation has attempted to flee the “traditional” model of Christianity with perfect leaders, pristine theologies, hollow rituals and performance driven faith…

Or another,

I think more millennials would be in church if churches held more honest people. We dress nice, and look pretty, smile all the smiles, and promise not to cuss. But what we really need is a place where some real people, who have been through some real stuff, can tell us stories about a real God, and how they met Him personally. That’s a gospel we will buy into.

I read a tweet the other day that reminded me of why I still follow pastors on Twitter. “People don’t want a church,” it said, “They want a family.”

Ultimately, young adults are craving more from their small group than talking about superficial issues. They are craving depth in teaching that acknowledges that the world is complicated, and where they can feel accepted even if they are struggling with sin or doubt. It feels hollow when the only sin we’ll admit to is that we didn’t read our Bible this week.

It’s a hope for a culture that acknowledges brokenness, and some churches are making strides in this direction. I’ve sat in churches and heard raw testimonies, seminars about mental health and addictions, honest discussions about sexuality. Not to mention sermons from leaders who acknowledge that the Bible can be controversial even among church-goers.

Creating a culture of honesty can be instrumental to helping young people feel less marginalised in their struggles. It’s also a space that objects to people who live one way throughout the week, then hide it at church.

Will this generation come back? What do we do in response? Some will think that trying to woo millennials back is just chasing fads for a new generation. Others are realising that young adults leaving could be a symptom of a bigger dysfunction in the church. With four decades of research to look at, there’s definite cause to believe this isn’t a trend to ignore.

What the church can or should do is a complex answer that’s beyond the scope of this particular article. But I’d love to hear your thoughts. With shock waves from this huge cultural shift in the West, how we respond to these changes will mean everything.

5 Replies to “How come young adults are dropping out of church?

  1. It seems hard to believe in my 60th year that I was once a millennial but I still found this article thought-provoking. I think a key question is what is it about the church that makes it worthwhile for anyone aged 18-34 to belong. I would be interested to know how many of those leaving the church in droves would be singles. For most Christians their first attachment to church has been the local parish but I question their value for millennials unless they are married and have children at the parish school and I am unsure of what the church today has to offer outside the parish. I had mixed experiences in the “old days” with periods of deep involvement in parish and church life and a few years at the end of my millennial phase when I felt there was there was not much to keep me connected to church. From age 21 I joined the editorial staff of Melbourne’s Advocate Catholic Newspaper where I worked for a decade and this led to my being joint editor of the parish newsletter for about the same period. I was also on the parish committee for two years. And there were also several groups which a single person like me could join. Within the parish I made a lot of terrific friends through a Young Twenties Group and a group belonging to the Australian Young Christian Workers – a movement for 16 to 30 year olds who gather in friendship groups to discuss key issues affecting their lives and how they can improve things for themselves and others. Outside my parish I belonged to a wonderful organisation called Cursillo (no longer existing in Melbourne) which provided wonderful support in my Christian journey and intimate forums for discussing faith issues. But by my mid to early 30s all this connection had started to diminish and I was largely stuck sitting in the pews wondering what else the church had to offer a single person like me. The answers eventually came through involvement in parish home discussion groups and membership of a church musical team for several years in my mid 40s. I was blessed to have the opportunities for connection and community but I am unsure whether these are still available for millennial singles today. And that may be part of the problem: there are probably several avenues for singles but they simply don’t know what is available for them. Another issue may be that the church’s public image has taken such a battering in recent times that millennials simply don’t want to know what the church may offer. I believe the church needs to rebuild its negative image if it has any hope of attracting anyone, let alone millennials.

    1. Very true Nick. We’re going into a phase where cultural Christianity is a past thing, so parish involvement is much more unusual these days than it was a few decades ago. At some point I’d love to get into the conundrum of the church doesn’t know what to do with people over the age of 25 and single.

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  3. This is a quick ramble, apologies …

    I often wonder whether understanding of the nature of community is just not there for most people (all ages and types), at least, not in the default sense that it used to be. Community engagement (loving one another) is key to building lasting faith groups.

    Just one point I’d like to make. There’s a deep sense of hypocrisy rife when churches get all excited about same sex relationships and voting No and won’t deal honestly with premarital sex amongst their own straight couples. This is not to encourage the formation of a police state against straight couples but just to challenge us to develop standards that apply across the board and are deeply and carefully thought out. Penalizing LGBT+ people and then ignoring the same behaviour in straight people is heart breaking for those watching the double standards, and speaks volumes about us being more interested in victimizing and persecuting than genuinely meeting and engaging with very difficult issues. Yet, it’s in the mess of difficult issues that the real stuff emerges. Perhaps a helpful thought here is that this type of hypocrisy is the diametric opposite of loving one another.

  4. “Church is not relevant for me” is a key sticking point. “Church” as an organisation seems to be perpetually stuck one generation behind what people are experiencing, and this has become more severe in the internet age. Growing up exposed to information around the world accelerates the evolution of perspectives for those who participate – this further disconnects us from both older generations and information-restricted contemporaries.
    = = =
    With advance apologies, consider for example politics. It might be joked about on the pulpit, but it’s also a poisoned topic that church organisations just won’t address. Church-State separation is touted as a thing, but the very act of elections crowns all eligible voters as “kings” whether they like it or not. Church members vote differently, and that’s often treated more like a dirty secret at the pews rather than a place for frank discussions followed by concerted action. Whereas church could be a place where we leave our political filter bubbles behind.

    Is it possible to stand up in the pews and say “um, I think our entire older generation has bought into the Australian dream, instead of the Gospel. The first church shared all of its possessions with each other (Acts 2:44-45, 4:32-5:11) and I think there’s something worth learning here, because our society is broken economically too.” ? What about… “My friend and I think is thoroughly corrupt because of all of . What can I do?” ?
    Even if it’s possible to do so, what is the point? These two questions reflect on just how ossified organised church structure is, and is built to be. It’s very difficult for us to address pastor burn-out problems, abuse problems, or any of the other problems in the article when the obstacle of church hierarchy is so imposing. 501 years from Luther’s 95 theses, maybe it’s time for another Reformation.

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