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Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church

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October 13, 2011 Tags: Christian Unity
Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church

Today's entry was written by the BioLogos Editorial Team. You can read more about what we believe here.

This post originally appeared on barna.org.

Many parents and church leaders wonder how to most effectively cultivate durable faith in the lives of young people. A five-year project headed by the Barna Group explores the opportunities and challenges of faith development among teens and young adults within a rapidly shifting culture. The findings of the research are included in a new book titled You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church and Rethinking Church.

The research project was comprised of eight national studies, including interviews with teenagers, young adults, parents, youth pastors, and senior pastors. The study of young adults focused on those who were regular churchgoers Christian church during their teen years and explored their reasons for disconnection from church life after age 15.

No single reason dominated the break-up between church and young adults. Instead, a variety of reasons emerged. Overall, the research uncovered six significant themes why nearly three out of every five young Christians (59%) disconnect either permanently or for an extended period of time from church life after age 15.

Reason #1 – Churches seem overprotective.
A few of the defining characteristics of today's teens and young adults are their unprecedented access to ideas and worldviews as well as their prodigious consumption of popular culture. As Christians, they express the desire for their faith in Christ to connect to the world they live in. However, much of their experience of Christianity feels stifling, fear-based and risk-averse. One-quarter of 18- to 29-year-olds said “Christians demonize everything outside of the church” (23% indicated this “completely” or “mostly” describes their experience). Other perceptions in this category include “church ignoring the problems of the real world” (22%) and “my church is too concerned that movies, music, and video games are harmful” (18%).

Reason #2 – Teens’ and twentysomethings’ experience of Christianity is shallow.
A second reason that young people depart church as young adults is that something is lacking in their experience of church. One-third said “church is boring” (31%). One-quarter of these young adults said that “faith is not relevant to my career or interests” (24%) or that “the Bible is not taught clearly or often enough” (23%). Sadly, one-fifth of these young adults who attended a church as a teenager said that “God seems missing from my experience of church” (20%).

Reason #3 – Churches come across as antagonistic to science.
One of the reasons young adults feel disconnected from church or from faith is the tension they feel between Christianity and science. The most common of the perceptions in this arena is “Christians are too confident they know all the answers” (35%). Three out of ten young adults with a Christian background feel that “churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in” (29%). Another one-quarter embrace the perception that “Christianity is anti-science” (25%). And nearly the same proportion (23%) said they have “been turned off by the creation-versus-evolution debate.” Furthermore, the research shows that many science-minded young Christians are struggling to find ways of staying faithful to their beliefs and to their professional calling in science-related industries.

Reason #4 – Young Christians’ church experiences related to sexuality are often simplistic, judgmental.
With unfettered access to digital pornography and immersed in a culture that values hyper-sexuality over wholeness, teen and twentysometing Christians are struggling with how to live meaningful lives in terms of sex and sexuality. One of the significant tensions for many young believers is how to live up to the church's expectations of chastity and sexual purity in this culture, especially as the age of first marriage is now commonly delayed to the late twenties. Research indicates that most young Christians are as sexually active as their non-Christian peers, even though they are more conservative in their attitudes about sexuality. One-sixth of young Christians (17%) said they “have made mistakes and feel judged in church because of them.” The issue of sexuality is particularly salient among 18- to 29-year-old Catholics, among whom two out of five (40%) said the church’s “teachings on sexuality and birth control are out of date.”

Reason #5 – They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity.
Younger Americans have been shaped by a culture that esteems open-mindedness, tolerance and acceptance. Today’s youth and young adults also are the most eclectic generation in American history in terms of race, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, technological tools and sources of authority. Most young adults want to find areas of common ground with each other, sometimes even if that means glossing over real differences. Three out of ten young Christians (29%) said “churches are afraid of the beliefs of other faiths” and an identical proportion felt they are “forced to choose between my faith and my friends.” One-fifth of young adults with a Christian background said “church is like a country club, only for insiders” (22%).

Reason #6 – The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt.
Young adults with Christian experience say the church is not a place that allows them to express doubts. They do not feel safe admitting that sometimes Christianity does not make sense. In addition, many feel that the church’s response to doubt is trivial. Some of the perceptions in this regard include not being able “to ask my most pressing life questions in church” (36%) and having “significant intellectual doubts about my faith” (23%). In a related theme of how churches struggle to help young adults who feel marginalized, about one out of every six young adults with a Christian background said their faith “does not help with depression or other emotional problems” they experience (18%).

Turning Toward Connection
David Kinnaman, who is the coauthor of the book unChristian, explained that “the problem of young adults dropping out of church life is particularly urgent because most churches work best for ‘traditional’ young adults – those whose life journeys and life questions are normal and conventional. But most young adults no longer follow the typical path of leaving home, getting an education, finding a job, getting married and having kids—all before the age of 30. These life events are being delayed, reordered, and sometimes pushed completely off the radar among today’s young adults.

“Consequently, churches are not prepared to handle the ‘new normal.’ Instead, church leaders are most comfortable working with young, married adults, especially those with children. However, the world for young adults is changing in significant ways, such as their remarkable access to the world and worldviews via technology, their alienation from various institutions, and their skepticism toward external sources of authority, including Christianity and the Bible.”

The research points to two opposite, but equally dangerous responses by faith leaders and parents: either catering to or minimizing the concerns of the next generation. The study suggests some leaders ignore the concerns and issues of teens and twentysomethings because they feel that the disconnection will end when young adults are older and have their own children. Yet, this response misses the dramatic technological, social and spiritual changes that have occurred over the last 25 years and ignores the significant present-day challenges these young adults are facing.

Other churches seem to be taking the opposite corrective action by using all means possible to make their congregation appeal to teens and young adults. However, putting the focus squarely on youth and young adults causes the church to exclude older believers and “builds the church on the preferences of young people and not on the pursuit of God,” Kinnaman said.

Between these extremes, the just-released book You Lost Me points to ways in which the various concerns being raised by young Christians (including church dropouts) could lead to revitalized ministry and deeper connections in families. Kinnaman observed that many churches approach generations in a hierarchical, top-down manner, rather than deploying a true team of believers of all ages. “Cultivating intergenerational relationships is one of the most important ways in which effective faith communities are developing flourishing faith in both young and old. In many churches, this means changing the metaphor from simply passing the baton to the next generation to a more functional, biblical picture of a body – that is, the entire community of faith, across the entire lifespan, working together to fulfill God’s purposes.”

For more on the research and The Barna Group, please see the original post here.

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CF - #65481

October 13th 2011

Here’s an editorial from the WSJ on why the Barna group’s methodology is sketchy here:


Loren Haas - #65497

October 13th 2011

CF, This article has almost nothing to do with this Barna survey. Would you care to elucidate?

CF - #65514

October 14th 2011

The point is, Barna is often complicit in over-hyping bad news. Some quotes from the article:

“But when a study by the Barna Research Group claimed that young people
under 30 are deserting the church in droves, it made headlines and
newscasts across the nation—even though it was a false alarm.”

“In similar fashion, major media hailed another Barna report that young
evangelicals are increasingly embracing liberal politics. But only
religious periodicals carried the news that national surveys offer no
support for this claim, and that younger evangelicals actually remain as
conservative as their parents.”

“Given this track record, it was no surprise this month to see the
prominent headlines announcing another finding from Barna that American
women are rapidly falling away from religion.”

“As for media-hyped studies about religion, one should always beware of bad news bearers.”

Loren Haas - #65517

October 14th 2011

    So it is all good. No need to make any changes. Go on about your business. Sounds like what the WSJ readers want to hear. 

CF - #65518

October 14th 2011

Perhaps that, or that Barna has historically used sloppy methodologies and drawn sensationalistic conclusions that can be easily challenged by closer analysis of the polling data. That’s not to say that everything they put out is invalid, but it should be double and triple checked rather than taken at face value or used to change priorities for the church today.

ZeroG - #65527

October 15th 2011

I think Barna has the potential to be a great resource. Just presenting the raw data and opening it up for discussion would be the best thing they could do. Their current approach seems to put them into reason #1 above.

Cal - #65488

October 13th 2011

Speaking as one among this age group, this also comes down to being a Christian and being absorbed by christendom.

I was an unbeliever until the age 18 but I would have never said that I was not a christian. What happened? Did I finally start “taking it seriously”? By no means, I did not know Jesus, I sometimes went for the Christmas/Easter service. It was a moral duty of being an American, partaking in its civil religion. However I was firmly on a Conservative bent and thus saw being ‘christianity’ firmly wrapped into my identity as an American. It was when I was finally moved by the Gospel, touched by the Heart of God, that pure man hanging on the cross, that cut me to pieces and rebirthed me.

Now America has been shifting culturally into being “post-christian”, this is a misnomer, America was never Christian but had but a hook of cultural christendom, the same vein that produced state-churches in Europe and the Roman Catholic network. Christendom will murder faith, it is its antithesis. Read Kierkegaard for a good, well placed critique. It makes the Gospel of no effect. The message of a Savior, the God-Man, being crucified for our sakes, and being Resurrected, bringing Eternal Life to those who become His, is lost. It is no longer offensive or bizarre.

So I must ask how many of these youngsters polled were Christian or being apart of the flow out of christendom into the secular culture that has finally gotten the legs to stand on. How many are being conformed to Christ and yet feel that whatever congregation they attend is ignoring them, not focusing on holiness, walking as Jesus did and really digging into Scripture and prayer to meet the WORD. Or how many really just partake as a cultural organ? It will be impossible to ever tell, there’s no question one can ask.

Cal - #65489

October 13th 2011

All this said, the study does show well truly that many congregations have become part of the problem. That they are threatened as cultural organs and they’ve abandoned their call, their mission, to be a place to worship the Creator, and share their problems and joys. Doubt should be an expression of Faith, really asking the questions to show one really cares. Its suppression is a show of fear that the Truth really isn’t thought to be true.

Merv - #65520

October 14th 2011

While I share in this sentiment that doubt is part of life, and is interwoven with faith—I get this from personal experience (and reading the personal experiences of others) alone.  I don’t know how Scripture supports this notion in any explicit sense.  I don’t know of a single instance where doubt is not shown in a negative light.  Though when one reads between the lines (looking at experiences of people in the Bible) one sees a variety of responses to doubt.  Zacharias questioned Gabriel’s announcement about John’s birth and was struck dumb for 9 months for his curiosity while Mary asks Gabriel “how this could be” and is privileged to get an explanation.  I think my favorite example, though is Gideon who not only tested God on his word but demanded not one but two—and then three confirmations and was given them all just for his own peace of mind.  But one has to read between the lines to conclude anything from this.  Most of the time the church is just in James 1:6 mode which has no use for doubts at all.  Are there any other scriptures have bearing on doubt?


Cal - #65523

October 14th 2011

I’d say there are two nuances:

1) When I say doubt, it is not doubting the love of God, or the indwelling of the Lord Jesus, but rather a doubt of peripheral things. Asking why things are as such. The “I believe! Help my unbelief!” that the desperate man shouted at the Master.

2) Look at how Mary asked and how Zacharias asks. Mary is concerned and troubled, “How can this be!?”. She desperately wants to know, reality has come under the lens of doubt. The fabric of her reality is coming apart, a woman does not bear a child without sexual intercourse with a man! What does this mean?! She believes the message of the angel, the promise of God, but it blows apart her conception.

Zecharias seems to muse, to disbelieve the promise of God over the reality he knows too well. “How do I know for sure? I’m an old man” is essentially his response. Unlike Mary who is troubled by the response, Zecharias merely asks the Angel a question. Maybe a cynical vein runs through his mind. Doesn’t this angel know I’m an old man? I can’t produce children! This man who is a priest doubts the very promise of God!

Merv - #65552

October 16th 2011

I don’t know—I think it’s hard to produce all these distinctions given the few words of theirs we have.  But I certainly agree, Cal, that there will be nuances, and more than just two.  God sees into each heart and we trust that he is a just God.  It’s still fun to wrestle with Scriptural hints and clues that we are given, though.  You may be right in distinguishing Mary’s and Zacharias’ response as you did. 


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