Why they leave blog postI can still remember it. I was a full time youth pastor doing the usual responsibilities that I had of giving the announcements to the entire church on Sunday morning. Isn’t that what all youth pastors are supposed to do on Sunday mornings? As I sat on stage preparing to share what was going on in the church, I noticed the large group of students that were assembled in the crowd. I was proud to see such a good number, and seeing this assumed in my mind that I was doing a fantastic job as a youth pastor. Then, something hit me like a ton of bricks. I began to notice the rest of the crowd. I began to notice that there was a massive gap in age in our church. For example, there were hardly any young adults in the service. If my memory serves me correctly, there were roughly 35-40 teenagers in the service, and then maybe 3-5 who fell between the ages of 19 and 30. I noticed that statistic was a major problem in the health of our church. As I examined our church, I began to look around, and I noticed that our epidemic was not just our epidemic. This epidemic is universal. Many churches in America struggle with keeping young adults in church. After researching the reasons, here are some of the top reasons young adults are leaving our churches today:

“Church Members seemed Judgmental or Hypocritical”

According to Lifeway Research, 58% of those who left the church listed a church related issue as to their reason for leaving. The most common was that they felt that the church members were judgmental or hypocritical.[1] Thom Rainer records in his book Essential Church that 84% of young adults claim to know a committed Christian. Of the 84%, only 15% of those young adults see a marked change in their lifestyle from the rest of the secular world.[2] Hypocrisy in the church is a major problem. Jesus said in Matthew’s Gospel in his conversation with the Pharisees, “So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.[3] Martin Manser, the Bible Expositor, stated this: “An outward pretense masking an inner reality. Scripture condemns hypocrisy, especially in matters of faith. Believers should express their commitment to God in their words and their deeds, as well as in their inner motivation.”[4] The concept of hypocrisy actually refers to wearing a mask. It is the idea that you are being someone that you are not. Rachel Evans, writer for CNN’s belief blog, said something extra profound in her 2013 article entitled Why Millennials are Leaving the church. She said,

“Time and again, the assumption among Christian leaders, and evangelical leaders in particular, is that the key to drawing twenty-somethings back to church is simply to make a few style updates  edgier music, more casual services, a coffee shop in the fellowship hall, a pastor who wears skinny jeans, an updated Web site that includes online giving. But here’s the thing: Having been advertised to our whole lives, we millennials have highly sensitive BS meters, and we’re not easily impressed with consumerism or performances. In fact, I would argue that church-as-performance is just one more thing driving us away from the church, and evangelicalism in particular.”[5]

Young adults can spot hypocrisy from a mile away. D.C. McAllister wrote an interesting article in April of this year entitled, “How not to communicate to Millennials like Hozier.” In the article, McAllister is challenging church leaders in the way they communicate with the millennial generation. The article came in response to a Virginia pastor who sent an open letter to Hozier after he published his secular hit song entitled Take me to church. The premise of the song is a proponent of the LGBT movement. The song openly blasts the hypocrisy found within the church. The article is not regarding the song; the article is in response to how church leaders engage conversation with millennials about these specific things. McAllister said in her article,

“They [young adults] really hate the hypocrisy—and it’s there. Sexual issues are a big part of it. Nothing irritates a millennial more than seeing homosexuality singled out as the big sin, while Christians have premarital sex, get divorces, watch porn, and cheat on their spouses. It’s not that Christians necessarily do these things more than unbelievers (that’s an unfounded claim), but they do them—and, as Jesus said, if nothing else, they lust in their hearts, so some humility (not to mention perspective) is called for. When millennials start hearing Christians condemns homosexuals without admitting their own failings, they stop listening.”[6]

Although, I do not agree with the article in its entirety, McAllister is exactly right in her response to the hypocrisy found in churches. Churches are not to be perfect, but it is true that many churches elevate certain sins such as homosexuality over other sins, and young adults call this hypocrisy. Matthew 5 records the conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees. Jesus tells the Pharisees that they are as bad as the adulterers because they have already committed adultery in their hearts. Now, obviously the sin has different results, but to God, the sin of thinking about adultery is the same as going out and committing adultery. To a millennial, someone who fantasizes in their mind about sex is as guilty as someone who is a public homosexual. Millennials hate hypocrisy, and the church must limit their hypocrisy if they intend to keep millennials in church.

Their Faith is Shallow

David Kinnaman, president of the Barna group, published a book on this subject entitled “You Lost Me.” In his book, Kinnaman suggests that the shallowness of the millennial’s faith has two sides. First, you have the young adults who have a superficial understanding of the faith and of the Bible. Kinnaman states that this group has faith which is an inch deep. Second, we find faith communities that convey a lot of information about God rather than discipling young believers to live wholly and deeply in the reality of God. “When you put these two together, the result is a generation of young adults whose faith is an inch deep and a mile wide- too shallow to survive and too broad to make a difference.”[7] Kinnaman and the Barna Group conducted a survey of over 1200 young adults in 2011. Here are the results of their survey:

Completely True of Me           Mostly True of Me
Church is boring                                                             16%                                      31%
Faith is not  relevant to my career or my interests         13%                                      24%
My church does not prepare me for real life                  9%                                        23%
My church does not help me find my purpose              9%                                        23%
The Bible is not taught clearly or often enough             7%                                        23%
God seems missing from my experience of church       7%                                        20%

These statistics may not seem like large percentages, but they do represent millions of young adults.[8]

Life Changes

Probably the most universal and frequent reason young adults are leaving the church is life changes. 27% of young adults said that they left the church because they simply wanted a break from church. 22% said that they moved away from the church and could not find a new church within driving distance that they wanted to attend. 25% claimed that the reason they left was that they went off to college. 23% said that work took them out of church.[9] All of these statistics show the different life stages of being a young adult. College, work, moving away, and the ability to make their own schedules are all stages that young adults go through. It is more difficult to balance these life stages along with spiritual growth when you have more freedom as a young adult.

Religious, Ethical, or Political Reasons

18% said that they left the church because they disagreed with the church’s political or social issues, and that they were attending church to please others (17%). 52% of the young adults polled identified a religious, ethical, or political reason as a contribution to the reason that they left the church.[10] This is likely the most obvious of the reasons people leave the church as a whole.

All of the reasons mentioned are valid reasons for a young adult to consider leaving. It is important to note that 80% of the young adults who were polled had no real intention of leaving the church to begin with. This implies that the reasons they gave for leaving are legit concerns that the church is faced with in regards to keeping the young adults in church. In fact, I would venture that the statistics given in Lifeway’s research disproves Ken Ham and Britt Beemer’s belief that the majority of the young adults who leave church were already gone long before they graduated high school. Ken Ham along with Britt Beemer published the popular book Already Gone. In their book, they seek to prove that the majority of young adults left the church mentally and spiritually early in their teenage years.[11] Now, I do agree with some of their sentiments in the book, I do not believe that it is true in its entirety. Lifeway’s research suggests otherwise. The majority of the young adults polled said that they had no intention of leaving until they were faced with the different life stages that came after high school graduation.

[1]           Lifeway.com.

[2]           Thom Rainer and Sam Rainer, Essential Church: Reclaiming a Generation of Dropouts (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2008), 104.

[3]           The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mt 23:28.

[4]           Martin H. Manser, Dictionary of Bible Themes: The Accessible and Comprehensive Tool for Topical Studies (London: Martin Manser, 2009).

[5]           Rachel Evans, “Why Millennials are Leaving the Church.” Religion.blogs.cnn.com, http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2013/07/27/why-millennials-are-leaving-the-church/ (Accessed June 12, 2015).

[6]           D.C. McAllister, “How not to Communicate with Millennials.” Thefederalist.com, http://thefederalist.com/2015/04/10/how-not-to-communicate-with-millennials-like-hozier/ (Accessed June 12, 2015).

[7]           David Kinnaman, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church…And Rethinking Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing, 2011), 114-115.

[8]           Ibid, 116.

[9]           Lifeway.com.

[10]          Ibid.

[11]          Ken Ham and Britt Beemer, Already Gone: Why your Kids will quit church and what you can do to stop it (Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2009), 33-34.

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