Why young Christians are leaving the Church . . . and rethinking faith
Five years ago, unChristian became a bestseller when it revealed how young non-Christians view the Christian faith. Drawing upon groundbreaking research conducted by the Barna Group, unChristian showed that a new generation was describing Christianity in “extraordinarily negative” ways—as hypocritical, judgmental, too political, and out of touch. Yet co-author and Barna Group president David Kinnaman made an even more shocking discovery: Young Christians agreed.
Kinnaman and the team at the Barna Group decided to further probe how Christians in the Mosaic generation—those born between 1984 and 2002—describe their experience with faith and the Church. After extensive research and interviews, they found that “the majority of young people dropping out of church are not walking away from the faith; they are putting involvement in church on hold. [. . .] Overall, there is a 43 percent drop-off between the teen and early adult years in terms of church engagement.”
As Kinnaman—who addressed the BIC community at its 2012 General Conference this July—illustrates in his most recent book, You Lost Me, any body of believers committed to witnessing to the world should be concerned with sharing the good news not only with those living on the other side of the world, but also with those in the next generation.
Kelly grew up in an evangelical Protestant church, and both her parents are committed churchgoers. Kelly describes struggling with an anxiety disorder and never feeling that she fit in with the youth group or, later, at her college’s campus ministry, where the focus was on “quotas for getting people saved.” But, she says, “The third strike [against the Church] was the judgment my parents received from their church friends about me. They told my parents that they did a bad job raising me.” Despite these negative experiences, Kelly prays and reads her Bible often. She told me, “I never lost faith in Christ, but I have lost faith in the Church.”
Mike grew up in the Catholic church, but his love for science and his razor-sharp wit—which was sometimes perceived as disrespect—regularly put him at odds with parish leaders. After a period of searching and wrestling with his faith, he says, “I just stopped believing in those Christian stories.”
Nathan, the lead singer of a successful band, had parents who were fixtures in an evangelical church. Then they split up. In an interview with Relevant magazine, this young musician described his “enormous cynicism toward all things institutional Christianity.” He and his bandmates were “all really embarrassed by and ashamed of a lot of the [Christian] subculture we came from, but not necessarily ashamed or embarrassed by the beliefs we had.” Nathan’s faith is still intact and was largely saved by his association with other young artists who were honest about their struggles and willing to help each other heal. The magazine describes Nathan and his band as “asking questions and resisting some aspects of their own conservative upbringing—yet still searching for something more from their faith.”*
While the story of every person is unique, these accounts echo the experiences of about 8 million twentysomethings in the U.S. who were active churchgoers as teenagers but who will have left the Church—and sometimes the faith—by their thirtieth birthday.
Most young Christians are struggling less with their faith in Christ than with their experience of church, which they view as an unsafe and inhospitable place to express doubts. Many feel that they have been offered slick or half-baked answers to their thorny, honest questions, and they are rejecting the “talking heads” or “talking point” they see among older generations. Whether fair or not, their response—“You lost me”—signals their judgment that the institutional Church has failed them. It’s not that they’re not listening; it’s that they can’t understand what we are saying.
When the Barna Group embarked upon its investigation, I suspected that we would uncover one big reason for why young adults disconnect from the Church or walk away from their faith—maybe one or two. Instead, we identified six themes that capture the overall phenomenon of disconnection between the Mosaic generation and the Church.
While people in every generation may experience similar feelings, the combination of our cultural moment and the discontinuity of the next generation** makes these attitudes among young adults particularly combustible. Many twentysomethings are not hesitating, as have previous generations, to burn the bridges that once connected them to a spiritual heritage.
Here are the broad reasons they offer for dropping out. They find the Church to be:
The impulses toward creativity and cultural engagement are some of the defining characteristics of the Mosaic generation that are most obvious. They want to reimagine, re-create, rethink, and they want to be entrepreneurs, innovators, starters. To Mosaics, creative expression is of inestimable value. The Church is seen as a creativity killer, where risk taking and being involved in culture are anathema.
How can the Church peel back the tamper-resistant safety seal, making space for imaginative risk taking and creative self-expression, traits that are so valued within the next generation?
Among Mosaics, the most common perception of churches is that they are boring. Easy platitudes, proof texting, and formulaic slogans have anesthetized many young adults, leaving them with no idea of the gravity and power of following Christ. Few young Christians can coherently connect their faith with their gifts, abilities, and passions. In other words, the Christianity they received does not give them a sense of calling.
How can the Church nurture a deep, holistic faith in Christ that encompasses every area of life?
Many young Christians have come to the conclusion that faith and science are incompatible. Yet they see the mostly helpful role science plays in the world they inhabit—medicine, personal technology, travel, care of the natural world, and other areas. What’s more, science seems accessible in a way that the Church does not; science appears to welcome questions and skepticism, while matters of faith seem impenetrable.
How can the Christian community help the next generation interact with science positively and prophetically?
Religious rules—particularly sexual mores—feel stifling to the individualist mindset of young adults. Consequently, they perceive the Church as repressive. Sexuality creates deep challenges for the faith development of young people.
How can the Church contextualize its approach to sexuality and culture within a broader vision of restored relationships?
Although there are limits to what this generation will accept and whom they will embrace, they have been shaped by a culture that esteems open-mindedness, tolerance, and acceptance. Thus, Christianity’s claims to exclusivity are a hard sell. They want to find areas of common ground, even if that means glossing over real differences.
How can the Christian community link the singular nature of Christ with the radical ways in which He pursued and included outsiders?
Young Christians (and former Christians, too) say the Church is not a place that allows them to express doubts. They do not feel safe admitting that faith doesn’t always make sense. In addition, many feel that the Church’s response to doubt is trivial and fact focused, as if people can be talked out of doubting.
How can the Christian community help this generation face their doubts squarely and integrate their questions into a robust life of faith?
The turn toward connection
Once we begin to understand the problems the next generation experiences with the Church and Christianity, our second task is to determine how those areas of disconnect are challenging the Christian community to change. Are there ways in which the struggles of the next generation ought to shift our thinking and practice? If we ignore or discount the spiritual journeys of the young, could we be at risk of missing a fresh move of God in our time?
The Spirit-inspired interplay between generations is a common theme in Scripture. As one example, consider the story of Eli (the older generation) and Samuel (the younger generation) described in 1 Samuel 3. You may recall the episode: In the middle of the night, God calls to Samuel, but the young prophet-in-training repeatedly mistakes God’s call for the voice of his mentor, Eli. Finally, it occurs to Eli, after Samuel has interrupted his sleep several times, to instruct his protégé to say, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”
Once I heard present-day leader and pastor Jack Hayford observe that the younger generation needs the older generation to help them identify the voice of God, just as Samuel needed Eli to help him know God was calling him. Hayford also observed that helping in this way requires that we recognize, as Eli did, that God is speaking to the younger generation.
My hope is that You Lost Me can, in some way, catalyze this vital dynamic between generations—that it will help young dropouts turn their reason for leaving into a hunger for deeper faith and help the Church’s older generations turn our frustrations and occasional feelings of failure into renewal.
If you are a younger Christian, this means it’s your turn to listen.
If you are a “well-established” believer, maybe it’s time to trust in a deeper way the work of God within the next generation.
Adapted from You Lost Me ©2011 by David Kinnaman, with permission from Baker Books (Grand Rapids, Mich.)
* Kevin Selders, “No More Secrets for the Cold War Kids,” Relevant (January–February 2011), 56–59.
** Kinnaman describes seismic cultural shifts that have resulted in Mosaics being “discontinuously different” from previous generations in their unlimited access to people and ideas through technology; alienation from family, community, and institutions; and skepticism of authority.