Why So Many Young Adults Leave Church…and What We Can Do

blog - young people leavingThe Issue

My congregation started a new Bible Study this week based on Dr. Timothy Keller’s The Prodigal God. If you haven’t read it, I won’t steal all his thunder, just mention that it falls into that must read category, particularly for Christians who were raised in a Christian church. It’s a brilliant exposition on arguably Jesus’ most famous parable – often called The Prodigal Son. But herein lies the problem. Translators have put the heading into your Bibles calling this The Prodigal (or Lost) Son. But Jesus actually intends for this parable to be a lesson as much or more for the Pharisees and teachers of the law rather than for the sinners and tax collectors. You’ll notice Jesus actually starts the parable by saying, “There was a man who had TWO sons.” (Luke 15:11)

Culturally speaking, highly religious and conservative people have generally seen one group of people as those who are ruining the world – those who take away God’s Commands – the “Younger Brothers” if you will. And that’s essentially how sin has come to be defined in many churches, i.e. disobedience to God’s commands.

Certainly, ignoring God’s clear moral will is indeed a form of sin. And all sin drives us away from God (Isaiah 59:2). But disobedience is not the only way to be far from God. Another way to separate yourself from God is by assuming you are close to God due to your obedience, your moral conformity. This is the mistake of “Elder Brothers.” In other words, any attempt to experience “salvation” apart from Jesus – whether it be through your own licentious self-indulgence OR your performance-based self-righteousness – it’s all sin.

The reality is that for many, many years, churches have been full of elder brother types. And very few church leaders have called them/us out to repentance on it. These individuals are often pillars of the the community, ultra regular in church activities, and perhaps even large financial contributors. But self-righteousness is one of the most deadly sins, because the self-righteous individual is blind to his own distance from God. At least the immoral, debaucherous person recognizes how imperfect he  is, and therefore, in a sense, is actually more in touch with spiritual reality than the moralist, who thinks he has drawn close to God on his own.

So….if you don’t consistently call out elder brothers on their self-righteous attitudes for a  number of generations in the church (or at least to the degree that you call out younger brothers), what do you get? In many cases, you may get a “church” that is perhaps permeated by an elder brother attitude. Or, as Keller insightfully suggests, “If the preaching of our ministers and the practice of our parishoners do not have the same effect on people that Jesus had, then we must not be declaring the same message that Jesus did. If our churches aren’t appealing to younger brothers, they must be more full of elder brothers than we’d like to think.” (The Prodigal God, pgs. 18-19)

I think that’s what I see young people reacting to today. One study I read recently on barna.org suggested that about 60 percent of young people who were active in church as teenagers failed to translate that into an active spiritual commitment during their early adulthood. The general elder brother assessment of that which I’ve heard is that “the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” (2 Tim. 4:3) Well, that’s a possibility. But what I’m suggesting is, as the Church, let’s make sure that what young people are rejecting is the gospel itself, and not elder brother behavior.

It’s entirely possible that many young people today aren’t just “itching ears” but that they hate 11th commandments as much as the Bible suggests they should (Rev. 22:18). And when they sense that a church is seeking to do legalistic behavior modification on them rather than inside-out gospel transformation, they understandably reject that.

Little old me? Am I really a problem?

If, like many Americans, when hearing the parable of The Prodigal Son, you have only ever thought of the younger son’s behavior as the “sin,” then yes, this likely is a problem for you.

I’ve heard an endless and fascinating array of comments from lifelong Christians (and many have probably come from my own lips at some point) that fall into “elder brother” territory. I’ve heard teens be introduced to some contemporary Christian music and enjoy it only to matter-of-factly say, “but we could never use this in worship.” Now who gave them that idea! I’ve heard a woman correct a young mom for not wearing the correct footwear in church (my favorite part is that the objectionable footwear was sandals – so that ironically, 1st century Jesus, in this person’s mind, probably would have been dressed inappropriately in his own church 🙂 ). I’ve had someone challenge me on my wife wearing jeans to worship. I proceeded to ask what exactly the most righteous of fabrics was, it led to a good conversation, and I subsequently started wearing jeans to the office more often.

I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that 11th Commandments kill spiritual vitality. They drive people away. When you understand this you begin to understand part of the reason why the younger brother in the parable wanted to get away from home in the first place. I believe elder brotherism has largely driven a younger generation away. And absolutely the single most terrifying thing about self-righteousness is this: when Jesus teaches the parable of The Two Lost Sons, the younger son finally comes to his senses, repents of his wicked ways, and is welcomed into the Father’s feast (representative of heaven). But the elder brother….we just don’t know. Jesus leaves the story as a cliffhanger. And you can very easily imagine him finishing the tale and staring into the eyes of the moralistic law-keepers, challenging their next move.

Let me add one note here – it may sound as though I’m suggesting a previous generation (or generations) contaminated the Christian faith. Well, they didn’t do a perfect job, but NO generation has. I actually think the problem is a combination of things old and new. 1) We’ve raised a generation of consumer-minded young people who simply aren’t buying the church of the previous generation(s) and have opted out. 2) Too many churches have intentionally or unintentionally communicated that “church” is primarily about conformity to preexisting conservative culture (ideology, appearance, art forms) rather than what it’s actually about – a reconciled relationship with God through a living God-man, Jesus.

I think this has created a perfect storm that’s bringing us nearer to a make-or-break point for the Christian church in America.

Is there a Solution?

When the gospel of Jesus Christ is involved, there’s always a solution.

Let me start by suggesting what I don’t think it is. From some of my previous comments, you might think that I’m advocating the end of traditional worship and the implementation of something more trendy. I’m really not. In fact, this might sound strange to you, but as a 31-year-old pastor who has attended church all but a handful of Sundays in his life and observed services of almost every possible denominational and theological background, I don’t believe I’ve ever sat in one worship service and said from top-to-bottom, “Yeah, that felt like my style of worship.” Generally-speaking, in traditional worship, I tend to feel like the service was written for saints who were on earth 500 years ago, but they’re not here and I am, so why am I worshiping with their voice. In contemporary services, I tend to feel like I’m being coerced into something emotionally or physically that I’m not entirely comfortable with. I know I don’t have to sway or dance or throw my arms up, but lots of uncoordinated people are, and quite honestly I don’t know if men should be swaying anyways. Folk music tends to feel a bit unprofessional. High church Latin chanting……if no one understands the message, we might as well scat and beatbox for Jesus and consistently call all religious cacophony beneficial.

While I may or may not have preferences, what I’m trying to say is that while none of these musical forms is sinful, none of them is perfect. Consequently, to some degree at least, I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I don’t know that stylistically I’ll feel “home” until the day “they cry out in a loud voice:“Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” (Rev. 7:10) Then everything will be just right.

So, while different musical styles might be more readily accepted by young people, that doesn’t answer the spiritual issue. I don’t know that people leave church because they don’t like music. They leave because they don’t recognize living relationship with God. And one thing that obstructs relationship with God is….elder brotherism. And wise and faithful early church leaders have understood this from the start. “Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear?No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” (Acts 15:10-11; see also, Gal. 2:3-4)

So the first part in reclaiming young adults would seem to be to clarify what exactly the gospel is and what it is not. It is NOT a style that fits into any given time period. It’s the endless, timeless, all-surpassing grace of God.

Secondly, here’s what I do think is part of the solution. Since the gospel is living and active (Heb. 4:12), it requires connection with other living and active souls. It’s no secret that if most youth leave church, it’s typically during the college years and when they move out on their own. This isn’t just because they’re encountering new humanistic philosophies and people from all walks of life, although that contributes. But it’s also because they no longer have any built in spiritual support system – friends or family that will hold them accountable. That safety net has to develop in new places for young adults to stick.

So the first living and active individual to have relationship with is obviously Jesus himself. But on earth, if it’s just him and me, and that’s my only Christian relationship, that’s simply not enough. We were intended to have our spiritual sensory needs met by God’s Spirit living in fellow believers, i.e. the Church. And if that sounds strange to you, consider how God had a perfect relationship with Adam in the Garden of Eden and yet how, to some degree, he didn’t consider even that enough for Adam (Gen. 2:18).

So it is essential that we have Christian relationships, and for the most part, Christian relationship building simply cannot fully happen in Sunday morning worship. There must be deeper connectivity and fellowship. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter if you have J.S. Bach or J. Timberlake leading your worship music, you’re probably not going to retain young people in meaningful ways.

By way of anecdote, I’ve been doing small group Bible study for several years. The first year, after one of the studies, one person commented to me and said – “That was fun. I learned a lot. We prayed for each other. It was VERY personal. I feel like that’s what ‘church’ is supposed to be.” EXACTLY. While the New Testament doesn’t give us much mandate in the way of conducting Christian worship, you definitely get the sense that NT worship worship contained a greater sense of interpersonal relationship (albeit sometimes messy) than the 21st century church. NT worship didn’t seem to allow for anonymity and disconnectedness.

So again, let me be clear – Christian faith saves. Christian relationships do not. But genuine Christian faith must inevitably generate deep, authentic Christian relationships.

Look to find a Christian friend. Look to be a Christian friend. That all means support, accountability, and forgiveness. In other words, warm love, tough love, and grace.

Young or old, God is calling you into sincere, genuine relationship with fellow Christians. Find a church that cultivates that. Know the Savior who makes that all possible.

If young adults at my church build relationships with faithful Christians, my preaching could be boring, our music could be boring, our programs could stink, and our facilities could stink, but these people probably wouldn’t leave. After all, your family might be boring, but they’re still “home.” So you go back to them.

And once you’ve had genuine Christian relationship rooted in Christ himself, complaints about the other details seem a bit superficial.

“It took us a long time to understand that church wasn’t a building or a pastor or a sermon series. It’s easy to point out everything wrong with the church when you stand outside it and approach it with a consumer mentality. We thought the church had given us second faith, when in reality we had chosen to avoid firsthand relationship with the community of Christ followers we claimed to care about.” – Ryan & Josh Shook (firsthand: Ditching Secondhand Religion for a Faith of Your Own, pg. 176)

10 thoughts on “Why So Many Young Adults Leave Church…and What We Can Do

  1. Very much enjoyed this post and agree whole heartedly. “It was VERY personal….” How can we support, encourage, and hold each other accountable when all that may be shared during fellowship is small talk? Where is the sincerity?

    When I attend bible studies (from high school – through college – and present) prayer requests are essential to getting to know one another.

    I also urge parents to read the bible, serve others, and pray openly WITH their children. A large influence to my faith when I was a youth was that my Dad read God’s word and prayed WITH me, even about tough things. Now with my own children I do the same. It set an example of a relationship that I desired to have with Jesus as he mentored my faith.

    I will be sharing this on our Holy Hen House facebook page with our readers as well. Thank you!

  2. The reasons for young people leaving the church are complex and numerous, but any discussions about worship style are missing the mark, as you even pointed out. While legalism tends to creep into everything, it has not been my experience that people who object to rock bands in church do so out of sinful legalism. They mostly do so because they see a total lack of awe and propriety in the music of today’s youth. Liturgies are not used in our churches because we have made it the 11th Commandment—they are used because, as the Apology to the Augsburg Confession states (Article XV, “Human Traditions in the Church”), they are good and useful for teaching the gospel, and also because they promote tranquility and good order. So-called contemporary worship seems to do the opposite.

    I think that churches pandering to this generation’s consumerist tastes is as big a factor as anything in their exodus from the faith. Certainly, it is also because the gospel has disappeared. But even in confessional Lutheran circles where the gospel remains, bringing in the rock bands is absolutely training people to leave the Church—or at least, the Lutheran church. Because giving them what we/they think they want will just teach them to look somewhere else as soon as they aren’t getting the musical style or emotional vibe or programs they want. They’ll shop for church the way they would shop for an internet provider.

    I would also object to any statement that categorizes traditional worship as something that belongs to the 16th century. (Now who gave you that idea? 🙂 ) It’s utterly false. The music and texts of the liturgy, the hymns in our hymnal, they all have been contributed over the entire course of Church history. Some date back to the 4th century, some to the 20th. We don’t chant our hymns in the way that Luther would have. When we sing hymns, we aren’t just singing with 21st century Christians, but we are joining our voices to those of the Holy Christian Church of every age. So-called traditional worship does not belong to any particular time period. (And really, if there was no date at the bottom of each hymn, would you really know when it was written?) By way of anecdote, my mother teaches hymns to preschool children. They don’t know or care how old they are. They learn “Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands” and they sing it with all their heart, the same way they sing “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know.”

  3. Hey Jon! I appreciate your stance on worship and appropriate music. I believe Pastor Hein’s post is not trying to highlight worship style but rather encourage intimacy between church members. “From some of my previous comments, you might think that I’m advocating the end of traditional worship and the implementation of something more trendy. I’m really not.”

    I’m curious, what are your thoughts concerning the main point of the post? Do you agree that the self-righteous attitudes of the elder brother may be the root of turning others away?

    • I don’t think there is any one root cause. Sure, self-righteousness is a big one. I suppose if you boil every problem down to its core, you will probably find that the Word is not being preached or practiced as it should. And among sinful human beings, that is a given. But the reason I objected, even though Pastor Hein said that he wasn’t trying to end traditional worship, is that he seemed to be implying that traditional worship is a kind of legalism. I’ve heard the same argument more explicitly stated from people who DO want to abolish traditional worship, formal dress, the liturgy, etc. There are good and holy reasons to insist on a certain kind of worship that have nothing to do with self-righteous legalism.

  4. Joyce says:

    Maybe a more obvious facet of the problem is home life. If kids don’t see that God, and by extension the things that happen at church, matter so deeply to their parents that their whole lives are changed, how are kids supposed to learn that going to church has any meaning for them when they are old enough to choose?

    I think “11th commandments” can actually be quite useful depending on how you define them. Do you intend for tradition to fall under that umbrella? The motive for any act of piety should be well thought out and in line with the Bible. It should not be forced on others or made to seem on par with the Bible. If someone has something they do out of love for Jesus and they share that with others who follow suit, it can be a valid way of teaching the incidentals of the faith.

  5. Kelly G says:

    As a 20 something that is currently struggling with finding a church I can call home, I run into the issue of feeling like nothing feels like “home”. So many churches have changed their liturgy and practices that I feel as though I walked away and the church left me behind. The songs and familiar words I grew up with have changed and seem foreign. I know the meanings and purpose are the same, but what one seemed so natural and comforting now just make me feel lost.

    I know that I’m not the only young adult who feels this way. My generation is all about what’s fresh and new, but we (or at least I) are nostalgic and like having a steady constant somewhere in our lives. I would like that to be the church. Unfortunately, I barely recognize the one I spent my entire young life closely tied to.

    While the gospel is “living and active”, the Lord is steady and constant, patiently waiting for his prodigal children to return home. Shouldn’t that home feel somewhat like the one we left?

  6. I know my comment is late, but I just heard about this blog via a friend of a friend. As a born, raised, and current WELS Lutheran, I understand this question may end in rotten fruit getting thrown my way because the mere thought violates an 11th Commandment. Regardless, here it is:

    Are our schools helping or hurting? Could it be that the institution of formal education as it exists today, both public AND private, is detrimental to the familial bonds that are so important in preventing the problem you highlight? Should our WELS schools be a cause for pride, or have the actual results been so demonstrably ineffective that they merit the label “Molochademia?”

    Note: before we claim that we think we’ve seen some good come from our schools, we must remember that it’s a matter of relativity.

    Now, excuse me while I take cover. (If anyone’s still reading this late in the game.)

  7. Adam Goede says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and starting a beneficial discussion.

    I think accusing Christians of pharisaic self-righteousness often becomes an easy excuse for people leaving the church. Good works are just as often caused by the Holy Spirit working fruits of faith in people as they are by self-righteousness. If a Christian encourages an erring brother or sister away from sin and that brother or sister prefers their own way, they can always accuse the Christian and the church of hypocritcial self-righteousness.

    I know we are tempted in the direction of both brothers, but wouldn’t you agree that while the Jewish culture in Jesus’ day leaned legalistic, the greater temptation in today’s American “live and let live” culture is to weaken our convictions in an attempt to not looks so rigid because we miscalculate that this is why people are being scared away from church?

    Nonetheless I don’t disput that a self-righteous attitude could be one factor driving away youth. Basically hypocrisy in faith–you say you believe but your life doesn’t show it–seems to be the root of the problem from which all of these factors come. I thought this article was a great summary on this topic: http://community.focusonthefamily.com/b/jim-daly/archive/2013/04/17/ten-reasons-kids-leave-the-church.aspx.

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