After eight decades of tracking the religious practices of Americans, the most recent Gallup poll shows that less than half our country belongs to a church of any kind. This is heart-wrenching, to say the least. While there are many reasons for this decline in church membership, I’m going to focus on the growing trend among older teens and young adults to stop gathering for corporate worship, to start redefining their faith, or to deconstruct their faith altogether. This trend is not only heartbreaking but should cause us all to ask ourselves some serious questions. Why is this happening? What could we, as the church, be doing differently? What could we, as parents, do differently? Join me as we explore some common reasons why more and more of our youth are disassociating from Christ’s church.
- Believing That Christians Don’t Care about Social Issues
The basis of this argument comes from youth feeling like their parents are passionate about the wrong things. The claim is that parents harp on matters such as what movies they should or shouldn’t be watching or what video games they should or shouldn’t be playing when what they want their parents to be passionate about is the social issues our country is currently facing.
Today’s youth aren’t concerned about a first-person shooter video game or the language or sexual content of a particular movie. They’re concerned about racial tension, gender identity confusion, and the growing number of their friends who are depressed and suicidal.
It’s good for parents to train their children on how to discern what they entertain themselves with. This is one way parents protect their children. I wonder, though, if parents often neglect to talk to their teens about social issues with the same intent: protection.
What we need to remember is that today’s youth are submerged in the social issues of our time, and we can’t protect them from that. What we can do is talk openly about these issues, invite questions, show an interest in their views even if we don’t agree with them, and aim to shed light on these issues through the lens of Scripture. If we don’t help our teens process these issues, the world will.
- Having a Distrust in Authority
The erosion of trust and confidence in our society is so widespread it’s impossible to place the blame on any one factor. It seems impossible to reverse the damage that has been done, especially when we can’t even place our finger on the origin. Yet, on a very basic level, we can.
Sin. Sin has corrupted our world and everyone in it. With our lives being dominated by social media and with our twenty-four-hour accessible news coverage, we have, like never before, a constant stream of the ways sin has infiltrated our lives. For the younger generations, this has created an “I can only depend on myself” mentality.
While we might agree that parts of our government, our judicial system, and other areas of our society are not trustworthy, it should grieve us that the mistrust has bled over into the church. Scandals among celebrity pastors and reports of sexual abuse only scratch the surface of what makes the younger generations not trust the church as an institution.
Our churches are run by and full of sinful, broken people. There will never be a perfect, fully trustworthy group of believers on this side of heaven. We need to be ready to discuss this, explain our sinful nature, and be in a posture of repentance.
Engage with young adults about this issue, ask questions, be humble in your response, and offer hope that our gracious God will one day make all things new and right all wrongs.
- Believing That Christians Hate Homosexuals
I remember when people started using the phrase, “hate the sin, not the sinner.” However, all too often, we display our hatred of sin as if we do hate the sinner. A perfect example of this was when the Boy Scouts of America announced they would lift the ban of homosexuals serving as troop leaders. This announcement caused an uproar, and families began pulling their sons from the program.
The message this sends is that we don’t mind our sons being led by a man with a pornography addiction or a man who is actively cheating on his wife, but we do mind our sons being lead by a man who lives as a homosexual. The implication is that all male homosexuals are pedophiles or that they want to convert as many young boys as they can to “their team,” or that we can tolerate any sin but that one.
Our kids are watching our every move and listening to our every word. When they hear sermons on Jesus approaching the woman at well with five husbands, but then they see their church family unwilling to engage the homosexual community, those sermons seem less and less applicable. When they hear us talk about God’s love and how they should embrace those who are different from them, but we don’t welcome their gay friend to the dinner table, our words become meaningless, and their faith begins to shift.
What our youth need is a full picture of the depth of sin: their sin as well as our own, rather than just the sins of others. They need to see us crying out to the Lord to save those who are living in opposition to God’s design. We need to model a life that is fueled by a genuine love for all people and grief for all sin.
- Not Feeling Connected
Many young adults claim they don’t feel connected to God when they attend a worship gathering. This brings them to the logical conclusion that corporate worship isn’t necessary or beneficial. This often tempts them to trade corporate worship for individual worship alone at home.
While we should all engage in individual worship, we should not discount the benefits of corporate worship and the connection of church family. Exclusively worshiping alone often leads to a lack of personal and spiritual growth, a loss of spiritual disciplines, and an even deeper disconnect from the Lord.
In the past, churches thought that loud music, fancy slideshows, and mood lighting might make corporate worship more appealing to the younger demographic. While these things might make them feel energized or emotional, that’s not what connects any of us to God. In the same vein, traditional hymns led by an acoustic guitar or an acapella song leader aren’t what connects us to God.
What connects us to God is a saving faith, accompanied by the indwelling Holy Spirit. The best thing we can do for our youth who claim to feel disconnected from God is to pray for their salvation. Ask God to fill them with his Spirit and a genuine hunger for his presence in their lives.
- Believing That Christians Don’t Understand Singleness
Our culture has a mindset with a pull towards independence. The current resounding theme is that we don’t need to be with someone in order to be happy. This theme is directed mainly towards young women. Our culture screams to our daughters that they don’t need a man to fulfill their destiny or to be truly happy as a person.
On the surface, this is true. We should find our ultimate happiness and satisfaction in Christ, not in a spouse. However, fulfillment in Christ is not what’s being taught; rather it is fulfillment in self.
This ideology has left the church with a growing number of eligible young women who don’t want to be alone, yet they are fighting an internal struggle to meet the culture’s expectations of being a “woman warrior” rather than a “damsel in distress.”
The reality is we’re all “damsels in distress” since we all – men and women alike – need to be saved. The other reality is that Jesus liberated women – it’s the world that was oppressing them. Yet, the world’s arguments are convincing and distort the truth of the gospel.
I’ve heard young women say that men who embrace the Bible’s teaching on “becoming one flesh” appear desperate and needy. This leads them to seek the company of worldly men who will appreciate their strong, independent ideologies. This often results in a deconstruction of faith and leaves them longing for completeness that can only be found in the Lord.
- Believing That the Church’s Rules are Outdated
For those who have not embraced the cry for independence, another issue is brewing. This issue is the search for the ultimate “soul mate.” On the surface, this might not seem so bad. After all, don’t we want to see our kids marry the “right person” and live long, happy lives together? The problem is how the search is conducted, which increasingly seems to stem from an overload of options. Social media and online dating sites have opened the door to endless possibilities. These endless options leave the single person fearful that they’ll choose someone too soon; that they’ll commit to one person when their actual “soul mate” is still out there waiting, just one more click away. The good news is that more of today’s youth seem to be put off by the idea of divorce, and they want to “get it right.” The bad news is that in an effort to choose wisely, they are choosing to cohabitate and engage in premarital sex as a means of “making sure they’ve got it right.”
When church family expresses the sinful nature of this behavior and tries to discuss God’s design for marriage and the gift of sex in marriage, the church suddenly seems outdated. The church goes from being a group of loving extended family to a group of judgemental, unkind fuddy-duddies. As a result, our youth choose to leave the church in order to conduct their “soul mate” search with the freedom of cohabitation and premarital sex without judgment.
The above six points only scratch the surface of why so many young adults are leaving the church. If you’ve noticed this trend within your own church family, reach out to these individuals. Ask them questions and listen thoughtfully to their reasons. There’s an old saying, “they don’t care what you know till they know that you care.” This is very true and applicable in these conversations.
There is, however, another idea to consider. In generations past, our churches were full of many “cultural Christians.” In other words, people filled the pews every Sunday because that’s just what everyone did. But regular church attendance doesn’t equal a saving faith. As we consider why so many people are leaving the church and redefining or deconstructing their faith, we must also consider if we actually see a decline in numbers in the Lord’s church or simply the reality of our society letting go of the cultural Christian ideology.
Regardless of the reasons, our God hears our prayers, and therefore we can approach the throne with boldness as we ask for a plentiful harvest for the Kingdom of heaven.