Sorry for the clickbait title. I wanted to hear as many opinions as I could and this simple use of emotional manipulation made it more likely.
I realise that there is something deeply hypocritical in these thoughts. I started as a youth volunteer aged 16 and worked as an employed youth and/or children’s worker from aged 19 through to aged 29. Since the age 27 I have been in leadership of 2 congregations aimed specifically at young adults and 1 church with this focus. To write these comments as I will is hypocritical as I am at best tacitly complicit in the development and at worst consciously propagating that which I am questioning. Yet the road out of hypocrisy begins with recognising our own dualisms and from that recognition move towards a better place.
Today Gavin Calver from Youth for Christ posted this question on twitter @GavCalver:
“Please help me! What do you think are the biggest reasons why people in their 20’s & 30’s might leave the Church &/or give up on God?”
With not much happening at that hour of the day I took a few moments and fired off some replies of what my thinking is. This blog is a slight extension of that thinking. It is not meant to as an answer to the problem but a question that may help us address the issue at hand.
When faced with this question I think we have four reasons for the 20s/30s exodus that stand out.
Young adults are leaving the church because they no longer (or never did) believe in God and/or Christianity. They may have stayed in church because of their parents and once they had flown the next they no longer engaged with church because they no longer had faith. This is a simple and clear reason for leaving.
Young adults are leaving the church because church teaching is at best no longer relevant to them or at worst is deemed archaic, draconian or bigoted on key issues. We can see this in groups who have left over wider issues such as sexuality or female leadership but also in the exodus of individuals over their personal experiences of individual congregations and leaders.
Young adults are leaving church but continuing to live faith in an individualised way. They love God, they love Jesus but feel that they no longer need the gathered community for their faith to grow. For many they see organised church as a hinderance to their love of God rather than a help. They have not lost faith in the doctrine of church but in the practice of the organisation.
The fourth reason and this is the one I have been thinking about most is that young adults are leaving church because they have no tools for engaging with church once they have graduated children/youth and student ministries. They leave because ‘adult church’ involves much more work for self integration than age relevant ministries do but there is not enough signposting or teaching on how to engage.
The almost universal reaction to reaching the ‘missing generation’ of 20s and 30s is to continue with the model that has worked so well in reaching children and young people. We develop environments and ministries that are specific to 20s and 30s. This is the type of thing that I have done. These work with various levels of success. There are young adults conferences that are brilliant run by organisations like New Wine and Soul Survivor, giving age relevant and stage relevant teaching to young adults from all corners of the church. These help to give the generation least represented in church a sense that there are more of them than it can sometimes seem which serves in raising faith for intragenerational mission.
These ventures have been going on for a couple of decades and have ramped up their activity in the last ten years. Yet the numbers suggest that we are still seeing decline in church attendance and from what I can tell amongst that decline is a large number of non-attending believers who are still open to the idea of gathered church but are currently unattached to any local church. It seems that these great and exciting models are not plugging the leak but merely slowing down the flow out of the church. I have a feeling that this model of creating another level of age focussed ministry is only treating the symptom and not addressing the cause of the issue.
I have spoken to a lot of these non-attending believers through the years and I have found a repeated story. I can over-simplify these conversations as follows:
“I loved my youth group, the youth leaders were great. I was involved, I led a small group and went to Soul Survivor and on mission trips. Throughout University CU and church student work was a continuation of that sense. We were all together, reaching our campus, the student pastors cared about me and I had a high sense of belonging. Once I left Uni though I struggled to fit in, I joined a house group but felt a little invisible. I found it hard to see where I belonged, I suppose I just drifted away.”
I have heard versions of this many times. Here are some things that I can pick out of it.
Children’s and youth ministries are great at creating belonging and discipleship environments. Young people thrive in these environments where they are loved and welcomed by people who exist solely for their generation.
There is a sense of representation and ownership within youth ministries and student ministries. We are all similar and we are connected. We are represented by our peers or by our youth/student pastor. Our opinion is valued and time is made for us. We have our own place to belong within the wider church.
There is a strong feeling of being one generation together reaching one generation. This is language that is used widely in youth and student work. This purpose and identity helps form strong bonds between members of groups.
Something changes when we graduate uni. (This is also reflected in the drop off between school and university)
I wonder if we need to change the culture around our age relevant programmes for children, young people and students. Are we accidentally creating a culture of segregation within our churches that whilst helping young people thrive in their youth is failing to give them the tools to continue to thrive throughout their 20s and 30s? Are movements of youth groups, youth conferences, youth churches and youth missions creating cultures within generations that are hindering strong faith in our 20s and 30s.
What I know is this. As a young person there was a lot of focus on me in the two churches I attended. Sunday School, youth group, youth weekends, youth Sundays etc. all taught me that I was a priority within the church. As a post university adult, almost from the day I was 22, I could say that this was no longer the case. My view is skewed slightly as I was on staff at any church I attended but the reality was the level of resource directed at me was no longer as noticeable as before. I was just another adult in a room full of adults.
Up until that point there was great effort to help me integrate into church and grow as a Christian. after that point the onus was much more on me. I was responsible for integrating, I was responsible for my own growth. I was less likely to have someone notice I wasn’t attending because there was never someone looking out specifically for people like me. I think that the change of level of care from youth to adult is vast and I am unsure that we are preparing our young people for it. Many of us hit adulthood and begin to feel a strong disconnection from church.
I wonder if it is from this disconnection that the issues regarding relevance and theology grow in magnitude. When I have felt disconnected, unnoticed and unrepresented within church I have been much better at noticing where I differ from the prevailing narrative. If I feel I don’t belong I can much more readily find my differences from the rest of the congregation. I wonder if a generation who are unprepared for the hard work of integrating into a community (this is universal and not just in the church) feel so disconnected that the differences in their theology and the seeming irrelevance of practice are magnified. I wonder if a lack of feeling connected causes a poor leadership decision to hurt even more than it should have and a lack of belonging makes staying around not worth fighting for in the face of such hurt. I wonder if differences in belief on morality make attendance untenable (in spite of agreeing on more than we differ on) because a sense of belonging is so low that unity is not worth fighting for.
Our response to now has been to create another generational relevant ministry, 20s and 30s, something I have given the last 8 years to. However, the worry in the back of my mind is that we are just delaying the inevitable and that the problem will just arrive a decade later when a generation hits 40. Will the answer then be a 30s and 40s group? Is further segregation really our best answer? This is currently the answer I am giving and has been for the last 8 years but I think there is something better but it is much harder work.
I think this because I have seen examples of it. One such example is G2 in York. I was part of this congregation for a few years. This is a church that young adults thrive in but it is not a young adults church. Children, youth and young adults are participating in leadership alongside older generations and as a result the church has a large proportion of young adults. The sense of belonging in their culture begins from childhood. They are all part of the wider group. They have age specific ministries but they are working hard to train the whole church how to integrate across the generations. They are in a true sense pursuing family church. I think this is in no small part down to the great work of Fusion amongst teaching students and young people how to integrate and the fact that G2 has a core group of Fusion staff within it. G2 are not alone in this success but they are a great example.
Is our model of children’s and youth ministry failing to teach our young people how to integrate with the wider church? Does youth and kids ministry create a unnoticed weakness within us that trains us in expecting to be spoon-fed integration? How do we change the culture of our age appropriate ministries to prepare our young people for the hard work of integrating as an adult?
Any thoughts welcome. I have few answers but am excited about the fact that somebody might.