It’s been a well-known fact for decades. Young adults are leaving the church in droves. The retention rate is abysmal–according to a Barna study, 59% of youth will leave the church either permanently or for an extended period after age 15. And that study is ten years old now; the problem is likely worse today, especially given the major hit churches have taken from COVID.
As a 24-year-old that is very active in my local church, I can vouch for this personally. In my midsize church that averages 300-400 on a Sunday, my husband and I are one of only two or three young couples in the church without children. There are a scattered handful of twenty-something singles and college students. And in our church choir, my husband and I are the youngest in the group by about twenty-five years. I say this as one who dearly loves my church. Still, facts are facts! And the cold, hard truth is that most people in their 20’s and 30’s are not making church a priority.
The reasons for this mass exodus are varied and complex, yet also simple. The bottom line is this: most kids are being offered a shallow, hollowed-out version of Christianity. And with the culture rapidly shifting away from organized religion, they see no reason to stick around. They have been offered activities and trips, church coffee shops, hip youth pastors barely older than themselves, and emotional experiences at church camp, and yet none of it has been enough. Many spend years at church without ever experiencing true discipleship (whether at church or at home), radical transformation of the heart, and authentic encounters with God’s presence. In this article, we will discuss a handful of the factors that have led to this troubling issue and possible solutions to alleviate it.
In my opinion, one of the key factors is not what is missing in the church but what is missing at home. Time is influence, and youth are likely spending much more time at home than at church. One man described his religious upbringing in this way. “My parents were good people who were extremely involved in church; my dad was even a deacon. We were there every Sunday morning and night, Wednesday night, and any time the doors were open. And yet, when we came home from church, my parents put the Bible on the shelf and did not pick it up again until we left for church the next time.”
Unfortunately, I am afraid this is the experience of many. Christianity is located within the four walls of the church and has little impact on day-to-day life. At home, the Bible is not read, spiritual things are not talked about, and families pray only ritualistically before meals. Too many have “outsourced” the discipleship of their children to the church. They believe that just being in Sunday School, hearing a sermon every week, and going to church camp is enough to “save” their kids. For a few, this may be effective; but for many it is not.
Another prominent reason for why kids are leaving is how the church handles those who doubt and question. In the Barna study, researchers found that 29% of those who left church felt that “churches are afraid of the beliefs of other faiths” and 36% did not feel the freedom “to ask my most pressing life questions.” Our culture is becoming less and less homogeneous. Since the internet has allowed exposure to all manner of philosophies and creeds, kids are exposed to many more ideas than they were even a few decades ago. And, of course, they have questions!
Unfortunately, however, these individuals are often either nervously brushed off or shut down completely. Perhaps this is because adults do not feel equipped to answer tough questions or are fearful of saying the wrong thing. However, I believe the solution to this problem, once again, starts at home.
These situations offer a perfect opportunity for parents and children to grow together in their faith. In your home, focus on creating a culture in which questions are encouraged. These conversations, though they may feel scary, can turn into some of your most meaningful experiences in your home life. It is not about having all the answers–it is about seeking truth together. Whether at church or home, may we all be like the Bereans in Acts 17, who “received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” (Acts 17:11)
Yet another reason youth leave the church is simply that “church is boring.” Now, we know that the God of the universe is certainly not boring—so clearly there is a disconnect here. Indeed, there is much to be unpacked in that statement. First, I believe that many of our students are longing for intellectual stimulation. The old joke that the classic Sunday School answer is always “Jesus” should leave us feeling ashamed, for good jokes almost always contain a grain of truth. For whatever reason, pastors and teachers have gravely underestimated what their congregations can handle; and the cost has been dire.
People will only withstand empty platitudes, elementary truths, and sermon series based on Marvel Avenger characters for so long. There is a reason that great scholars, Christian and secular, such as Jordan Peterson and Ravi Zacharias garner millions of views on YouTube. In our shallow culture, both the saved and the lost are pining for ancient, deep truths and are seeking the true meaning of life. Many want to understand philosophy, theology, logic, and literature, yet the church has left them both intellectually and spiritually famished.
Secondly, church may seem boring to some because it has morphed into a mere ritual, devoid of meaning. One young person I spoke to recently, who was raised in church but is no longer attending, had this to say. “I don’t want to go to church anymore because there is no transformation taking place there. It’s just the same week after week with nothing ever changing. It’s just…static.” Indeed, the critique is harsh, but I believe there is truth in it. Too often, church has become simply a box to check or a social club, rather than something that has a radically transformative effect on our lives.
For church to once more become meaningful, interesting, and transformative, it must be connected to our real lives. Yet again, this is where family discipleship comes in. This means talking with your family about the sermon you just heard over lunch, discussing how you can apply it to your lives, and keeping one another accountable to implement those changes. It means shepherding your children through their darkest trials and temptations, rather than shipping them off to talk to the youth pastor. It means worshipping together at home, serving together in your community, and growing in Christ alongside one another.
It will not always be easy. It may not feel natural, and it might feel awkward at first. You will not have all the answers. Your children may not respond how you want them to. Change will not happen overnight. Nevertheless, we have seen the alternative, and it simply is not working. Reversing the statistics will require hard work and grassroots, systemic change—beginning in your own family.
The good news is these changes do not have to be made by our own power. God is the one Who will accomplish it all, though we still bear the responsibility of taking those first steps in the right direction. The church is in desperate need of families who will faithfully seek the Lord together, not just fill the pews. By God’s grace, may churches and families fulfill the calling of the prophet in Isaiah 55. “Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near.” (Isaiah 55:6)